Dorothy Sayers’ Sluckdrib Letter: Not The First Screwtape Copycat … But Close

In preparing for a paper on teaching The Screwtape Letters for the C.S. Lewis and the Inklings Colloquium at Taylor University back in 2012, I thought I had discovered the first Screwtapian letter written by someone other than C.S. Lewis. A Dr. Frederic Lyman Wells of Harvard’s Department of Hygiene wrote a series of Screwtape-styled letters in 1948 for his Presidential address to the American Psychopathological Association. I was sure this psychological letter was the first copycat, but I was wrong.

Lewis’ very first Screwtape Letter was published in the Anglican periodical, The Guardian, on May 2, 1941, and was followed in print in England on February 9, 1942. Struck by the book, mystery author Dorothy L. Sayers began a conversation through letters with Lewis. A year later, this famous creator of the Lord Whimsey sleuth stories sent Lewis an advanced copy of her book, The Man Born to Be King, accompanied by a Screwtape-styled letter where Sluckdrib is the newly assigned demon, Screwtape the mentor, and Sayers herself the patient.

As it turns out, despite being 5 years ahead of Dr. Wells of Harvard, this was not the first Screwtape copycat letter. The grand tradition of demonic epistolary fiction that mimics The Screwtape Letters actually began with a clever review of the book by Charles Williams. I blogged that for everyone last week.

Charles Williams demonic review is clever. However, it is difficult to resist Sayers’ wit in her Sluckdrib letter (Sluckdrib is the demon assigned to Sayers herself). Sayers can write on multiple levels. Her first Lord Peter Wimsey novel, Whose Body?, includes a cutting commentary on mystery writing. In the Sluckdrib letter, Sayers cuts to the heart of the temptations of a Christian writer. In literary self-deprecation, Sluckdrib’s assessment of Sayers is a kind of elegant epistolary confession:

The effect of writing these plays upon the character of my patient is wholly satisfactory. I have already had the honor to report intellectual and spiritual pride, vainglory, self-opinionated dogmatism, irreverence, blasphemous frivolity, frequentation of the company of theatricals, captiousness, impatience with correction, polemical fury, shortness of temper, neglect of domestic affairs, lack of charity, egotism, nostalgia for secular occupations, and a growing tendency to consider the Bible as Literature.

Lewis evidently delighted in the letter, suggesting that “the Sluckdrib letter is obviously intended for human consumption,” commenting on its artfulness, and closing with a hope that their own epistolary conversation will last indefinitely. The conversation went on, largely because (I think) Lewis and Sayers shared a sense of humour and love for similar kinds of writing. Despite prodigious work, both viewed themselves as essentially lazy, as is caught by this clever Sluckdrip dig:

why should I let her get off with one trivial act of sloth when I have the opportunity of raising a great weedy growth of pride, vainglory, wrath and hypocrisy on the opportunity provided?

screwtape1Why indeed! And Sayers immediately caught on to the fact that Screwtape exists within an evil bureaucracy–the Lowerarchy lost in paperwork. No aspect of temptation is unimportant. As Sluckdrib says, “the defence of civil atheism is a reserved occupation.”

Have I said it before? Sometimes it’s fun to be wrong.

Because I loved the Sluckdrib letter so much, I wanted to share it. This is from a May 13, 1943 letter from Dorothy Sayers to C.S. Lewis. You can find it in volume 2 of Barbara Reynolds’ amazing collection of D.L. Sayers letters (which you can purchase here).


24 Newland Street
Witham
Essex

13 May 1943

Dear Mr. Lewis,

Knowing that you have the entrée into the Lowest Official Circles, may I beg you to hand the enclosed volume[1] to the person whose name appears on the fly-leaf.[2]
My Personal Attendant[3] desires that the following Memorandum may be forwarded to the same:

Memo on Policy: Ref: 7734/rev[4]

In connection with the attached volume, I would draw your Sublimity’s attention to a certain lack of Planning, which seems to permeate the whole policy of the Low Command, and threatens to disintegrate our entire war-time strategy.

