The Golden Age of Mystery: Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night

When Harriet Vane receives an invitation to attend her Oxford Gaudy — a class reunion — she's also given a most unusual request from her old professors. A poison pen is running amok at the ladies' college of Shrewsbury and the dons are terrified that the nasty notes, malicious vandalism, and obscene threats against them will escalate into outright violence.

If word of this campaign were to reach the press, it would only further smear women's education, a fight that the dons are still waging. Oxford may have finally opened its doors to female students, but they're still very much second class citizens of the campus compared to the male body.

Shrewsbury (a thinly veiled stand-in for Somerville College, Dorothy Sayers' alma mater) receives far less funding than the colleges reserved for men and is allowed to accept a much smaller percentage of students. Lady scholars are still dismissed by their masculine counterparts, and the critics of such education will renew the cry of 'soured virginity' if the poison pen's actions come to light.

So, unable to bring in the police, the dons of Shrewsbury turn instead to their former student (and current mystery novelist) Miss Vane, who will understand and appreciate their dilemma, being one of the first female graduates of the college herself.

For her part, Harriet is — as always — of two minds. The evidence suggests that the perpetrator of the crimes is one of the dons, which implies that all of the criticisms of the 'unnatural-ness' of women living cloistered away in the pursuit of education may actually prove true. Perhaps someone has been driven hysterical (in the original definition of the word) by the rigid confines of Shrewsbury.

Yet Harriet also finds herself drawn back in by the lures of the academic lifestyle and wonders if she shouldn't abandon her life out in the world, where she writes 'tawdry' mysteries and has to deal with the attention of Lord Peter Wimsey, and become a don herself. If not for the current threat of the poison pen, a life in Oxford strikes her as being more pure and comforting, where she can devote herself properly to the ascetic quest of knowledge without any worldly distractions.

A conversation that she holds with the newest don, Miss DeVine, nicely touches upon this inner conflict:

MISS DEVINE: Miss Vane, I admired you for speaking as you did earlier this evening. Detachment is a very rare virtue and very few people find it lovable. If you ever find a person who likes you despite it — or, still more, because of it — that liking has a very great value because it is particularly sincere. And because with that person you need never be anything but sincerely yourself.

HARRIET: That's probably very true, but why do you say it?

MISS DEVINE: It's likely that you've come across any number of people who are disconcerted by the difference between what you do feel and what they fancy you ought to feel. It is fatal to pay the slightest attention to them.

HARRIET: Yes, but I am one of those people. I disconcert myself very much — I never know what I do feel.

MISS DEVINE: I don't think that matters, so long as one doesn't persuade oneself into so-called 'appropriate' feelings.

HARRIET: Yes, but at some point you have to make some sort of a choice. And between one desire and another, how is one to know what things really are of overmastering importance?

MISS DEVINE: We can only know when they have overmastered us.

Of course, this conversation isn't just about the push-and-pull that Harriet feels about an academic life versus one spent out in the world as a popular writer: it's also a thinly veiled discussion about her feelings for Lord Peter.

Ever since he saved her life in the murder trial detailed in Strong Poison, Harriet has struggled with an attraction to Peter due to their complimentary passions and matching wits and a frustration with him over the debt she still feels she owes him.

As a very strong-minded woman who has fought to be independent her entire life — since the deaths of her parents, Harriet has doggedly achieved an education and profession that would allow her to live without the support or protection of a man — accepting Peter's proposal of marriage would feel like a surrender.

Especially given how her current life and success is due to his interference; without Peter's assistance she would have been convicted of and executed for murder. And thanks to his name being irrevocably attached to hers following the Wilvercombe murder described in Have His Carcase, a part of her wonders if her continued fame and success as an author isn't due in part to his notoriety with the press.

Peter being Peter, he continues to push her to make firm choices — not only for his own sake, but because he knows how painful it is for her to be so constantly unsure. When she hesitates to fill him in on the poison pen situation, he sticks to his guns:

PETER: Tell me.

HARRIET: I'm not sure if I should.

PETER: Tell me or tango.

HARRIET: You know I can't tango—

PETER: Then you have no choice, do you?

All of this confusion means that Harriet has a hard time ferreting out the culprit. A feminist treatise and a don's manuscript are destroyed. The new library is ransacked the night before its official opening and foul epitaphs are painted across the walls. An effigy of a don is burned in the courtyard and another is strung up in the chapel in an ominous threat of forthcoming violence. Several, including Harriet, receive nasty notes denouncing them as 'harpies', 'murderers', and 'witches'.

“I just received another letter — something about there being a place in Hell for women who 'go my way',” explained Miss Flaxman.

