Tag Archives: Slightly Foxed

Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers

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.

First Edition

Gaudy Night

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.

A mystery

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.

A romance

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.

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Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading, Reviews, Virginia Woolf

Books and the pursuit of the new

I thought my blog was getting a little tired. And then I noticed that it was me that was getting a little tired of the blog. But I can see that the blogger who is tired of blogging is tired of … Later, it occurred to me that what I am actually tired of is the relentless pursuit of the new book. 

So here’s a slight rant and a resolution.

The Pursuit of the New

Early this year I wrote a post called Six ways to choose books to read. You can link to it here. I stand by these sources, but I have come to see that I might be unnecessarily chasing too many new books. Many of my ideas for books to read and comment on come from those who are obviously going to promote the new:

  • Publishers
  • Prizes
  • Reviews in newspapers
  • Bookshops
  • Lists of bestsellers.

For example, I look at the list in the Guardian Review of the bestsellers of 2018 called Chart of the Year. I amuse myself with the table. 27% of books in the chart are by women The #1 seller is one of those: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine  by Gail Honeyman. I have only read three of the books on that magic 100 chart. And the feeling that I might be missing something was itself disappearing.

Then I listened to some comments from a group of travellers who expressed their opinion of much new fiction: “tosh”. I removed several novels from my tbr pile. And it felt good.

The enjoyment of the established

Elizabeth Bowen

And then I found myself doing the following

  • rereading some books
  • reading unread books by familiar authors, published some time ago
  • enjoying the blog’s Decades Project of children’s classics from 1900 
  • agreeing with the editors of the excellent Slightly Foxed periodical about the attractions of books published some time ago
  • enjoying perusing Persephone Books lists
  • Visiting second-hand bookshops
The Second Self

One bookshop I have been keen to visit is The Second Selfin Soho, London, specialising in early editions of women’s writing. I spent a very happy hour there recently and a lot of money. I was shown Jane Austen’s best friend’s copy of Sense and Sensibility. Very foxed, very beautifully bound in three leather volumes and very pricey of course.

My haul from The Second Shelf

Resolution

Muriel Spark

So here’s my resolution. I am going to read more Muriel Spark, some Henry James, Elizabeth Bowen, some classics, Sanditon by Jane Austen, The Juniper Tree  by Barbara Comyns and as few new titles as the whim takes me. And of course, more children’s literature from the twentieth century. And you can expect to read more of the old on this blog.

Happy reading.

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In which some memoirs are recommended

What’s the attraction of reading memoirs? Is it envy for a life one might have wanted, or relief of a life avoided? I studied history and for me its attraction has always been the lives of people, the details, the narratives, their stories. These have enlivened the most recent books I’ve been involved in writing: Retiring with Attitude and The New Age of Ageing.

What’s the difference between an autobiography and a memoir? It is suggested that while an autobiography is the story of a life, memoirs are stories from that life. In other words, memoir has a narrower focus than an autobiography, and it is often more interesting because it is selections.

It occurred to me then that the memoirs you truly fall in love with have less to do with the people that write them and much, much more to do with who you are when you read them. Memoirs are blueprints. They are maps to the lives we wish we had, or cautions from the ones we’re glad we avoided. [Caroline o’donaghue in Memoirs to Change your Life. See below]

From time to time I read memoirs and in this post I recommend a few. The common characteristic is that they are all from the lives of bookish people: all writers or editors.

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

How well I remember the BBC tv series of 1978, which coincided with the republishing of these memoirs. It spoke directly to my emerging feminism. The book was not exactly a feminist tract but it reminded us of the role women can play in war and peace, and in politics, and this can produce another generation to follow them.

I read Testament of Youth after finishing my history degree, and perhaps more than any other book Vera Brittain showed how history, especially the history of war is not only about men and their suffering. The Testament of Youth made me understand that the First World War defined the twentieth century, and that Britain before it was utterly different. It was one woman’s story, but she tells of the sacrifice of a generation and its aftermath. The scars are with us still as the current centenary has revealed.

