Unpopular Opinions: Twenty-One Essays by Dorothy Sayers, Or In Which I Render Myself a Populist, Act II

July 9, 2010

Harcourt Brace and Co., 1947

(most essays previously published)

Finished: early April

Source: Nymeth at Things Mean a Lot

Genre: essays

On the Scales: middleweight

It was a bit unfair of me to write this review in two acts, because there’s no more drama.  Once I had been apprised of my barbaric incompetence as an English speaker, my conversation with Dorothy Sayers was through.  I’d read everything but the Holmesian criticism: “Holmes’ College Career,” “Dr. Watson’s Christian Name,” “Dr. Watson, Widower,” and “The Dates in The Red Headed League.”  My Sherlock Holmes was too rusty to appreciate them–and I wasn’t in the mood.  Sayers says that the rule for this sort of essay is “it must be played as a county cricket match at Lord’s: the slightest touch of extravagance or burlesque ruins the atmosphere.”  She meant it.  They are the driest things in the book.  I wonder if Laurie King has read them?


I don’t regret the time I spent reading Unpopular Opinions.  I would do it again.  I am even thinking of getting my hands on my own copy.  After my last post Jenny of Jenny’s Books pointed out that even when she is spouting complete [insert crass noun of choice] Sayers’ turns of phrase are charming, and it is so true!  It was stimulating to read such repugnant assertions couched in such fine style–a crash course in appreciation of style regardless of content.  Good for my brain.


You will notice I didn’t talk about “Are Women Human?” and “The Human-Not-Quite-Human.”  That is because anything I might say about Sayers’ feminism or the delightful humor you’ll find in these essays would be redundant if you read Nymeth’s review at Things Mean A Lot.

As for the theological essays, time and cultural distance may have turned them into curiosities, but they go down like a bowl of cherries as long as you are willing to spit the pits.  She takes an understandably hard line in “Forgiveness,“ as it was written during the war, and rejected by the newspaper editor who commissioned it because he “wanted and got [from someone else] . . . Christian sanction for undying hatred against the enemy.”

That isn’t to say I agreed with it.

One thing emerges from all this: that forgiveness is not a doing-away of consequences [Check.]; nor is it primarily a remission of punishment [Check.].  A child may be forgiven and “let off” punishment or punished and forgiven; either way may bring good results.  But no good will come of leaving him unpunished and unforgiven [Double check.]  Forgiveness is the reestablishment of a right relationship, in which the parties can genuinely feel [italics mine] and behave as freely with one another as thought the unhappy incident had never taken place.  But it is impossible to enjoy a right relationship with an offender who, when pardoned, continues to behave in an obdurate and unsocial manner to the injured party and to those whom he has injured, because there is something in him that obstructs the relationship.  So that, while God does not, and man dare not, demand repentance as a condition for bestowing pardon, repentance remains an essential condition for receiving it.

Something didn’t sit quite right with me, and it had to do with that “genuinely feels.”

By Sayers’ definition, forgiveness between equals must be very rare.  It would work when a parent forgives a child, or a Deity forgives a mortal, but in those cases no one has taken an emotional injury. For injury, there needs to be equality.  A parent isn’t hurt when her child behaves badly because the child (usually) is not sophisticated enough to be naughty with the deliberate intention of causing emotional harm to her parent–and certainly not of actually causing it.  A boundary been transgressed, that’s all.  The ritual of forgiveness must be played out for the sake of the child, who needs to learn it in order to live with other people, and for the adult, who needs to feel she is doing her job as a parent.

When a parent forgives a child, everyone can “genuinely feel” that nothing unhappy has taken place, because it hasn’t.  Not in the way of malice between equals.  Like physical injuries, emotional injuries don’t just disappear on command, they have to heal.  Until they heal there is no way the injured party can “genuinely feel” unhurt.  I take issue with Sayers’ claim that the ritual of forgiveness, properly conducted, results in the practical equivalent of an undoing of harm.  That trivializes forgiveness on one hand and makes us all failures (or self-deceivers) on the other.

Sayers’ distinction between the conditions for bestowing pardon and receiving it strikes me an ugly work-around for the injured.  It robs them of the healing grace of the ritual.  “Here’s your forgiveness.  I’m setting it right here.  But–nah, nah!–it’s just going to rot.  You can’t have it because you’re still making me mad!”


Have you ever enjoyed a prickly book because it was good for your brain?

9 Responses to “Unpopular Opinions: Twenty-One Essays by Dorothy Sayers, Or In Which I Render Myself a Populist, Act II”

  1. Jenny said

    I completely agree with you that forgiveness doesn’t erase the wrong – that’s nonsense. Given a certain level of emotional harm, the trust in a relationship can be damaged irreparably. I think it’s definitely possible to forgive someone genuinely for harming you, and at the same time not want to give anything more of yourself to them.

