Dorothy L. Sayers: Gaudy Night

GaudyNightThere is no chance assembly of people who cannot make lively conversation about drains.

First up, a warning about this dreadful dreadful Kindle edition, which I strongly urge you to avoid. Here are a few pages’ worth of typos:

was slowly eating tier lunch

It was of sheet

me immensely busy visitors

and then she won’t so much mind my haling the murderess off to justice

except that one “ay in the Michaelmas

Seriously, there are hundreds of these errors and the publisher (who appears to be nameless) should be thoroughly ashamed. It is even more annoying in a book which has its share of sentences designed to disrupt the flow:

“Every night booked from now till the coming of the Coqcigrues?”

Is that a typo or real? You tell me (and no resorting to Google)…

Anyway, on with the show.

Harriet Vane, detective novelist, acquitted murder suspect, and love interest for Lord Peter Wimsey, returns to her old Oxford college, Shrewsbury, for a ‘Gaudy’ celebration. A school reunion, basically. Amidst the seeing old friends and the meeting new friends, she is shocked to discover a poison pen is at work and making increasingly bold and public accusations. The Senior Common Room asks her to stay a while to detect the culprit as quietly as possible.

I’m not sure that a “nice, clean murder” wouldn’t be easier to deal with! The fact is, we are being victimised by a cross between a Poltergeist and a Poison-Pen, and you can imagine how disgusting it is for everybody.

University education for women is still relatively new and a little insecure. Accusations of impropriety could damage reputations, and after a suicide attempt by one of the students, it seems lives are at risk too.

Harriet welcomes the break from her daily life, and soon sinks into nostalgic dreams of staying in Oxford and becoming an academic herself.

…if one could work here steadily and obscurely at some close-knit piece of reasoning, undistracted and uncorrupted by agents, contracts, publishers, blurb-writers, interviewers, fan-mail, autograph-hunters, notoriety-hunters, and competitors; abolishing personal contacts, personal spites, personal jealousies; getting one’s teeth into something dull and, durable…

Plus, being in Oxford keeps her away from Lord Peter’s annual proposal of marriage. She soon has another suitor in the form of a bumptious young male undergraduate, and also strikes up a friendship with Lord Peter’s handsome but dissolute young nephew.

If that last paragraph sounds to you like the set-up for a Mills and Boon, yep, but with more Latin.

Gaudy Night is famous as the novel where Dorothy L. Sayers partially turned her back on the mystery genre to write another kind of book entirely. Which some readers think is great, and some think is a shame.

I’m not averse to writers branching out, and I’m not 100% sure I believe in ‘genre’ anyway, so I’m fine with Gaudy Night in theory. However, I find the three most annoying things in Sayers’ books are Peter Wimsey, Harriet Vane, and intellectual snobbery, and this is a book about Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane and how wonderfully intelligent and cultured they are. So.

There are some interesting bits. A women’s college in the 1930s is a fascinating environment. However, a bit of ‘show, don’t tell’ wouldn’t have gone amiss. The issues facing women in education, and the choices facing educated women, are mainly delivered to us in the form of after-dinner conversation and Harriet’s lengthy internal dialogues.

On the doors were cards, bearing their names: Miss H. Brown, Miss Jones, Miss Colburn, Miss Szleposky, Miss Isaacson—so many unknown quantities. So many destined wives and mothers of the race; or, alternatively, so many potential historians, scientists, school-teachers, doctors, lawyers; as you liked to think one thing of more importance than the other.

Another interesting aspect is self-referential. Vane the detective novelist is on the same sort of journey as Sayers the detective novelist. Her latest book, a puzzle set on an island, isn’t working out, and she realises it is because her characters are cardboard cut-outs. She sets to work reinventing them as real people.

‘I’m re-writing Wilfrid.’
‘Good God, yes. The chap with the morbid scruples. How’s he getting on?’
‘He’s better, I think. Almost human.’

