Mar 26 2010 11:46am

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.

individ ewe-al
1. individ-ewe-al
I think Sayers has this problem (though I'm not sure it's really right to call it a problem) a lot: she absolutely assumes that all her readers are as intelligent and as erudite as she is. Her essays are like this too; the prose is tremendously lucid, but she doesn't help you at all, she just carries on as if everything she knows is also known to you.

Anyway, I love Gaudy Night very much, the love story and the detective story both.
Kate Nepveu
2. katenepveu
You don't think _The Nine Tailors_, at least, counts as psychologically real?

These days people frame work entirely in terms of money and not at all in terms of vocation.

Or, at least, many many fewer people have a feeling that there is _a_ thing that they ought to do with their lives. I am a damn good lawyer, but I'm sure I could also be damn good at a bunch of other things and probably enjoy them a fair bit too. So that was another disconnect for me in reading this book. Which I love. Though I may love _Busman's Honeymoon_ more because honestly I have a hard time keeping track of all the dons from chapter to chapter (watches all the writers recoil in horror).
3. Calimac
"You might think that the issues might be dated. Some of the attitudes are." They're not dated, they're historical. They were very current for the time, and it's useful to know how people thought, hardly more than a long lifetime ago.

"all the previous books have been clever mystery puzzles rather like crossword puzzles" Not quite. Murder Must Advertise has such a plot, but the plot is not what the book is about. It's really about life in an advertising agency, vividly realized because the author had lived it. The other better ones, too, have something worthwhile to say about their settings.

"re-reading is forever but you can only read something for the first time once" I don't understand why more people don't realize that, or if they do realize it, accept it.

"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." Something else often forgotten.

Orwell "swipes in passing at the way Sayers uses “Lord Peter”’s title" WTF? Sayers gets the nomenclature right. Though she was British and 80 years ago and thus might be expected to, doing so is notable and to her credit. Today's American novelists who write about British nobility NEVER get the nomenclature right. I have not seen any exceptions.

"There’s no murder in Gaudy Night." This makes it stand apart from 99.9% of all genre mystery novels. There are other crimes in this world; why does it always need to be murder? (Sayers also wrote one of the few novels in which what is thought to be murder turns out to be accidental death; usually it's the other way around.)

"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." Have you ever considered Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson in this context?

"who did Sayers imagine was the audience for this erudite detective story?" I don't know; she uses equally recondite references and some untranslated French in her other books. Note that detective fiction was considered appropriate light reading (and writing) for dons; fantasy went rather beyond the pale.
Tony Zbaraschuk
4. tonyz
I'd agree that The Nine Tailors is as psychologically real as Gaudy Night; it's in some respects a totally different book, but the depth is there. And even her early novels have moments where the reality of the human experience comes through in a deep way; they're not just puzzle-stories. I remember being disappointed with Gaudy Night when I was twelve because it wasn't like the other Wimsey stories, but at twelve you don't get either the romance or the academic integrity issues.

Orwell had some amazing blind spots, though reading through his collected essays is still deeply rewarding.

And there are still people who see their work in terms of a vocation, not always in academia. Having lived and worked in a university for more than a decade now, it's a lot different from Sayers' vision of it -- but the dream, the appeal, the ideal still run through the daily grind like a golden thread, inspiring and moving.
5. OtterB
I love this book, though I may reread Busman's Honeymoon slightly more often. It would be on my list of "10 books I would take to a desert island because I don't get tired of rereading them."

I took a class on "Women of Mystery" at the public library either while I was finishing or shortly after I finished my PhD, and Gaudy Night was one of the readings. (I had read it for the first time not long before.) I remember commenting in the class discussion that the book had struck home for me because all the issues were still issues.

I think some people still think of work as a vocation. My favorite quote on that subject is from Frederick Buechner, who says “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet” (though I do not think you have to have a religious worldview to find yourself with a calling to something).

