Mar 11, 2010

Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers

Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers

Gaudy Night opens when Harriet Vane surprises herself by agreeing to return to her Alma mater, Shrewsbury College in Oxford, for the annual Gaudy celebrations – an old student’s reunion of sorts. Shortly after this visit, she receives the first of many anonymous letters with slurs against educated women. When Shrewsbury College contacts her, she realises that she’s not alone: many members of the college have been receiving similar letters, and these have been accompanied by minor (or not so minor) acts of vandalism, such as obscene graffiti or the destruction of academic manuscripts.

Harriet Vane returns to Oxford, officially to research the life and works of Sheridan Le Fanu (bonus cool points), but also to investigate what’s behind the vandalism. At a time when women had just been begun to be allowed to graduate, and before colleges were co-educational, a scandal at a women’s college could do a lot of damage: it would confirm the prevalent opinion that women who got a higher education were “running wild”, and should be dragged back into the kitchen where they rightfully belonged. For this reason, discretion is essential. First on her own, and later with the help of Lord Peter Wimsey, Harriet Vane tries to discover what’s behind this mystery, all the while being extremely careful not to let it come to the public’s attention.

I am SO in love with this book. Please bear with me as I explain why in ridiculous amounts of detail.

First of all: dear book bloggers who pounced on me when I announced I was going to read Gaudy Night and strictly forbid me NOT to read these books in order: I will love you forever. I can't believe I was about to deprive myself of the emotional intensity this book brings to readers who are already emotionally invested in the characters. There are two things I want to talk about here: first, everything this book does in terms of character development, which is simply spectacular; secondly, the mystery itself, which, unbelievably enough, is just as great.

Before I can even begin to try to be coherent, I need to get this out of the way: the! river! scene! AHFHGF!!@ For those who haven’t read the book, a spoilers-free recap: by “the river scene” I mean a chapter in which Harriet Vane and Peter Wimsey go boating in the Thames, and their relationship reaches a stunning emotional climax. This has honestly become one of my all-time favourite scenes—almost up there with Liga-telling-Mud-Annie-what-happened-to-her in Tender Morsels, and that’s saying a lot.

The thing about this scene is that it’s not obviously spectacular; there's no huge release or anything. It's subtle, unspoken and subdued, so if these characters were new to me, it would be only natural to miss its significance altogether. But if you’re already emotionally invested in them - wow. Just wow. Because Dorothy Sayers has been building up the tension for over thousand pages, the effect is incredibly powerful. And yes, the emotional pay-off is as huge as advertised. There’s a specific bit when Lord Peter looks up from what he's reading and catches Harriet looking at him, and then looks down again and continues to read. Nothing whatsoever is said, but Harriet notices a change in the way he's breathing. It’s difficult to explain why this moment is so meaningful, but I swear, the tension almost KILLED me. And I wanted to kiss Sayers for doing such a wonderful job of capturing those subtle and unspoken and yet extremely significant moments between people.

Harriet Vane and Peter Wimsey’s love story is far from uncomplicated, and that’s part of what makes it so interesting. Through these characters, Sayers explores the impact that general expectations of what was required of a woman and a man in a marriage had on the personal relationships of even those who didn’t subscribe to the dominant patriarchal ideology. Harriet, an intelligent and educated woman (much like Sayers herself), wants real intimacy rather than dominance and subordination. She wants equality; she wants to be with someone who sees her as an intellectual equal and who respects her work, rather than with someone who patronises her and demands her full devotion.

Of course, these were the 1930’s, and the way marriage was predominantly conceived of made this almost impossible. Women were expected to lose their identity in that of their husbands. It’s clear for readers that Wimsey does respect Harriet’s intellect, but this is not so clear for Harriet – yet we don’t begrudge her for not quite realising it. This love story is also the story of a woman's slow realisation than in the world in which she lived, a relationship based on true equality was possible at all.

But as I was saying, there’s more here than a love story. If I loved Gaudy Night, it wasn’t just because the relationship between two characters I love reaches such a climax. No, this time it was the mystery too. You might remember than when I posted about Have His Carcase earlier this week, I said I wasn’t really emotionally invested in the mystery. But with Gaudy Night, I couldn’t have been more invested in every aspect of the book. The mystery here actually has some bearing on what the main characters are going through, as it’s all about gender, the role of women in academia, and the conflict educated women had to face at this time: was there room for them to have both private and public lives? The answer at the time was almost always “no”. If a woman got married, she was expected to leave her job. This, of course, forced them to choose between either intellectual interests or love, intimacy and sex.

