Caroline: Dorothy L. Sayers is well known for many things: as a writer, a translator, a playwright, a theologian, and a feminist. She was among the first women to receive a degree from Oxford University. Her work in setting up the Detection Club and her reviews of other authors’ work in the genre were crucial in establishing detective fiction as a genre and even an art all of its own. And, of course, she is remembered as the creator of Lord Peter Wimsey, her ever popular aristocratic sleuth.
Like many professional and successful writers, Sayers lived a semi public life, with both her writing and details about her private life in demand by newspapers and magazines. And to an extent, she played the game as well as many of her contemporaries, joining in with discussions about the future direction of the whodunnit and speaking at events and on the radio.
But there was one thing she never shared, not even with her closest friends, although elements of it made its way into her fiction.
In this episode, we’re going to learn the truth of Dorothy’s secret.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton. In this episode, we’re going to look more closely at Dorothy L. Sayers’ life during the 1920s and learn how some seismic events in her personal life influenced the detective novels she wrote during this time and after.
On 14 October 1920, Dorothy L Sayers stood in the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford and received her first class degree in French. She had finished her studies in June 1915, but it wasn’t until five years later that the university allowed women to officially graduate, rather than just taking the examinations but never being given the same title that male students received by right. She was among the first cohort of women to go through this ceremony, and the incursion of women into sacredly male space of Oxford academia that the spectacle represented was to resurface in her detective fiction 15 years later as the novel Gaudy Night.
Sayers benefited from having parents who were both able and willing to make her an allowance towards her living expenses while she was in her twenties, but she still lived a somewhat precarious existence. Over the next several years she tried out various jobs. She worked in publishing, did bits of freelance editing and translation, and stepped in as a temporary teacher at schools in London and in Hull. But she was determined not to “succumb” as she saw it and spend her career at a school — as Mo Moulton lays out in their book about Sayers and her Oxford contemporaries The Mutual Admiration Society, teaching was one of a vanishingly small number of career paths that the educated, literary-inclined women could respectably pursue in the 1920s.
While pulling together this patchwork living alone in her flat in London, Sayers was also working on the first Peter Wimsey novel and enjoying a lively social life. By 1921 she had met and fallen in love with the Russian American writer John Cournos, with whom she had a passionate, if confusing, relationship. She revelled in making lovely meals for him and in her letters writes of her hopes that they might marry and have children. Cournos, however, seems to have wanted a more “modern” free love kind of affair.
According to Sayers’s friend and later biographer, Barbara Reynolds, Sayers and Cournos did have a physical relationship but “stopped short of consummation”. Sayers was at this time internally conflicted over what her high anglican religion had taught her versus what she, as a modern young woman in 1921, might want to do. She and Cournos fell out over what she euphemistically referred to afterwards as a “question of practical Christianity” — ie contraception — and his refusal to countenance marriage to her.
Both Sayers and Cournos would infuse their fiction with the tumult from this unhappy time. Sayers got in first, giving the scenario to crime writer Harriet Vane and her murdered lover Philip Boyes in 1930’s Strong Poison. Cournos then followed up with his 1932 novel The Devil is an English Gentleman, in which his central character Richard says I’m not the marrying kind” but offers that “You might become my mistress… if we pull along all right for a space we can discuss marriage.”
But that would come ten years later. In September 1922, John Cournos went on an extended trip to America and didn’t write to Sayers at all. A couple of years later, she found out that he had married an American detective novelist called Helen Kestner Sattisthwaite. This, despite his vehement objection to marrying her, and his previous derision for the art of detective fiction. It was all extremely wounding, and Sayers gave some of that simmering hurt to Harriet Vane, who in Strong Poison says, speaking of Philip Boyes: “I quite thought he was honest when he said he didn’t believe in marriage — and then it turned out to be a test, to see whether my devotion was abject enough.”
Emotionally destroyed by the Cournos affair and his subsequent departure, Sayers then almost immediately took up with Bill White, a car salesman and motorcycle enthusiast who happened to be staying with her upstairs neighbours. They had a very different kind of relationship — White was openly disdainful of being too “literary” and preferred the more immediate pleasures of dancing and going to the pub — but Sayers was happy with him. Having tortured herself over the question of pre marital sex while with Cournos, she seems to have found her own answer with White. They used contraception, and for a while everything was fine. Her first detective novel, Whose Body?, was published in 1923 and she was at work on the next Wimsey story, Clouds of Witness. But then she found out that she was pregnant. And everything changed.
