A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
During VL’s Poetry Week 2013, Bookfox Moira wrote a piece full of affection and insight on the sonnet at the heart of Dorothy L Sayers’s novel Gaudy Night. Bookfoxes Kate and Hilary went into synchronized ecstasies over this piece, a potent reminder of one of our favourite passages in a much-loved novel. The three of us, being as one in the opinion that Gaudy Night is far, far more than a mere detective story, began to re-read it and compared notes on why each of us finds this book so important in our lives. Secret surveillance in the Den has uncovered the following conversation.
KM: OK, I’ve finished the reread, and am enraged that this NEL edition of Gaudy Night that I’m reading for the first time (since my old 1970s edition fell apart) has too many errors and typos and missed or incorrect punctuation for me to ignore. Then I wonder, how often have I read this book so that I know the text well enough to spot a comma in the wrong place, or a missed adjective? Nerdy, obviously.
Gaudy Night is an important book for me, right up there with A Room of One’s Own, and other works that talk about women’s lives in relation to work and their relationships. I quite like the detection, but I am far more interested in the societies undergoing detection, and how Dorothy L Sayers expects us to read them, and absorb their social lessons. (I am strongly drawn to the standards of good manners of the 1930s.) Detective novels restore order, that’s what they’re for, to reiterate the right ordering of society and restore damage done by those who are Wrong. The thing under attack in the detective part of the plot is women working instead of being solely wives and mothers. ‘The really important job is marriage’, someone says, which is a contentious statement now, because it is possible now to be a woman doing her own job, her proper job as Miss de Vine would see it, and also be a wife and a mother. It’s not easy and it can force some tough decisions, but it’s a possibility DLS’s time didn’t have.
The main reason I respond so strongly to this novel is the valorisation of the intellectual life. It’s epitomised by that passage describing the ordered pattern of a day where in the morning you do research, the afternoon you exercise the body and recall that you live in the world, and in the evening you write and create: that seems a perfect existence to me. The unseen but necessary jobs like laundry, cleaning, cooking, buying food, paying bills, etc, are glossed over. Someone else, if you live in a college community, is paid to do those so that the life of the intellect can be maintained and the frontiers of knowledge extended. But it’s also a life where people, emotions, relationships, don’t get in the way, so it’s a monastic ideal, not a design for living.
I do enjoy the Vane-Wimsey pursuit, as in all their books, but in this novel, when Harriet realises she has failed to think this or that about Peter, or to find out the basic facts of his life: this is simply implausible, especially after five years! But I’ll be getting on with Busman’s Honeymoon now, I always do after Gaudy Night. The coming together of Harriet and Peter is all well and good, but the real business of a love story is the marriage that follows, and how it works out. Busman’s Honeymoon is a much more rewarding novel to read if you only want more Wimsey. Gaudy Night is the one to read for more Harriet.
MKB: My love of the book dates back – like yours – many, many years and can be measured by the fact that when I was at Stratford a few years ago, up in the gods and watching the late Corin Redgrave finally essaying King Lear, I suddenly realized that – heretically – I didn’t want to be there. What I REALLY wanted was go back to my B&B, prop myself up on my pillows, with a cup of tea, a packet of digestives and Gaudy Night. So, during the interval, I left the theatre – much to the startlement of the theatre staff – and did exactly that. And even now, thinking back – I don’t regret it. It was a major theatrical occasion and the performance was critically acclaimed, but I had Peter Wimsey in my suitcase and he was calling me …
It IS a book quite unlike almost any other. Anyone picking it up expecting a ‘Peter Wimsey’ story will be more than disconcerted by his almost total absence for the first half of the book. But for his fans, the moment he finally materializes in Oxford is just magical and so understated that you almost miss it.
It’s hard to put a precise finger on why I love the book so much … but rereading it, I was struck for the first time by how much I related to it. I don’t remember feeling that way before. Perhaps it’s that I can now see clearly, looking back at my life to date, resonances that only vaguely echoed with me before.
The all-female academic milieu is so beautifully drawn, which is hardly surprising given that, of all of her books, it’s the one that’s sourced most directly from Sayers’ own life. Harriet Vane IS Dorothy L Sayers and Shrewsbury College is Somerville – Sayers’ own college. The early struggles of women’s colleges and the ’cause’ of women’s further education versus their ‘natural’ role, is at the very heart of Gaudy Night. We take it all a bit for granted now, but when Sayers wrote the book, it was still a big issue.