Screwtape-Letters-with-Leslie-BaynesI should begin by stating that I have always been a Liberal Regressive and convinced Deteriorationist. By this time, surely, the old-fashioned doctrine of Original Righteousness is completely discredited. I can, therefore, only attribute the anomalies which have come under my notice—not to anything inherently virtuous in the make-up of the Creation, but to some failure on our part; some lack of scientific method, perhaps, if it is not sheer slackness in certain departments.

So far as my department is concerned, I can assure your Sublimity that no fault can be found. The effect of writing these plays[5] upon the character of my patient is wholly satisfactory. I have already had the honour to report intellectual and spiritual pride, vainglory, self-opinionated dogmatism, irreverence, blasphemous frivolity, frequentation of the company of theatricals, captiousness, impatience with correction, polemical fury, shortness of temper, neglect of domestic affairs, lack of charity, egotism, nostalgia for secular occupations, and a growing tendency to consider the Bible as Literature. You will remember that it was agreed that a work undertaken and carried out in that spirit could do Harm in the best sense of the word, and that the original well-meant opposition was withdrawn, after strong representations from Below.

But I must point out that the success of the policy adopted is contingent upon proper collaboration among the departments. What is the use of my doing my duty if other Tempters merely sit on their tails in complacent inactivity? The capture of one fifth-rate soul (which was already thoroughly worm-eaten and shaky owing to my assiduous attention) scarcely compensates for the fact that numbers of stout young souls in brand-new condition are opening up negotiations with the Enemy and receiving reinforcements of faith. We knew, of course, that the author is as corrupt as a rotten cheese; why has no care been taken to see that this corruption (which must, surely, permeate the whole work) has its proper effect upon the listeners? We ought not to take the Enemy’s word for it that a corrupt tree cannot bring forth good fruit. If He is telling the truth, this stuff ought to poison people. But the fools eat it and it does them good. Either the Enemy is really able to turn thorns into grapes and thistles into figs, or (as I prefer to believe) there is mismanagement somewhere.

the_screwtape_letters_by_got2bdd-d3czltsA flagrant instance of the same kind of thing has just occurred here. A sound Atheist of the old-fashioned materialist kind wrote my patient a highly offensive letter about miracles, accusing her of ignorance and dishonesty in the vulgarest language. I persuaded her to answer it still more rudely and offensively. This should have inflamed the situation. Instead, the man seemed pleased to be taken notice of. His subsequent letters (though still discourteous and infidel) became more moderate in tone, and his latest effusion contained an apology and expressed readiness to read some Christian literature, if my patient would send him a list. This I could not prevent her from doing, though I saw to it that her motive was mere pride and self-sufficiency, not in the least contaminated by “love” for the Atheist or interest in “saving” his moth-eaten soul. I hasten to say that I do not expect the books will have the slightest effect upon the creature. What is so sinister is his growing good-will (which is beginning to affect my patient), and the disgustingly false impression made in his mind by the correspondence. He actually thanked my patient for troubling to be insolent to him; he thinks better of Christians because she treated him like dirt and gave him a harsh answer. He does not see the despicable meanness of her motives, which is enough to make a cat sick.

My clerk Swilltosh (who is getting too big for his boots) has the impertinence to say I was trying to be too clever: I should have encouraged the patient’s laziness so as make her drop the man’s original letter into the waste-paper basket. I have pointed out to him that my first duty is to my own patient—why should I let her get off with one trivial act of sloth when I have the opportunity of raising a great weedy growth of pride, vainglory, wrath and hypocrisy on the opportunity provided? He maintains, further, that the mistake was to permit any activity at all, since all activity is borrowed from the Enemy and can be turned to His advantage. Surely this is heresy: otherwise Sloth would be the greatest of all the sins. Anyhow, I refuse to admit that the Enemy can, as He claims, turn Evil into Good. That is just one of His propaganda boasts. It doesn’t make sense. If it did, what are we Devils for? I do not like to hear these opinions bandied about Down Below—a very nasty spirit of defeatism seems to be getting about among the younger fiends, which I can only attribute to Fifth-column activities.

