Tuesday, March 26, 2024

PPL#2: Gaudy Night, by Dorothy Sayers


Bourbon Street Books, 2012
originally published 1936
528 pp


I read this book earlier this month but as usual, it's hectic around here leaving very little me time for posting my thoughts.  Gaudy Night arrives late in Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey mystery series, and because I'd forgotten what happens in nearly every book to this point, I've had to do a massive (and quick) reread of all that came before.  Well, not all actually; I skipped the short story collections and The Five Red Herrings after diving into it for a bit and got back on the track leading to Gaudy Night, promising myself I'd go back and pick them up another time, along with Busman's Honeymoon, the final original Wimsey novel.  If the length seems a bit on the daunting side, and while Gaudy Night could easily have been a bit shorter with nothing lost, I was surprised at how quickly the five hundred-plus pages went by.  

Anyone who has read the novels that came before will instantly recognize that this one is very different in comparison to the previous Wimsey novels.  While Harriet Vane, the main character in Gaudy Night, had earlier appeared in both Strong Poison (where she first meets Lord Peter while on trial for murder) and Have His Carcase (during which she comes across a body on a rock along the coast, beginning one of the strangest cases of the lot), here she takes center stage.  Since the events of Strong Poison, she'd become a writer of detective stories, had achieved a measure of financial success, and has been asked by Lord Peter to marry him several times, all of which she had turned down.  Now,  in a story that begins as she is invited to attend the Shrewsbury Gaudy (reunion) at Oxford, she's a bit nervous about going due to how she'll be received after all the notoriety she'd suffered through, but once there, she finds herself welcomed. Fears eased, she goes on to have a good time, leaving with the feeling that she had "broken the ice," and would be going back "from time to time."  It's during a stop for lunch on her way home that she discovers a particularly nasty note in the sleeve of her gown, "made up of letters cut apparently from the headlines of a newspaper," referring back to her earlier troubles.   Back in London,  she continues to receive "anonymous dirt" while trying to deal with her own "conflicting claims of heart and brain" as far as Wimsey goes.  Some time later, towards the end of Easter Term, a  letter from the Dean arrives, inviting her to the opening of the New Library Wing, along with an appeal for her "advice about a most unpleasant thing" that has been going on at Oxford.  It seems they have been "victimized by a cross between a Poltergeist and a Poison-Pen."  The letters are easy to ignore, but not the "wanton destruction of property," the "last outbreak" having been "so abominable that something really must be done about it."  It's obviously someone operating from within, so calling in the police is out of the question, and Harriet's own understanding of the way in which in this sort of thing would be viewed from the outside would make her most welcome to discreetly try to put an end to the situation.   Harriet's return to Shrewsbury is where the story begins in earnest, but there is much more to this novel besides the usual crime solving.  Set in 1935,  while women continue to enter the hallowed halls of Oxford as students and scholars,  Sayers (who went to Oxford herself) integrates into the crime story  her observations of the many problems faced by women in college, most notably the conflict between career and marriage as well as their place in the very male-dominated realm of academia.  While her commentary of the time is fascinating to read nearly ninety years later, it also fits directly into the mystery of the identity of the Shrewsbury poltergeist, since the perpetrator seems to be motivated by a "kind of blind malevolence, directed against everybody in College," rather than simply a "personal grudge."  This idea allows for a rather intense examination of personalities and psychological motivations among the characters (not all of them there for academic reasons)  that might be, as the Dean so nicely phrases it "at the back of it."  

Dorothy Sayers deserves a fair amount of praise here for giving Harriet the freedom to do most of the detecting independently while Wimsey is off doing work for the Foreign Office (signaling, perhaps, an awareness that the interwar years might be coming to a close in the near future) and while other avenues are unavailable (such as calling in the help offered by Miss Climpson -- one of my favorite characters in the earlier Wimsey novels, especially her role in Strong Poison).  It is only when Harriet realizes that the escalation from the college poltergeist is at its most dangerous point that she asks Lord Peter to step in.    Unfortunately, other than the length that could have been shaved with little detriment to the story and a comment about Sayers' obvious expectations that her readers were top-notch intellectuals who  understood each of the untranslated Latin phrases scattered throughout, I can't get into what I see as the downside of this novel without giving away the identity of  the Shrewsbury poltergeist, which I don't want to do. Not even a hint.  

I went into Gaudy Night for the poison pen letters and came out with something completely unexpected.   At the core of Gaudy Night, well beyond the mystery of the Shrewsbury poltergeist,  is Harriet's introspective look at herself on both the intellectual and personal fronts,  which made me think that Sayers had invested much of herself in her character, an idea I couldn't shake even after finishing the book.  So I looked online to see what others had thought. I found several people whose commentary was well worth reading, but maybe Lucy Worsley,  in an excerpt from her A Very British Murder summed it up for me best when she quotes Sayers as revealing that in writing Gaudy Night, she was finally able to say "the things, that, in a confused way, I had been wanting to say all my life."  

My advice: read the series up to that point, especially the other books with Harriet Vane, before you start this novel -- you'll definitely want the backstory and for the most part, they make for fun reading.  Gaudy Night was, as I mentioned, written in the 1930s with that sort of heavier style you often find in novels of the period, but once you get to the hub of this story you won't be able to put it down.    Gaudy Night is a definite standout among them all, and as I see it, it is definitely still relevant in so many ways.   Recommended.