I Still Don't Know How He Does It
In 1944 British writer Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957), already famous as the author of Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels, holed up in an air raid shelter with Dante's Divine Comedy. She finished Inferno—in Italian—in five days, then wrote the following letter to Charles Williams. She knew Williams through C. S. Lewis's "Inklings" group and through Williams's book on Dante, The Figure of Beatrice. Sayers's fascination with Dante resulted in an ambitious translation of the Comedy (used throughout this issue) and numerous essays and lectures.
24 Newland Street
To Charles Williams
16-17 August 1944
You say you like getting letters, so I am writing you one to say that I have embarked upon an arduous enterprise for which you are entirely responsible.
Having read The Figure of Beatrice, and coped with "Lewis on Milton" [A Preface to Paradise Lost] and actually re-read the greater part of Paradise Lost in consequence, I cheerfully remarked to a friend that Milton was a thunderingly great writer of religious epic, provided it did not occur to you to compare him with Dante.
My friend, with mild countenance and disarming honesty, replied that she had never read Dante. I then became aware that I had never read Dante either, but only quoted bits of him and looked at Doré's illustrations to the Inferno (and I still think, whatever it may be the fashion to say about Doré, that he was a great illustrator). It then came to my mind that perhaps I had better read Dante, or else I might find myself condemned to toddle round for ever among the Hypocrites.
And why, you naturally inquire, had I never read Dante? Well, to begin with, I don't know any Italian. … In that case, why not read a translation? The trouble is that I know just ...