A beautifully written exploration of the importance and difficulty of personal choice, of the nature and relevance of academic life, of the possibility of finding love and the difficulty of deserving it, wrapped up in a mystery set in an all-female Oxford College in 1935.
I’d been told, repeatedly, that this was a wonderful book. I took it on faith, as I had abandoned the first Peter Wimsey book “Whose Body?” because it seemed to me to be a chaotic farce.
I was in the book’s thrall before the end of the first chapter. In a few pages I’d already decided that I liked Harriet Vane and wanted to spend time in her company and that I admired Dorothy Sayers’ skill in creating empathy for and engagement with an introspective intellectual woman working her way through emotions that she’s trying to hold at arms-length.
Dorothy Sayers did so much with so few words. I hadn’t read the two Harriet Vane books that preceded “Gaudy Night” yet, within a few pages, I learned a lot about Harriet: her history, her character, her mode of thought. She was already real to me.
What caught me by surprise is the emotional impact.
I left my university thirty years ago. I’ve never been back. I never will go back. I’m not who I was then and he wouldn’t recognise who I am now.
Sayers captured this sense of visiting a previous self, one untested and less well-formed than the self you currently inhabit and the anxiety it produces, perfectly.
Harriet Vane thinks:
It was all so long ago; so closely encompassed and complete; so cut off as by swords from the bitter years that lay between. Could one face it now?
“Closely encompassed and complete.” I like that. It’s an illusion in one way of course but it’s a sentiment that strongly persists for me.
Even on her way to Oxford, Harriet’sanxiety persists. She’s glad to be driving to Oxford in her own little car rather than entering by train as her undergraduate self always had and she’s glad that:
For a few hours longer she could ignore the whimpering ghost of her dead youth and tell herself that she was a stranger and a sojourner, a well-to-do woman with a position in the world.
This seemed real to me, this telling ourselves stories of who we are and who we’ve been so that we can cope with what’s to come.
I also liked the moments where, as the reader, I was left to draw my own conclusions. When Harriet opens a long-closed chest in the attic and retrieves her academic gown, she finds it in good order:
Only the flat cap showed a little touch of the moth’s tooth. As she beat the loose fluff from it, a tortoise-shell butterfly, disturbed from its hibernation beneath the flap of the trunk-lid, fluttered out into the brightness of the window, where it was caught and held by a cobweb.
That’s a wonderfully gentle way to introduce foreboding that shows Sayers’ lightness of touch and clarity of imagination.
I was also surprised that this book was written in 1935. Based on the handed-down version of period dramas and television stereotypes, Harriet Vane seemed a remarkably strong and independent character, especially when written by a woman of a similar background. Clearly my perceptions need to be adjusted if this was contemporary popular literature.
The central mystery of the book involves discovering the identity sf the person who is making repeated attempts to sabotage the reputation of the all-female Oxford college, the individual members of the Senior Common Room and some of the students.
The attacks are vicious, spiteful and well-executed. They seem to be the product hatred, perhaps the darkest of passions, and it seems likely that the culprit is a member of the Senior Common Room.
Harriet is asked to come and live and work at her old college while discretely but with the full knowledge of senior staff, to investigate the acts of sabotage.
Harriet, five years after having been put on trial for her life for a murder she didn’t commit, has built a life for herself as a writer of mysteries. She has a genuine passion for writing but she feels the need for something more.
Harriet has reached a point where she understands she must make a choice. At one point, when talking to a student, she says:
I’m sure one should do one’s own job, however trivial, and not persuade one’s self into doing somebody else’s, however noble.”
Harriet also recognises how hard it is to make the right choice. Talking to a Don at her college Harriet asks:
“But one has to make some sort of choice,” said Harriet. “And between one desire and another, how is one to know which things are really of overmastering importance?”
“We can only know that,” said Miss de Vine, “when they have overmastered us.”
The idea that having the self-awareness and discipline to choose how to live your life to follow your desire is necessary to find fulfilment but that real happiness can only be achieved by opening yourself up to a desire and allowing it to overwhelm you, is central to this book.
