Tuesday Night Bloggers: Why you should give Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night (1935) another look.

Sayers TNBBeing 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.

Gaudy Night 2

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.

Gaudy Night 4

‘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).

Gaudy Night 3


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.

Gaudy Night 1

Final Thoughts

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.


  1. Very interesting. I like Gaudy Night for all sorts of reasons though I find the comments about academics being devoted to honest intellectual endeavour rather laughable. I believe Sayers did once say that she did not really believe that was true in real life. But I am in slight disagreement about Harriet and Lord Peter. I think this is the novel where Harriet finally grows up. In fact, I might devote on of this month’s postings on that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • So glad you like Gaudy Night too. I was worried I was going to be the only one! I think LPW does grow up throughout the quartet, though mostly in the first two. Hadn’t really thought as much about Harriet Vane (this post was already ridiculously long), but you are definitely right that she too has to change and develop before she is ready to be in a relationship with Peter, in particular get rid of the chip on her shoulder surrounding gratitude and feeling inferior.


  2. Great post, well researched and interesting. I loved the book the first time around and will have to give it another go round. Where was Vane when I was in college! Keep up the good work….I look forward to your next communication.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Count me in too as a fan – I love Gaudy Night, and love reading about it so very much enjoyed your post. This is what I said about it once:
    It has a special place in the affections of hard-core fans of Dorothy L Sayers – even though there are also long descriptions of the day-by-day running of a women’s college in the 1930s, and the social AND intellectual snobbery run unchecked. Good sociological interest, as we like to say when we can’t explain why we like books.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I hate to find myself agreeing with Julian Symons but GAUDY NIGHT doesn’t work at all for me.

    The problem with trying to write a detective story that is more than just a detective story is that this will only work if you have a good detective story to build on. To me GAUDY NIGHT suffers from the same problem as Ellery Queen’s CALAMITY TOWN – it’s let down by the poor mystery plot. To be honest I felt the same way about STRONG POISON. Sayers could write superb mysteries – I absolutely adore THE UNPLEASANTNESS AT THE BELLONA CLUB and MURDER MUST ADVERTISE. Once Harriet Vane came on the scene Sayers seemed to lose interest in the detective fiction aspect of detective fiction.

    I’ve noticed that opinions on GAUDY NIGHT are incredibly sharply divided along gender lines.

    Liked by 2 people

    • ah the first naysayer of Sayer’s Gaudy Night! I wouldn’t say the plot is poor nor Sayer’s best, but I enjoyed it, but I do get that perceptions of plots are subjective and I imagine because there were lots of other elements I enjoyed in the book that any weaknesses in the mystery element were not as important for me. I think out of the four Vane novels, Have His Carcase has the strongest mystery plot. Murder Must Advertise is one of my favourite Sayers too and will be touched upon in next week’s post.


    • I agree that in my experience the reactions to GAUDY NIGHT, and Peter-and-Harriet generally, are divided sharply along gender lines. I may be taking my life in my hands by saying so, because in my experience women react badly to any suggestion that Peter-and-Harriet is anything less than ideal, but I think that’s because DLS wrote this four-volume romantic story as a kind of wish-fulfillment fantasy and altered Peter’s character to make him the absolutely, quintessentially perfect mate for an extremely intelligent and well-educated woman who was frustrated by the stupid and insensitive males whom she dealt with in everyday life. (And implicit in this is that DLS *is* Harriet, or vice versa, which I think is pretty clear.) Peter shares her unusual interests, he treats her as an intellectual equal, he’s wealthy and handsome and intelligent and all-around perfect, and most importantly he seems to know what she needs him to do without being told — like providing dog collars. Ever since, extremely intelligent and well-educated women have been discovering this perfect romance and cherishing it, because they deserve men like that and don’t get them. But their male partners, I think, find it an impossible romantic standard to meet.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I’m assuming that the gender lines you are asserting are women pro the book and men anti. However, Sayers in her essay on Gaudy Night actually suggests the opposite, which surprised her as she was genuinely convinced men wouldn’t be interested in the book:
        ‘The “male reader” confounded prophecy by not merely displaying interest in academic women, but by producing a strong “pro-Harriet” party, which asserted in the teeth of those female readers who complained of Peter’s throwing himself away on Harriet, that Harriet, on the contrary, was completely thrown away on Peter.’
        And as one female reader I don’t think LPW or HV are ideal people, if anything the books show that like all human beings there is still room for growth and change in themselves and their relationships. I can see how DLS is identifying with HV (which I won’t hold against her), but when I read these novels I didn’t know anything much about DLS so I wasn’t looking for parallels.

