Gaudy Night

My mystery book group had another fabulous meeting this past Sunday to discuss Dorothy Sayers’s novel Gaudy Night.  I can’t recommend highly enough having a specific theme or genre for your book group; I have limited experience with book groups I’ll admit, but with this one, having a focus has made the discussions so rich and interesting.  We’re not looking at the books in isolation, but instead, with every book we read, we’re building a basis of comparison and a body of knowledge about the genre that we can draw on when reading and discussing.  Each meeting is as much about the genre and how each example fits into it as it is about the book itself.

I’m beginning to think that there’s actually very little that clearly defines the mystery genre.  We’ve seen such a wide range of subjects and styles in the eight books we’ve read so far that it’s hard to make generalizations about them, except for basic ones, like the fact that there is some sort of crime in each of them (often but not always a murder) and some figure who tries to solve the crime (maybe a police officer or maybe an amateur detective or maybe just some random person who gets caught up in the plot), and some solution to the crime offered at the novel’s end. That’s not a whole lot to hang a genre on, but I suppose that’s why the genre does so well — it allows authors to take those basic elements in so many different directions that the genre continues to feel fresh and interesting. The best books we’ve read are about much more than a mystery, reaching beyond the basic plot to say something else.

Gaudy Night pushes the mystery genre in the direction of philosophical treatise, asking questions about duty and where our ultimate loyalty lies, and social commentary, specifically on the question of prospects for women who are smart and would like a career and family both. What I love about the book is that Sayers is unafraid to include long passages of complicated dialogue — long scenes where Oxford dons debate matters of ethics and social policy or conversations where the protagonist Harriet Vane ponders what it means to write mystery novels.  There is a plot, but at times the plot seems almost beside the point. What matters are the ideas, and even more so, the changes Harriet goes through as she grapples with those ideas.

Harriet is a marvelous character.  I’ve read one other Sayers novel, The Nine Tailors, and I liked it, but it didn’t have Harriet in it and so wasn’t quite as fabulous.  I now see that sooner or later I will have to read every Harriet Vane book Sayers wrote. In Gaudy Night, Harriet is interesting because she is conflicted in a dozen different ways.  We see her first as she is on her way back to Oxford for a reunion — the gaudy — and it is all she can do to drag herself back.  She goes only because she doesn’t want to disappoint classmates who have invited her.  The trouble is that she has made a career out of mystery novel writing, which she thinks some in Oxford might not consider a worthy use of her excellent education; she has also offended traditional morality by living with a man she was not married to, and, worst of all, she was a murder suspect herself and only narrowly escaped conviction and hanging.

She finds, however, that the Oxford dons are interested in her writing and are fans of her books, and when disturbing events start happening on campus — threatening letters arrive, lewd pictures and messages appear on walls, property gets destroyed — the dons invite her back to help them solve the mystery.

This turns out to offer her a little retreat in which to think about some of the things that have been troubling her. While working on the case — and also helping an English scholar edit a manuscript and doing some research on Sheridan Le Fanu — she talks with the dons about what it means to live a life of the mind, tucked away in isolation from the world of families and children and domestic responsibilities.  She has the chance to think about whether a satisfying life is possible for a woman who has brains and a heart both — one who wants to do more than care for a family but doesn’t want to let a career keep her from experiencing love and romance.  She worries that she will have to choose one or the other, career or love, and she worries with good reason, as all she sees around her are single women purely devoted to their scholarly lives on the one hand, and on the other, women who have found themselves caring for a brood of children and have lost touch with their intellectual ambitions.

And then there is Peter Wimsey, the charming, attractive amateur detective who keeps proposing marriage to her, and whom Harriet feels she could care for, if only they didn’t have a singularly unfortunate past.  It turns out that Peter is the one who saved her from conviction in the murder case, and now she feels she is on unequal footing with him, owing him her life, in effect, and she is convinced those are the worst circumstances in which to fall in love with somebody. She would like to fall in love, but she would like even more to maintain her independence and her pride.

The book moves back and forth between Harriet’s investigation of the mysterious happenings on campus and her conversations and thoughts about what kind of life she wants, and she also interacts with undergraduates, both men and women, so we get a picture of Oxford life, with all its traditions and habits.  As Emily writes in her post, Oxford itself becomes a character.

The book does all these things and more.  In our meeting, my book group listed all the book types or genres Gaudy Night references, and we came up with a long list: academic satire, mystery, romance, social commentary, comedy of manners, philosophical exploration, feminist manifesto, novel of personal growth, künstlerroman, literary criticism, even political thriller, as Peter Wimsey is always dashing off to Europe on diplomatic missions and it’s clear that World War II is on its way (the book was published in 1936).

So Gaudy Night accomplishes a whole lot in its 500 or so pages, and yet Sayers manages to make it all hang together. It’s a mystery novel and also an illustration of just how much a “mere” mystery novel can do.


Filed under Books, Fiction

16 responses to “Gaudy Night

  1. maryb

    My favorite Dorothy Sayers mystery is Murder Must Advertise. Sayers actually worked in an Ad Agency at one time and she captures the feel of the agency wonderfully. I think Harriet is only briefly mentioned in that one.

    Reading all of Sayers’ mysteries in chronological publication order is helpful because the “back story” builds in each novel. At first there is just Peter and he’s not particularly well developed (at least I didn’t think so), but then she builds on him, and we meet his mother and brother and then Harriet gets introduced. Gaudy Night is one of the last in the series.