The thing about finding something your vocation, your calling, your "job" as Sayers puts it, is that it implies a level of prioritization and dedication that are difficult to sustain in a marriage and family life that is a partnership between equals. Not impossible, but difficult. The person who throws his/her life into research and makes an enormous breakthrough, who dedicates their life to righting some social wrong, who starts a business or writes amazing books, may achieve great things, but may also be hard to live with. We reject the either-or choice that the women dons faced in 1930s Oxford, and rightly so, but the "both" option is not an easy path either.

Actually, there's an opinion piece I liked in today's Washington Post by Petula Dvorak on "Working moms' fragmented reality: PDAs and unicorns" about the balancing act and the lack of respect it often gets in the office. She sees it as mainly a mom issue, although she points out that it hurts fathers too.

I seem to have wandered off topic. Suffice it to say, the specifics of the social expectations have changed, but the issue of work vs. home life remains.

I can understand the class consciousness, especially Harriet's reluctance to be the "inferior" partner in their marriage, but it doesn't resonate as much with my own experience.

And, completely unrelated, I adore Viscount St. George and his interactions with Peter and Harriet. They are actually a lovely example of scenes that contribute to more than one thing at a time, supporting both character development and the mystery plot. But mostly they are amusing.
6. a-j
For me the Wimsey books become more than standard detective stories with the third title, 'Unnatural Death' in which Wimsey has to face the serious consequences of his hobby. The following books return to the moral issues of detection time and again and it is that, I believe, that raises them above the other golden age detective novels and is a major reason why they stay in print. I did not find the social isolation of Harriet so surprising. A woman would not (probably) suffer today for having openly 'lived in sin' but there are plenty of other social crimes she can be condemned for and Sayers makes the point that often the most condemnatory are those who you would think would be more sympathetic. On my first reading I was disappointed at the revelation of Annie as the perpetrator but on my most recent I got more a sense of Sayers' sorrow at her stupidity and Miss de Vine's arrogance. As to the readership, my understanding is that detective stories were immensely popular in all sections of society at that time, as now, and also that Sayers worked on the assumption that if you did not know what she was referring to then you ought to jolly well go and find out. In the current climate I find this rather refreshing.
7. Janice in GA
Totally apart from the social issues, Gaudy Night is the book I go back and re-read when I want to remember what it's like to fall in love. That grand letting-go throughout the book just thrills me.

Most days, I'm about as romantic as a toaster. So the head/heart combination of the love story really works for me.
David Levinson
8. DemetriosX
Actually, many of the Wimsey stories had psychological depth. There was a series here at Tor a few months ago about PTSD which talked about Lord Peter's "shellshock" and how he dealt with it.

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.

I think a case could be made that this is what Peter is at least willing to attempt to do with/for Harriet. Certainly, he has been telling her for 2 books that he sees her as an equal, although she doesn't really want to hear it.

The only real problem I have with this book is that it... did something to the author's relationship with her character. Harriet was very much a stand-in for Sayers and it has been said that she (Sayers) fell in love with Wimsey. By bringing her fictional counterpart and her ideal man together, she seems to have taken the wind out of her sails. She would write another 1 1/2 books, but her heart wasn't really in it. She dropped crime fiction altogether and devoted herself to another sort of mystery. She spent the rest of her life establishing herself as one of the preeminent Dante scholars of the day. We got an excellent translation of and commentary on the Commedia out of it, but more Peter Wimsey wouldn't have been amiss either.
Ursula L
9. Ursula
The idea of that level of commitment/vocation is not entirely gone.

My brother, an opera singer, faced some condemnation from one of his professors/directors when he got married, because the director thought that marriage and children were an inappropriate distraction for someone who wanted a professional opera career. The director had no problem with committed gay relationships, but considered heterosexual relationships inappropriate.

