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Dorothy Sayers and C.S. Lewis: A Transforming Friendship
Of the making of many C.S. Lewis biographies there is no end. Few writers of the 20th century have proved almost as popular for their lives as for their work as has C.S. Lewis. And not only Lewis, but the Inklings, too, his writer contemporaries with whom he would meet regularly in Oxford to discuss literary works in progress over a pipe and a pint.
But one writer friend of Lewis who was decidedly not a member of the Inklings was Dorothy L. Sayers, creator of the Detective Peter Wimsey detective novels and works of Christian apologetics such as The Mind of the Maker (not to mention a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy that singlehandedly revived English translations of the Italian classic).
In her latest book, Dorothy and Jack: The Transforming Friendship of Dorothy L. Sayers and C.S. Lewis, writer Gina Dalfonzo explores this unique and fascinating relationship—unique in the lives of these two brilliant and highly influential authors and thinkers but also unusual for its time, when a “friendship” between a man and a woman would have been a fraught business.
I asked Gina to explore several themes the book touches on.
AS: Early in the book, you point out the number of parallels in the lives of Sayers and Lewis: their relationship to Oxford, how both enjoyed Chesterton as a “shared guide” and had published volumes of poetry in 1919, long before they began corresponding. But the curious one that jumped out at me is how they each resented their Confirmations in the Church of England. Could you talk a little about that?
GD: It’s easier to understand in Lewis’s case. At this point in his youth, he had lost his childhood faith and didn’t want to be confirmed at all; he only did it to avoid causing a scene with his father. He knew he was doing wrong to be confirmed when he didn’t believe, and he always regretted it.
Sayers’s thought process is a little murkier. At the time, she seemed to have no problems with being confirmed with the rest of her class at boarding school, but much later she would complain that the school did things in a “Low Church and sentimental” way and gave her “the dreariest associations with the Communion Service” along with a general “resentment against religion.” Sentimentality in religion always nauseated her; her vision of Christianity was of something rigorously intellectual, something she could really sink her teeth into, so to speak. But in her adolescence, she doesn’t seem to have been able to express her thoughts and wishes on the subject clearly, at least not to her family.
Dorothy Sayers was a highly educated woman who found it hard to find someone to talk to on elevated subjects. Lewis seemed to fit the bill right from the start. At a time when “friendship” between a married woman and single man would have been thought odd, if not dangerous, what is it that clicked between them so quickly?
They had very similar interests, but also similar personalities. They both loved a blunt, energetic, no-holds-barred conversation. Lewis famously had plenty of opportunities for that with the Inklings, but he enjoyed that sort of thing wherever he found it, and he found it in Sayers. He compared her to “a high wind,” and that was just the sort of personality he liked most. As for her, though she had her disagreements with him, it was always a treat to find intellectual friends with whom she could talk about her interests, especially literature and theology. And with Lewis in particular, she had a safe person to vent to about all the difficulties and uneasiness she often went through in her role as an apologist. Even though he felt more at home than she did in that role, he could still understand and commiserate.
Both had troubled and troublesome relationships that affected their day-to-day existences: Lewis with an ailing and aging Mrs. Moore, and Sayers with her alcoholic husband, Mac. Lewis’s relationship with Moore pre-conversion has remained a mystery, and of course Sayers had a son from a pre-marriage relationship whom she kept secret from everyone until she died! Their ability, or willingness, to share more of their private lives expanded over the years, but do you think they would have shared more of their “secret” trials had either Sayers lived longer or they had lived closer? Or was this need for privacy a fixed part of their characters? (Could it even have been seen as a kind of spiritual “mortification”?)
I believe it was a fixed part of their characters. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves that friends don’t even need to know anything about each other’s private lives if they have enough common interests to talk about. He liked it just fine that way, at least for much of his life. And Sayers was similarly private—partly because she was keeping the secret about her son, probably, but partly just by nature. She thought that a writer’s or another celebrity’s private life was no else’s business, and that their work should be judged solely on its own merits—not the most popular belief these days, but a sincere conviction on her part. This desire to keep private lives strictly private was another aspect of their personalities that they had in common. Perhaps it was something that went along with being British! In any case, the two of them did start to open up to each other eventually, but the fact that it took them years to do it shows just how important their privacy was to them.