    But I’m not sure you’re right about Sayers’s distinction about bestowing and receiving pardon. The forgiveness doesn’t do any good to the wronging party unless s/he repents. (I’m thinking about how maddening it is to have someone forgive you for something you’re not sorry about.) It’s a two-way street, she’s saying. The forgiver sets something down, but the forgivee has to pick it up – which is to say, they have to acknowledge they’re in need of pardon. Otherwise, yeah, the whole forgiveness process doesn’t work.

    (I realize I said two-way street and then made it a pick up/put down thing. Sorry. I do not always do good metaphors.)

    • trapunto said

      I see what you mean. For the *whole* process of “things being made right” to be completed, forgiver and forgivee both have to do their part. I guess I’m just not counting on that being possible in most cases, because the forgivee will never repent. When that happens I think the forgiver has still made a real pardon–truly effected something, finished something–by taking the step of forgiveness. So I guess I am making a further distinction, between accepting absolution and being absolved. The forgivee is truly absolved, even when they don’t choose to acknowledge it or act on it (and therefore miss out on the practical benefits). The forgiver isn’t left in a limbo of waiting for repentance or a change of behavior on the part of the person who wronged them. And they can’t fool themselves with that have-their-cake-and-eat-it thing I was talking about, of back-door provisional forgiveness.

      (When I revise anything I’ve written, I spend half my time un-mixing metaphors. They are so useful. It’s hard to use just one!)

      • Jenny said

        I like your distinction, although it does assume a highly virtuous person in half of the transaction (dispensing forgiveness with saintly air), and a not-very-nice person in the other half (refusing to apologize when wrong).

        Plus, I think it usually goes in the other order – first someone repents, then they get forgiven. Or am I wrong? I expect this isn’t very nice of me, but I have a very hard time forgiving someone who hasn’t said they’re sorry. As soon as someone apologizes to me, I get all heart-melt-y and forgive them straight away (and probably apologize back because I’m usually guilty of something too), but until then I tend to be in a snit.

        All of which to say, your distinction seems more useful in cases where you aren’t intending to continue the relationship, or where there are no hurt feelings and wounded pride (to impede forgiveness). I don’t know how often forgiveness really comes first.

        • trapunto said

          I was thinking big, effortful, disciplined forgiveness for big wrongs. Like, um, the Blitz. Or messing with someone’s head all their life. Its hard for me to move to the micro when I start throwing concepts around.

          Speaking of little forgivenesses, I have noticed people always apologize for the wrong thing. Does your heart get melty even then? Do you ever ask for apology, or is spontaneity important? Way back, someone told me very seriously (as relationship advice) “always accept an apology.” meaning even resentful and misapplied ones.

        • Jenny said

          Oh, I definitely agree about the huger long-term forgivenesses. But with smaller stuff, I would say that apologizing for the wrong thing sometimes makes my heart melt–it depends. A gesture of repentance goes a long way with me, but I will usually clarify what upset me (“it wasn’t you playing a joke on me, it was you spilling water all over my CD player”).

          I guess it all depends on the extent to which the offense affects my feelings about the person–if a friend called and abruptly canceled plans we’d had, and then called the next day to apologize for being brusque on the phone, I’d be okay with that (in spite of its being the “wrong” apology). But if the same thing happened and it was the fifth or sixth time it had happened, I’d be more likely to go on and explain that actually I was frustrated about the plans, not her tone, and when she canceled plans so often, I felt hurt and dismissed, like our plans weren’t important to her. And then, presumably, she’d say “No they ARE” and I’d say “I just miss hanging out with you!” and we’d embrace each other tearfully. And then if she carried on doing it, I could still forgive her and yet not want to make plans with her anymore, which is what I’d probably do.

  2. Jeanne said

    I’ve certainly enjoyed a prickly book because it was good for my brain. But I do think that’s a bit of a philosophy major attitude. More often I’ve enjoyed a prickly book because I felt like picking a fight with someone. That’s more of an English major attitude, isn’t it?

    • trapunto said

      My sister (the composition and rhetoric one) came through for a visit before moving to embark on her PhD. She has been teaching writing to college Freshmen for a couple of years, and she marveled that all the Lit people she has met so far seemed (forget her exact words, I’m paraphrasing) to be kind of sour and angry and competitive and not to *like* books very much. But maybe they are liking them in an undetectable manner…

      • Jeanne said

        Okay, yeah, I’d forgotten about that English prof attitude. Back when I was an undergrad, I did have friends who loved books, but today’s undergrads can be a bit more driven. I have been teaching writing to college freshmen for more than 25 years, and if that doesn’t make you sour and angry, I don’t know what will!

      • trapunto said

        I should have been more specific when I said “Lit people.” It sounds kind of insulting, which I didn’t mean it to be. My sister was referring to her peers and superiors in the department, who were constantly fretting about getting published and how to make their ideas more noticeable than other people’s. She felt the composition/linguistics cadre was more relaxed and had more fun with books. The way she told it, her undergrad students were the opposite of driven–pretty much just high schoolers with no curfew. Her first semester teaching she used The Cat in the Hat for one of her writing exercises early on and a lot of them had never heard of it.

        Although I am sure you have every right to be sour and angry, I doubt you are!

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