Personally, I don’t find Harriet’s failure to see Wimsey clearly until the events in Oxford bring him into focus for her at all implausible. After all, the man – initially – is all carapace. He’s spent years carefully cultivating and polishing that urbane exterior. I find it entirely credible that Harriet should have failed to see the man behind the façade until time and trouble stripped away the layers of polish until all that was left was the human being. It’s a relationship that’s been built up so carefully and slowly over the course of Strong Poison and Have His Carcase. I love the line about the marriage of two independent and equally irritable intelligences being reckless to the point of insanity … but then it’s absolutely brimming with lines that just make me want to punch the air and yell “Yesss!” … It’s those resonances again.
HE: I have just got to that magical portion where Harriet goes back to Oxford before the summer term starts, and writes her two thirds of a sonnet. I’m not sure how I can detach myself enough to write anything coherent.
MKB: I know exactly what you mean. I think I’ve enjoyed it more this time than I ever have before. For one thing, I read it slowly and with care, absorbing it and picturing the locations, the colleges — everything. And I paid much more attention to the ‘non-Wimsey’ parts, which I realized I’ve always sort of glided over. My loss.
KM: I tended to skip over the detection parts! The social interactions were so much more interesting than the tedious door counting. I wanted to BE a member of the Senior Common Room, not just read about it. Though I might have found having to always have one’s gown and cap to hand a bit tiresome after a bit.
HE: I have just finished my delicious re-read. Thank you both for encouraging me – it is, in fact, many years since I last read it. However, it is a very important book for me too. I hesitate rather to face up to just how formative it was for me. My mother, whose educational ambitions were thwarted by family circumstances and the war, adored this book, and with her encouragement I read it first when I was a teenager. Goodness knows how little of the discourse I understood – I was amazed and ashamed to find how much of it still goes over my head right now – but what lodged in my mind was the picture of Oxford; not just the honey-coloured stone, dreaming spires etc etc, but the idea of Oxford, and the pioneering optimism of the women’s college. It is the most wonderful prospectus for the joys of scholarship, the pursuits of the mind. This time around, at a time when the current debate over equality for women has a jaded ‘here we go yet again’ feeling about it, I revelled in the dignified determination of this body of women to gain an equal footing with men in the university they’d dominated for centuries.
What I did not enjoy was the poison pen mystery. I have always been completely in accord with the wonderful Dean of Shrewsbury, who would have preferred a ‘nice clean murder’. I found the idea of a hidden malignancy very scary indeed, the thought that this was someone with a grudge not just against a person, but against an ideal, with the implication that no-one knew where and how it would strike next. Reading the novel this time, I realised just how skillfully this idea is worked out, in a community that is at once circumscribed and dedicated to an idea of freedom, and just how brilliantly DLS handles the suspense.
MKB: Yes – I agree. I think she handled the whole Poison Pen thing extraordinarily well. It’s completely convincing – especially the way she cranks up the tension in the Senior Common Room until they’re all turning on each other.
HE: My copy (the 2003 NEL paperback, Kate – the same as yours) has written across the top of the cover A LORD PETER WIMSEY MYSTERY, and, of course, as Moira has pointed out, it’s only just under half of that. What caught me by surprise this time is that, instead of wondering from page to page how soon he might appear (and, believe it or not, I got caught out by Harriet’s encounter with St George in the House), I found myself really enjoying myself with Harriet, dwelling with delight on her rediscovery of Oxford (not just the place – see above) and the slow unfolding of life in Shrewsbury. I have a sofa to hand, and I’m not afraid to cower behind it to avoid the brickbats, but this time, when Lord Peter appears, dare I say that it was less of a relief to me than an event that almost unbalanced the book; and I even had a stab of resentment that Harriet at the end of the day could not solve the mystery herself. But there it is – it’s a Lord Peter Wimsey Mystery. However, what the final third or so of the book gives us is the most wonderful and unique love story – one that I can never read enough, where two fiercely independent minds battle their way through to one another. It had never occurred to me either that Harriet’s willful ignorance of Lord Peter’s background and present life was implausible – if I thought at all, it was that this was all of a piece with her conscious determination to shut him out of her life (undermined at every turn by her unconscious pull towards him).
