16 May 2012

Gaudy Night (Dorothy Sayers)

So this review was going to start with a rant about how Dorothy Sayers's tour de force Gaudy Night was out of print and what is WRONG with people, but I've learned that Harper is reissuing it in October with a swank new cover, which has simmered me back down. This is a book which should not be lost: partly because it contains a crucial chunk of her twenty-year Lord Peter Wimsey narrative, in the form of the BEST PROPOSAL EVER (fictional division, of course; don't get het up there, Andersen). Still more vital, it portrays the lives and travails of educated women in the first decades of the twentieth century, from their own perspectives--an experience that must not be forgotten. I hesitate to call it the first feminist detective novel, not being an expert on either category, but it is certainly early, and important.

If you're not familiar with Lord Peter Wimsey, you are in for a treat come October. The short version is: Bertie Wooster but fiercely bright, and a detective. With a monocle! As charming a character as he is, though, he appears in Gaudy Night for maybe a tenth of its pages--and detecting proper takes up maybe a fourth. Most of the book centers on Harriet Vane, a mystery writer Peter saved from the gallows when she was accused of murdering her lover in Strong Poison. He fell madly in love with her, and had been proposing to her on a regular basis--and being refused--for years since. He does nothing so unpleasant as stalk, never fear, merely sending a polite letter every month or so; she continues to demur not from antipathy, but from resentment over being indebted to him for her life, and an unwillingness to award herself as recompense for said debt.

The book takes place in 1935, as Harriet returns to Shrewsbury College, Oxford, for her class reunion, dubbed the "Gaudy." After a weekend of friendships rekindled (and regretfully outgrown) with former classmates and dons alike, she's drawn back to the city of dreaming spires by a pleading letter from the Dean, who knows her dabbling in detection and needs discreet help. There's been a rash of nasty happenings on Shrewsbury campus: poison-pen letters, obscene drawings, vandalism, including a bonfire of students' gowns in the quad and the wanton destruction of Miss Ludgate's long-in-the-making manuscript on her new theory of prosody. The culprit seems bitterly hostile towards unmarried academic women, branding them as harpies and man-eaters . . . and timing and circumstances point to one of Shrewsbury's own.

So why not call in the police, or at least alert the highers-up at Oxford? Well, the very nature of the pranks--their pointedness at the collegiate woman--begs for as little publicity as possible. Women were only granted the right to receive degrees from Oxford in 1920 (Sayers, like Harriet, was one of the first women to do so), and they're still regarded as at best unusual and at worst unnatural. Harriet fumes when the gown-burning incident is reported by a London paper as an "Undergraduettes' Rag" investigated by the "Lady Head":
Women, of course, were always news. Harriet wrote a tart letter to the paper, pointing out that either "undergraduate" or "woman student" would be seemlier English than "undergraduette," and that the correct method of describing Dr. Baring was "the Warden." The only result of this was to provoke a correspondence headed "Lady Undergrads," and a reference to "sweet girl-graduates."
This sort of sniggering is exactly why Shrewsbury's academics want an investigation on the quiet. And while Harriet protests she's hardly a professional, she's happy to oblige by moving back onto campus, ostensibly to research a biography of Gothic writer Sheridan Le Fanu. And she's fallen back in love with the intellectual life, after years away in unlucky love and literary society. In between incidents with Shrewsbury's mad prankster, Sayers luxuriates in conversation, between smart and opinionated women, about who they are, who they could be, what society demands of them and what it should. It's wonderful to read, both as artifact and as sad testimony to what hasn't changed.

For a mystery novel, Gaudy Night seems to have little at stake--no murder, no theft of material property (beyond those academic gowns, weighty with their symbolic value). But what's threatened is far more precious: the right of women to pursue the examined life, to find paths other than marriage and family. Though Harriet finally accepts Peter's suit at novel's end, it's from a realization that he does, indeed, view her as an equal, a mind to rival his own. His successful proposal demonstrates this--he addresses her not only in Latin, but in a snippet from an Oxonian degree-granting ceremony, calling her magistra, literally, a woman with a master's degree. It's, uhm, really, really romantic. Almost as romantic as having my attention distracted from a book of Onion sports reporting to be proposed to in front of my whole family on Christmas morning . . .


  1. This is a good one. I hope you follow it up with the sequel, Busman's Honeymoon. My favorite Peter Whimsey books, however, are the Harriet-less Murder Must Advertise (based on Sayers' own experience as an ad copywriter) and especially The Nine Tailors.

  2. Oh, I read all the Sayers in a wonderful frenzy some years ago! They're all worth a re-read, to be sure.

  3. I enjoy this book enough to go looking for it to read and I stay up reading it even though it is past my bedtime.


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