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27 October 2023

A writer’s war: the correspondence of Dorothy L. Sayers

We take a look at the wartime correspondence of the writer, Dorothy L. Sayers, with cataloguing manager, Michael St John-McAlister. 

The first thing that strikes you about Dorothy L Sayers’s wartime correspondence is the sheer volume of it. The paper shortage seems to have passed both her and her correspondents by; the collection of her unpublished correspondence, acquired in 2013 and now catalogued (Add MS 89727) and available for consultation in the Manuscripts reading room, comprises thousands of letters. She even had sufficient paper to keep copies of her replies. The paper shortage only seems to have started to bite in 1944; by April that year her order for five reams could not be fulfilled in its entirety and many of her books were out of print.

The first hint in Sayers’s correspondence that dark days were approaching can be seen in the 1938 and 1939 applications for domestic service vacancies in her household from Germans, Austrians, and Czechs, some of whom explicitly stated that they are Jewish. There was no attempt to underplay the situation: applicants were adamant that they would face “the horrors of Hitler’s inhuman concentration camps” and “despair and a sinister fate” if they did not get out. 


A typed letter on white paper from Mrs S. J. M. Biggs asking if Sayers can assist refugees from Nazi Germany.
A desperate plea on behalf of two Germans, Add MS 89727/2/3.

Once the war started, up to the end of the first half of 1940, the ‘phoney war’ period, there was little indication in her correspondence that there was even a war on, save for the occasional stoic reference to “we must all try and carry on as much as possible” and a local whip round to pay for entertainment for soldiers billeted in Witham, Sayers’s home town, over Christmas.

The lull came to an end with the Battle of Britain followed by the Blitz. From September 1940 onwards her letters reported bombs near her London flat, the neighbouring property to her solicitor being “blown right down”, the destruction of her favourite milk bar near where she used to work and that of St Alban’s, Holborn, and devastation in Bloomsbury. She described Witham as “reasonably bomb free”, however. The only moment of interest was “a bit of a rocket, which sailed into the garden on Christmas Eve”. Even so, the uncertainty of the war still made it difficult to plan ahead: “I will put down the date and hope for the best” was a typical response to an invitation.

Much of the difficulty in planning was of course caused by travel difficulties. The radius of the area she could get to easily gradually contracted. The west and north were impossible almost from the start. By February 1940 she could not “truly say [she was] eager to travel to Derby on a Saturday under war conditions”. Given that it took “such a fearful time getting anywhere by train” she could not commit to “the loss of two or three days work in order to toil to some distant place with trains going through air-raids at 15 miles an hour”. Gradually, as the Blitz bit, Oxfordshire, Berkshire, and Surrey became beyond reach. She even had to think hard about engagements in London as that train journey could take two and a half hours each way. From 1943 she began to echo the government’s entreaties, asking herself whether her journey was really necessary, and usually answering in the negative. Given these travel difficulties, her lack of sarcasm in her response to a request to speak in Canada was commendable! 

A typed letter on white paper from Sayers’s secretary explaining why Sayers cannot attend an ICI function.
A typical Sayers refusal, Add MS 89727/2/16. © The Trustees of Anthony Fleming (deceased).

As a result of these difficulties Sayers had to turn down far more invitations to speak than she accepted, although she always did her best to meet invitations to talk to service personnel. Apart from travel, other reasons for her turning down invitations included pressure of work or being asked to speak on a subject she knew nothing about (gambling, missionaries, education, the Eastern Church, and writing for children, for example). She also increasingly turned down invitations to speak about religion: she felt that the surprise value of the arrival of an amateur in the field was long since lost once her appearances became commonplace and in the meantime her main job, which had brought her to prominence in the first place, was being neglected. She marked such letters NMR, ‘no more religion’, so her secretary knew to send out a proforma reply. What she called “difficulties on the kitchen front” also caused her to say no to many invitations. The war had left her “practically without domestic help”, such that “I cannot really leave my household completely in the lurch more than about once a month” – one wonders what state of rack and ruin she expected her household would fall into in her absence! She even had to do her own cooking and shopping (“endless time wasted trotting round the town with shopping-bags hoping for fish or biscuits”). 