“Oh? Do you happen to have the letter with you?” asked Harriet.

“Regrettably, no. I forwarded it to my future address. By way of the fireplace.”

The poison pen's message seems quite clear: women who pursue higher education are monsters and trying to usurp positions that rightfully belong to men. And yet whoever is sending these notes has access to areas of the college that are reserved for the dons and senior students. How could anyone in such a position feel this way? Why would they harbor such animosity and anger against women's education as a whole and Shrewsbury college in particular?

Then a student is driven to attempt suicide and Harriet, feeling utterly out of her depth, finally calls in Peter for assistance, feeling traitorous as she does so. This is a situation affecting women and she feels as though it should be resolved by women; by calling in Peter, isn't she confirming all of the poison pen's insinuations?

Gaudy Night is considered by some to be the first feminist mystery novel. It certainly contains biting commentary on a variety of feminist issues: education, emancipation, motherhood, and romantic relationships. Considering Dorothy L. Sayers was one of the first women to graduate from Oxford, no one else could be more qualified to write about such a setting and such a theme.

The mystery is an edged one for any female reader, driving us to side with either the poison pen or the dons. It's certainly more accessible for women than men, one of the few mysteries I know of to show such a gender bias.

We spend almost the entire book in Harriet's headspace, which is in a lot of turmoil. Since her introduction in Strong Poison, she's been a prickly, hard-to-pin-down character. But in this novel we can finally understand her in a way we weren't able to in her previous appearances. She's more sympathetic and relatable, her motivations and desires laid out bare.

And by returning to a place that holds a lot of meaning and nostalgia for her, seeing it with both familiar and fresh eyes, Harriet is allowed a perspective she was lacking in regards to her relationship with Lord Peter. The dons all weigh in on how they see him; some of their views drive Harriet to defend him, while others force her to be more shrewd in assessing her own feelings.

By the story's climax, she finally understands just how she truly feels about her foppish, gentleman hero, but the pair have to navigate a few dramatics before she can tell him so — like the destruction of an antique chess set, Peter's first real gift to her:

When he saw the room, Wimsey looked grave enough.

“Yes,” he said, kneeling amid the wreckage. “Blind, bestial malignity. Not only broken but ground to powder. There's been a heel at work here, as well as the poker; you can see the marks on the carpet. She hates you, Harriet. I didn't realize that. I thought she was only afraid of you… Is there yet any that is left of the house of Saul? …Look! one poor warrior hiding behind the coal-scuttle — remnant of a mighty army.”

He held up the solitary red pawn, smiling; and then scrambled hurriedly to his feet.

“My dear girl, don't cry about it. What the hell does it matter?”

“I loved them,” said Harriet, “and you gave them to me.”

He shook his head.

“It's a pity it's that way round. 'You gave them to me, and I loved them' is all right, but 'I loved them and you gave them to me' is irreparable. …But you needn't weep over the chest of drawers while I have a shoulder at your disposal, need you?”

“I'm sorry. I'm being a perfect idiot.”

“I told you love was the devil and all.”

Gaudy Night is the longest and meatiest of Sayers' mysteries, and there are sections in the middle that can be somewhat plodding if the intricacies of academe don't enthrall you. Peter and Harriet are at their most scholastic, as well, with a multitude of poems, Latin, and weighty texts referenced — for modern audiences not so well versed in the 'classics' as previous generations, Google proves a useful friend when deciphering it all.

If the size and depth of the book intimidates, the 1987 BBC adaptation with Edward Petherbridge and Harriet Walter is an admirable take, if a little simplified. All in all, it's a satisfying third chapter in Lord Peter and Harriet Vane's relationship, and a rare find: an entirely female-focused mystery. For that reason alone, it's worth a look.


Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.

Read all posts by Angie Barry at Criminal Element.

Comments

  1. Connor

    Gaudy Night is my favorite of the Lord Peter mysteries–perhaps for the reasons you outlined, namely Harriet’s narrative voice and the heavy influence of female academics over its structure. I’ve always related to Harriet, who wants so badly to do two things at once and is, as we all are, forced to choose–anyway, excellent write up! 🙂

  2. Ian Miller

    While this is a nice summary and appreciation, I must strongly disagree that the BBC adaptation is anything like admirable. It’s not simplified, it’s dumbed down – all complexity is leeched out and replaced with yelling, embracing, jump scares, incredibly tin-eared dialogue, “cleverness” that does a disservice to the idea of intelligence, and the villain walks away clean.

  3. Freyathorn

    I love Gaudy Night, but I couldn’t find the Tango quote — in which chapter did you find it?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *