Being my usual sensible self I decided to take on a nice easy topic for my first week of posting on Sayers for the Tuesday Night Bloggers. Gaudy Night (1935) is the third novel in the Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane quartet and is famous for being a divisive book, with many readers loving it and others hating it. Julian Symons thought the novel was ‘long-winded and ludicrously snobbish… essentially a woman’s novel full of the most tedious pseudo-serious chat between the characters that goes on for page after page’ (Symons, 1972: 118). Whilst Brunsdale (2010), suggests that Sayers ‘successfully integrate[s] a detective plot with the comedy of manners’ (Brunsdale, 2010: 623). Gaudy Night in fact was my first experience of Sayers’ work, which I read during my second year of university, and even though I was terribly out of sequence I loved it, the plot, the setting, the characters, the hint of romance and narrative style. I was quite surprised to later find out that some many people didn’t seem to agree with my own impressions; it was too long, romance shouldn’t be included in the detective novel, there was no murder – all of these were reasons why this book of Sayers’ was supposed to be quickly ignored. I can’t promise to change people’s minds on liking this book, as book enjoyment is a subjective and personal thing, but hopefully this post will counteract some of the arguments lodged against Gaudy Night and also highlight some strengths or interesting areas of the text.
But first here is a brief reminder of what the book is about to refresh the memories of those who have read Gaudy Night and orientate those who have not:
The story begins with Harriet Vane attending a reunion at Shrewsbury College, an event which is called a Gaudy. In the background to this she is nervous about attending as she wonders what people will say about her past (having been proven not guilty of murdering her lover, through Lord Peter Wimsey’s help) and she is also still mulling over her relationship with Peter. She ends up spending more time than she planned at the college as she is asked to investigate a series of pranks, poison letters and other poltergeist activities. Although there may be no dead bodies there are a few near misses, as the unknown assailant increases the severity of their acts and in such an enclosed space the tension is palpable. Along the way Harriet encounters a wide variety of people, including Peter’s nephew. Peter is involved in the case, though mostly in the second half and the revelation of the solution at the end is a brilliant one, with its choice of culprit and the psychological consequences of this, and more importantly for people who have been following the relationship between Peter and Harriet from book 1 in the quartet, an important milestone is reached.
Murder will Out or rather Murder must be in
A common reason why some people shun Gaudy Night is due to the fact there is no centralising murder. Whilst there are many great mystery novels which include murders, I don’t think including a murder is necessarily a prerequisite for a good detective or mystery story and in fact there are many authors who have shown you don’t need to. Arthur Conan Doyle is a strong example of just this, with many of the Holmes’ stories not including a murder and Judith Flanders (2011) even goes as far as suggesting that ‘this lack of blood was one of the things that made Holmes popular’ (Flanders, 2011: 438). I might not necessarily go that far but I would suggest there aren’t many fans of Golden Age or Classical detective fiction who would forgo reading Holmes’ exploits because there were no dead bodies. There are also full length novels which don’t include murders such as Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair (1948), which I very much enjoyed. In addition, Sayers in her opinion had a very good reason for not including murder this time round:
‘Murder – the first crime that suggests itself to the detective novelist – must be excluded. Murder meant publicity and the police, and I wanted to keep my action within the control of the Senior Common Room’ (Sayers, 1946; 1937: 213).
Looking back at the story I think she has a point, as I think it would have been a very different novel if the police had been prowling the college, diluting a very female cast and I think the tension is increased more by there being a lack of outside perspective for the majority of the story.
‘There must be no love interest’
Well Sayers thoroughly broke this particular rule postulated by S. S. Van Dine in 1928 and even in her own introduction to The Omnibus of Crime she felt ‘marriage… loom[ed] too large’ (Sayers, 1946; 1928/9: 79) in the lives of female detectives. However, I think Van Dine saw this as a rigid rule to castigate those novels where romance is too much of a priority and the detective element suffers. On the other hand I think Sayers came to realise that detective novels could be more than puzzles and that personal relationships whilst in weaker hands could detract from the detective work, in more competent hands could make an interesting challenge and a great read.
Overall I do think Sayers does a good job at working the relationship aspect into the four novels and the slow progression does mean there is room for detective work and in fact makes it much more plausible than the scores of novels where characters meet for the first time at the start of the story and finish up married at the end of the story, after a courtship concertinaed into a couple of strolls and a tennis party. Or even worse, a romantic entanglement is intimated at the start of the story, but then is only picked up again at the end of the book, with a police investigation sandwiched in the middle, such as in Thirteen Guests (1936) by J. Jefferson Farjeon. Moreover, Lord Peter Wimsey is not given a superior position over Harriet in their relationship, which easily could have happened if Sayers had tacked on a wedding to the end of the first novel in the quartet, Strong Poison (1930), where he gets her acquitted from a murder trial. Instead they come to a place where they are equals, with Harriet not having to feel grateful or inferior. I always liked how Harriet never gushes around Peter, a problem to an extent in Philip MacDonald’s The Rasp (1924), where the detective wins the very gushing woman, after ensuring she isn’t accused of murder. Perhaps something detractors of this novel haven’t thought about is how much this novel actually achieves in combining a mystery plot with a romance one and how many pitfalls it has avoided.