Oh, and the sex appeal of academic dress! The twist of the hood at the throat that gives one black shoulder, one scarlet. The two gowned shoulders touching while their owners listened to JS Bach. I have to say, I’ve never really got over that. And the arousal factor of being proposed to in Latin! It is the most perfect end to a love story that is as much about the meeting of minds as of bodies. Who said the brain was his second favourite organ? Of course – Woody Allen. The appeal for me of Gaudy Night and the other Wimsey-Vane novels is the wonderful feeling that I want to be Harriet Vane AND I want to be with Lord Peter (I think – less sure these days than I used to be). How often is it one or the other but not both, or even worse, neither?
So – a truly cherished novel for me – far more than a satisfying mystery novel, it was very much a pattern for life (that I have mostly failed to live up to, sadly). Another passage that struck me this time was Harriet deciding to make her hero less of a moving part in a detective mystery and more a rounded human being, and how that made her have to re-write the novel completely. So clever.
MKB: Perversely, one of my favourite moments is the revelation that clever, sophisticated and witty Harriet is useless at chess – suggesting that DLS wasn’t much cop at it either. As someone who loves the idea of chess but plays it seldom and hardly ever wins because I grieve when I lose my ‘little horsey’- I found that immensely cheering … Sorry. That’s à propos of nothing, really …
KM: I gobbled up the good bits of Busman’s Honeymoon last night, and that was an unsatisfying experience. Gaudy Night is a better novel, but Busman’s Honeymoon was originally a play, so that might affect the awkward patching together of set piece dialogues and internal monologues.
I’ve also pinned down something that bothers me about the Poison Pen mystery: the unforgiving class element. There is a grudge held against woman scholars, but it is not clear until very near the end whether this held by a woman scholar, or by someone who hated them. Additionally, there is a lot of class confrontation throughout the novel: middle-class and upper-class scholars are served, and working-class and lower middle-class non-scholars do the serving. This is glued to the Poison Pen’s loathing of the educated woman, and so the College scenes leave a bad and unegalitarian taste in my mouth. There is a long discussion throughout the novel over who is naturally suitable for further education, the stupidity of wasting a college place that a more deserving and needy student could have used, and so on, but essentially, we are left with the message that the lower classes are only fit to serve because they don’t and won’t understand the value of education. And that makes me feel very uncomfortable.
MKB: That’s true of a lot of DLS’s Wimsey stories, but surely they are simply very much of their time – written when people had a different mindset. She’s been accused of anti-semitism and racism as well of course, and the unegalitarian attitude of the Senior Common Room towards the scouts and other non-academics in the story belongs firmly to “The rich man in his castle – the poor man at his gate” philosophy. Few people at the time even questioned it because everyone was suppose to know and accept their station in life, but to modern eyes it’s very antiquated. And I think you have to read it with that in mind and accept that she used – or possibly over-used – the prevailing social and racial stereotypes of the era.
HE: I know what Kate means about the matter of class – it is hard not to feel squeamish about it at this remove from when the novel was written. From my own point of view, I also cringed every time I encountered a patronising throwaway line about ‘County Scholarship’ girls, who quite obviously, poor dears, didn’t quite ‘get’ ‘Oxford’ as they should. I was also stung early on in the novel by another one-liner in which an annoying person was consigned to the Home Students, having failed to hack it in the paradise that is Shrewsbury. Ha! That was very close to home. My response to all this is similar to Moira’s, though – she was of her time in that respect. (By the way, Moira – Gaudy Night vs. King Lear? There have to be times when there is no contest.)
However, in defence of DLS, I feel that there is an added critique in the way she handles the divides in the community – for me, the message is that there is a serpent in the Eden that is Shrewsbury College, which is that the Senior Common Room take far too long to realize that both the domestics who make their life of the mind comfortable, and the students (and not just those trying to hide their business from the smothering Miss Shaw), may not be just automata whose inner lives are of no moment. The sheer duration of their punishment by poison pen and vandalism is by way of being just deserts. Are we to suppose that they learnt by it, I wonder?