And several of my friends are working on their PhDs or are postdocs, and there is the expectation that they will show similar dedication - one is currently having problems at her postdoc job because she's been ill, and her professor considers 80 hour workweeks the expectation for postdocs, but she's missed several weeks due to hospitalization and two surgeries this month.
Ellen B. Wright
10. ellenw
Willis didn’t spoil the mystery plot but the emotional plot—and I do think I might have appreciated it more without that.

I agree. I read To Say Nothing of the Dog without knowing anything about Sayers (though I think I had already read Three Men in a Boat) and was disappointed to come to Gaudy Night already knowing how part of it would end.

Or did she think, quite rightly, that the audience could look things up or let them go over their heads?

As a science fiction reader, I appreciate that part of Sayers's books. I tend to think of convincing but obscure bits of stories that go over my head as evidence of thorough worldbuilding. In this case it's the real world, but, well.

I did look up the literal meaning of "placet," though, despite figuring out roughly what it meant from the context.
11. a-j
With all respect to DemetriosX@8, I've never bought into the Sayers/Vane theory. The fact that Harriet Vane is a detective story writer does not of itself automatically mean that she's a marysue for Sayers. Agatha Christie had Ariadne Oliver (I think that's the right name) who is a comic version of the detective story writer and I've always read Harriet Vane as being an almost academic joke which allows Sayers to poke fun at her fellow authors (Vane's detective is an over-the-top rather ridiculous figure) and to riff on the difficulty of writing detective stories. In 'Have His Carcass' Vane reflects that she has always avoided mystery stories set by the sea because she can't be bothered with all that hard work about tidal timetables. These, naturally, become vital to the plot of the novel. Then, just as the earlier novels explore the moral and psychological implications of being an amateur detective, so the Vane novels explore the nature of love and marriage. This also marks a natural end to the series. 'Busman's Honeymoon' ends the Wimsey novels in a highly satisfactory manner. Lord Peter and Harriet have settled down to domestic bliss in their small village and so, like Holmes with his bees on the Sussex Downs, we leave them.
Jo Walton
12. bluejo
Everyone who thinks there are earlier psychologically realistic books in the series: I think if you read the Wimsey books in order, which I pretty much did the first time I read them (I read Nine Tailors first and then couldn't find Unnatural Death so I read it later, but otherwise...) you can see the process of psychological realism developing as they go on. Nevertheless, I feel Gaudy Night is at a whole other level of literature from even the best of the earlier ones.

Calimac: What Orwell swipes at is saying that because Sayers is being comic about Lord Peter's title and family background, she can lay the aristocratic trimmings on thicker than she could if she was respectful towards them. Not that she gets it wrong. And again, this is something it seems to me that she does much more in the earlier books -- here she seems to be taking his family more seriously than she usually does too.

There's something about Twain that's like fingernails on a blackboard for me. I could read him when I was a kid, but since I was about ten I haven't been able to. So I haven't read it and can't comment, sorry.
Andrew Mason
13. AnotherAndrew
Psychological realism: I don't think there's any doubt Gaudy Night is more psychologically realistic than earlier works. What worried me was the idea that the earlier works are 'clever mystery puzzles rather like crossword puzzles'. I think the only two that could be described that way are Whose Body, which was the first work, before she had got into her stride, and Five Red Herrings, which was deliberately written that way as an antidote to the more emotionally involving works that came before it.

Harriet as Mary Sue: this is complicated. Sayers had planned a non-Wimsey novel about a woman writer, called, if I remember rightly, Catherine Lammas, returning to Oxford; and the heroine of that work was certainly based on herself. She then abandoned this, and incorporated elements of it in Gaudy Night, with Harriet taking Catherine's place. So I would say the Harriet of Gaudy Night (not so much of the earlier works) is a partial self-insert in her thoughts about vocation and feminism, etc., but not necessarily in her relationship with Peter.

