Continuing my theme of reading books from the 20th Century, in this post I consider Dorothy L Sayers’s novel Gaudy Night. Is it a who dunnit? Or is it a romantic novel? Or is it a feminist book? Published in 1935, and already alluding to nasty things happening in Germany, and making no comment on the effects of class structures that influence the story, this is a book that must be considered within the context of its time.
Terrible things are happening at the new Women’s College, Shrewsbury College, in Oxford. A former student and a detective novelist of repute, Harriet Vane, agrees to attend a gaudy, a reunion. On her return to her rooms she comes across a poisonous letter which seems to refer to her own past: she was known to have been ‘living in sin’ and to have been tried for the murder of her lover. She was acquitted through the skill of the famous detective, Lord Peter Wimsey.
From there things escalate: more poisonous letters to other academics and students, vandalism in the new library, effigies, fleeting sightings of a strange hideous angry creature. Harriet agrees to return to Shrewsbury to try to help solve the mystery.
As the story unfolds Harriet is not able to establish the identity of the Poltergeist or the motive behind the damage. She calls in Lord Peter and he resolves everything.
There are many suspects in this novel and circumstances point the finger at the Senior Common Room. I am not much of a detective novel reader. I find it hard to notice the clues, and this was not helped by the large number of characters introduced, nor by many of them being referred to either by name or by job title. The Dean is also Miss Martin, and the Warden is Dr Baring. And of course I got the motive and resolution quite wrong.
The tension of the mystery is held until almost the end, of course. When Lord Peter reveals the culprit, it is only after Harriet’s life has been put in danger.
The malevolence that has been unleashed turns on a question of loyalty to one’s sexual partner versus loyalty to the ideals of scholarship. (See Michelle Roberts’s piece in Slightly Foxed, no 63)
Queenie Leavis’s suggestion that the novel pretended to realism does not stand up to scrutiny because the things that take place in the college at the hands of the malefactor are absurd. Nor does the hatred that fuelled it appear to be in the least realistic. But that’s detective fiction for you.
Gaudy Night is definitely a romance. Harriet Vane’s attraction to Lord Peter is clear to any reader. In previous novels having saved Harriet from the hangman he proposed marriage. He continues to profess his love for her and makes periodic routine and prosaic proposals of marriage which she consistently refuses.
Her history of love is not a good one and she has found real pleasure in the academic life. Moreover, she is indebted to Lord Peter for saving her life, and she does not believe that gratitude is a good basis for a marriage. But by the end of the novel …
A feminist book
Dorothy Sayers had experienced the obstacles to women’s education in the early 20th century and she is entirely supportive of female academics and their new college. She had been awarded a scholarship to Somerville, going up in 1912, completing her studies by 1915 but not able to receive her degree as a woman until 1920. The women of the senior common room would all have been veterans of the struggle for education for women. We know how these new women’s colleges lacked prestige, history and funds (see A Room of One’s Own for an explanation of how this affected women’s writing by Virginia Woolf in 1929).
The women in Gaudy Night are intellectuals, creative women, capable managers and professional standards are upheld. We should note that a theme of the novel is the fragile nature of female reputation. Harriet has suffered from an unwelcome notoriety for her past and the college women are very keen to keep the existence of the Poltergeist away from the outside world.
One of the key conversations these senior women have with Lord Peter concerns the importance of truth and scholarship. They explore what it meant for a woman to be a scholar, to manage the college, or to work and have children.
At the gaudy meal the company is addressed by one of these women:
She spoke gravely, unrolling the great scroll of history, pleading for the Humanities, proclaiming the Pax Academica in a world terrified by unrest. […]
And then, her [Harriet’s] imagination weaving in and out of the spoken words she saw it as a Holy War, and that the wildly heterogeneous, that even slightly absurd collection of chattering women fused into a corporate unity with one another and with every man and woman to whom integrity of mind meant more than material gain – defenders in the central keep of Man-Soul, their personal differences forgotten in the face of a common foe. To be true to one’s calling, whatever follies one might commit in life, that was the way to spiritual peace. (32-3)
To me this is an extraordinary passage. Before it Harriet had been thinking about how she wished she could have met Lord Peter on an equal footing, and immediately after she finds the first of the poisonous notes. And it says much of what is needed to say today in a world terrified by liars.
The motives of the Poltergeist result from an old-fashioned belief in support of a wife. Confronted with her actions the guilty party addresses the senior common room. Her long statement reveals the arguments that women face.
A woman’s job is to look after a husband and children. I wish I had killed you. I wish I could kill you all. I wish I could burn down this place and all places like it – where you teach women to take men’s jobs and rob them and kill them afterwards. (539)
I’ve heard you sit around snivelling about unemployment – but it’s you, it’s women like you who take work away from the men and break their hearts and lives. No wonder you can’t get men for yourselves and hate women who can. (540)
You couldn’t even find out who was doing it – that’s all your wonderful brains come to. […] You don’t know what love means. It means sticking to your man through thick and thin and putting up with everything. (541)
So the anti-feminist rhetoric is put in the mouth of the malefactor. However, the overtly feminist character, Miss Hillyard, is not pleasant either.
So while not exactly a feminist novel (see romance) there is a great deal that reflects the discussions of the 20thcentury in Gaudy Night. The women must find a way through the many binary choices presented to them: male versus female; body versus mind; and marriage and children versus the academic life.
Gaudy Night is a detective novel from the golden age of detective novels, even if the hero detective does not appear until halfway through. It is also undeniably a romance. And it is influenced by the feminism of its day and the experiences of the writer as a student at Oxford during the First World War.
Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers, first published in 1935. I read the edition published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2016. 564pp
I enjoyed reading Michelle Roberts’s article in Slightly Foxed, no 61 Autumn 2019.
And for those interested in her Oxford education, a new book is about to be published by Little, Brown: The Mutual Admiration Society by Mo Moulton. The cover claims that it shows ‘how Dorothy L Sayers and her Oxford circle remade the world for women’. Thanks to my Pilates friend Lesley for drawing my attention to this book.