Another interesting thing is that Gaudy Night is very much a psychological mystery. It’s not an intellectual puzzle or a “howdunnit”, but a study of motivation. There’s a noticeable focus on all the psychological and sociological variables involved. Interestingly enough, Harriet Vane (who, remember, is herself a mystery writer) is working on a book at a time, and realises that for the story to work at all she’ll have to take a more personal route than what she’s accustomed to. This scares her because she knows it will be painful, but when she discusses it with Peter, he encourages her. I can't help but see this as Sayers commenting on the writing of Gaudy Night itself - it goes to painful places, yes, but that's what makes it stand above the rest.

Dorothy Sayers is actually more poker-faced than most of the authors I usually read. If I try to compare her with Rachel Ferguson, for example, who wrote Alas, Poor Lady at around the same time, I notice that with Ferguson it's much easier to see where the authors’ sympathies lie. With Sayers you can too, but her approach is more subtle. She tries hard to make the authorial voice as neutral as possible. Obviously, being herself one of the first women to graduate from Oxford, we can safely assume she wouldn't be saying that women should return to the kitchen and stay there. But she portrays the issue quite complexly; she includes characters that represent every angle. She makes the conflict feel real, and I’m grateful for that, as it was very real indeed. It was difficult to be in these women’s shoes; they were women who, no matter what they chose, would nearly always have to give up things they cared about.

I remember, before I read any of Sayers’ mysteries (or any mysteries at all really), hearing people say that mystery as a genre is by necessity all about maintaining existent power dynamics; that it is, by definition, all about backing up the status-quo. Of course, I knew better than to unquestioningly believe this (what do people tend to say about fantasy, after all?), but I’m bringing it up because I know I've seen the point illustrated with the following line from Gaudy Night: “What this country needs is a 'itler”.

That's a shocking line, obviously, but it baffles me that someone who's actually read the book would use it to illustrate the idea that mysteries are inherently conservative, unless they are deliberately taking it out of context to misrepresent the author. See, the line is said by a man who works at the college but disapproves of educated women in general; a minor character who believes that Hitler's policy of restricting women to “Kinder, K├╝che und Kirche” is very wise indeed. That anyone could read this book and think that Sayers is endorsing this view is difficult for me to understand, but maybe it has to do with what I said before about her tendency to be so poker-faced.

I feel that I’ve been blabbing forever but only really brushed the surface of what Gaudy Night is really about: it’s also about intellectual honesty, about empathy and compassion, about the social and personal consequences of certain choices, about responsibility, and about freedom and independence, and, in a subtle way, also about sex. The result is absolutely brilliant, but you really, really need to read them in order to be able to fully appreciate it.

Favourite passages:
‘I take it, Harriet, that you have no new answer to give me?’
‘No, Peter. I’m sorry, but I can’t say anything else.’
‘All right. Don’t worry. I’ll try not to be a nuisance, but if you could put up with me occasionally, as you have done to-night, I should be very grateful to you.’
‘I don’t think that would be at all fair to you.’
‘If that’s the only reason, I am the best judge of that.’ Then, with a return to his habitual self-mockery: ‘Old habits die hard. I will not promise to reform altogether. I shall, with your permission, continue to propose to you, at decently regulated intervals – as a birthday treat, and on Guy Fawkes Day, and on the Anniversary of the King’s Accession. But consider it, if you will, as a pure formality. You need not pay the slightest attention to it.
‘Peter, it’s foolish to go on like this.’
‘And, of course, on the Feast of All Fools.’

‘I quite agree with you,’ said Miss de Vine, ‘about the difficulty of combining intellectual and emotional interests. I don’t think it affects women only; it affects men as well. But when men put their public lives before their private lives, it causes less outcry than when a woman does the same thing, because women put up with neglect better than men, having been brought up to expect it.’

…he had not only refrained from offers of help and advice which she might have resented; he had deliberately acknowledged that she had the right to run her own risks. ‘Do be careful of yourself’; ‘I hate to think of your being exposed to unpleasantness’; ‘If only I could be there to protect you’; any such phrase would express the normal male reaction. Not one man in ten thousand would say to a woman he loved, or to any woman, ‘Disagreement and danger will not turn you back, and God forbid they should.’ That was an admission of equality, and she had not expected it of him. If he conceived of marriage along those lines, then the whole problem would have to be reviewed in that new light; but that seemed scarcely possible. To take such a line and stick to it, he would have to be, not a man but a miracle.
Other Opinions:
Stella Matutina
Steph & Tony Investigate!
Jenny’s Books

(Let me know if I missed yours.)


