The mind, the heart, sex, class, feminism, true love, intrigue, not your everyday ho hum detective story: Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night

It’s always the books I like the most that I feel I haven’t done justice to when I write about them.

Gaudy Night was published in 1936. It’s still in print, and more than that, it’s still relevant. It’s not science fiction or fantasy by any stretch, its genre is cosy detective story. It’s about a series of incidents in a women’s college in Oxford in which someone is trying to provoke a scandal. But what it’s really about is the difficult balance between love and work and whether it is possible for a woman to lead a life of the mind wholeheartedly, and whether it’s possible for her to do this and have love and a family. Sayers examines this seriously and with examples. You might think that the issues might be dated. Some of the attitudes are, but on the whole the fulcrum point of “having it all”, marrying as an equal and not as a helpmeet, is still an interesting question.

Gaudy Night is one of Sayers’s series of novels about Lord Peter Wimsey, and it’s a courageous book because all the previous books have been clever mystery puzzles rather like crossword puzzles, but this is a real novel about psychologically real people. The series starts out as shallow fun, gets better and deeper and develops continuing characters and events, and then, with Gaudy Night, becomes as good as books get. If you like classic cosy detective stories with timetables and letters of confession, I recommend starting at the beginning and coming at Gaudy Night with the full backstory. If you don’t especially care for them, I recommend reading Gaudy Night alone—everything that’s relevant is there, and you might be surprised how good it is.

I was thoroughly spoiled for Gaudy Night by Connie Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog. I expect Willis thought that a book more than fifty years old would have been read by everyone who wanted to read it, but in fact new people come along all the time. Willis didn’t spoil the mystery plot but the emotional plot—and I do think I might have appreciated it more without that. If you haven’t read it, do consider that re-reading is forever but you can only read something for the first time once, and that after this paragraph I am going to have no hesitation about spoiling everything. (You could go and read it and come back. I’ll still be here next week.)

George Orwell wrote a review of Gaudy Night in which he comprehensively did not get it, so comprehensively that it astonishes me. Orwell was a perceptive person, but he wrote about Gaudy Night as if it is just another episode in the detecting career of Lord Peter. I don’t know if this was a blind spot of his, or a common reaction among men in 1936, or if possibly he didn’t have time to read it and “reviewed” it on a quick skim. I don’t know which of these is least discreditable. In any case, it is salutory to consider that one intelligent male reader, and one whole magazine, saw it as nothing more than a clever detective potboiler with an exotic setting, and one in which the detective finally gets the girl. The thing that makes me think that Orwell might not have actually read Gaudy Night, while having perhaps read some of the earlier ones, is that he swipes in passing at the way Sayers uses “Lord Peter”‘s title but doesn’t enter into the actual class issues of the book at all.

There’s no murder in Gaudy Night. The situation is that a women’s college in Oxford, the fictional Shrewsbury College, is being plagued by poison pen letters and mean practical jokes, and Harriet Vane is asked to help capture the culprit, who could be anyone among the senior members or servants of the college. The atmosphere is all of academic women distrusting each other. The actual culprit turns out to be one of the servants, Annie, who has a grudge against one of the dons specifically and all of them generally for, in her eyes, taking jobs that should belong to men. Her husband was an academic who married beneath him, and after his suicide Annie has been reduced to scrubbing floors for a living. The first time I read this I had barely noticed the existence of Annie and was astonished at the revelation—as a servant she seems part of the wallpaper. So in one way Sayers was noticing class and making someone invisible visible, and in another she was reinforcing class prejudices by making the culprit an outsider and uneducated. You’d think Orwell would have found something to say about that, even if he was blind to the wider feminist implications.

Annie is motivated by a desire to humiliate Miss de Vine, who revealed Annie’s husband’s plagiarism and made it impossible for him to continue as an academic which led to his suicide and Annie’s subsequent poverty. From that she wants to humiliate all female academics. Annie sees her life ruined by Miss de Vine’s adherence to academic truth—that in fact it was ruined by her husband’s lack of such adherence is beyond her. She’s part of a set of women we see mirroring each other. This is a book about women—culprit, victims and the primary detective are women. Annie’s closest mirror is Mrs Goodwin, also a widow with a child away at school, who has trained as a secretary. We also see two old students, one whose marriage has ruined her mind, and one who has made a team with her husband and works with him. Then there’s the young  don Miss Chilperic, who is engaged to be married, and will therefore leave the college. It was actually illegal for married women to teach in Britain before WWII. Sayers doesn’t say this because she assumes her readers will be utterly aware of it and can’t imagine things being any different, but if ever there was anything that should be footnoted for a modern audience, this is it.

The other academics might as well be nuns, they are devoted not just to scholarship but to virginity. This is said explicitly—and really in 1936 those were the choices. Marriage meant giving up the work, and not marrying, for women, meant maintaining virginity. This leads me to Harriet. Harriet lived with a man in Bloomsbury without marrying him, somebody else murdered him, and she was tried for the murder and acquitted because of Lord Peter. (Strong Poison.) Because of the notoriety of the trial, Harriet’s sexual status is known to everyone—and some people consider her utterly immoral because she had sex without marriage. This attitude—that people would care—is completely dated, gone like the dodo, and I have to work at understanding it. Harriet, in her thirties and unmarried would be presumed to be a virgin were it not that her cohabitation had been gossip in the newspapers after her lover’s death. Now the fact that she has had sexual experience is public knowledge, and affects people’s behaviour towards her.

The book’s attitude towards work, scholarship and creative work, is almost religious. I said “nuns” just now, and that applies here too—it is as if the nun’s religious sacrifice of sexuality and family and personal love, on the altar of God’s worship, is replaced by an expectation of that on the altar of scholarship. This is very weird because of the inclusion of sex. Even if you leave that out, these days nobody expects level of dedication. These days people frame work entirely in terms of money and not at all in terms of vocation. Annie, of course, sees it financially, it’s all about (a man) earning a living to support a family. Work can be either, or any mixture. And of course, coming back to sex, there is the conversation with Miss de Vine in which she says that marriage can be a job for some women, that you can dedicate yourself to a partner the way you would to a fine passage of prose. We do not see any men doing this for their wives in the novel, the best we see is men not expecting their wives to do this for them.

The emotional heart of the book is Harrier’s re-examination of her life and her work. For five years (and two novels) she has been refusing Lord Peter’s proposals of marriage. Now she begins to consider them, and at last comes to see that they could have a marriage that would be a partnership, not a job. Before that she has to regain her self respect, to have a place to stand and go on from. Harriet’s conclusion is by no means assured, and the emotional trajectory of the book is extremely well done. The arguments for a marriage of equals, as opposed to the social expectation, have never been done better—we even see the disadvantage from the man’s point of view “someone who would try to manage me”. Manipulation was the women’s trick, when the man had all the power, but having all the power and being manipulated wasn’t much fun either.

There used to be a question of “what are women good for” and Gaudy Night would seem to give the answer that they are good for any number of things, Mrs Goodwin and Phoebe Tucker as well as Miss Lydgate or Miss Hillyard—and that they are bad for them too, Annie and Miss Hillyard and Miss de Vine’s lack of compassion. Harriet’s choice is her own, and the best thing about it is that it should pleases her.

(Incidentally, who did Sayers imagine was the audience for this erudite detective story, that could read Latin subjunctives and know all about Religio Medici? It’s about Oxford dons, did she think they were the audience too? Or did she think, quite rightly, that the audience could look things up or let them go over their heads?)


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

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