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Gaudy Night, by Dorothy L. Sayers
The tenth in Ms Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novels, Gaudy Night is the third and most crucial book in the Harriet Vane story arc; it is also the first to be told entirely from Harriet’s point of view. Both this and the almost claustrophobic setting allow the reader insights into both her character and Peter’s that have only been glimpsed in previous books.
I feel that it must be noted that, while there is a quote on the cover from The Los Angeles Times touting Ms Sayers as “One of the greatest mystery story writers of this century”, it is not the mystery side of her writing that makes her novels—and Gaudy Night in particular—so incredibly appealing and so wonderful to re-read.
No, it’s not the mystery; it’s her incredibly deft use of the English language—her dialogue, her descriptions, her literary references—and how she makes these people come vividly alive on the page.
While it is not essential, I would strongly suggest reading all the Lord Peter Wimsey books in the order of publication* to enjoy both these two character’s growth, as well as the development of their relationship.
From my paperback edition, one of the most hideously misleading back cover blurbs that has been my misfortune to read:
When Harriet Vane attends her Oxford reunion, known as the “Gaudy”, the prim academic setting is haunted by a rash of bizarre pranks: scrawled obscenities, burnt effigies, and poison-pen letters—including one that says, “Ask your boyfriend with the title if he likes arsenic in his soup.” Some of the notes threaten murder; all are perfectly ghastly; yet in spite of their scurrilous nature, all are perfectly worded. And Harriet finds herself ensnared in a nightmare of romance and terror, with only the tiniest shreds of clues to challenge her powers of detection, and those of her paramour, Lord Peter Wimsey.
There are so many things wrong with the preceding paragraph that I scarcely know which one to address first!
Okay, that’s a lie: people, paramour means illicit lover. Lover! For cripes’ sake, the whole novel revolves around the fact that Harriet has not accepted Peter’s suit—hell, she has spent more time pushing him away than tolerating his friendship. And for the most part, tolerating is the right word to use there. Lover, indeed! Hmph!
Now that that is out of my system, let me try to give a brief summary of the plot…
As the novel starts, Harriet Vane decides to attend her alma mater’s annual alumni reunion, known as the Gaudy, as a way of exorcising her demons—the notoriety brought on by the murder of her erstwhile lover, Philip Boyes. About five years prior, Harriet was tried for murder, and only Lord Peter Wimsey’s intervention saved her life—by finding the actual murderer. In the intervening years, Harriet has struggled to rebuild a sense of self respect and self worth, as well as to figure out her true feelings towards Peter.
One of the consequences of this visit is Harriet’s subsequent involvement in the investigation of a series of unexplained, and rather bizarre, events happening within the walls of her alma mater, the fictional Shrewsbury College. From outright vandalism to anonymous letters, the potential scandal would have disastrous consequences for women’s higher education (it’s worth noting that Gaudy Night is set, and was written, in the early to mid-1930s).
In part out of intellectual curiosity, in part out of gratitude for her former mentors’ ready acceptance of her as she is, Harriet embarks on a quest to find out who the perpetrator is and put a stop to all these shenanigans. Unfortunately for all involved, the investigation is neither as easy nor as expeditious as she and her professors would have liked.
The novel covers a period of a little bit under a year, during which time the reader is introduced to a number of characters—all through the cynical eyes of one Harriet Vane. This is an important consideration, because as time passes we see her grow out of many of her preconceptions, while trying to come to terms with others—the most important of which is her refusal to accept her true feelings for Peter.
I found it quite interesting that during the period covered by the first two thirds or so of Gaudy Night, Lord Peter is off solving mysteries and having interesting adventures, which are narrated in Murder Must Advertise and The Nine Tailors, the two novels released before this one.
Throughout the book, we witness Harriet finally beginning to see Peter as the individual that he is: as much an outsider in his world as she herself is. She realizes that behind his supercilious façade, he is as vulnerable and as human as she. We also see, for the first time, Peter’s growing dejection in the face of Harriet’s aloofness. (I confess that during my second read I came to understood why there have been so many readers who absolutely hate Harriet—up to this novel, she had been blind to just how miserable she had made Peter.)
I imagine that the original readership had many fewer questions than I did about a number of details. For example, the life at Oxford is completely alien to me. Schools, vivas, dons, deans, fellows, tutors, proctors, and what-not. Then we have mail schedules, domestic arrangements and other commonplace things that are, seventy years later and on the other side of an ocean, very different than how Ms Sayers’ depicts them. It is one of the many indicators of the author’s mastery of her craft that all of the above doesn’t interfere with the reader’s enjoyment of the story.
The novel approaches many topics that were, I’m sure, quite uncomfortable at the time of publication: sexism, politics, feminism, etc. The topic of lesbianism is hinted at, as done in several of the previous Lord Peter Wimsey novels, in a very sensitive manner while being matter of fact about it. And through it all, Ms Sayers manages to slip a number of sly jabs at the publishing side of writing—from blurb writers to foreign edition translators to readers.
And the language! Oh the language! Allow me to indulge, by including a couple of brief quotes:
When asked about her writing, Harriet confesses:
“I’ve never yet succeeded in producing a plot without at least six major howlers. Fortunately, nine readers out of ten get mixed up too, so it doesn’t matter. The tenth writes me a letter, and I promise to make the correction in the second edition, but I never do.”
Much later in the novel, after a bit of a disagreement with Lord Peter:
Harriet, finding herself unexpectedly possessed of a magnificent fit of bad temper, went back, determined to extract the last ounce of enjoyment out of it; an exercise in which she was greatly helped by the discovery that the little episode on the loggia…
In the end, Gaudy Night is absorbing to an enormous degree—for a book which theoretically has no great drama, this is one that grabs me by the heart as few others have.
10 out of 10.
* Full list of Lord Peter Wimsey novels:
- Whose Body?
- Clouds of Witness
- Unnatural Death (review)
- Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club
- Strong Poison (review)
- Five Red Herrings
- Have His Carcase (review)
- Murder Must Advertise
- The Nine Tailors
- Gaudy Night
- Busman’s Honeymoon
Also: The Complete Lord Peter Wimsey Stories, which contains all 21 short stories starring the most “perfect English aristocrat”. (Nota bene from Issek: If you do not care to be spoiled, do not—repeat, do not—read the last two stories in this volume until after reading all eleven novels)