After the break: can you keep a secret?
When Dorothy L. Sayers told Bill White that she was pregnant, he seems to have run for the hills as fast as possible. He was already married, although it’s not clear when in their relationship that Sayers found this out. His wife and daughter had been living in Southbourne in Dorset while he looked for work in London and went about with Sayers. He had even spent Christmas with her at Sayers’ parents home in Christchurch, Cambridgeshire, so perhaps his own family life was not particularly stable.
Regardless, when faced with the news of this new child, White quickly ceased to play any meaningful role in Sayers’s life. She was by this time working as an advertising copywriter at S. F. Benson’s, so she had a steady income as well as her writing, but she also had an office job and coworkers who would notice if she suddenly became an unmarried mother. Peter Wimsey, by the way, would later enroll at a fictionalised version of this firm in her 1933 novel Murder Must Advertise.
Over the next few months of 1923, Sayers considered the extremely limited options open to an unmarried pregnant woman in the 1920s. She did discuss the possibility of an abortion with a doctor friend, Alice Chance, even though it was then both a dangerous and illegal route to pursue. She ultimately decided to keep the child, but to make its existence a secret from almost everybody in her life, most especially her parents. Meanwhile, she managed to conceal her pregnancy from her colleagues at Benson’s — or if they noticed, they turned a blind eye — and she was granted eight weeks of leave for “ill health”, which covered the last two months of her pregnancy. She kept her friends and parents at arm’s length during much of this time, writing letters about how busy she was with the next Wimsey novel.
One of the more remarkable aspects of this story is the actions of Bill White’s wife. While he had abandoned Sayers when she became pregnant, his wife, when she was told that her husband had fathered a child from an affair out of wedlock, was kindness itself. It was she who arranged for Sayers to have the baby at a nursing home near Southborne, and during that time Mrs White and her own daughter stayed at Sayers’ flat in London to feed her cat, forward her mail and keep up the fiction for any acquaintances who called that Sayers was just on sick leave from work and definitely not away in the countryside giving birth to an illegitimate baby.
Once she had decided to keep the baby, Sayers still didn’t have many options. Formal adoption did not become legal in Britain until 1926, so there was very little safe or regulated infrastructure for those seeking it. Informal adoptions happened all the time, but Sayers seems to have been wary of just handing her child off to complete strangers and having no contact in the future.
Two days before the baby arrived, Sayers finally wrote to her cousin Ivy, who was. The daughter of her mother’s widowed sister. Dorothy and Ivy had been close as children, and now Ivy worked as a foster parent, living in Cowley, near Oxford. Sayers had visited Ivy’s home and seen how happy the children she cared for were. She therefore asked Ivy to take charge of her child too. It was in many ways a good solution, since it meant the baby would be well cared for and always within reach should Sayers’ own circumstances change. But it was also a huge risk to the secrecy of the situation, because it meant that Sayers’s mother could easily find out any time that the child her sister and niece were caring for was, in fact, her own grandchild. Still, Ivy was happy to help and Sayers must have judged the arrangement worth the risk.
On 3 January 1924, Dorothy L. Sayers gave birth to a son at the nursing home in Southbourne. It was a difficult birth but Sayers wrote later about how proud she was at what her body had achieved in bringing her son into the world. She named him John Anthony. The area on the birth certificate for the father was left blank.
While still recovering, Sayers wrote to Ivy and told her the whole story, so that she knew who John Anthony’s real parents were when she took charge of him. Sayers suggested that her boy go by his father’s surname — John Anthony White. She also wrote to her parents during her three weeks convalesce at the nursing home, pretending that she was still at home in London, working on Clouds of Witness. Miraculously, from then on Sayers seems to have managed to keep her secret. Ivy was a faithful friend, non judgemental and supportive at a time when many would have reacted to Sayers’s status as an unmarried mother with horror.