Both Sayers and Lewis were “translators” of sorts, popularizers, bringing difficulty ideas and classic works of literature to mass audiences in a colloquial language. This did not always sit well with critics, even friends. (For example, fellow Inkling J.R.R. Tolkien never liked Lewis’s apologetics works.) While Sayers and Lewis were fans of each other’s writing (in fact, you note that Lewis described Sayers as his first fan “of importance”), Lewis seemed to need “encouragement” more than Sayers did. Talk a little about the role each played in supporting the other’s work.
Sayers did offer him valuable encouragement at the beginning of his career, but when you look over the trajectory of their work and their friendship, it appears her encouragement was even more important to him later on. Lewis enjoyed a good argument, and could take criticism, but I suspect that over the years some of the criticism he got from his friends and colleagues began to wear on him a little. It was then, I believe, that Sayers’s encouragement really meant the most to him. She understood and shared his role as an apologist; she appreciated most of his popular works; she even loved Narnia, unlike some of his friends. He could talk to her about these works and what went into them in a way that he couldn’t always talk about them with others, and that did him good.
As for Sayers, she had a very strong sense of calling that gave her a lot of confidence, but again, she wasn’t always happy to be doing apologetic work. She felt she was more gifted in other areas and wished she could be free to concentrate on those and leave the apologetics to others. But she kept getting drawn into it—more because she “[couldn’t] stand intellectual chaos” than for any other reason, she told Lewis. And he kept telling her how good she was at it and how important her work was, which just might have helped keep her on that road at times when she would gladly have left it.
As I said earlier, they did disagree on many things, but both of them had the ability to mix criticism with praise, and in that way they provided invaluable support for each other.
Following up on that, you write that what may have killed off the Inklings’ meetings is the sharpness of the critiques of each other’s works. What role did Sayers come to play in Lewis’s life upon the dissolution of the Inklings? And do you think, had distance not played a role, Sayers would ever have been accepted as a fellow Inkling?
Lewis remained friends with the other Inklings even as the group’s regular meetings trailed off. But those meetings had played a vital role in his life for a long time, and their disappearance must have left a great void, especially for a man who put such a high value on friendship. Sayers’s letters and their occasional meetings were one of the things that helped to fill that void. With her he could still share and discuss the work he was doing, as he once had done with the Inklings, and that must have been a great comfort.
The Inklings was always an all-male group, and no one seems to have ever said, “Hey, wait a minute, we’re all men! How did that happen?” simply because all-male groups were so common. It was just one of many such groups, part of the landscape in that time and place, and the men were quite content with that. So no, I don’t think Sayers ever could have been an Inkling. She did spend time at Oxford with Lewis and attended meetings of another club, the Socratic Club, in which he was very active (he was its first president, in fact), but that was a mixed-gender club and so was open to her.
Charles Williams was virtually adored by Sayers and Lewis, yet his work remains relatively unknown today. How much is that attributable to his unorthodox religious ideas, or unorthodox life, compared with that of Sayers and Lewis, paradoxes of orthodoxy as they are seen to be?
I’m inclined to think it’s just because his works are so difficult to read and to comprehend! Over the years I’ve read some of them and generally liked them, but I can’t say I had an easy time of it. They’re so dense with symbolism and so packed with layers of meaning that you really have to work at understanding them.
For a long time, not much was known about Williams’s unorthodox ideas and lifestyle—to put it plainly, he was very much involved with the occult—so I’m not sure that could have affected his literary reputation very much. As more researchers have been delving into his life in recent years, though, it’s all been coming out. (Talk about privacy—he kept these things so secret from his Christian friends that they hadn’t the slightest idea what was really going on with him. Lewis and Sayers were open books by comparison!) References to tarot cards and other occult devices pop up in his work—and they seem to have caused Tolkien, at least, to smell a rat—but I used to think, and many of his friends used to think, that he was appropriating them for his own Christian ends. When you read more about him, however, you get the feeling that it may actually have been the other way around—the occultism may have gone deeper than the Christianity.
The subjects of gender roles and the depiction of women in fiction come up often in the Sayers and Lewis correspondence. Sayers had little patience for stunted or one-dimensional ideas of a woman’s “place” or exercise of gifts. Lewis’s own ideas about women, and the “feminine,” especially as expressed in his fiction, seems to have “evolved” over time. (You write of Lewis’s ability to make distinctions between “groups” and “individuals.”) Talk about Sayers’s role in that evolution.