A typed letter on white paper from Sayers describing her domestic difficulties during World War Two.
Sayers’s domestic difficulties, Add MS 89727/2/14. © The Trustees of Anthony Fleming (deceased).

She often said that as she had turned down invitations from the Ministry of Information and the Archbishop of York she could not very well agree to open a village fete or speak at a school prize day.

Apart from morale-boosting talks to servicemen and women, Sayers did much more for the war effort: she took in an evacuee from Stoke-on-Trent; she refused all requests from the general public to sell them duplicates of her books, instead donating them to be sold to benefit war fund charities or giving them to troop libraries; she refused payment for any books she sent to POW camps; she donated warm clothing, board games, and books to the men working the barrage balloon at Coram’s Fields; and she encouraged salvage in Witham and even knitted a single item using moth-ravaged wool found in a drawer. Sayers thought it “a cheerful little work” and hoped the Women’s Voluntary Service would “be able to find a youngster to fit it.” The WVS was so impressed they wanted to put it on display as an example of what could be done with even the poorest scraps of salvage. 


A typed letter on white paper from Sayers describing a jumper she knitted from salvaged wool during World War Two.
Sayers doing her bit for the war effort, Add MS 89727/2/7. © The Trustees of Anthony Fleming (deceased).


A typed letter on white paper from the Women’s Voluntary Services thanking Sayers for the jumper.
And is thanked for her efforts, Add MS 89727/2/7.

In addition, Sayers was part of a circle producing woollen clothing for nominated trawlers and naval vessels. Obtaining wool became increasingly difficult as the war progressed, but even so the ships companies of HMT Grimsby Town, HMS Caroline, and HMS Sussex, among others, benefitted from sea boot stockings, socks, and sweaters.

Sayers also took part in the 1940s version of crowdfunding. She contributed £2 2s to an imaginative scheme, for women called Dorothy, to pay towards the production of a Spitfire. The resulting Mark V model was named 'Dorothy of Great Britain and the Empire'. Sayers also contributed towards a locally-sponsored Hurricane and contributed to fellow author Ursula Bloom’s appeal for money for bullets for Spitfires (12s 6d per 100; Sayers contributed 30s). Interestingly, her papers contain a price list of components for fighter aircraft: subscribers could donate 6d for a rivet or six screws; £75 would pay for a petrol tank; £500 for a gun turret, and so on. 

A typed list, on white paper, of fighter aircraft parts and their cost.
Crowdfunding the war, Add MS 89727/2/7.

As a writer Sayers was far from idle during the war. Several of her plays were performed, she wrote a number of essays, had talks published, and her 12 part cycle of radio plays on the life of Christ, The Man Born to be King, was broadcast to a huge audience on the BBC to wide acclaim. However, she wrote no new novels or short stories and the hostilities did have an impact on her most famous character. To requests to write more Peter Wimsey stories she would mischievously reply that Lord Peter was engaged in secret work “somewhere in Europe”.

Surprisingly, the end of the war went, mostly, unremarked. Continuing travel issues and shortages were alluded to, but Sayers felt positive. Writing to a Dutch correspondent she expressed the hope that “we shall find the energy and enthusiasm enough to pull our weight in getting Europe on its feet again”. She clearly wanted to do her bit: despite being the grateful recipient of post-war food parcels from fans and well-wishers overseas, she herself sent food and clothing to German friends and acquaintances in the same period; a measure of the type of person she was.

Typed lists, on buff and white paper, of senders of post-war food parcels to Sayers, and recipients of parcels she sent.
Sayers as recipient and donor of post-war food parcels, Add MS 89727/1/5-6. © The Trustees of Anthony Fleming (deceased).


Written by Michael St John-McAlister, Western Manuscripts Cataloguing Manager, who has recently completed cataloguing the correspondence of Dorothy L. Sayers.

With thanks to David Higham Associates, London for permission to quote from the letters of Dorothy L. Sayers.


Further reading:

Add MS 89727

James Brabazon, Dorothy L. Sayers: The Life of a Courageous Woman (London: Victor Gollancz, 1981).