Connie Willis: yes, but what else could she do? If you set out to write a book that is self-consciously metafictional, you have to assume that people know the contents of the books you are responding to, or don't mind getting spoiled.
14. 17catherines
I am so very fond of this book! A couple of points on the review; firstly, in terms of audience, Sayers considered her detective fiction to be 'pot boilers' (she preferred her Dante translations - remember, Sayers is often considered to be the writer who made murder mysteries intellectually respectable!), and didn't expect them to outlive her as they have. At the time she was writing, any reasonably well-educated British person would have been expected to understand French and some Latin - they were the standard languages taught in high school, at any rate, so they wouldn't have been completely unfamiliar. So I suspect she was writing for both a wider and a narrower audience than you might think.

Secondly, I wouldn't call Nine Tailors, or
On the other hand, the wedding the Dean went to was also a wedding Sayers had attended - she used her own experiences pretty freely to inform characters or anecdotes in her novels, as I imagine many authors do...

15. 17catherines
OK, since it seems the middle of my post got lost, let's try this again...

As I was saying, before I was so rudely interrupted, I wouldn't call Nine Tailors, Murder Must Advertise, or even Strong Poison, crossword type books - though I will concede Whose Body and Five Red Herrings.

Also, in regard to Harriet as a Mary Sue, I wouldn't call her that myself, but she certainly shared many of Sayers' own experiences and attitudes. I found and devoured a book of Sayers' letters a few years ago (sadly, not the complete works, but still fascinating), and was very amused to read the progress of Miss Sayers' relationship with a character very much like Philip Boyes... which (while unconsummated) ended for very similar reasons. While the 'matter of principle' was a different one, it was clearly the same sort of argument, and I have to say the gruesome murder of ones ex in book form appealed to me enormously as a way of getting over a bad relationship...

And now you can return to the end of my other post, because that is approximately what I was trying to say.

We apologise for the inconvenience...
Margaret L Ruwoldt
16. flipsockgrrl
Jo, thanks for posting this thoughtful review. Gaudy Night is one of those books I re-read at least annually, partly because there are so many different themes and ideas to explore. Also because of all the reasons Janice in GA@7 so succinctly identified: falling in love, reminiscence, gradual letting-go, general toasterosity, head-heart combination.

OtterB@5 ...can understand the class consciousness, especially Harriet's reluctance to be the "inferior" partner in their marriage...

I think social class is a secondary consideration for Harriet. Her main concern is that she might be expected to be grateful to Wimsey for rescuing her (literally saving her life in "Strong Poison" and later attempting to protect her reputation in "Have His Carcase"). She has dismissed his interest in her as something more superficial, the socially-expected outcome of two people being thrown together under extraordinary circumstances (cf the UST between Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves' characters in "Speed"). In Harriet's experience gratitude is inevitably linked to inequality -- and she therefore resists feeling grateful to Wimsey.

"Having lived and worked in a university for more than a decade now, it's a lot different from Sayers' vision of it -- but the dream, the appeal, the ideal still run through the daily grind like a golden thread, inspiring and moving."

Nicely put, tonyz@4 -- that's one of the joys of working in higher ed, in my experience. It's worth remembering that universities were undergoing change in Sayers' time: she finished her Oxford studies in 1916 but, being female, was not allowed to graduate until the first women were admitted to degrees in 1920. Hoorah for the early 20thC feminists. These days even I, classed as a professional (not academic) employee and a three-time degree dropout, can legitimately call myself a Member of the University I work for, can add my own piece of that golden thread to the greater tapestry. I like to think Dorothy would be pleased about that.
17. EmmaPease
Not allowed an Oxford degree (it was the 1940s for Cambridge, I have a couple of aunts who retroactively became members of Cambridge). They could take the same tests as the male students but couldn't get the University degrees their test results would have entitled them to.

I should point out that the ordinary male fellows in many of the Oxbridge colleges couldn't get married either until circa 1900.
Alice Arneson
18. Wetlandernw
Jo, I love this book. It's one of my all-time favorite books; maybe the very top of the top. Dorothy Sayers is my ideal author; her mastery of the language is so brilliant that it's a joy to read even when you know all the ins-and-outs of the mystery.