The addition of John Anthony to her life — even in secret — did change Sayers’s outlook on work, however. Rather than focusing on more literary or translation projects, she continued to work on advertising copy at Benson’s by day as well as working hard on more Wimsey novels and stories in her free time so that she had plenty of money to provide for him as well as maintaining her own household.
Although she had made the decision to live apart from her son, Sayers did not sideline him in her mind. As John Anthony grew up under Ivy’s loving care, his mother wrote to her regularly for news and visited often, collecting snapshots of her boy as he grew that she never showed to her friends. She occasionally would tell strangers about this long distance kind of motherhood she was thrust into, but very carefully kept it from her own social and family circle.
When Sayers married the journalist Mac Fleming in 1926, Ivy sent a gift of “a beautiful set of chessmen” — which, I imagine, inspired the set that Harriet Vane covets in Gaudy Night. Six weeks after they were married, Sayers took Mac to Cowley to meet John Anthony. He knew her as “Cousin Dorothy” who visited sometimes and brought gifts, and now he had a Cousin Mac too.
But although Mac was supportive up to a point, he was not interested in having the boy come to live with them. It seems Sayers had hoped for this early on in their marriage, but it wasn’t to be. They lived in a small flat without room for a child, and one or both of them would have had to give up work to care for the boy. As two career-minded writers and with Mac struggling with chronic health problems from injuries sustained during the First World War, this didn’t come naturally. Instead, Dorothy chose to keep up her detective fiction and her advertising work, bringing in enough money both for her own household and to support her son. When he was ten John Anthony was told that his “cousins” had adopted him and that his surname was now Fleming.
As her son grew up, Sayers began to write to him about books, writing and what his future might hold. Despite the difficult decision she had made and the secrecy she maintained, she cared deeply about him. In summer of 1940 she wrote a heartbreakingly practical letter advising him to remain in Oxfordshire for his safety, and telling him that if she was to be killed in an air raid he and Ivy must get in touch with her solicitors for her will (which would reveal that he was her son and sole heir, although since she survived the war he was destined not to find that out yet). She also told him that “in the event of a German occupation of this country… be careful not to advertise your connection with me; writers of my sort will not be popular with the Gestapo.”
But the guilt that Sayers felt about her actions in the early 1920s never quite left her. In 1943 she was recommended to the Archbishop of Canterbury for an honorary doctorate of divinity in recognition of her Christian scholarship in works like The Man Born to Be King and The Mind of the Maker, but Sayers ultimately declined the honour, saying “I should feel better about it if I was a more convincing kind of Christian”. Biographer Barbara Reynolds speculates that this feeling stemmed from her lingering uncertainty around John Anthony’s birth, and whether the publicity involved in receiving the degree would result in word of her illegitimate son getting out.
So there we have it: that was Dorothy’s secret. It’s really quite extraordinary that she was able to keep the truth of John Anthony’s existence away from most of her own family and friends for so long — I think we can assume that some may have guessed, but since Sayers didn’t raise it herself, were discreet about their suspicions. In a way, it could be said that we owe the existence of at least some of the 12 Lord Peter Wimsey novels to John Anthony’s birth, since without the need to support him, Sayers might have moved on to her religious writing and her theological work much sooner than she did.
The connection between Dorothy L. Sayers and John Anthony Fleming was only revealed to the world after Sayers died in 1957, because her son was the sole beneficiary in her will and therefore the inheritor of her literary estate. Although motherhood perhaps didn’t happen as she wanted, his birth still changed her, and keeping the secret of what he meant to her was a defining feature of her life. Her inner conflict and grief about it is there in her writing, making it deeper and more emotionally true. And as John Anthony Fleming said himself of his mother in an interview given shortly before his death in 1984:
“She did the very best she could.”
This episode of Shedunnit was written, narrated, and produced by me, Caroline Crampton. You can find show notes at shedunnitshow.com/dorothyssecret where there will also be links to all the books mentioned. I provide transcripts for every episode of the podcast too: find them at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts. For more information about places to donate towards Black Lives Matter and the authors I mentioned in that segment, see shedunnitshow.com/blacklivesmatter.
I’ll be back on 24 June with another episode.