Unfortunately, I don’t think ‘almost humanity’ is achieved. Sayers really suffers in this respect when compared with Josephine Tey (and I kept comparing Shrewsbury College to Tey’s less rarefied but infinitely more likeable Leys Physical Training College) and Margery Allingham. For me, Harriet Vane stands condemned by a single line.

‘I wanted to find out whether Annie [a servant] could really have seen what she said she saw. These people sometimes let their imagination run away with them.’

And I don’t think I have ever read a courtship as tedious as Lord Peter and Harriet. I get that it’s very courtly and gentle (in the medieval sense), but surely the point of medieval love affairs is that they were all 14 and so entitled to behave like adolescents? They’re simply exasperating. For 515 pages.

Gaudy Night – really not for me. But in fairness you don’t have to go far to find people who absolutely love it – see some below.

Dorothy L. Sayers
Gaudy Night
First published in the UK by Gollancz, 1935
This edition published by someone with no spellchecker
515 pages in print
Source: Kindle

See also:

Sarah Crown in the Guardian: The book feels so fundamental to me, now, that I find it hard to cast my mind back to a time when I hadn’t read it, and harder still to explain what it’s about, because it seems to be about everything. It’s a novel about work and the moral value of work; the importance – indeed the necessity – of finding the job you’re fitted for and doing it to the very best of your abilities. It’s about truth, and the need, in a slippery, shifting world, to find the one true thing you’re willing to defend, no matter what the personal cost. It’s about friendship, and how it ebbs and flows as you yourself grow – or stop growing. It’s about writing: what it means to write well and how to do it. It’s about love and integrity, and the thought and work and consideration that must go into establishing and maintaining a relationship of equality and mutual respect. It’s about class and sex and society between the wars. And above all, it’s about the age-old question (which at the time of writing was a fresh, new one) of whether it’s possible for a woman to have it all: to have a life of the mind and of the heart, and to do equal honour to them both.

Jo Walton at The emotional heart of the book is Harrier’s re-examination of her life and her work. For five years (and two novels) she has been refusing Lord Peter’s proposals of marriage. Now she begins to consider them, and at last comes to see that they could have a marriage that would be a partnership, not a job. Before that she has to regain her self respect, to have a place to stand and go on from. Harriet’s conclusion is by no means assured, and the emotional trajectory of the book is extremely well done. The arguments for a marriage of equals, as opposed to the social expectation, have never been done better—we even see the disadvantage from the man’s point of view “someone who would try to manage me”. Manipulation was the women’s trick, when the man had all the power, but having all the power and being manipulated wasn’t much fun either.

About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
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20 Responses to Dorothy L. Sayers: Gaudy Night

  1. Sorry to hear you didn’t enjoy it. Don’t think the edition you were reading probably helped – as I can imagine frequent typos would get grating after a while. I’m the complete opposite of you and can’t stand Miss Pym’s Disposes.


    • Brad says:

      I’m on the “yes, Miss Pyn,” “no, Harriet Vane” side, for what that’s worth. Fight club????


      • For some reason I always manage to pick the side that has no other supporters… and shame on you Brad for not liking Harriet Vane!

        Liked by 1 person

      • pastoffences says:

        I think team Vane would have plenty of supporters. Just hang on in there and they’ll emerge blinking into the sunlight 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

      • I was thinking more of the anti-Pyms. I seem to be the only person who wants to metaphorically strangle or slap Miss Pym.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Brad says:

        You’re not SUPPOSED to like Miss Pym! She’s the anti-detective, a self-taught “psychologist” who, like so many, wrote a book that ignorant people believe in, making her an “expert.” She tries to analyze the situation and fails badly, leading to tragedy and thwarted justice. I think this novel is one of the best ANTI-amateur sleuth novels of all time. It really is a novel with murder in it, IMHO. Miss Pym may be likable throughout, enough so at least that people like her and confide in her, but she becomes a figure of pathos, even of enmity, at the end, at least in readers’ minds because she RUINS LIVES and doesn’t even have the insight to understand and feel REALLY terrible about this. If I myself went to a country weekend and tried to solve whatever murder happened my way, THIS is what would happen because as a detective, I have a feeling I would suck eggs. (As a suspect, I would be fabulous!) Plus, putting all of that aside, it’s a lovely school-set novel about an interesting assortment of women. I think we should cast the movie!