I have to disagree with your phrasing: "marrying as an equal and not as a helpmeet" - it sounds like the two are mutually exclusive. Part of the argument of Gaudy Night is that it is possible to be a suitable partner (helpmeet) without being inferior/superior, and that the ideal marriage would be exactly that. (I suppose it depends on how you define "equal." My definition is something like "equal in dignity and humanity, but each with strengths to be valued and weaknesses to be protected." Definitely not "the same in all things." How dull would that be?)

Who did she think her audience was? A reasonably-educated British public in 1936 or so - which, noticably, was MUCH better-educated than today's "well-educated" American. You still see it in British television - casual references that make the British audience laugh while most of the Americans aren't even aware that a joke had been made. Sayers assumed that her readers would have had Latin in grammar school, would speak reasonable French, would have read the classical literature and would have some grasp of logic and rhetoric. IIRC, her editors basically twisted her arm into including a translation of the long "big-reveal" letter from Denis to Simone in Clouds of Witness, on the basis that her American readers would miss the whole point if it were only in French. Oddly enough (or not), if you haven't read Manon Lescaut you still miss most of the clues up to that point. Oh, and in reading Busman's Honeymoon, if you don't speak French (I don't) get someone to translate all the French bits for you. It's absolutely priceless!!

I can't point you to any reference documents at the moment, but also IIRC, Miss Sayers wrote detective stories at least in part because they provided her with income and credentials to enable her pursuit of the things that were more important to her. By the time she had published Busman's Honeymoon (also a standing favorite of mine) she was able to leave off the detective fiction and turn to the scholarly efforts she longed for. Her translation of Dante is truly excellent, and her books The Mind of the Maker and Creed or Chaos also fall into my "must read regularly" category.
19. Maxine Udall
I have always loved this book.

HV: "How could I give you base coin for a marriage-portion?"

LPW: "At least I had the decency to know that I couldn't take it in settlement of a debt..."

I love the economic imagery of the exchange.

It's a wonderful account of a good, smart woman's journey back to self-love and a man who understood that the journey was necessary if ever they were to love each other in any sort of meaningful way.

Thank you for a review that does the book justice.
Liza .
20. aedifica
You've been reading lots of excellent books lately! To this book, along with Tam Lin, I credit my return to college to finish my degree (I'd had to stop school and find a job after my freshman year). Then, the love story that was clearest to me was the Harriet's (Sayers'?) love for her college. These days I see that one in equal measure with the human romance.
Jo Walton
21. bluejo
Aedifica: I read Tam Lin first -- and both of them years after I'd been to college too. But it was odd the first time I read GN seeing echoes that clearly went the other way.
Tex Anne
22. TexAnne
Wetlandernw: Manon Lescaut? What? I've read them both, but I have no idea what you're talking about. Will you expand on that?
23. Calimac
Jo - The quick spoiler on Pudd'nhead Wilson is that the real protagonist of the story (the title character functions pretty much as the detective) is a slave woman, while the villain is a badly-behaved man who was raised as an aristocrat but turns out to be, by law, a slave. There's too much of a hint of "they may have tried to breed him well, but blood will out."

Gaudy Night is a step beyond the earlier books in putting real characters first and the mystery gimmicks a distinct second, but it's not as if the better earlier ones entirely failed in that department.
Alice Arneson
24. Wetlandernw
TexAnne @ 22 - Clouds of Witness mentions several times, apparently just in passing, that Cathcart has a copy of Manon Lescaut in his possession. Somewhere near the end, when Lord Peter has pretty much figured it out but still has the "proving" to do, he mentions it again and says he should have understood sooner. Something to that effect, anyway. The point is that Cathcart sees himself and Simone as Des Grieux and Manon (even though she clearly does not). Lord Peter is thinking that if he had really considered Cathcart's attachment to the book, the card-sharping, and the plot of the book all together, he'd have found Simone and solved the mystery much sooner.

