Sunday, February 22, 2009

Gaudy Night

Sayers, Dorothy. Gaudy Night. New York: Haper & Row, 1964. (The book was originally published in 1936.)

(Yet again, the cover depicted here is not what the cover of the copy I read looks like, but I couldn't find an image of the one I read. I like mine better, but this will have to do.)

The Connecticut mystery book discussion group is dangerous. Before I know it, I’m going to be doing nothing but reading mysteries, because it seems I’m discovering a new author every month, and well, this genre isn’t known for writers who are one-hit wonders. I’m pretty sure that’s why it’s a genre in which I haven’t read too broad and deep. Bob’s been telling me for years to read Dorothy Sayers (both her fiction and nonfiction), but as spouses so often do (or is it just us?), I completely ignored him (as well as members of my family who’ve also recommended her), and it took the book discussion group to make me wake up and find out why everyone is so gung-ho. I’ve now searched around the house and found four more that I can read before having to go to the library or borrow from friends. Unfortunately, although the four we have all feature Lord Peter Wimsey, none of them has Harriet Vane, and I came to adore both characters while reading this book, which centers more on Harriet Vane than it does on Lord Peter.

I don’t know where to begin with this one. There’s so much to discuss, and I can’t imagine how the book group (which meets this afternoon) is going to keep from pulling an all-nighter to get through a discussion. I will try not to turn this post into a 20-page term paper. Maybe a good way to do that is to begin with someone else’s words. My sister Lindsay left this great comment when I wrote my post on Ngaio Marsh’s Death in a White Tie:

I like Marsh and Dorothy Sayers a lot but my problem with them is, frankly they're snobs: the culprit almost always ends up being middle class--"a person not quite...". Agatha Christie isn't as "intellectual" but she's far more democratic with her murderers and sleuths. The detectives, for example, don't have to constantly deprecate their education at an ancient college at Oxford or admit reluctantly to a connection with some duke.

That’s a perfect jumping-off point for discussion, because, after reading only this one book of Sayers and that one book of Marsh’s, I can see exactly what she meant. Why did I like this one so much better than Marsh, then? Well, first of all, yes, the snobbishness was there, but Sayers did seem to be making attempts (feeble, I admit, but still there) at not being so snobby, at having her characters argue about the unfairness of judging and distinguishing people solely by social class. She ruins those attempts, though, with lines such as this one when Harriet and the Dean (of the fictional Shrewsbury College at Oxford) are talking about two servants, “These people sometimes let their imagination run away with them.” (p. 311) You’d think we hadn’t been introduced to Lord Peter’s nephew whose imagination needs no encouragement to take off into the distance. A part of me wants to suspect that Sayers is clever enough that this is mere irony, but, then again, I doubt the irony would be coming from Harriet Vane’s mouth, but rather, from some less sympathetic character, so sadly, I have to conclude that the irony is unintentional.

This book takes place at Oxford, so that piece is most definitely there, but Oxford’s presence was almost like another character in the book, and as we know, I love it when the setting becomes a character. I liked reading about the esteemed university during that era, learning details, and thinking about what probably has and hasn’t changed since the book was written. I loved the way the faculty and alumni all look down on the abhorrent behavior of those presently attending (a trait that will never change at colleges and universities the world over), especially with the knowledge of how much more appalled they’d be were they to find themselves walking on those grounds today, and how today’s students would laugh at what they find wild. I was especially amused by the following quote, which could come right out of some book written about today’s youth:

[The librarian is speaking here] “…Responsibility bores them. Before the War, they passionately had College Meetings about everything. Now, they won’t be bothered. Half the Institutions, like the College debates and the Third Year play, are dead or moribund. They don’t want responsibility.”

“...said the Dean. “In my day, we simply thirsted for responsibility. We’d all been sat on at school for the good of our souls, and came up bursting to show how brilliantly we could organize things when we were put in charge.”

