Sayers, Dorothy. Gaudy Night.
(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.)
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
or admit reluctantly to a connection with some duke. Oxford
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
[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
, they’re tired out and only want to sit back and let somebody else run the show…” (p. 101) Oxford
(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
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.