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. First published in 1933, republished by Virago in 1978. 661pp

Many volumes by Diana Athill

Alive, Alive Oh! (2015) By Diana Athill was the book choice for one of my reading groups in November. It encouraged some very interesting discussion, about her description of her miscarriage, her family home, her approach to relationships, her life in old age. A volume I go frequently return to is Stet for her stories of the writers she worked with as an editor at Andre Deutsch, including Jean Rhys.

And this is from Somewhere Towards The End (2008)

One doesn’t necessarily have to end a book about being old with a whimper, but it is impossible to end it with a bang. There are no lessons to be learnt, no discoveries to be made, no solutions to offer. I find myself left with nothing but a few random thoughts. One of them is that from up here I can look back and see that although a human life is less than the blink of an eyelid in terms of the universe, within its own framework it is amazingly capacious so that it can contain many opposites. One life can contain serenity and tumult, heartbreak and happiness, coldness and warmth, grabbing and giving – and also more particular opposites such as the neurotic conviction that one is a flop and a consciousness of success amounting to smugness. (177)

Diane Athill has led a remarkable life and has the gift to reflect on her experiences, and gift is the right word here for her readers and friends.

Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay

This is Jackie Kay’s account of tracing and meeting her birth parents as an adult. It is also a tribute to her adoptive parents. This memoir explores what it means to be connected to families known and unknown.

It begins when she met her father in Abuja, Nigeria. He will not acknowledge her unless she agrees to join him as a born again Christian, and he behaves in a way that seems bizarre, praying for her for two hours. In his working life he is a noted tree specialist (having met Jackie’s mother in Glasgow University where he was studying), known throughout Nigeria for his work with trees and their healing properties.

Her mother is less obviously successful, moved away from her own tight family in the Highlands, and with a failed marriage and two more children, eventually disappearing into dementia in Milton Keynes. Both birth parents are reluctant to reveal Jackie’s existence to their own children.

The memoir questions what people are entitled to from each other – should Jackie collude in the secrecy, for the sake of the parents who abandoned her? The final triumphant scene is a meeting with her brother at the airport an hour before she needs to leave for her plane. She is embraced by him and his family.

Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay. Published by Picador in 2010. 287pp

Basil Street Blues by Michael Holroyd

I read this memoir because of one of its themes, to which I was alerted by an article in the wonderful Slightly Foxed journal. It was about secrets and families. It is an account of a family’s unconventional relationships, although on the surface they are presented as quite smooth. This, I suspect, may not be that unusual: a Swedish mother, family with connections to Rajmai tea and Lalique glassware. These businesses gradually declined between the wars until there was nothing left for Michael Holroyd when he came to adulthood. His family lived together in ritualised hate and with some abuse.

Michael Holroyd is a distinguished biographer, so he knows a thing or two about stories from people’s lives. With interesting relatives he reflects what should or shouldn’t be revealed. Above all he makes it clear that stories from one’s life cannot be told without the stories of many other people.

Basil Street Blues by Michael Holroyd. Published by Slightly Foxed in 2015. 364pp

Related Posts

Memoirs to Change your Life by Caroline o’donaghue in The Pool. November 2015. A list of suggestions from an American point of view.

And more recommendations

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot, published in 2016 by Canongate. It is the author’s account of her flight from the Orkneys, into East London and alcoholism and returning to the Orkneys to haul herself back to sobriety.

In Gratitude by Jenny Diski (2016) published by Bloomsbury, being both the story of her troubled adolescence and living with Doris Lessing, and her account of terminal cancer.

A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell first published in 1959, reissued by Furrowed Middlebrow in 2016. This is Chelsea in the Blitz.

Do you have any memoirs to recommend?

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A little rant about … Spoiler Alerts

This post is about spoiler alerts, what they mean and why they are so common. I am asking whether we need them. Are we in danger of saying that the story and its surprises are the most important thing about reading a novel. Really?

The donkey dies in the end

I cheered when I read this by David Rain.

