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As co-director of the Marion E. Wade Center, the world’s most comprehensive archive of books and autographs by and about C. S. Lewis and six of his most important influencers, I have delighted in reading unpublished correspondence and manuscripts by Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957), whose radio plays about Jesus nurtured Lewis’s spiritual life. Among the many treats at the Wade, I am most excited about discoveries related to one of my many scholarly interests: film. 

Unlike Lewis, who paid little attention to movies, Sayers relished cinema, composing film scenarios for a British producer before writing the detective fiction that transformed her into a bestselling novelist. Because none of her scenarios got produced, scholars overlook the fact that Sayers maintained her interest in cinema even after her fictional sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey, made her famous. Many would be surprised to discover that two of her closest friends wrote for the screen, and most would be shocked to learn that Sayers had connections to Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Powell, the British director that Oscar-winning Martin Scorsese considers his primary mentor. 

The shock is easy to explain: almost every letter expressing appreciation for film has been left out of the four volumes of published Sayers correspondence, whereas most letters disparaging movies have been included. This may be due to the fact that Sayers’s friend and biographer Barbara Reynolds, who edited the volumes, was committed to showing Sayers’s scholarly sophistication, and for people of Reynolds’ generation cinema was even less respected by the intellectual elite than bestselling detective fiction. Reynolds includes, instead, dozens of letters about the intricacies of interpreting Dante’s Divine Comedy into English, the project that channeled Sayers’s “passionate intellect” in the last decade of her life: letters that would primarily interest students of Dante or translation theory. 

Ironically, as I argue in VII, the journal produced by the Wade Center, Sayers’s intrigue with Dante may well have been ignited by cinema. What follows is an edited version of my speculation, which is based on many wonderful discoveries, like the number of cinemas providing screening opportunities for Oxford University students in 1912:

After winning a prize in photography at the Godophin boarding school in Salisbury, Sayers attended Oxford University from 1912 to 1915, when she took advantage of the town’s six cinemas. Given her excited letters home about movies she had seen, Sayers most likely screened the first international blockbuster in history, the Italian L’Inferno, based on Dante’s Inferno, released in England during October of 1912. This certainly would help explain why Sayers describes Dante’s Inferno, decades later, with, “We see the whole action as though it were shown on a screen.”

Even if she missed seeing the film (which I doubt), she certainly knew of its cultural significance, Punch magazine referencing it at least twice: in October of 1912 and again in March of 1913. Long acquainted with the magazine, for which her uncle contributed articles, Sayers compared one of her Oxford experiences, in 1914, to “a page out of Punch.” So she more than likely saw the cartoons, both of which juxtapose posters about movie murder mysteries with images from the film version of L’Inferno. The second cartoon, published 26 March 1913, depicts two men entering an “electric palace”: a common name for cinemas at the time. Posters on the right side of the cartoon advertise two films. One titled Murder Will Out depicts an attacker’s hands at the neck of his victim, whose head he has covered with a bag. Above that image, an advertisement for L’Inferno shows people frozen in ice up to their necks: an allusion to Dante’s depiction of traitors, from Canto 32, which Sayers later described as “perhaps the greatest image in the whole Inferno.” In other words, Punch cartoons align murder with Dante—as Sayers would do in her first novel, Whose Body? (1923), which begins with Lord Peter Wimsey on his way to purchase a “Dante Folio,” a rare book mentioned several more times as Wimsey works to solve a case having to do with broken necks. Meanwhile, Wimsey’s butler specializes in photography.

The editors of VII got permission to reproduce the Punch cartoons in the body of the essay, making my speculation all the more fun. 

My essay, of course, includes far more extensive and substantive data supporting the influence of cinema on Sayers, data that informs my current book project: The Wages of Cinema: Looking through the Lens of Dorothy L. Sayers. In a future blog I will discuss the significance of this book for Christians, who all too often reduce cinema to a “content delivery system”: a phrase I borrow from my fourth book, Salvation from Cinema: The Medium Is the Message. Employed as a text in secular university religion courses, Salvation from Cinema challenges scholarly conversations about “religion and film,” which tend to say little about movies that couldn’t be gleaned simply by reading their original screenplays, thus entirely overlooking the aesthetics of film form. The Wages of Cinema follows up by narrowing its discussion to the particularity of Christianity, demonstrating how Sayers’s essay “Towards a Christian Aesthetic” not only anticipates film theory—a subject usually ignored in Christian books about cinema—but also illuminates the relevance of cinema to Christian orthodoxy.

For more about film and faith in CSR see:

Crystal L. Downing

Wheaton College
Crystal Downing is Co-Director of the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College (IL)