RogerBW's Blog

Gaudy Night, Dorothy Sayers 12 May 2018

1936 mystery, tenth of Sayers' novels about Lord Peter Wimsey. Harriet Vane, doing a favour for a friend, returns to her Oxford college for the annual dinner for former members. But someone starts sending poison-pen letters, and worse; as the closest thing the college has to an investigator, Harriet reluctantly looks into it.

Although this is of the Wimsey series, it's very much Harriet's book, even more than Have His Carcase was; Peter Wimsey is absent for most of it, and seen from the outside when he does appear. While one is always reluctant to read an autobiographical subtext into a work of fiction, there are so many points in common with Sayers' own career that one cannot help but take many of Harriet's views as her own (or at least what Sayers might have liked her views to be). And so this is a book of reflections and recursions, most blatantly with the detective novel that Harriet is working on, where Wimsey questions the motive for the cover-up that's key to the plot, and Harriet realises she might have to rewrite a key character:

"Yes—he'd be interesting. But if I give Wilfrid all those violent and lifelike feelings, he'll throw the whole book out of balance."

"You would have to abandon the jig-saw kind of story and write a book about human beings for a change."

Well, this is most definitely a book about human beings. Even the villain is a somewhat sympathetic and tragic figure, and one feels it would almost have been kinder just to have said "a loony did it for mad reasons"; at least the loony wouldn't suffer. As it turns out, one could argue that the villain achieves at least some of their aims: after all the thing isn't completely solved until Wimsey, an outsider and a man, is brought in (in intervals between solving the Abyssinian Crisis).

So there's the criminal plot, as Harriet tries her hand at investigation according to the principles of the logic-problem: when incident A happened, persons B and C were seen elsewhere, so it can't be them, and so on. At the same time she considers the scholarly life she left, and whether (now that she can afford to) she might try to return to it; and the situation regarding education for women, something that her contemporaries fought for but the current students just take for granted (and which a scandal in the College might set back rather seriously); and of course that leads to whether there can be happy marriages that aren't entirely asymmetrical (where Her entire life is to look after Him, or indeed vice versa), whether two people who each have their own lives and interests and desires can manage to live together and not hate each other – because of course there's the Wimsey Question still hanging over Harriet. She's been rejecting his proposals of marriage, but still:

Yet she knew with certainty that if, when he had said, "Shall I go?" she had replied with firm kindness, "I'm sorry, but I think it would better," there would have been the desired end of the matter.

There are layers and layers here. The repeated question is: should a personal duty always, sometimes, or never take precedence over a professional one? If you already have one sort of duty, can you legitimately take on the other? Of course all these female dons are unmarried, but that is very clearly not going to last. Meanwhile they serve as various examples of the sort of "strange" woman who would put academics before marriage, voluntarily or otherwise; some of them are happy, some of them are not, and some have changed their minds. It's an effective cross-section of a female academic life that's now pretty much gone, though of course the principles remain.

Taken strictly as a murder mystery, the narrative contains all the necessary clues, but I'll be very surprised if anyone gets the answer on a first reading. (And all the information is diegetic; you can't spot the villain because of the shape in the story that they fit into.) Reading again with an awareness of the solution, one can see what's going on, but one doesn't feel that the characters are stupid for missing it.

"Young ladies," Padgett was heard to say, "will 'ave their larks, same as young gentlemen."

"When I was a lad," replied the foreman, "young ladies was young ladies. And young gentlemen was young gentlemen. If you get my meaning."

"Wot this country wants," said Padgett, "is a 'Itler."

"That's right," said the foreman. "Keep the girls at 'ome."

There's a lot of this book, but it gets everything right. I've enjoyed re-reading the rest, and I have fond memories of the last, but this is absolutely the high point. And all that without a single discovery-of-the-corpse scene! Followed by Busman's Honeymoon.

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Previous in series: The Nine Tailors | Series: Peter Wimsey | Next in series: Busman's Honeymoon

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