Think of the phrase ‘spoiler alert’, so common in discussions of films, television series and even, nowadays, novels. What kind of work is ‘spoiled’ – used up, made redundant – once its surface narrative is known? A classic story can be told again and again. Shakespeare is never read for the last time; nor is Jane Austen. In Platero and I, we ‘spoil’ nothing by saying that the donkey dies in the end.

He was recommending Juan Ramon Jimenez’s novel Platero and I in Slightly Foxed (No 46, Summer 2015).

Recently I saw a spoiler alert on a blogpost about Mrs Dalloway. If Virginia Woolf were alive today she’d be turning in her grave! Now I ask you, would your pleasure in Pride and Prejudice be reduced if you knew that Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy get it together? Or that Jane Eyre is able to say of Mr Rochester, ‘Reader, I married him,’ and you already knew? Or even that in Rebecca, Maxim … no I’ll leave that one.

Cartoon from Amy Lynch tweet 28.5.15

Cartoon from Amy Lynch tweet 28.5.15

The surface narrative is not the novel. Although the surface narrative may be the film, I’m not sure about that. But perhaps the reason why films of good novels are so popular may be connected to this primacy of the narrative. Here’s a link to the blogpost on novels that are ‘major motion pictures’.

A and B Readers and Writers?

Anthony Burgess divided writers into two kinds:

A writers are story tellers.

B writers are users of language.

For B writers prose is foremost and without it ‘you are reduced to what are merely secondary interests: story, plot, characterisation, psychological insight and form,’ according to Marin Amis in The Art of Fiction, 1998, Paris Review interview. Hmmm

Could we apply the same categories to readers?

A readers focus on the story.

B readers look at how writers express ideas.

If this division works I would say that A Readers dominate the blogosphere with their spoiler alerts.

But although I would say I am more of a B reader, the novel is nothing without those things: story, plot, characterisation etc. I’m sure there are exceptions, some experimental French novelist of the last century probably.

While novel reading is about the pleasure of the story, a great deal of that pleasure comes from how the writer writes. The writing presents and supports elements of the story. Literary fiction is about the art of the writer to tell us the story in a skilful way. For readers the manner or style of the telling is part of the experience.

And novels need tension to carry the reader to the end, but the tension doesn’t have to be about what on earth will happen? Whodunnits use the tension of clues and McGuffins to draw the reader on. Thriller readers want the hero to escape, with one enormous bound. That’s why it may be important not to reveal the plot twist in Rebecca, but reader she (not Rebecca, who was at the bottom …) got her man.

45 catch-22

Some novels aren’t written for suspense, for what happens. Reading can simply be watching the protagonist come to terms with the events. This is one of the strengths of Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, who in scene after scene, character after character convinces us of the many absurdities of war. Perhaps the writer is suggesting that nothing much gets resolved in the story: see The Green Road by Anne Enright for example, reviewed recently on this blog.

I know of one reader who always turned to the last page. She wanted to read the novel without the surprises that the story might bring, to know the outcomes so she could see how they got there.

To spoil or not?

225 S&S coverSometimes it seems important not to reveal the plot. For example, I did sidestep reviewing Sugar and Snails, by Anne Goodwin. The significant reveal is designed to get the reader to think about their assumptions. I love a novel that makes you think, but I didn’t feel I could review the novel without discussing what is revealed. Anne Goodwin’s own discussion of spoilers can be found on her blog, Do spoilers Spoil? We are all Completely Beside Ourselves. Anne quotes some research about spoilers (that weren’t) and readers of short stories. They preferred them spoiled!

I took a different line when I reviewed at We are all Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, where the central issue of the novel is disclosed on p77. Again, it challenges the reader: what were you assuming? And says, now you know THAT look at what it does to my story.

But on the whole I want fewer spoiler alerts.

BTW

Slightly Foxed is a quarterly and subscription details can be found on their website.

Over to You

We have energetic debates about spoiler alerts in one of my reading groups. Where do you stand?

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