David Coomes, Dorothy L. Sayers: A Careless Rage for Life (Oxford: Lion, 1992)

Catherine Kenney, ‘Sayers [married name Fleming], Dorothy Leigh (1893-1957)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/35966

Barbara Reynolds, Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1993)

20 October 2023

Re-reading Ted Hughes' Lupercal

A black and white head shot portrait of the poet Ted Hughes looking directly at the camera with his chin on his hand
Ted Hughes, copyright Caroline Forbes

On the 7th November the British Library will host an event that celebrates and explores Ted Hughes’ second poetry collection, Lupercal. Published in 1960 when Hughes was only thirty Lupercal contains some of the poet’s best-known poems including ‘Hawk-Roosting’, ‘Pike’ and ‘Mayday in Holderness’. In Lupercal we see Hughes’ development from his first collection, Hawk in the Rain, and the beginnings of themes that are considered central to Hughes’ work such as his animal poems and his depiction of the Yorkshire landscape in which he grew up.

The event will be chaired by Ted Hughes’ widow, Carol, who will be joined by poets, Alice Oswald and Zaffar Kunial, and the novelist, Jane Feaver, who worked with Hughes at his publisher, Faber and Faber in the 1990s. Faber is now publishing a heritage edition to mark the 25th anniversary of Ted’s death, and this event brings together speakers with a deep connection to its verses.  

Please join us for an event of discussion and poetry readings, which will provide fascinating insights into Hughes’ work. Please book your tickets today via the Library’s events page.

Event sponsored by Ted Hughes Estate. 

15 September 2023

For Their Eyes Only – the letters of Ian and Ann Fleming

We mark the exciting acquisition of a collection of letters between Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, and his wife Ann.

Unlike Ann Fleming, who has had a whole volume of her correspondence published, Ian Fleming was not a habitual letter writer. So the British Library was delighted to be able to acquire this collection of almost 100 letters from Ian to Ann (and over 50 in the opposite direction) in 2021. This major resource for Fleming scholars has now been catalogued (Add MS 89670) and, from today, is available to access in the Library’s Manuscripts Reading Room.

Letters between Ann and Ian Fleming, arranged in a fan shape on a wooden table. The letters are on mostly blue or white paper and are handwritten.
Correspondence of Ann and Ian Fleming. Reproduced with permission of The Ian Fleming Estate. © The Ian Fleming Estate 1946-1964

The letters, most of which are unpublished and previously largely unseen, give an intimate and detailed insight into the shifting sands of Ann and Ian's relationship, from the complexities of the 1940s when Ann was still married to Esmond Harmsworth (in one letter Ian begs Ann to keep his letters well-hidden instead of leaving them in her underwear drawer), through the heartbreak of the death of Ann and Ian's daughter, Mary, just eight hours old, in 1948, their married life (they married in March 1952), and into the 1960s. It was at times a turbulent relationship and both had numerous affairs. The tension and strain of these affairs, as well as that caused by their long separations (even after their marriage, Ian spent three months every year at the house, Goldeneye, in Jamaica, he had built in 1945), is apparent in many of the letters. On the other hand, many other letters are traditional love letters, passionate and romantic, showing the depth of their feelings for each other.

Apart from their relationship, the subject matter of the letters ranges far and wide taking in the flora and fauna of Jamaica; the development of, and domestic arrangements at, Goldeneye; gossip from the newspaper world (Ian Fleming was foreign manager of the Kemsley newspaper group, the then owner of the Sunday Times, from 1945 to 1959 and continued to contribute articles into the 1960s) and discussion of his 'Atticus' column; their respective health, both physical and mental; the health, development, well-being, and schooling of Caspar, their son born in August 1952; and their international travels (India, Tangiers, Chicago, Miami, New York, Paris, Italy, Hong Kong, Istanbul, and Switzerland). They certainly took advantage of the advent of the jet age, but they also enjoyed the more leisurely pace of luxury liners such as the ‘Queen Elizabeth’, writing vivid pen portraits of their fellow passengers as they sailed.

