27 October 2023
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 The paper shortage seems to have passed both her and her correspondents by; the collection of her unpublished correspondence, acquired in 2013 and now catalogued (Add MS 89727) and available for consultation in the Manuscripts reading room, comprises thousands of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.
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!
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”).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)