Harriet values her intellect and her control over her own life. She is self-aware and tries not to lie to herself. She wants to avoid harming herself or those around her. This makes it difficult for her to surrender to passion. I imagine that letting oneself be overwhelmed must feel a little like drowning to a woman like Harriet Vane. It takes courage not to keep your head below the water.
The mystery at her old college allows Harriet to hear the call of two of her passions: the lure of the academic life where she can excel at something that has more meaning to her than writing the fiction with which she makes her living, and the opportunity to deepen her understanding of Peter Wimsey, by getting to see him in different context, so that she can decide what to do about this man who regularly offers to marry her and will continue to do so until she tells him to stop.
For a while, Harriet lets herself fall back in love with the all-female academic life and the peace it offers. She sees it as:
“a Holy War, and that whole wildly heterogeneous, that even slightly absurd collection of chattering women fused into a corporate unity with one another and with every man and woman to whom integrity of mind meant more than material gain—defenders in the central keep of Man-soul, their personal differences forgotten in face of a common foe. To be true to one’s calling, whatever follies one might commit in one’s emotional life, that was the way to spiritual peace.”
She also recognises that academic life could be an opportunity to make herself immune to the interference of men. As Miss Hilyard, one of the Dons, puts it, men:
“have an admirable talent for imposing their point of view on society in general. All women are sensitive to male criticism. Men are not sensitive to female criticism. They despise the critics.”
While Harriet can imagine choosing the academic life, she also recognises its distance from day to day life. As one of the few non-academic women says to the Dons:
None of you care in the least for my interests, and yours all seem to me to be mere beating the air. You don’t seem to have anything to do with real life. You are going about in a dream.” She stopped speaking, and her angry voice softened. “But it’s a beautiful dream in its way.
It seemed to me that Harriet sees the world too clearly and is too honest with herself to be content with “a beautiful dream”.
It’s also clear that Harriet’s attraction to men and to Peter Wimsey in particular, is real and may not easily be ignored. At one point, as Harriet lets Peter Wimsey occupy her thoughts, she reproachfully tells herself:
“This won’t do,” said Harriet. “This really will not do. My sub-conscious has a most treacherous imagination.”
Harriet gains an admirer young male admirer during her stay at college in the form of the charmingly inexperienced Mr. Pomfret. This is her reaction when Pomfret asks her to spend some time with him:
Harriet was opening her mouth to say No, when she looked at Mr. Pomfret, and her heart softened. He had the appeal of a very young dog of a very large breed—a kind of amiable absurdity.
She is kind to Pomfrrz but sees mostly his youth, and in his youth, her own age. This provides a context for her consideration of what to do about Lord Peter Wimsey.
She feels unable to move forward with him because she owes him her life and she fears that there can be no equal partnership when one person is so indebted to the other.
I loved the way Wimesy is depicted in “Gaudy Night”. He is mostly physically absent. When he is present, he does not dominate, nor does he seek to replace Harriet’s judgment on the mystery with his own. He is attentive and supportive but he doesn’t crowd her.
Harriet is given the opportunity to see Peter through the eyes of others and discovers him to be a valued scholar in the eyes of the academics and a revered officer in the eyes of the college Porter, who served under Wimesy in the trenches. She sees him through the eyes of his heir-to-a-major-fortune-one-day nephew, who views his uncle with affection and respect.
Although “Gaudy Night” is a mystery story, it seems to me that it is also something much rarer, at least in fiction: a romance between two intellectual, introverted, independent, habitually rational people, with all the challenges and opportunities that that implies.
I was delighted with it. I want to spend more time with Harriet and Peter so I’ll be reading my way through the sub-series.
One thing that did disappoint me was the poor proofing of this particular ebook (ASIN B00R1T46K8). It has dozens of typos, presumably OCR errors, that should have been found and corrected. I think this is disrespectful to the text and to the reader.