As much as Sayers liked Lewis right from the start, she still felt that he had something of a blind spot about women. She was understanding about it, since she knew he had lived so much of his life in an all-male or mostly male environment, but she couldn’t help being aware of it. He was capable of being a good friend to an individual woman, but it was hard for him to grasp the feelings and concerns of women as a group.
But the great thing about Lewis—as Sayers was also well aware—was his humility and his willingness to listen. And as he listened to her over the years, he started to understand that there were more perspectives in life than just that of men, and this started to show more in his thinking and writing. One of the best examples of that in the book has to do with the poetry of John Milton, of which Lewis was always a great admirer. I don’t want to give too much away, but we see Lewis going from endorsing Milton’s ideas on gender and marriage to criticizing them, and I think a lot of that shift has to do with Sayers’s influence. Readers will see why when they read the book!
You also write that Sayers may have played a crucial role in preparing Lewis for Joy Davidman, the woman he would eventually marry. What similarities were there in Davidman and Sayers that appealed to Lewis?
They both had that energetic, exuberant, outspoken personality that he liked so much. Unlike many of his male friends, Lewis appreciated this kind of personality in a woman as well as in a man. Sometimes Sayers’s bluntness was so blunt that it actually took him aback a little, but he still appreciated it, and grew more and more comfortable with it over the years. Similarly, Joy Davidman had a habit of speaking her mind that made some men uncomfortable, but appealed very much to Lewis.
Divorce played a role in the lives of both writers. While Sayers and Lewis are considered upholders of traditional Christian morality, both ended up marrying divorced persons, something looked down upon in a Church of England that, at that time, could be as strict (if not stricter!) as the Catholic Church on divorce and remarriage. How do you think this affected their approach to the church in the 20th century, especially at a time when the CofE was “liberalizing” on many fronts?
They were both pretty conservative theologically in general. Sayers, as a High Church Anglican, actually considered herself more Catholic than Protestant. Yet she still thought that the church’s attitude on divorce could use an overhaul. She told her son as much when he was going through his own divorce. And Lewis, having some idea of what his wife, Joy, endured in her first marriage, thought that divorce was indicated there, even before he ever thought of marrying her himself. He also thought the church had a problem with inconsistency in her case: Since Joy’s first husband had been married before, he argued that the church should have considered her free to remarry. (And of course he was able to find a clergyman who agreed.)
There’s no doubt that their personal experiences helped shape their views. However, I think both of them considered divorce a last resort, even if they thought the church shouldn’t have made it quite so difficult. Sayers, for instance, never divorced her husband, even though her marriage became a troubled one as Mac grew increasingly ill, alcoholic, and bad-tempered. She did consider separation, according to biographer Barbara Reynolds, but she never went through with it.
This may seem a strange question, and one almost inconceivable, but if email had existed when Lewis and Sayers were corresponding, do you think they would have availed themselves of it? Would it have made Lewis’s letter-writing duties easier to bear? Or was the chore of manually composing a letter a necessary component of a thoughtful reply, one neither Lewis nor Sayers would have wanted to give up?
That’s a very intriguing question! They probably would have made use of it in some ways, out of sheer necessity. Lewis in particular had a very heavy burden to bear with all his mail, since he got so much of it and felt a responsibility to answer it all. He liked exchanging letters with Sayers, but he used to complain to her about all the people whose correspondence he didn’t like. There were certainly many times when email would have come in very handy.
And I imagine there were times when they probably would have emailed each other, too—for instance, when they were arranging to meet for lunch or working on projects together. But I hope they would have kept writing letters at least some of the time, going through that process that’s so conducive to careful thought and precise expression. I like to think they would have. Their letters to each other are so great, it would have been positively tragic to have lost them! ♦
Gina Dalfonzo is the author of One by One: Welcoming the Singles in Your Church, a columnist at Christ & Pop Culture, and the founder and editor of Dickensblog. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Christianity Today, The Weekly Standard, First Things, Guideposts, OnFaith, and Sehnsucht: The C.S. Lewis Journal. She earned her BA in English from Messiah College and her MA, also in English, from George Mason University. The recipient of a Clyde S. Kilby Research Grant for 2018, Dalfonzo lives in Virginia.
Anthony Sacramone is managing editor of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and Modern Age: A Conservative Review.
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