        Harriet Vane is a completely different kind of person. She’s a straight out and out heroine, no irony about it! So even though we find them both in a school setting in these respective novels, comparing the two characters feels to me a bit like comparing apples to oranges.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I think it is because she is the main character and I don’t always warm to books where the main character is unlikeable. The Talented Mr Ripley is another such book. Moreover, her unlikeable traits are ones which really rile me in real life. Didn’t really warm to the other characters in the book either tbh. Whereas I completely warm to Vane and Gaudy Night was my first Sayer novel and I found myself completely immersed in the world of the book.

        Liked by 1 person

    • pastoffences says:

      Oh no, Miss Pym’s my book of the year so far (I think).

      Liked by 1 person

      • realthog says:

        FWIW (not much, I know), I rate Miss Pym Disposes very highly too.

        Liked by 1 person

      • J. J. McC. says:

        I read Miss Pym Disposes a few months ago and enjoyed it very much. It’s not much of a mystery, perhaps, but very well written. I’m now on a Tey kick. I read Gaudy Night many, many years ago but don’t remember much about it. I was more favorably impressed with Have His Carcase.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes, they’re desperately snobbish and all that, but I still love this book to bits. For me it conjures up the idea of Oxford in that era brilliantly, and I’m fond of Wimsey and Harriet as characters. I admit that the courtship (over several books!) was a little protracted, but this will always be one of my desert island books!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. tracybham says:

    Another book I need to reread… but it would be for the third time and I was not that thrilled with the 2nd time. Really liked it the first time I read it. The reviews you quoted and the comments encourage me to check it out again and read it from a different perspective.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Guy Savage says:

    I’ve yet to try this one. Luckily I have a hardback edition.


  5. realthog says:

    So far as the typos are concerned, you might be better off going here.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. heavenali says:

    Oh I love Gaudy Night I have read it twice. I hate badly formatted kindle editions.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Have never really liked it and always though it pretty insufferable overall, But you can’t ignore the fact that it is so widely admired by some, which I suspect lies more in the author’s stated intention, and the setting, compared with her actually achievement. Weird about that kindle – it’s not like the book is in the public domain (though that will be true of her entire catalogue in a couple of years actually)


  8. isabella says:

    The book is of it’s time as are the books that are written today, reflecting attitudes of the day.
    Too bad about the typos, shouldn’t happen. The cover is lovely.
    I’ve read several times because I like P and H,


  9. I think those typos ruined your read! This isn’t the typical detective novel but definitely more of Vane finding her way an an independent woman. It’s of its era and Sayers was making a statement about women. Yes, some of the lines are insipid, but they are also the mores of the time. If you think they are acting medieval here, read Busman’s Honeymoon and the description of Vane that opens the book at their wedding and how she’s dressed. These two are of the cerebral sort and not for everyone but I do adore their silliness toward each other and throwing Latin quotes around. They are sort of endearing in a silly, pompous way that reminds me of a cerebrally-slanted Jeeves and Wooster. The Teys are my favorites of all–Daughter of Time is one of my all-time favorites for its plotting and solving a crime from a hospital bed!


  10. I have written a lot about this book on my blog – I love it, but can completely understand those who don’t like it. I have issues with it, for instance with endless scenes where DLS puts her own opinions into approved characters’ mouths, and then has (less clever and attractive) others arguing with those views and being defeated. But in the end it always pulls me in, I just plain enjoy reading it. And feel the same way about Miss Pym Disposes, btw.


  11. Mia says:

    Gaudy Night has been one of my favourite books since I discovered it 20 years ago. I like the emerging feminism mixed with intellectual romance so I have re-read this book at least 4 times. I quite like the BBC version with Edward Petherbridge and Harriet Vane although lots of the book’s details were left out unfortunately.

    Liked by 1 person

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