Mystery writer Dorothy Sayers, creator of detective Lord Peter Wimsey, is born on this day in Oxford, England.
Sayers, whose father was an Oxford teacher and minister, became one of the first women to receive a degree from Oxford. Although the family moved to the country when Sayers was four, she received an excellent education in Latin, French, history, and mathematics from her father and won a scholarship to Oxford. She received highest honors on her final exams in 1915. Although women at the time were not granted degrees, the rules changed retroactively in 1920.
After Oxford, Sayers worked as a poetry editor in Oxford and a teacher in France. She returned to London to work as a freelance editor and an advertising copywriter for England’s largest ad agency. She later turned her experiences at the agency into comic fodder in Murder Must Advertise (1933).
She began writing detective fiction in the early 1920s, and her first novel, Whose Body?, was published in 1923. It introduced the world to the educated and fanciful Lord Peter Wimsey, who over the course of some dozen novels and many short stories emerged as a complex, intriguing character, comic and lighthearted at times, but plagued with nightmares and nervous disorders from his service in World War I.
In Strong Poison (1930), Wimsey solves a mysterious poisoning and wins freedom for the wrongly accused mystery novelist Harriet Vane, with whom he falls in love and pursues through several books. In Gaudy Night (1935), set at an Oxford reunion, Vane finally accepts Wimsey. The two, plus Wimsey’s butler Bunter, depart on a comical honeymoon, plagued by dead bodies, in Busman’s Honeymoon (1937).
Sayers herself had an unhappy romance in the early 1920s and had a child in 1924. Two years later, she married Scottish journalist Oswald Atherton Fleming, who became an invalid not long afterward. She spent much of the next 25 years caring for him, until his death in 1950.
With G.K. Chesteron, Sayers founded the Detection Club, a group of mystery writers. She edited an important anthology called Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery and Horrors from 1928 to 1934. After the late 1930s, she grew tired of detective fiction, and having won enough financial independence to write what she liked, she returned to her academic roots and wrote scholarly treatises on aesthetics and theology, as well as translations of Dante and others. She died in 1957.