There 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
First published in the UK by Gollancz, 1935
This edition published by someone with no spellchecker
515 pages in print
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 Tor.com: 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 betterwe 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.