screwtape letters by mcjadeSo—as I said, the trouble is sheer lack of Planning and failure to cooperate. I have been informed that this wretched Atheist’s Tempter has been complaining about the episode. I must enter a protest. It is all his fault. Why did he not get into touch with me at the time? Why did he not warn me that the fool was merely spoiling for a fight and asked nothing better than a slap in the face? Something has gone very wrong with our Intelligence. It’s no good telling me that all our best Tempters have been called up for war-work; the defence of civil atheism is a reserved occupation. What is the use of winning victories in the exterior field of physical violence, if we are going to collapse on the Home Front? I beg that you will take this matter in hand immediately; otherwise I shall see to it that a question is asked in the Lower House. You may think the opinion of a mere Tempter in private practice is of very little importance; if so, I can only say that the Civil Service Mentality should be left in the Human world, where it belongs: we have no use for it Down Here.

Yours, &c.

SLUCKDRIB

[1] Barbara Reynolds editorial note suggests this is Sayers’ The Man Born to be King.

[2] Reynolds suggests this would be Screwtape.

[3] Reynolds’ note: Sluckdrib (the demon).

[4] Reynolds writes that “This is a private joke going back to her childhood. The numbers 7734 turned upside down spell HELL [Brenton note: think of the old calculators]. When she was 13, a young man named Cyril Hutchinson, who used to visit Bluttisham with his parents, told her it was the devil’s telephone number.”

[5] The Christ plays that make up The Man Born to be King. It was performed as a series on BBC radio.

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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22 Responses to Dorothy Sayers’ Sluckdrib Letter: Not The First Screwtape Copycat … But Close

  1. This is so good! Sayers is brilliant!

    Note: “Lord Peter Wimsey” is the correct spelling. 🙂

    Like

  2. jubilare says:

    “wrote my patent a highly” Oh noes! he’s patented Sayers! 😉

    Man, this is brilliant. I think this should be required reading for all Christian writers. …and all Christians… and all writers. 😉

    If I may, I will reblog this tomorrow.

    Like

    • I’ve fixed the error, so do feel free to reblog! I transcribed it, so there are likely other errors.
      As Lewis said, it is fit for human consumption. I love how self-critical she is, and yet the punchline: the Enemy promised that scattered souls would produce no fruit, but she is producing fruit! Well done.

      Like

  3. L.A. Smith says:

    Love it! Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Dorothy Sayers’ Sluckdrib Letter: Not The First Screwtape Copycat … But Close | jubilare

  5. Sally Davies says:

    I love this: “What are we devils for?”

    Liked by 1 person

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  7. Charles Huttar says:

    When I was a kid, we would tell people that Hitler’s telephone number was 7734.

    Like

  8. Charles Huttar says:

    The dialogue found at the following site — https://thechristmascurmudgeon.wordpress.com/4-what-the-grinch-stole-instead-of-christmas/ — may be the LATEST Screwtape-inspired work (though it’s quite possible it has already been superseded by another). It is remarkable how these things keep turning up. And there are multitudes of historiphobes in our decadent culture who believe that Latest is Best. But I continue to value your archaeological work in seeking out the earlier artefacts.

    Like

    • Hi Charles!
      I suspect that the hunt for the “latest” will be like trying to plug the holes in our rubber boots with our toes: works for a while, but kind of defeats the purpose. If I am right, and Screwtape-styled epistolary demonic fiction is a sort of genre with vitality and elasticity, then there will be a latest. And another. And so on.
      And, yes, there probably re multitudes of historiphobes in our decadent culture who believe that Latest is Best. I hope they don’t win!

      Like

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