        Liked by 1 person

      • It’s not just that Harriet is Sayers. Harriet is an idealised Sayers. A perfect Sayers. And that’s one of the issues I have with the Wimsey-Harriet pairing. They’re both so perfect. And perfect characters aren’t terribly interesting.


  5. This is is, alas, not a Sayers I’ve read, but I just wanted to say that it irritates the hell out of me when long-winded Latin, French or anything else is included purely for the inclusion of a foreign language. If it’s relevant, provide a translation or keep it short so it can be determined from context (like most of Poirot’s exclamations). If it’s not relevant…why is it there? Gaaahhh!!!


    Superb analysis, though. If I ever decide to give Sayers another go (I am, after all, a glutton for punishment) it’ll be Have His Carcase (the impossible crime monkey in me can’t be ignored). But if that inspires me to read further, I’ll go on to this because you’ve piqued my interest

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad you liked the post – to be honest I am impressed if people make it to the end! Have His Carcase has the strongest detective/mystery plot out of the four Vane novels so probably a good place for you to start. Good to know I piqued your interest, quite a feat I know. Have you ever read Murder Must Advertise?


  6. I read the book many years ago, knowing that it was controversial, and found myself thoroughly enjoying it. It is isn’t the strongest plotted of the books, but as long as the writing is engaging that doesn’t really bother me. I found it a far more engaging book than THE FIVE RED HERRINGS, which seems to be all plot and not much else.

    It’s possible that I’m just insensitive, but I’ve never really noticed much change in LPW. Even as far back as WHOSE BODY? it was made plain that the ‘silly-ass’ persona was simply a front, and what change there was towards the end of the series seemed to be more a case of cooling down some of his more obvious verbal affectations.

    My favourites of the books are probably THE NINE TAILORS and MURDER MUST ADVERTISE, although I’m fond of most of them. My fave of the Harriet Vanes is HAVE HIS CARCASE, on the strength of the fun to be had watching LPW ane HV working as a detective team (although I still maintain the the actual murder plot is complicated to the point of insanity!)

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Erm . . . but do you have any really strong opinions about this, Kate?

    Lovely and intelligent writing, as always, about an author I still don’t think I will find time for in a long while. If it matters at all, I DID enjoy the TV version of this with Harriet Walter as Harriet Vane. And I love academic mysteries, so I would probably be one of those men who does not fall across gender lines. (Although that tends to describe my usual state!) Have you read P.M. Carlson? Most of her books take place on college campuses (her sleuth couple are a statistician and a professor.) My favorite is MURDER MISREAD, which has a SUPERB misdirection at the center of it. It’s modern, but its heart is in GAD!

    Isn’t it interesting that, right now, I’d rather check out your new pash for Robin Forsythe, or read the rest of the Harriet Rutlands, than tackle the second biggest queen in GAD history! I blame Curtis and Martin for that! Oh, and I am WALLOWING in impossible crime mysteries for my “JJ Made Me Do It” project, and, given how impossible January always is, work-wise, I have been slogging through the first one of those. AND I have to pick my 1933 reads and viewings for Rich, PLUS I’m trying to match books with Bev’s cover contest. Oh, and don’t get me started on the post I plan to do on THE CLOCKS, entitled “The Descent from Greatness: Agatha Christie’s final years…..”

    When do we find time to make dinner?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I loved the TV adaptations of the Vane quartet (though my DVD set is set to the USA so can only watch it on my laptop – its not a boxset easy to procure in the UK), although annoyingly they did have to cut out lots of good stuff to adapt Gaudy Night. I have never heard of P. M. Carlson, though it sounds like I should give them a go, who can resist a bit of misdirection? I understand where you are coming from with focusing on new reprint authors, as I have a tendency to not re-read novels but to just keep going with one more new book I haven’t read. 1933 is a good year for books and in fact one of the Robin Forsythe novels was published that year, so you could kill two birds with one stone. Your upcoming Christie post sounds intriguing as always and I look forward to reading it.


  8. A lifelong Sayers fan I obviously grew up in a sheltered environment (of Sayers fans) as I had never heard most of these criticisms. I think they were wel-answered in the blog. And of course Gaudy Night was THE book that made so many of us want to go to Oxford. Which for people of my generation as university entrance was opening up to a broader spectrum was a very good thing.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I disagree with those who equate Sayers with Harriet Vane. Saying she is a Harriet Vane ‘wannabe’ is just not how I read her novels at all. The more I read of her letters and other essays, the closer I find her to Peter’s voice. She was a female writer to be sure, but the words in Peter’s mouth are very often her own outlook on life. I believe her own mind worked more along the lines of Peter’s thought processes, often relying on hunches and instinct, and less in the slower and steadier way of a Harriet Vane. There are bits of her in both of them, and certainly more depth of character in each than one finds in most GAD fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

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