“If you ask me,” said Harriet, “it’s the fault of the schools. Free discipline and so on. Children are sick to death of running things and doing prefect duty; and when they get up to Oxford, they’re tired out and only want to sit back and let somebody else run the show…” (p. 101)

(I’ve been known to echo Harriet’s sentiment exactly when it comes to people joining fundamentalist religious organizations. They seem to be looking for some dictatorial father figure to, as the Dean notes, “sit on them,” because they missed out on it at an age at which it was appropriate, and now that they’re adults, they don’t want to have to take responsibility. It’s much easier to see things in black and white and base all your actions on fear of punishment.)

I liked this one better than Marsh, also, because it seemed to be about much more than just the mystery. In my post on Death in a White Tie, I noted that I began to get quite bored after a while with what seemed to be nothing but a long series of questioning of suspects. Harriet Vane is a fascinating character in and of herself, an intelligent woman fighting against sexist societal roles, turning down the constant offers of marriage from a man anyone should know a woman, whose main goal in life ought to be to make the best marriage possible, would be mad to reject. She lived with a former lover out of wedlock, was a murder suspect herself at one point in time, and writes mysteries (no one actually comes right out and says it, but you all know they’re thinking “How could a young woman educated at Oxford resort to writing such ‘trash?’"). Her relationship with Lord Peter could rival Scarlett’s and Rhett’s: intellectual equals trying to ignore their hearts, neither one wanting to admit how much in love they are, one-upping each other in proving through their intellects that the other doesn’t matter so much. And Harriet is so real when she captures the attentions of a young student, and she begins to realize that, well, maybe she is attractive to men and that maybe Lord Peter is attracted to her as a woman and is not just courting her for other reasons, like pity, pride, or intellectual spite.

We had lots about Harriet, lots about Oxford, lots about women’s roles, oh, and yes, we happened to have a mystery here, too. And I really liked this particular mystery, one that involved threatening letters, scary destruction in the dark of the night, door-locked-from-the-inside puzzles, and any number of suspects. We aren’t just handed a very prosaic dead body second chapter in with no other mysterious happenings or deaths and then made to focus on finding why some somewhat implausible suspect, who appears on the scene at the penultimate moment to confess that “my mother never liked me” would have killed the brilliant young scholar (because “she had eyes like my mother’s).”

Also, did I mention Dorothy Sayers is funny? It’s the kind of funny I love. You have to be paying attention, not skimming lines, or you might miss it. It’s perfectly encapsulated in these lines:

[Harriet has just read a response to a letter she wrote to Peter informing him that his nephew had been in a bad car accident. He’s indicated that nobody in his family ever tells him anything.] “Poor Old Peter!” said Harriet

The remark probably deserves to be included in an anthology of Great First Occasions.” (p. 198)

That’s just one example. The book has plenty more (and probably plenty I missed when I blinked or something).

So, do I have any criticisms? Just one. I was a little annoyed that Harriet felt the need to call in Lord Peter to help her with this case. A woman as independent as she was, who was busy writing her own detective novels should not have felt she needed his brains to solve this case. Certainly, strong independent female sleuths of today, would not rely on a male detective to help them solve the mystery (Lauren Henderson’s Sam Jones, springs to mind, and so does Linda Barnes’s Carlotta Carlyle, both of whom I love). I know, you can argue that Harriet needed to call in Peter, so we could have that whole touch of romance bit, but somehow, Sam Jones manages to have that without feeling she has to call in a man’s brains. It’s really just a quibble on my part, though. I mean, no matter how enlightened Dorothy Sayers might have been, challenging the sex roles of her day, she was still a woman of her time, and women of her time were quite dependent on men.

Anyway, all-in-all, yet another two-thumbs-up from me on this book club’s choice, and I’m very much looking forward to reading more.


Kate S. said...

Gaudy Night is one of my favourites and it's a treat to be reminded through your post of all the things that I like so much about it. I was late in coming to Sayers as well and, so far, have only read the ones featuring Harriet Vane. I keep promising myself that I will branch out into the ones that feature Lord Peter detecting solo! It's an interesting point that your sister makes in comparing Sayers to Christie. I prefer Sayers because the books are so much richer in setting and characterization, but now I'll have to think again about the question of class bias.

I love that you have a mystery book club. People so often dismiss the genre as fluff, enjoyable to read but not worthy of in-depth discussion. I feel decidedly otherwise and would love to have the opportunity to discuss a range of mystery novels with readers as discerning as you and Dorothy!

