Dorothy Sayers is, in my world, the lady who wrote the essay. I am referring to “The Lost Tools of Learning,” which Miss Sayers wrote in 1947 and delivered at Oxford University. Like quite a few other people, I read it several decades later, and slowly, it began to change my whole approach to education. That essay is the founding document in the classical Christian school movement in America. It doesn’t say everything that needs to be said about education in general or classical education more specifically, but it said enough to spark thought, debate, and, more important, application.
That essay was just a sliver of the corpus of writing that Dorothy Sayers did in her lifetime (1893-1957). Her main means of support was writing mysteries, and her main characters in her stories were Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. Lest one think that this was just pot-boiling writing to make a buck, take note that she was one of the founding members of the Detection Club. She also served as president of that organization of mystery writers, being preceded by G. K. Chesterton, author of the Father Brown stories, and succeeded by Agatha Christi.
She was also an incredibly gifted theological writer. Her contemporaries were such fellows as C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and others among the famed Inklings. I am not sure she was ever able to hang out with the guys, but she could have more than held her own trading wit and wisdom with those writers of Christian thought and imagination. Her theological books blend deep convictions about doctrine with a worldview that applies the faith to art and all of life. Not as wittily quotable as Lewis, she was still quite bold, profound, and solid.
In her own personal life, she battled quite a few issues. She got a degree from Oxford at a time when such a thing was unheard of for a woman. Her personal life was full of struggles, both from her own bad choices and from other circumstances, but she persevered and made her own niche in English letters.
Plough Publishing House has produced a series of books with titles beginning with the words The Gospel in…. Authors whose works have been chosen for this series include Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, George MacDonald, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Dorothy L. Sayers. As the subtitle of The Gospel in Dorothy L. Sayers states, this book is made up of “Selections from Her Novels, Plays, Letters, and Essays.”
This book is a marvelous way to either get acquainted with Dorothy Sayers or to renew and enrich that acquaintance. Reading her books would involve taking quite a few mystery novels, a number of theologically-centered plays, several books of theology, some translations of classics (like The Song of Roland and Dante’s Divine Comedy), and reading her letters. This is not to say that they are all here in this volume, but it is a great selection of bits and pieces of her mysteries, without any fatal spoilers, and portions of her other writings.
The book consists of twenty chapters, preceded by a biographical sketch and followed by short essay about Sayers by C. S. Lewis. The chapters are mostly named for her mystery novels, and then the selections begin with something from a novel, followed by non-fictional writings on the same topic. Topics include conscience, sin and grace, covetousness, forgiveness, judgment, and more.
Let me confess something: I have failed greatly in not reading or appreciating enough of Dorothy Sayers’ writings. My response to the chapters of this book as I read it in the mornings (usually) is one of lament and regret over having ignored her. As I said in the beginning, my Sayers’ experience has been centered on that one brilliant essay, “The Lost Tools of Learning.” This book is a marvelous means of literary repentance for me.
I love this whole series of books by Plough Publishing House. I hope they do more books of this type. So many writers have structured their books around Gospel themes. Even unbelieving authors resort to sin and grace, forgiveness and redemption, fall and restoration in their stories. Literature is a bulwark of Christian history and apologetics.
Books like this one, The Gospel in Dorothy Sayers, are great tools for students and teachers. Forget that statement. It sounds much too serious. This book is great fun to read and is packed full of plenty that will nurture the soul and create an appetite for reading more of Dorothy Sayers.