The Flemings were inveterate gossips and a major thread in the correspondence is discussion of the figures within their social circles or passing through their orbit. The cast list of names that crop up – friends, acquaintances, guests at Goldeneye, fellow guests at others’ dinners and social events – is remarkable: Leolia Ponsonby, Blanche Blackwell (with whom Ian had a long affair), Patrick Leigh Fermor, Lucian Freud (“seems to have become world famous at last”), Micky Renshaw, Noel Coward, Truman Capote (“Can you imagine a more incongruous playmate for me… a fascinating character and we really get on very well” – Capote persuaded Fleming to try “a sinister pill called Mill Town”), Brendan Bracken, Hugh Gaitskell (with whom Ann had a long affair), Erica Marx, Alfred Hitchcock, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, Edith Sitwell, Rosamund Lehmann, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Rex Harrison, Solly Zuckerman, Gladwyn Jebb, Joyce Grenfell, Pamela Churchill, Paul Gallico, Oscar Hammerstein, Charles Boyer, and Sidney Bernstein.

A typed letter from Ian Fleming to Ann Fleming, on white paper and laid flat on a wooden table
Ian Fleming to Ann Fleming, August 1952. The Flemings clearly had not yet settled on the spelling of their son’s name. The standard sources refer to him as Caspar. Reproduced with permission of The Ian Fleming Estate. © The Ian Fleming Estate 1952
A typed letter from Ian Fleming to Ann Fleming, on white paper and laid flat on a wooden table
Ian Fleming to Ann Fleming, August 1952. The Flemings clearly had not yet settled on the spelling of their son’s name. The standard sources refer to him as Caspar. Reproduced with permission of The Ian Fleming Estate. © The Ian Fleming Estate 1952

As would be expected, the letters are also littered with references to Ian Fleming's most famous literary creation, James Bond. He offers regular progress reports and occasional plot details, of mostly unnamed books: at one stage From Russia With Love, for example, is described as “galloping along. I have written a third of it in one week, a chapter a day”; another book “is half done and buzzing along merrily in the rain”. Fleming also alludes to some of the inspiration and sources for the stories and titles. For example, he mentions Blanche Blackwell's gift of a coracle, which he named Octopussy. The short story of the same name, written in 1962, would be published posthumously in 1966. 'Blanche' was the name of the guano-collecting ship in 1958’s Dr. No and Blackwell was the model for Pussy Galore in Goldfinger, published in 1959. Truman Capote is described as “twittering with excitement” while reading a proof copy of Diamonds Are Forever. Fleming writes of correcting proofs of Live and Let Die on-board the ‘Queen Elizabeth’ sailing to New York. There is even a reference to the gold-plated typewriter he bought while writing Casino Royale. However, there are also occasional allusions to Fleming's dissatisfaction with Bond as a character (“I have got so desperately tired of that ass Bond”) and with some of the stories (“just finishing a Bond short story of no merit”). Even so, his later letters make reference to possible television and film adaptations of his books, and on a trip to Hollywood, the positive reaction to his books gives him particular hope (“People really seem to be after my books... it’s as usual a question of crossing fingers & waiting for someone to pry them apart & force some dollars between them”). The first Bond film, Dr. No, would be released in 1962.

This is a truly absorbing collection, and there is something of interest on every page. Even the stationery the Flemings used is worth noting. So desperate were they to keep in touch with each other that if actual writing paper was not to hand they simply repurposed the endpapers of books, the back of a gin rummy score card, and even a hospital temperature chart!

We are grateful to the British Library Collections Trust for their generous support for this acquisition.

With thanks to The Ian Fleming Estate for permission to quote from the letters of Ian Fleming.


Written by Michael St John-McAlister, Western Manuscripts Cataloguing Manager, who has recently completed cataloguing the Ian and Ann Fleming letters.


Further reading:

Add MS 89670.

Mark Amory (ed.), The Letters of Ann Fleming (London: Collins Harvill, 1985).

Andrew Lycett, Ian Fleming (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1995).

Andrew Lycett, ‘Fleming, Ian Lancaster (1908-1964)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/33168.

Andrew Lycett, ‘Fleming [née Charteris], Ann Geraldine Mary (1913-1981)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/40227.