  1. Oh the river! :D I'm so glad that you read these in order! It's such a great experience.

  2. I just keep flashing back to that scene in When Harry Met Sally in the diner, after Sally has had her very public very realistic orgasm, and an older lady says "I'll have what she's having". That is how I feel right now. You are positively glowing through this review, and I want some of that! I'm going to have to do some research...

  3. Wikipedia informs me that there are TWELVE Lord Peter Wimsey novels before this one - is that right? Oh, Ana, Ana, Ana ... what are you doing to me? It sounds completely worth it; the reading/breathing scene you describe reminds me of those subtle yet emotionally-heightened scenes that Austen masters so well.

    I had a lecturer at university who never taught me personally but he was adored by the student body (on facebook there is an appreciation group for him). He made every lecture he gave interesting and amusing, no matter the subject matter, and convened our courses and exams. Before every Easter/end-of-term holidays/the beginning of exam study time he emailed us all his study survival guide; one of the tips that stuck out and that I will always remember was to treat ourselves to curved chocolate (Easter eggs) and Dorothy L. Sayers mysteries.

  4. Your review touches on so many of the reasons this series (this story!) is one of my favorites ever. Glad you're reading them in order.

  5. I have to agree with Sandy. This review just oozes excitement for its subject matter, and that excitement is infectious. Considering I just donated 100 books to the library maybe I can fool myself into thinking it's okay to just go buy an entire series. :)

  6. You've made me very curious about this book - particularly the river scene.

  7. I have been waiting for this review since our recent Twitter conversations!

    But really, Ana, I TOLD you that I first plan to finish all my Heyer mysteries before starting on Sayers! Why must you tempt me so? I refuse to cave! Refuse!

  8. OK, so Strong Poison is the starting point? Must look into this series...

  9. I feel like I remember screaming at you slightly when you raised the possibility of reading Gaudy Night first, so, um, you're welcome. :P

    Also, re: the river scene: Right? Right? Best scene ever? My copy of Gaudy Night falls open to that scene. I wished there could have been more of Peter and Harriet together in Gaudy Night, but man, that one river scene is like Peter & Harriet concentrate. And then that she lets him get her the chessmen: it's lovely.

    I've just complained about not enough Peter and Harriet together, but of course it wouldn't be the book without that. He's not physically present, but he's there anyway, all the way through, which is what makes the climax so satisfying.

  10. Off to find me Lord Peter, Miss Harriet, Bunter and the rest of the crew(I remember the televised PBS version of some of these novels, but am not sure if I actually read them--the horror!) And I do think that mysteries are subversive--as is all good literature on some level--because the best of them, even after the puzzle is solved, leave us with questions...
    Great, great review!

  11. *goes to comment, sees all the people who actually know the book, reconsiders...*

    I haven't really wanted to read a mystery in a really long time. I read Sherlock Holmes as a kid, and went to the mystery section, and found a bunh of books that were really BLEAGH, and never really went back (ashamed, I'm not a good spelunker - this is why I read 'classics', because I am a coward, and too lazy to look for good things that haven't already been found for me...:/). But, these ones sound really beautiful. Thanks, Ms Nymeth :)

  12. I remember finding these books mildly pleasant when I was younger. You're making me think maybe I was too young then, and should reread them. Hmm, this happens a lot lately!

  13. Wow! You really loved this book! I am going to have to give it another try after reading about how wonderful it is, though I am going to be starting at the beginning.

  14. Eva: Thank you for being one of the people who yelled at me :P

    Sandy: lol! Your comment really made me laugh :D The book you need to start with is Strong Poison, then Have His Carcase, then this :P

    Claire: You don't have to read them all, though! Only the Harriet Vane ones, which are Strong Poison, Have His Carcase and then Gaudy Night. So only two before you get to this, and SOOO worth it! And lol - I like your lecturer already :P

    Hannah: I believe you were another one of the people who urged me to, so thank you!

    Trisha: Yes, it IS okay! :D You know you want to :P

    Kathy: It's such a beautiful scene!

    Aarti: lol - sorry :P

    JoAnn: Yep! Strong Poison, then Have His Carcase, then this.

    Jenny: lol - you did yell at me just a tiny little bit :P And the chessmen! Awww.

    ds: I completely agree about mysteries. I wish people wouldn't generalise so about genre literature.

    Jason: lol, I'm glad you didn't reconsider, because now I get to tell you that yes, you would love these. They're not really about the mystery - like all great books, they're about being human.

    Jeanne: Possibly not everyone would love them as much as I did, but I'm going to tell you to try again anyway :P

    Zibilee: Do! You'll appreciate it so much more after reading them in order.

