Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers
Now this was a delightful read. In fact, I couldn’t put it down. Dorothy Sayers just turned my whole literary world upside down. I thought I hated detective fiction. I thought it was a waste of time. I thought the whole genre could be brushed right into the dust bin.
Oh, was I wrong.
Let me back up a minute and define what actually is a narrow field of fiction: the detective novel. The detective novel is different from the broader field of mystery novels. The detective novel has a few rules:
- There’s a detective. (I know, this should be obvious, right? But nothing is obvious to me in this mysterious new world of words.)
- The author must provide all the clues and evidence in the text, so that the reader can actually solve the crime, along with the detective.
- In other words, to restate #2, one cannot withhold information which is available to the detective, but not to the reader.
I’m told there are other differences too, but I’m a slow learner, and these are the ones that stood out. If you’re interested in learning a bit about this, a dear friend of mine in North Dakota sent me a lively and informative podcast about this very thing. Click HERE for it and scroll down to Episode 3. ( You won’t regret listening to Cindy Rollins and Angelina Stanford. I love these ladies.)
Back to Sayers
Like most homeschool moms, I had read Sayers’s famous essay, “The Lost Tools of Learning,” and it had never occurred to me that she had written anything else. Why should it? At that time in my life, I was too busy in grad school reading all sorts of new and lovely books–Chesterton, Belloc, Waugh… I wouldn’t have had room in my little brain for her anyway.
Plus, Sayers is really smart. I mean, really, really intelligent. She was one of the first women in history to be given a degree from Oxford. Her knowledge of those things Medieval and Renaissance is impressive. Gaudy Night is chock-full of references and quotations from that time period, which I struggle with. Thankfully Cindy Rollins and Angelina Stanford put together a couple of podcasts specifically about Gaudy Night, which I found tremendously helpful. You can find these episodes on their Literary Life Podcast. I can’t recommend them enough, especially if you fell in love with Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, like I did.
Back to Gaudy Night
It was within the first few pages that I knew I’d like Sayers’s heroine, Harriet Vane. Sayers writes:
But Harriet had broken all her old ties and half the commandments, dragged her reputation in the dust and made money, had the rich and amusing Lord Peter Wimsey at her feet, to marry him if she chose, and was full of energy and bitterness and the uncertain rewards of fame.
That pretty much sums Harriet Vane up, and the novel is so engaging because we get to see her finally take a good look at herself, and realize that she had it all wrong. She didn’t really know herself–or Peter for that matter.
And then there’s Lord Peter Wimsey. Angelina Sanford compares his personality to that of Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. I found this intriguing and so true, especially when it came to manners and wedding proposals.
I promise that this book isn’t just a love story, though. There is a mystery to solve… In fact, there’s a lot going on in this book. Sayers has multiple themes running at once. For you see, she was writing this book at a time when women in universities was a new thing, and so she explores all the complications of introducing another “sex” into the life of Oxford. She ponders single life and married life and women in the workforce and women at home. It’s all there, and it’s messy.
In the end, I can’t wait to reread this book. But first I want to get ahold of her previous novel Strong Poison where we get the backstory of Harriet and Peter. Then I want to read the book after Gaudy Night wherein Peter and Harriet are solving crime mysteries on their honeymoon–goodness!