‘Lord Peter remains an example of a good man spoilt’
Or so says Agatha Christie. I completely disagree, as I think Peter’s evolving relationship with Harriet makes him a far more likeable, human and vulnerable character, three dimensional in a way Poirot can never be. This quartet makes Peter less of a “great detective” cipher and turns him into a more real character. Moreover, to make this romance plausible, to not tack it on to the end of detective story, but instead interweave it through the text, Sayers was right when she said that Peter needed to undergo an ‘operation’. In the early Peter novels, Peter is a whimsical ‘silly ass’ (Sayers, 1946; 1937: 211) or at the very least uses this persona as a disguise and way of protecting himself from hurt. Sayers also says in her essay on Gaudy Night that after having finished Strong Poison she realised that ‘if the story was to go on, Peter had got to become a complete human being.’
Of course some readers, even contemporary ones weren’t pleased with the changes being wrought within Peter and Sayers recalls one such reader:
‘One of the first results of the operation was an indignant letter from a female reader of Gaudy Night asking, What had happened to Peter? He had lost all his elfin charm. I replied that any man who retained elfin charm at the age of forty-five should be put in a lethal chamber’ (Sayers, 1946; 1937: 212)
However, isn’t this maybe just a resistance a change? Aren’t the changes being made in Peter through this quartet trying to make him less ridiculous and more congruous with his age and maturation? Unlike Peter Pan, this Peter needs to mature and grow up. I can understand how readers can become used to a character being a certain way, but I think the way Sayers changes Peter is firstly for the better and secondly done gradually over four books so readers can become acclimatised to the regenerated Peter. Above all I think this attention on characters and their relationships gives Gaudy Night, a much more psychological focus, a development which is hailed in later detective novels after the Golden Age, but was actually initiated by writers such as Sayers. This in fact was her intention as she says:
‘if the detective story was to live and develop it must get back to where it began in the hands of Collins and Le Fanu, and become once more a novel of manners instead of a pure crossword puzzle’ (Sayers, 1946; 1937: 209).
In addition, a key consequence of this development within Peter, is that his relationship with Harriet causes him to look at the guilt a detective can feel on solving a case, which again gives Sayers’ later work a deeper level. Connelly (2007) supports this asserting that:
‘The most significant human emotion that Sayers incorporates into her novels is that of guilt on the part of the detective. In focusing on this guilt, Sayers becomes perhaps the first novelist to fully incorporate the detective’s identity crisis into her works. The detective has traditionally been a heroic figure, in that he or she discovers and contains a threat to his or her community. Rather than simply depicting Lord Peter as such a hero, however, Sayers acknowledges that the detective may also be a source of great danger to himself and to those around him…’ (Connelly, 2007: 38).
This is something even Christie’s Poirot experiences on a certain level, becoming increasing troubled by justice and guilt, though perhaps exhibited and explored in a different way. Unlike Peter, Poirot, doesn’t have someone he can talk this through with and it can be argued that this lack of discussion, this inability to put his ego aside and admit vulnerability which leads to his drastic actions in his last published case, Curtain (1975).
This is no doubt one of those themes which made Symons dismiss this novel as a ‘woman’s’ one. Conversely I think it is one of the novel’s strengths that it tackles such big questions and the fact that readers and academics today still discuss this element of the book, suggests it contributes significantly to the debate on women and their role in society. At one end of the spectrum there are feminist critics who:
‘condemn Sayers for creating a strong independent woman only to have her abandon her independence by capitulating to Peter and assuming the traditional female role of wife and mother’ (Reynolds, 1994: 31).
Whilst others suggest that Harriet Vane:
‘that most sympathetic heroine chooses marriage over female community or a single life… to find scope for her gifts as well as lifelong companionship’ (Leonardi, 1989: 97).
Personally I think I am closer to Leonardi’s point of view as I don’t think Harriet does capitulate to Peter, she agrees to marry him on her own terms. Moreover, if we look at events after this point, yes she may be married and have children, but she has also maintained her career, has feisty debates with Peter, she continues to be involved in investigations and in Busman’s Honeymoon (1937) she has to emotionally support Peter when the consequences of the investigation overwhelm him. Moreover, Harriet throughout the quartet of novels is shown to be good at detective work and avoids the hysterical heroine role, which many female characters from the genre fall foul to. In Have His Carcase (1932) for instance, when faced with a dead body which is soon going to be washed in the sea, she presents herself as unflappable and calm in a stressful situation. I can’t see marriage eroding these qualities in her.