Nothing to do with Gaudy Night, of course.

Edit - just went back and reread my post @18. Wow! Sorry, that was a real mess and referenced way too many books in the same paragraph... My only excuse for such a piece of confusion is the lateness of the hour. ::hangs head in shame:: Anyway, I hope this one clarified that I was talking about Manon Lescaut in context of Clouds of Witness, not Busman's Honeymoon or Gaudy Night.
25. Jim Henry III
It had been four or five years since I read To Say Nothing of the Dog when I first read Gaudy Night, and I only remembered that a pivotal scene took place while Lord Peter and Harriet were in a boat. However, I had more recently encountered worse spoilers in The Mind of the Maker, Sayers' nonfiction book on writing (and the creative process in general). When I realized the passage contained spoilers for a Lord Peter story I hadn't read yet, I skipped a few pages, but I'd already learned that one of the servants was a major character, possibly the culprit. So I read the novel differently, knowing that -- Jo writes that Annie was almost invisble to her the first time she read it; to me, she stood out as pretty much the only servant who had both the opportunity for the various crimes and a significant number of lines of dialogue, and thus the most likely (in narrative terms) to be the culprit.

The discussion in The Mind of the Maker, about how psycholical problems in fiction can't be solved as definitively as detective puzzles, may be found here at Google Books.

Re: assuming a high level of erudition on the part of the readers -- I think Wetlandernw @18 is right; not only Sayers but other writers of the period, G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc for instance (and James Branch Cabell on our side of the Atlantic) assume a higher level of education but also a different set of subjects about which they can assume knowledge on the part of their readers. An sf writer of today might assume a certain level of knowledge about science and technology on the part of their reader, but feel the need to have one of the characters explain stuff to another about history or language; writers of the early 20th century would make different assumptions, as that most of their readers would have a nodding acquaintance with French and Latin and would know more about history than the typical reader of today.
Alice Arneson
26. Wetlandernw
Jim Henry III @25 - You make an excellent point. (Well, several of them, actually, but I'm noting one in particular.) An author of any genre, any time period, will write to the reasonable assumption of the knowledge base of the (probable) readers at that time. Writing to readers of the past would be silly, and who knows what future readers will be like? You have to write to your contemporary audience; if the definition of "reasonable expectations" changes over time, well, that's to be expected too.

I have a personal tendency to denigrate the intellectual capacity of the modern American audience, partly because so much of what used to be foundational has been foolishly discarded. (I envy my children. They get to learn Latin starting in 3rd grade, so they won't be reduced to google searches and editorial footnotes to understand the final moments of Gaudy Night!) Still, there are areas of understanding that a 21st-century author can reasonably assume, which would have been considered "extremely advanced" or even purely speculative only a few decades ago.
27. Nineveh_uk
I love Gaudy Night. Sayers’ comments on men not being expected to choose between stark options, and no-one complaining if a man ‘neglects’ his family for his work remain appallingly relevant today.

Re. Harriet as a Mary-Sue, whilst Harriet does draw quite strongly on certain biographical details of Sayers’ own life (and Philip Boyes’ being bad in bed is the ultimate revenge on unsatisfactory boy-friends), she’s no author avatar (any more than Peter is, though Sayers admitted to a great deal of wish-fulfillment in the creation of his character, giving him money when she had little, a glorious flat when she was living in rooms etc.). For one thing, Harriet and Peter both lack (in slightly different ways) the profound religious feeling that Sayers had, and that was an important part of her intellectual and emotional life since childhood. Without this, neither Harriet nor Peter can approach “being” DLS.

"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."