    The scene that always sticks in my mind from Gaudy Night is the scene where she’s to meet Peter (on a bridge I think) and he has arrived first as a gentleman should so the lady isn’t waiting by herself – and she really does appreciate it. I read that when I was younger and rolled my eyes. But now, after years of waiting for men to show up, I think I would appreciate it too. 🙂


  2. I loved Gaudy Night when I read it, and I have to admit that whilst I like Dorothy Sayers a lot, I do prefer the novels with Harriet Vane in them (with the exception of Murder Must Advertise). I taught crime fiction for a while, and one way we considered the genre was to understand a particular task involved for narrative. It was a kind of shoring up of society, by telling a story that featured a brutal intrusion into its order (murder, rape, theft) which was then resolved, evil pinpointed to one location (not floating around affecting everyone) and thus neutralised. It’s also the place where narrative sets itself a problem and solves it, where there’s an emptiness or enigma in the text that the story itself fixes, often by exploring double meanings in what’s said, or by exploiting the fact that the reader cannot fully visualise what occurs. I’d suggest that your group reads Sebastian Japrisot’s Trap for Cinderella one of these days, as it’s a really good mystery that plays with all these ideas.

    Just wish I was in the group with you!


  3. This sounds really good. I’ve wondered what Gaudy Night was about for ages but never bothered to go beyond the wondering. Now I know and now I want to read it. Maybe I suspected that would be the case all along and didn’t want to add anything else to my TBR list. There’s no escape now!


  4. As many mysteries as I do read, I’ve never met Harriet Vane, but I think I’d like her a lot!


  5. Great post! You’re absolutely right: picking a genre for this book discussion group has proven to be a great idea. Even though I’m not part of the discussions, I like making the comparisons and finding threads of similarity among the titles, sometimes in the oddest places. I’m sold on Harriet now, too, and am afraid I won’t like others by Sayers as much, but we’ll see…


  6. Wasn’t Gaudy Night wonderful. Like you I wanted to read every Sayers’ mystery with Harriet Vane in it as well, though I haven’t yet gotten back to reading her. Your post makes me want to do it right now, though! Out of curiosity are the members of your group big mystery fans (reading more mysteries than other books?) or did you as a group just decide you would concentrate on reading that particular genre? I would love to be in a group like that where you could make connections and comparisons between the books. And I second Litlove–Sebastien Japrisot’s noir crime novels are excellent. I discovered them some time ago when I was working in the bookstore and read all of them I could get my hands on in one summer. Do you know what you’re reading next?


  7. adevotedreader

    I don’t have anything useful to say, but love Gaudy Night so am glad you enjoyed it. Your book group seems to have made good choices, so like Danielle I’d like to know (if you do) what you’re reading next.


  8. Maryb — I would love to read Sayers in chronological order, although I’m not sure I’ll do it that way, just because of time reasons, but I would like to go back and read the Harriet books in order, at least. She does a pretty good job of filling you in on what happens in previous novels, but I would like to get the full picture. Murder Must Advertise sounds great! I’m lucky because my husband has all her books, so all I have to do is wander into his study to find them.

    Thanks for the suggestion, Litlove! I’ll have to check Japrisot’s book out. And yes, your argument about crime fiction restoring order makes a lot of sense, and it’s one we’ve talked about a bit — we’re wondering whether all crime fiction fills that role or not. We’re kind of thinking that not all of it does — Gaudy Night, for example, does definitely restore order in Shrewsbury College, and yet there’s so much about Harriet herself that is subversive and it turns out that the “villain” of the novel has some very reactionary ideas about women, so there’s lots in the book that questions the social order. It’s interesting to think of the story posing a problem and fixing it itself. I wish you could join us in our meetings!

    Stefanie — oh, yes, this is definitely a book to add to your TBR list! Very sorry, but it’s true 🙂 I think you’ll like it — Harriet is wonderful!

    Debby — I think you’d like her too. I’d offer to lend you our copy, but unfortunately it’s about to fall apart. She’s definitely worth owning though!

    Emily — the next Sayers I read will have Harriet in it, but yeah, once I’m finished with the Harriet books, I’m worried her Wimsey books won’t be as good. It’s been great being able to make comparisons; I’ve never read so many mysteries in my life, and I’m glad I’m doing it.

    Danielle — some of us are big mystery fans (maybe two or three) and the rest (we have nine total) are occasional readers. I wanted to join the group because the people are interesting and I thought the discussions would be good, and the subject matter mattered less to me. But now I’m getting into it more than I thought I would. Very glad to get another Japrisot recommendation! You probably saw in my most recent post that we’re reading Chester Himes next — for something completely different!

    adevotedreader — it’s Chester Himes’s The Real Cool Killers — an author I’m not familiar with. I’m glad to be getting to know so many new writers!


  9. I just finished Strong Poison, the book in which Lord Peter Wimsey meets, falls in love with, and proves Harriet Vane to be innocent of murder. I’m going back to the library for more.


  10. Grad — thanks for commenting! I’m going to have to read Strong Poison, definitely. It sounds great.


  11. I particularly like Gaudy Night because of its autobiographical insights – the English tutor whose manuscript Harriet helps with is based on one of her own tutors of French at Somerville College, Mildred K. Pope, the renowned Romance philologist credited with improving the teaching of tutorials at the college.


  12. Fifiquilter — I didn’t know about the autobiographical elements in the novel, beyond some really general similarities (although it did seem likely they were there) — very interesting to know about some real people who influenced her.


  13. I’m so glad you liked Gaudy Night! It’s always been one of my favorites, and in fact I’m leading a book group discussion on it on Monday, which is how I discovered your post. I hope you’ve had a chance to go back and read the other Harriet Vane/Peter Wimsey stories, and you’ll be happy to hear that even though Murder Must Advertise isn’t technically a Harriet Vane story, it does include a reference to her, as Sayers writes the book as if it were happening in the middle of the other Vane/Wimsey stories.

    Thanks for writing up your discussion! I hope ours goes as well.



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