Eva said...

I loved reading this post Emily! I'm a big fan of Dorothy Sayers-a few months ago I read 'The Complete Stories.' Most of her Lord Wimsey ones don't feature Harriet, but a few towards the end do. :)

litlove said...

I came to Dorothy Sayers late, but have enjoyed all her novels I've read. I also love the audio versions (the BBC dramatisations) with Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter - he has the MOST gorgeous voice. Do read Busman's Holiday, which is the sequel to this and another great example of Harriet and Peter working together.

Amanda said...

I read a Dorothy Sayer's book the other day. I think I am becoming a convert & will be seeking out more of her books- but that said I was pretty shocked by some of the casual talk of "Jewboys" and "Nig Nogs" and their supposed racial attributes. Eep! Even though, intellectually I know, it's an artifact of those times, it's still pretty shocking.

Rebecca H. said...

I loved this book too and will now have to read the other Harriet Vane books. I've read one without her and liked it, but I didn't fall in love in quite the same way. In our meeting, we talked a lot about your point that it's disappointing to have Harriet calling Peter in at the end; I'm inclined to agree with you and wish she could have done more of the mystery solving herself. But other people made the argument that Harriet has some blind spots in the book because she's too close to the situation and because at the moment she's afraid of revelations more generally -- she doesn't want to see that Peter is perfect for her, that she needs to rework her novel, and that she can have marriage and a career both. Some also argued that Peter has flaws too and shows vulnerability and that he needs her as much as she needs him. I still kind of wish it had been more a joint venture, though.

Anonymous said...

I also really enjoyed this, although it took me about 60 pages to get into it. I loved Oxford as a character and the relationship between Harriet and Peter was very intriguing. I also think Harriet could have done more of the solving and less idle chatter with the academics! Great review, Emily.

Emily Barton said...

Kate, you CAN belong to the mystery book discussion. I only belong as a virtual member, because they didn't get it going until I'd moved (although I do hope to at some point attend a few of the meetings live). We can put you on the email distribution list, so you'll know the book and when the discussion is (and I'll have someone else who can commiserate with me that we won't be there for all the good food and live discussion).

Eva, yeah, I knew that most don't have Harriet Vane. Typical. Just like Agatha Christie wrote scads of Hercule Poirot novels but very few Tommy and Tuppence (who are my favorites).

Litlove, hmmm...sounds like I'll have to find some of those audio versions.

Ms. Make Tea, yes that sort of thing is still so shocking every time I come across it. I'm learning to get through the shock by reminding myself how great it is that we've come so far (relatively speaking) in such a short period of time (relatively speaking).

Dorr, yet again, I wish I'd been there! I'd love to have heard those other arguments.

Pete, thank you, and I love your "idle chatter with the academics." Perfect description!

Rohan Maitzen said...

In case this is of interest to your group members, the feminist scholar Carolyn Heilbrun, who wrote mysteries under the pseudonym 'Amanda Cross,' wrote some great essays on Sayers--and devised her detective, Kate Fansler, initially as a kind of female version of Peter Wimsey.

Susan said...

Fabulous post, Emily! I really like how you compare Christie and Sayers, without putting either author down - they are both enjoyable writers, for different reasons, even though writing at the same time. I prefer Sayers too because she does develop things other than the mystery - as you say, Harriet has a life of her own. I know I read this one a long time ago, so it might be due for a reread.

And would it surprise you to know that I love Carlotta Carlyle and have read almost all of the books with her? Don't suppose you like VI Warshawki too? You have to read Ariana Franklin's "Mistress of the Art of Death" then, you will enjoy Adelia Aguilar. I've run out to buy the second in the series already!

Emily Barton said...

Rohan, thanks for the tip. I've heard of Amanda Cross but don't think I've read her.

Susan, no, it doesn't surprise me at all to discover you're another Carlotta Carlyle fan. I've been told to read VI Warshawaski but haven't yet, and I haven't even heard of Adelia Agular. Yet more books to read... Sigh! Guess someone's gotta do it.