No it wasn’t, or at least not universally. There was a Marriage Bar in most Local Education Authorities between 1923 and 1935. But there was never one at universities and private schools, who could employ married women if they wanted to. Of course, if they didn’t want to, married women had no recourse. But Miss Chilperic could stay at Shrewsbury if she wanted to, and if the college wished her to, as Dorothy Hodgkin continued to be a research fellow at Somerville after her marriage in 1937.
28. a-j
Excellent point about neither Wimsey nor Harriet being religious and therefore neither "are" DLS. I also think that is a reason why she stopped writing the novels. My mother actually met her in the late '40s, early '50s when DLS gave a talk on her controversial radio play 'The Man Born To Be King' and describes her as a formidable yet friendly person.
29. a-j
I've been dying to swank about my one degree of seperation from Dorothy L Sayers for ages!
David Dyer-Bennet
30. dd-b
So has anybody translated, for example, the French parts of Busman's Honeymoon? And, for example, put them online? I've asked several people with pretty good French, but they've all disclaimed ability to explain what they say.

It seems to me that trying to translate Latin with just a dictionary must be frustrating and completely futile. Certainly I've never tried it on these books.

I'm SO glad I grew up in an era when I didn't have to waste my time on Latin and Greek!
Stephanie Leary
31. sleary
The Lord Peter mailing list has translations of the letters in its FAQ, thank goodness.
32. romsfuulynn
The Latin gives me no problem - I took Advanced Placement SATs for my high school latin and took two years of Latin in college.

I have a friend who is fluent in French who gave me a translation of the French parts - it's in one of my copies.

I'll see if I can post it somewhere.
33. tuppence
World War 2 was also looming on the horizon when Busman's Honeymoon was written. The first war was a trauma for English society (at all levels). Perhaps Sayers did not live long enough to get the necessary perspective to picture its effects on the society of her novels.
There was one short story set during the war.
A lot of her feminist thought is expressed in her pamphlet "Are Women Human". I recommend it.

And I have always coveted the Chess Set that got destroyed in Gaudy Night - I actually saw a similar one once.
Karen Wester Newton
34. kwnewton
I loved all the Sayers' Lord Peter books, although The Nine Tailors lost me a bit. I loved that the characters aged over time, and that even the secondary characters, like Peter's siblings, were richly portrayed as to their character. And I desperately wanted a Bunter in my life!

I think Harriet was DLS as she would have liked to have been-- much thinner, for one thing. The parallels are so striking: mystery writer, check; hazy moral background, check (HV lived with a poet & DLS had a child without being married); daughter of a parson, check; classical education, check.

BTW, I tried the link above that sleary posted but it did not work at all for me. I have always wondered what Uncle Paul had to say in those letters!
35. HelenS
I've been dying to swank about my one degree of separation from Dorothy L Sayers for ages!

Well swanked! I own some books that used to be hers, but that's as close as I come (a set of Juliana Ewing -- they don't look beaten-up enough to have been favorite childhood reading, so she may have bought or kept them for the bindings).
36. houseboatonstyx
As for the housemaid doing it, what was the era of the butler did it?

One strong theme was the idea current at the time, that too much study (especially when combined with too little sex) was emotionally unhealthy for women. The scholars were the suspects because motiveless, emotionally-sick pranks were seen as likely symptoms of some kind of neurosis.

Harriet seemed to accept this ("I thought it was painfully obvious") though Peter seemed sceptical.

So the villain turning out to be the anti-studious, biologically fulfilled mother, acting from straightforward motives of revenge -- made a very nice switch. Misdirection, hiding the solution in plain sight: a point of technical excellence by that era's standard of mystery writing.
37. wwr
One strong theme was the idea current at the time, that too much study (especially when combined with too little sex) was emotionally unhealthy for women. The scholars were the suspects because motiveless, emotionally-sick pranks were seen as likely symptoms of some kind of neurosis.
Dave Bush
38. davebush
In common with all of Jo's recommendations, I've now got around to this (it took a bit more than a week!), and I have to agree with her praise.