The main points of contention in regards to gender in Gaudy Night, I think boil down to a few key questions and incidences. Firstly what effect does Peter’s role in solving the mysterious circumstances at the college say about gender roles? Should Vane have been the one to solve it all by herself? Or would this have lacked verisimilitude, as after all, Peter does have more experience of solving cases? And of course there is the dog collar incident. On hearing about strangling attempts at the college, Peter, concerned for Harriet’s safety buys her a dog collar to wear around her neck to prevent any would be strangler from succeeding. Symbolically this can be read as a sense of ownership on Peter’s part and in isolation I think it could easily be seen that way. A brief foray on the internet suggests that is a key area for debate with some focusing on the practical reason for the collar and others looking at the novel and the relationship as a whole, suggesting that male domination wouldn’t fit with Peter’s character. Whilst I can’t give a definitive clear cut answer on this, what I think this is a good example of, is the multi-levels this mystery novel works at, meaning you take away something different each time you read it (if we’re honest how many other Golden Age novels do that?) and how decades later it is still a spring board for discussions on issues which affect people today.
An Elitist Setting?
A key aspect of Golden Age crime fiction has often been that the crime has a closed set of suspects within an enclosed space. A college/ university milieu is ideal for this criterion in many ways and two years after Sayers’ novel, Michael Innes published his first Inspector Appleby novel, Death at the President’s Lodging (1937), in a similar setting, though not at a female college. Such a setting is also ideal in many ways for discussing the role of women in life generally, but also in academia, which perhaps might have resonated with the circumstances in which I first read Gaudy Night. I also think Sayers was right in suggesting that this setting enabled Peter and Harriet to meet on a level playing field, ‘on the intellectual platform… [where] Harriet could stand free and equal with Peter…’ (Sayers, 1946; 1937: 213).
However, some readers who have disliked this novel have levelled the charge that the college setting is just an example of Sayers being snobbish and elitist, giving her an excuse to include many literary allusions, some of which are in Latin and French. I don’t disagree that these allusions can be a bit tricky to decipher at times, but in an age of Google, these allusions can be quickly explained and personally I am always up for learning something new. Moreover, detective stories are often set in specific milieus, which centre on particular vocations such as religious orders or hobbies such as bird watching, painting or even fishing and with these settings there is terminology specific to the situation. Often readers may not fully understand some of these references and either carry on happily with the story or do a quick internet search and in retrospect they don’t necessarily criticise the book for including those words. Consequently I think in this light, Sayers’ own inclusion of allusions and terminology which fit with the milieu perfectly should be treated in a similar manner. After all I don’t think readers of John Dickson Carr’s The Crooked Hinge (1938) finished the novel annoyed because he includes quotes on magic and automatons in another a language.
I don’t think this is a perfect novel but I do think it is a good one. I love how Sayers tackled the issue of romance in detective novels and how in doing so she made the detective story more than just a puzzle. I also liked how she had the gumption to try something new, to go beyond what already existed. Her choice of setting is close to her heart, which is evidenced in how she recreates it so well, that you feel like you are there yourself. But I don’t think she is so blinded by her love of her setting that she can’t see the faults and she is critical of this academic setting as well. Unlike Janet Hitchman I don’t think Sayers is trying to ‘preach a sermon,’ (Hitchman, 1975: 97) but I do think she is asking her readers to think, which is another thing I admire about the book. Finally, I also think she was very much aware of the challenge she had set herself and aware of the mixture of genres she was playing with in this novel. I think this is encapsulated when she told her publishers to decide on how to promote it: ‘as a love-story, or as educational propaganda, or as a lunatic freak’ (quoted in Dubose, 2000: 203).
Over to you
First of all apologies for this post being so long, but I look forward to hearing from you, about your own opinions on Gaudy Night. Do you love it or hate it? Does it perhaps deserve a re-read?
Brunsdale, M. (2010). Icons of Mystery and Crime Detection: From Sleuths to Superheroes. Oxford: Greenwood.
Connelly, Kelly C. (2007). From Detective Fiction to Detective Literature: Psychology in the Novels of Dorothy L. Sayers and Margaret Miller. Clues. 25 (3), pp. 35-47.
Dubose, Martha Hailey. (2000). Women of Mystery: The Lives and Works of Notable Woman Crime Novelists. New York: Thomas Dunne Books.
Flanders, J. (2011). The Invention of Murder. London: Harper Press.
Hitchman, Janet. (1975). Such a Strange Lady. New York: Avon.
Leonardi, Susan J. (1989). Dangerous by Degrees. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP.
Reynolds, W. (1994). The Patriarchy Restored: BBC Television’s Adaptation of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Have His Carcase and Gaudy Night. In: Reynolds, W. It’s a Print! Detective Fiction from Page to Screen. Ohio: Bowling Green University Press. pp. 31-48.
Sayers, Dorothy L. (1946). Gaudy Night. In: Haycraft, H. The Art of the Mystery Story. New York: Carroll and Graf Publishers Inc. pp. 208-221.
Sayers, Dorothy L. (1946). The Omnibus of Crime Introduction. In: Haycraft, H. The Art of the Mystery Story. New York: Carroll and Graf Publishers Inc. pp. 71-109.
Symons, J. (1972). Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel. London: Faber and Faber.