Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers: From false statement of fact to mops and buckets

This is my review of Gaudy Night (A Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries) by Dorothy L Sayers.

Her celebrity as a writer of detective fiction gives Harriet Vane the confidence to visit 1930s Oxford for a “Gaudy Night” celebration for the first time since graduating from Shrewsbury College where she was so happy before the trauma of being falsely accused of poisoning her lover and saved from the gallows by the intervention of amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey. When the activities of a poison pen poltergeist begin to threaten the peace and the reputation of the College, Harriet is called back to investigate.

I found this novel entertaining although it proved as dated as I had feared, including in ways I had not expected. In terms of style, it often feels like a novel written a century earlier than it was.The frequent Latin quotations and Greek tags with no translations provided are particularly irritating, but perhaps an educated reader of the time would have had no trouble knowing what they meant. Alternatively, having been taught Latin since the age of six by her father, perhaps Dorothy Sayers overestimated the capacity of her readers, or with the dismissive arrogance often shown by Harriet maybe considered that if they could not understand it they could lump it. There is a similar kind of academic elitism in the often abstruse quotations from sixteenth century writers included at the start of most chapters. Yet the irony is that the female dons of Shrewsbury College frequently behave with the emotional immaturity of the pupils of Enid Blyton’s “Mallory Towers”.

As a detective mystery, the plot is rather thin. This is much more a psychological study of a group of women pursuing careers in a privileged cocoon, yet continually troubled by the sense that they are regarded as inferior to their male counterparts (in separate cocoons) and by doubts as to whether they have made the right choice. Should they have satisfied the desire for a man instead, even at the cost of having to further his career rather than their own, or of sacrificing self-fulfilment to putting their children first? Harriet naturally arouses resentment since she appears to “have it all”: a career in the big wide world, the option to become an academic, and a very wealthy suitor offering her future security for the taking.

For the most part Harriet and Lord Peter (Why does he have to be an aristocrat except to feed some fantasy of the author’s?) communicate for the most part through the exchange of literary quotations and witty ripostes. One of Harriet’s reasons for refusing his regular proposals of marriage seems to be that he makes her feel inferior. With justice, it would seem, in that she has to call him in to solve the crime, and even rewrites her novel to take account of his criticisms of her leading character Wilfred. There is also a double standard in the indulgent attitude to the idleness of Lord Peter’s student nephew, whereas Harriet rages against the “waste” of the place offered to an “ordinary” girl who has only come to Oxford to please her parents.

Many scenes make me uneasy in their elitism: Lord Peter calling a waiter continually to pick up the napkin which has slipped off Harriet’s silk skirt, or Harriet betting in a College sweepstake, not on a horse, but on the student most likely to win a prize.

Despite Dorothy Sayers apparently unconscious snobbery – a product of her times – she sometimes mocks the conventions: the male dons’ ludicrous popping formal shirt-fronts; the pleasure of “snuffing the faint, musty odour of slowly perishing leather” in the Bodleian Library; the possible futility of the complex mechanistic analysis of poetry.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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