The only comment I have is that does anyone else see the parallels in this love story to Lois Bujold's Civil Campaign?

Miles / Peter and Ekaterina / Harriet are similar types in a similar relationship, with the same overall timing and I can't help wonder if Lois had read and internalised this story before writing her own.
Jo Walton
39. bluejo
Davebush: Yes indeed on the Miles thing. And A Civil Campaign is dedicated, among other influences, to Sayers.
Dave Bush
40. davebush
Jo: Ah - so that's where the discussion is. I found it difficult to believe that I was the only one.
claiborne ray
41. claiborneray
I stumbled on this thread two years after the fact and wanted to compliment almost everyone involved for their high level of "reading comprehension," for want of a better term.

Sayers had a big influence on my life. I first read "Busman's Honeymoon" at the impressionable age of 13 and it actually helped inspire me in the pursuit of a decent education, complete with foreign languages, so I could be sure of what was going one, emotionally and literarily. Then "Gaudy Night," which I read in college with the rest of my (female) friends, shaped my ideals of adult womanhood and real achievement. Real life has seen me fall short of many such ideals, but I suspect this is true for most mortals. Quite an achievement for a "mere" mystery novel!

One quick correction: Sayers was a clergyman's daughter, but Harriet was a country doctor's child.
42. Sarahct
I am relistening to Gaudy Night, read by Ian Carmichael, and absolutely love it. Even before finishing the second time, I've resolved to reread it again soon.
I am so impressed with all the commenters, who seem to be quite dedicated and serious readers.
Thank you, sleary, for the link to the translation of the French from Busman's Honeymoon. I was so desperate, I tried to use web translator, but obviously it didn't work that well.
43. Sharna Pax
I just re-read Gaudy Night a few days ago. I love that book. I first discovered it when I was twelve, and it grabbed hold of me in a way that no other book ever has. I was an obsessive reader, but Gaudy Night was an almost unbearably immersive experience. I think it was the love story that made it so powerful. Gaudy Night is one of the few books out there that really commits to a love story - in the sense of giving it attention, and thought, and analysis from every possible angle, and still giving you a happy ending. I remember a three-week period of shutting myself up in my room and reading and rereading - and coming reluctantly down to dinner feeling like a snail ripped from its shell. It completely rewrote my whole approach to the English language; Sayers's style, though ornate, is very fluid, and I suddenly became terribly sensitive to clunkiness in writing. A lot of my favorite books got relegated to the attic after that. It gave me a completely unrealistic set of expectations for both relationships and academia, and it accomplished the dubious feat of giving a twelve-year-old an enduring crush on a forty-five-year-old fictional dude with a weak chin, zero facial hair and a monocle.

One thing I absolutely love about the book is that it recognizes what a terrible mistake Lord Peter made by proposing to Harriet the moment he met her. And the book (the series, really) is willing to work through the consequences of that mistake, for however long it takes. That's what makes the book so powerful, that it takes its time. Sayers is willing to make Harriet unlikable for quite a long stretch of time - Have His Carcase through the beginning of Gaudy Night, I would say - in order to make it meaningful and satisfying when she is finally able to put aside her prickly, defensive public persona and really deal with everything that's happened to her.

I find myself giving some of the academia-worship the side-eye these days, although I completely bought it when I was twelve. The attitude of "Any academic topic, however minor, is of more enduring importance than figuring out what to do about the Nazis" seems a bit off. But oh, man, the romance is still golden. That scene on the river, where Peter catches Harriet watching him while he reads? Glorious. (Although there is one romancey scene I cannot deal with, and that is when they're in the antique shop and Lord Peter is wearing his damn monocle and playing Elizabethan love songs on the spinet. Seriously.)

Busman's Honeymoon, though, I hate. It makes me feel all squicky, like I'm spying on something that should be private.
44. Sharna Pax
Correction: Lord Peter does have a chin. I just reread the description in Whose Body.

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