KM: That’s an excellent point about the SCR’s obliviousness to human needs and feelings because of their over-absorption in the life of the mind. But, would we have expected the same of scholars and masters at Balliol? Just because Shrewsbury is composed of women scholars, are we expecting that they should be nannies and district visitors as well? Or is that another carefully planted double standard by DLS, to show just how much of a struggle the women had to work at the same intellectual level, and be acceptable socially? I notice that all the perils that Harriet and the Dean had to deal with were physical, and human, and somehow needing a mother’s careful eye. A Shrewsbury student was caught drunk, but no student was entangled with a moneylender or a landlady’s son (classic pitfalls for the male student of this or earlier eras). The young women of Shrewsbury were not getting over-involved with political extremism. Why did their troubles have to be attempted suicide, bullying, social ostracism: just like an extreme version of Malory Towers?
HE: I’m rightly challenged by that point, Kate, and I don’t have an answer. This is a rich soup of gender and class issues and it is hard to isolate the ingredients (well, hard for me – you seem to be making a much better job of it!) Evelyn Waugh in Brideshead (or the Oxford bits, at any rate) may be an interesting comparison, as there are certainly matters of class resulting in bullying and ostracism among the men in there too, though uncomplicated by gender. Waugh though is supremely unconcerned with the rights and wrongs of this. My Gaudy Night bugbear about the Home Students is a case in point – it’s almost as though from a standing start the women’s colleges are trying to emulate the men’s by establishing a pecking order, with Shrewsbury/Somerville at the top and the Home Students a long way down. My nerdiness comes out in spotting these subtle distinctions between colleges – it’s perfect, for instance, to give Lord Peter to Balliol and St George to the House, aka Christ Church. There are parallel hierarchies relating to brains and money. Now, there’s something in Gaudy Night about women’s colleges not having the resource of men’s colleges to accommodate ‘hearty passmen’ – I must go and look it up …. And I’m back – it’s the passage that you’ve already noted about places in women’s colleges being a scarce resource that should not be taken up by those who turn out to be a waste of space, and it’s Harriet raging at the Dean: ‘It’s alright for men’s colleges to have hearty passmen who gambol round and learn to play games, so that they can gambol and game in Prep. Schools.’ (p189 NEL edition) But we, women scholars, we are better than that by far, and have to be. Shrewsbury looks Balliol in the eye. More over-compensation. It’s an interesting archaeological dig into the rules of engagement for feminism in the early 20th century.
KM: So THAT’s what ‘hearty passmen’ means! Another thing this novel is very good at is being a primer on Oxford jargon for those who didn’t go there.
I do take your point, Moira, about DLS writing the mores of her time. (I’ve worked on John Buchan for thirty years, after all …) Perhaps I get more riled about class politics than other unmentionables. But I do think that, in the case of Gaudy Night, DLS used the class politics to construct her plot, so it’s not just a social observation. She was exploiting the situation of her day to say something, so the discomfort I feel was possibly intended as a comment on class politics of the day.
But here’s the last word for you, a letter from Sayers to her publisher Victor Gollancz of September 1935: ‘[Gaudy Night] is the only book I’ve written which embodies any kind of ‘moral’ and I do feel rather passionately about this business of the integrity of the mind – but I realise that to make a ‘detective story’ the vehicle for this sort of thing […] is ‘reckless to the point of insanity’ […] whether you advertise it as a love-story, as educational propaganda, or as a lunatic freak, I leave to you’ (The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers, Vol 1, ed. Ed. Barbara Reynolds. (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1995), p. 357.)
MKB: How wonderful … that’s a great find. And whatever the truth about Sayers’ own attitudes to class and social position – how much is plot device and how much is what she believed herself – I’m fairly certain that she would have derived a great deal of satisfaction from the fact that when those bastions of male domination – Balliol and Christchurch and the others – finally condescended to allow women in it was because the women’s colleges were consistently out-performing many of the all-male colleges in the league tables. In the Norrington Tables for 1964, 1965 and 1966, four women’s colleges ranked in the top ten. DLS (and the Dean of Shewsbury) would have loved that.
And Lord Peter of course, wouldn’t have been remotely surprised …
Dorothy L Sayers: Gaudy Night. London: Hodder and Stoughton (New English Library), 1987. 576pp
ISBN 13: 9780450021541
First published: 1935
(Header image: Wikimedia Commons)