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Sayers's Wartime Writing

Updated: Apr 6, 2020

I was glad to see The Man Born to be King mentioned in the Wade Center’s recent Off the Shelf blog post. The blog offered suggested readings for uncertain times from the Wade authors, including Dorothy L. Sayers. It prompted me to take another look at Sayers's other wartime writing beyond my main research focus of The Man Born to be King. These include:

In Broadcasting

  • The Christ of the Creeds and Other Broadcast Messages to the British People during World War II (BBC Broadcast, 1941. In Print: Dorothy L. Sayers Society, 2008, ed. Suzanne Bray)

The Christ of the Creeds explains the essentials of Christian theology in everyday language to the British wartime nation that was becoming suddenly more aware of its spiritual needs. There had been a long decline in church participation after the end of the WWI and the Religious Broadcasting department of the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) wanted to give the public substantive food for thought. Sayers was the first layperson to be asked to give such talks about faith for the BBC, and the success of this series opened to door to others including C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity talks.

In Books

  • Begin Here; A Wartime Essay (Gollancz, 1940)

  • The Mind of the Maker (Methuen, 1941)

  • "Vocation in Work" in A Christian Basis for the Post-War World (Student Christian Movement Press, 1942)

  • Unpopular Opinion (Gollancz, 1946)- including wartime essays and speeches

Sayers challenges her readers: what kind of post-war Britain do you want? How can the upheaval and ingenuity of British wartime life help create a peacetime society that is not just "advanced" but humane? (We can see G.K. Chesterton's influence here). Mandated production, rationing, conscription, and the new areas opening for women made it clear that Britain had the will to sacrifice for the common good. Sayers wants her countrymen to think ahead while still in the midst of that resourceful and creative mode, before the nation settles back into its rut or races ahead thoughtlessly.

The parallels to today’s global pandemic are clear. How we act when things are beyond our control shows us our true character: often a mixture of altruism and selfishness. Socio-economic disruptions and challenges put limits on us, but can also free us to make different choices: to develop more genuine love of God and neighbor.

In Humor

  • Even the Parrot (Methuen, 1944)

This is Sayers at her silliest. Writing in the style of a heavy-handed Victorian book for children, she tells five morality tales of Nurse Nature and her young charges Matilda and Archibald Lively. Through an animal object lesson in each story, they discover how certain societal practices are out of step with the way humans are naturally designed. Though tongue-in-cheek and dryly subtle, the themes are remarkably in step with Sayers's other wartime writing. The stories also have interesting hints of wartime life: blackout curtains, children being woken up by air-raid sirens, maids going off to work in munitions factories, and children being sent to the countryside for safety.

In Letters

There are so many good wartime letters! Here are excerpt from some of my favorites:

To Her Son, John Anthony Fleming, 23 June 1940 (Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers, Vol. 2)

  • “As regards the Harvest Camp…[thousands of school children were conscripted each autumn to help on farms] You must do whatever the Government wants you to do, as we all must, without delay or question. Tell your school authorities so. Harvest camps are asked for, and obviously every able-bodied citizen of school age must take part.”

  • “In the event of a German occupation of this country, which is possible, though I think not probable, be careful not to advertise your connection with me; writers of my sort will not be popular with the Gestapo.”

  • “Do not be troubled because you are afraid of being afraid. Everybody feels like that. It doesn’t matter, and is nothing to be ashamed of. Do what is asked for – that is all that matters.”

To C.S. Lewis, 13 May 1943 (Letters, Volume 2)

Having recently enjoyed Lewis's book, The Screwtape Letters, Sayers writes to him in the style of his book – that is, as a report from her personal tempter, “Sluckdrib.” The letter accompanied a gift copy of the newly printed version of The Man Born to be King as the “evidence” attached to Sluckdrib’s report.

  • “The effect of writing these plays upon the character of my patient is wholly satisfactory. I have already had the honour to report intellectual and spiritual pride, vainglory, self-opinionated dogmatism, irreverence, blasphemous frivolity, frequentation of the company of theatricals, captiousness, impatience of correction, polemical fury, shortness of temper, neglect of domestic affairs, lack of charity, egotism, nostalgia for secular occupations, and a growing tendency to consider the Bible as Literature…“But…What is the use of my doing my duty if other Tempters merely sit on their tails in complacent inactivity? The capture of one fifth-rate soul… scarcely compensates for the fact that numbers of stout young souls in brand-new condition are opening up negotiations with the enemy and receiving reinforcement of faith?”

To James Welch, Director of Religious Broadcasting at the BBC, 11 November 1943 (The Christ of the Creeds, Dorothy L. Sayers Society, 2008)

  • “…when we have to do without a fire on a cold night to save fuel, we (comparatively innocent) are to that extent ‘carrying’ the stupidity of [government] ministers, …the tiresomeness and lack of charity between miners and owners, and the guilt of war which makes extra coal necessary. By our willing acceptance of that ‘little daily crucifixion’ the deficit is wiped out and the evil sterilized. It finishes there. We take the other people’s guilt and carry it, and so redeem it and there’s an end…for a brief moment we really see the pattern of the Cross as the pattern of life.”

Let us too ask God to give us this spirit of willingness to “carry one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2), that we may come to more closely reflect the image of Christ.

Kathryn Wehr

April 3rd (Day 7 of Stay-at-Home orders in Minnesota)

P.S. To stay in the WWII spirit, I recommend an 8-episode family-friendly history series on YouTube called “Wartime Farm” by the BBC. Through recreating wartime conditions on an English farm, three historians show the story of the war’s effect on British agriculture and rural society. It will encourage you to have a British “make do and mend” attitude in this current crisis.

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