Author: Dorothy L Sayers
Finished on: 21 May 2017
Where did I get this book: On that fateful visit to Shakespeare & Co. last year
Gaudy Night has been sitting on my shelf for a while. I keep catching a glimpse of it and smiling. Like buying yourself a nice cake, and then waiting all day to eat it. Ooo that’ll be good. I’ll just wait a little longer and enjoy the anticipation.
But its time finally came.
I have read two Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries before this, and loved them both. My favourite was Have His Carcase, which featured Harriet Vane, a spirited mystery novelist, as Wimsey’s co-sleuth. She was an irresistible, funny, practical hero, and her relationship with the aristocratic Bertie Wooster-esque Wimsey was superb. My high expectations around Gaudy Night were largely due to knowing Vane is centre stage in this one.
But this really is a detective novel with a difference. And not just different from other writers of the golden age, but also from the other two Sayers I have read.
For a start, there is no murder. Er, what? You can imagine how much this impressed me. Lots of poison pen letters, a stabbed mannequin strung up in a chapel, a couple of minor assaults, and some sinister nighttime wanderings. But no actually killing. Hmm…
Vane returns to her former Oxford University college to investigate these mysterious events. But unfortunately she seems to have undergone some sort of personality transplant between Have His Carcase and this book. She is unbearably snobby and judgemental. Listening in on some of the conversations between her and her fellow academics feels like being transported into the bitchy clique back at school: her dress is so unstylish, her hair is so inferior, her life choices have been so poor, judge, judge, judge… Sayers seems fully on board with all this snobbery too; we are invited to feel smug to be part of Vane’s condescending crew, viewing the rest of the inferior population of the college from a safe height.
Beyond the initial disappointment of Vane’s transformation, it also took me until at least halfway through to get a handle on what this book is all about. The truth is that it’s not primarily a detective story at all. It is a lengthy exploration of the options available to women in 1935, and whether an intellectually fulfilling life was compatible with a satisfying personal life. It is also a love letter to Oxford.
All of this was actually very interesting, and getting into the meat of these debates provided some of the most satisfying sections in the book.
But Sayers lost me again on the courtship between Wimsey and Vane. Which I know for fans, including my beloved Lucy Worsley, was a highlight. I wanted to enjoy it; I really did. But the convoluted social and personal moral labyrinth that Vane is navigating – can she marry Wimsey or can she not, and why – is exhausting reading.
There is one beautiful passage where they are punting on the river, and she realises that he is a man of flesh and blood, and that she really fancies him, where the chemistry between them is superbly realised. But other than that their relationship seems stilted. I’m sure I am terribly unsophisticated, and unappreciative both of social conditions at the time and quite what a doyenne of ethics Vane must be, but I found it bizarre rather than admirable.
I also struggled to sympathise with a group of ladies that places the avoidance of a scandal so much higher than preventing potential deaths on their list of things that are important. I get that things were different then (I suppose it’s possible institutions like Oxford University are even like that now) but Sayers writes with huge affection about these people, and even the nice ones are prepared to sacrifice human lives on the alter of good reputation.
There are several points in the story where Sayers uses Vane’s writing as a vehicle to show clear and clever self-awareness of the striking differences between Gaudy Night and the average detective novel.
There is an acknowledgement that the cast of characters in Gaudy Night is much larger and more confusing that you might expect.
What you really got was two hundred or so people running like rabbits in and out of a college, doing their work, living their lives, and actuated all the time by motives unfathomable even to themselves.
I didn’t count the number of characters. But it certainly feels like nearly 200.
And there is an exploration of what happens when you endow your characters with unusually realistic emotions for this golden age of detective fiction. Wimsey advises Vane to develop her characters’ psychology. And through Vane’s struggle to achieve this, we gain insight into the difficulties and complications Sayers may well have experienced when trying to do the same.
It would be fair to say that my disappointment with this book probably had a lot to do with my expectations. I am a big fan of the standard whodunit formula, and that’s what I was after from this book.
I almost want to go back to the beginning again now I know it’s not really a detective novel. Almost.
It would have been a significantly different experience reading Gaudy Night with different expectations. So, maybe you should give it a go now you’ve read this review. Let me know if it’s a more satisfying read if you know what you’re getting into, and what you make of it all?