  15. I'm trying not to feel like a loser here!! I have never read Sayers but obviously I'm missing some great writing here!!! Help me out...where do I start?

  16. Staci, I don't think not having read a book yet (or even not WANTING to read a book) ever makes someone a loser, and the day I deliberately make someone feel that way is the day I shoot myself. You can start with Strong Poison.

  17. Gosh, that sounded grouchy, didn't it? I'm so sorry, Staci! It's not directed at you, promise. Just... I'll nevereverever think not having read something makes anyone a loser. The end :P

  18. YOu make it sounds really great and now I want to read it too.

  19. Ooooooh. I love Gaudy Night. It's the best of my collection of campus novels and academic mysteries. Amanda Cross (aka the late Professor Carolyn Heilbrun) is another favourite, but hers are lighter fare.

  20. Author Julia Hoban has been trying to get me to read Gaudy Night for over a year now. I didn't realize I'd have to read two before it too! I read Murder Must Advertise, and was less than impressed. But I shall give Sayers another try.

  21. There you go, tempting me with Dorothy L. Sayers AGAIN!!!!! It's not right! Between you and Memory I'll be sucked into reading all these books. ;)

  22. Why, oh why, Ana, are you doing this to me? LOL! I've just embarked on another BBB (book-buying ban) and now I can't run out and buy this book!!! I so want this...

  23. I've never read any Dorothy L Sayers and I am awfully, awfully tempted to buy this series Right Now...

  24. Told you I would read the whole review ;) It just took me a while to get there. I am really glad I did. This sounds like a beautiful book and I think I am going to have add it to my TBR pile. I love books that discuss woman's education add a mystery to that and you have me sold :D

  25. Ooh, Lord Peter Wimsey & Harriet Vane have been my favorites ever since I first read them. And Gaudy Night is by far my favorite of the lot. I think it may be time for a re-read!

  26. Thank God, you told Claire the order to read these mysteries in! Nymeth, you write some great reviews. I'm placing all three books on my TBR list.

  27. wow, these sound good! and i'm very curious about that river scene!

  28. Sounds FANTASTIC. :-) You've sold another person! :-)

  29. Andreea: Do :)

    Nathaliefoy: Cross/Heilbrun has been recommended to me before and I'll definitely get to her one of these days. I have a soft spot for campus novels.

    Lenore: But the other two are so good too! You'll see, it won't be a sacrifice at all :P I haven't read any of the Wimsey sans Harriet Vane novels yet, and I wonder how I'll like them. I probably will know that I'm already so attached to the characters, but I might not have been too impressed before either.

    Tasha: It's for your own good :P

    Alice: lol, I'm sorry! I have just decided to go back to enforcing my own ban as well, so I sympathise.

    Peta: Do eeet, do eeeet :P

    Zee: lol - thank you reading it :D It really is an excellent book and I think you'd enjoy it a lot.

    Lana: Aren't they one of the best literary couples ever? And I say thos even though I'm a cynic at heart :P

    Vasilly, Sheila and Marie: yay! My work here is done :P

    Naida: That scene is pure perfection :)

  30. Now I know -- after LOTR, maybe after BEA, I *****MUST***** reread these -- in order, one by one. Oh I wish I could read them for the first time again.

  31. I so LOVE Gaudy Night too! And all the other Sayers' that feature Harriet Vane and Peter Wimsey. I read them when I was in school, so I think I really need to read them again to appreciate their complexity. So will you be reading Busman's Honeymoon next?

  32. Beth: Yes you must :P

    Chasingbawa: I already have! And now I'm depressed that there aren't any more :P

  33. See I didn't like Wimsey so much in Murder Must Advertise. And there was a whole chapter dedicated to playing CRICKET!

  34. My heart's started pounding a little harder just thinking about the river scene. Such magnificent tension.

    I love this review. <3 <3 <3

  35. I've really been enjoying what you have to say about Sayers, which sent me to the BBC late-eighties TV versions in a weak moment. As a rule I don't like to read a book where plot is important when I've already seen the TV. This is the review that tipped me over; I'll have to make an exception. The only problem is, I really loved the casting of Vane and Wimsey. They played off each other divinely. I'm afraid I'll keep making comparisons...

  36. I've been holding off on reading your review until I had time - I love how enthusiastic you were!

    I just love these books and GN probably is the best.

  37. I totally agree. This is the second time I've read Gaudy Night and could not rave about it enough! Yes and agree that fine tension on the river scene is a classic. So is the placetne thing, don't you think?


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.