Dorothy L. Sayers: Gaudy Night

Since I quoted from Dorothy Sayers yesterday when I introduced Mystery Week on the Backlist, it seems best to continue with DLS. I think Gaudy Night is at the top of my Preferred Mysteries list. It might be a tie at the top with Val McDermid’s Killing the Shadows, which I will discuss here tomorrow. But on with Gaudy Night and the general wonder of DLS.

Sayers was a very interesting person. She wrote all kinds of things including essays (two are now published in a small book entitled Are Women Human?, a lovely feminist piece), plays, short stories, and detective fiction. She also translated Dante’s Divine Comedy, though she died before completing Paradiso. I worked very hard to acquire my set of the DLS translation of Dante. Of course I haven’t read it yet, but it is there, on my shelf, waiting for me to get up the courage to start.

I think Gaudy Night is one of the best Lord Peter Wimsey novels Sayers wrote. It doesn’t even have Wimsey as the main character. The key point of view character is Harriet Vane. Of course Lord Peter shows up from time to time, and even aids in the solution of the mystery, but most of the work is done by Harriet. I like Harriet’s character slightly better than Peter’s character, so this is possibly one reason I like this book. The other reason is the female academics who populate the book, as it is set in a women’s college in Oxford. Sigh. Oxford, the dream-land of academics. Sayers wrote the book in the 1930s with a contemporary setting. It is very interesting to read the book as a feminist work — which it is, I don’t think it can help being that — from the present time and see how far we’ve come. Or not in some cases.

GN has a large collection of very strong and interesting female characters, something that doesn’t often happen in fiction. I like it for the academic setting (places I wish I could live and work) as well as the interesting cast of characters. And, of course, Miss Vane. You should totally read it. If you’ve already read it, you should read it again.



Filed under favourites, fiction

6 responses to “Dorothy L. Sayers: Gaudy Night

  1. The Constant Reader

    Gaudy Night is indeed wonderful — but I’ve recently decided that The Nine Tailors ties it for my pick as the best of the lot. Thoughts?

    • Hmm. I do like The Nine Tailors but I’m not sure it even comes second on my list. Number two would have to be Murder Must Advertise. I also quite like Busman’s Honeymoon but that not so much for the mystery, but for the family ghosts who appear at the end. Love the ghosts.
      My friend The Theologian-Archivist has stated in another forum that Gaudy Night has had an enormous impact on her life. I hope she comments further here.

  2. I started with Busman’s Honeymoon (at your suggestion, I recall) and went back to the beginning from there. Fortunately, it was when I was working at the bookstore and got the employee discount, because I bought the whole set of Wimsey novels that day.

    I love Gaudy Night too…and romantic, sheesh!

  3. Rachel

    It’s deeply exciting to be called a Theologian-Archivist. I feel like a Theologian apprentice right now, to tell the truth.

    I think Gaudy Night had been significant for me firstly, because it is a book that says unequivocally that it is right and good for a woman to have both a brain and a heart. I think often people, but especially women, are told that they must pick -they can be romantic or they can be intellectual, they should pursue marriage/children/family or they should pursue a job/career/intellectual development. In lots of ways the book describes most of its characters that way- the women at the Gaudy have generally picked heart or mind, Peter and Harriet discuss how most of their acquaintances privilege one aspect of themselves or the other – and yet there is a third option. There are individuals who are “cursed with both hearts and brains.” They may chose to emphasize one of those two aspects of their identity, but they also can choose the trickier, more difficult, more long suffering path of not compromising their identity, and pursue both things. I think Sayers advocates for this third option. Her protagonists certainly opt for it at the climax of the book. Personally, it has been deeply helpful to me to have language to aptly express how I feel about who I am. One of the reasons that I think I am bizarre and uncomfortable in the world is that I cannot make the choice between being a brain or a heart. Gaudy Night says that I do not have to choose, and to me, this is good news.

    Secondly, I think her explanation of how people discover what is important to them is brilliant. It is the idea that we never make fundamental mistakes about the things and people we really care about. We hurt people, we make surface errors, but in general, the effort and time you commit to a relationship or a task is a fairly good measure of how much you care for someone or something. This has been a helpful tool for me in determining what and who I care about- where do I put my time? What do I do for fun although I should be in bed? Who do I take the trouble to care for? etc. etc. I think looking at where you expend effort as an indicator of what and who you value is a good unit of measure for something that can be difficult to discern.

    Finally, I think that the relationship between Harriet and Peter is (possibly unrealistically) the kind of relationship I could imagine having. I think if I were to marry someone, we would have to be engaging in an equal partnership, where both intellects and hearts were well matched. The ideas of either consuming someone or being consumed are both frightening and disgusting to me. I have seen it, and I can imagine a context where I could engage in that, and I think it would end badly for everyone involved. No, it is to be full partners who “fight it out like gentlemen” (cheat- that’s from Busman’s Honeymoon) or not at all. Their relationship models something of the kind of relationship I want to have, and again, gives words and language to concepts I thought made me bizarre and unfeminine.

    I think it is an excellent book, that it speaks to the kind of woman I hope to be, and the kind of marriage I can imagine having. That is why it has been deeply significant to me.


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