There’s not much that’s as cosy and comforting as re-reading a book you know and love, and “Gaudy Night” is one I’ve been meaning to return to for some time. Then I read the wonderful post about it on Vulpes Libris and thought that this really was the right moment to revisit it.

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I first discovered the Sayers books in my early teens. I was reading a lot of Agatha Christies at the time, loving these classic murder mysteries, and then I caught some of the TV adaptations of the Lord Peter Wimsey books which the BBC produced, starring Ian Carmichael. I was so taken with these that I immediately started reading the books and was instantly hooked.

I find it hard to be objective about the Wimsey stories because so many of them mean so much to me for different reasons: “The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club” because it was the first I read; “The Nine Tailors” because it was probably my favourite TV adaptation and it haunted me for years; “Murder Must Advertise”, because it captured what it was like working in an office so brilliantly; “Five Red Herrings” because it was set in my native Scotland and was about painters. But if I had to pick one only, oddly enough it would be “Gaudy Night”, in which he hardly features at all! Well, that’s a slight exaggeration, I know – but the fact that the edition I just read proclaims it “A Lord Peter Wimsey Mystery” does an injustice to the character of novelist Harriet Vane who is actually the main protagonist!

Nevertheless, I’ve always thought of GN as a book I love so much that I could just pick it up at any time and start reading it. I described it thus to a friend once, picked it up and got so engrossed instantly that I didn’t stop reading till I noticed how much she was laughing at me. Some books will stand regular re-readings, and this is one of them.

Giving a plot summary of what is known as a mystery novel is always a tricky business in case of spoilers, so I shall start with what Wikipedia says:

Gaudy Night (1935) is a mystery novel by Dorothy L. Sayers, the tenth in her popular series about aristocratic sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey, and the third featuring crime writer Harriet Vane.

The dons of Harriet Vane’s alma mater, the all-female Shrewsbury College (a thinly veiled take on Sayers’ own Somerville College), have invited her back to attend the much anticipated annual ‘Gaudy’ celebrations. However, the mood turns sour when a lunatic begins a series of malicious pranks including poison-pen messages, obscene graffiti, the destruction of a set of proofs and crafting vile effigies. Desperate to avoid a possible murder in college, Harriet eventually asks her old friend Wimsey to investigate.

That’s a very surface level summary of what is actually a complex and multi-layered novel, and certainly not something just churned out to meet the demand for murder stories. At this point in the lives of Wimsey and Vane, they are coming to something of a crisis. Lord Peter saved Harriet Vane from the noose in “Strong Poison” and falls in love with her. She obviously rejects him for a number of very good reasons, not least that she owes him her life, and their paths then cross again in “Strong Poison”, when Harriet discovers a body and Wimsey helps her with the investigations. By the time of GN five years have passed since SP and it is clear to Harriet that she will have to make a decision about Peter.

That’s one plot strand, and it’s set against a slightly unsettled background because we are in the mid-1930s. There are rumblings going on in Europe and Peter is called away several times on diplomatic errands. The female dons discuss the state of civilisation at points during the book and so although this is not a major part of the story, there is enough said to make us aware of the outside world.

Then there is Harriet herself. In many ways, she has spent the five years since SP healing herself from the experience, and the return to Shrewsbury is a step along this road. Going back into academe, encountering old friends and tutors, plus making new ones, gives something back to her life; she rediscovers the love of learning, and the change in her attitude is reflected in the way she regards the mystery novels she writes. One particular character, Wilfred, is giving her trouble and at a pivotal point she realises the book is not working and starts to re-write; her writing changes, she creates a real and believable character and it is as if she is able to face up to reality and create a real work of art and not ‘just’ a detective novel. This of course could be applied to Sayers’ books, which I like to think of as proper novels with a mystery in them!

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Another major element is the status of women and their education. When Sayers was writing, there was still much prejudice against the idea of women having education, work and a career, and this is pivotal to the mystery plot. The dons discuss at length what is best for women and Sayers is not afraid to air the prejudices of the time; whether celibate women in establishments like Oxford will end up deranged, where further education is better for all, whether men can cope with supporting and standing behind a successful partner. And the subject of whether it is possible to have an equal relationship between men and women, still a knotty subject nowadays, is much to the fore.

“She spoke gravely, unrolling the great scroll of history, pleading for the Humanities, proclaiming the Pax Academica to a world terrified with unrest. ‘Oxford has been called the home of lost causes: if the love of learning for its own sake is a lost cause everywhere else in the world, let us see to it that here, at least, it finds its abiding home.’ Magnificent thought Harriet, but it is not a war. And then, her imagination weaving in and out of the spoken words, she saw 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 the 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. How could one feel fettered, being the freeman of so great a city, or humiliated, where all enjoyed equal citizenship? … In the glamour of one Gaudy night, one could realise that one was a citizen of no mean city. It might be an old and an old-fashioned city, with inconvenient buildings and narrow streets where the passers-by squabbled foolishly about the right of way; but her foundations were set upon the holy hills and her spires touched heaven.”

Sayers weaves all these strands together brilliantly. She was an absolutely wonderful writer – literate, clever, entertaining, and capable of creating work that grips the reader from beginning to end. Her characters are lively and real, the descriptions of place and location vivid and brilliant, and despite the complex subjects being grappled with, my attention never flags. There’s humour, sadness and humanity in GN (and all her books) and in some ways I wish she wasn’t simply bracketed as a crime writer, because I think her books are great works of literature.

One of the criticisms often levelled at crime writing is the lack of description and bad characterisation, but I certainly don’t find it in Sayers’ books. Wimsey is too often perceived as a Bertie Wooster-like silly-ass but he’s far from it, and certainly shown at his best (and deepest) in GN. His behaviour towards Harriet is impeccable and finely-judged, and we get to see sides of him not always shown in the other stories – as an important diplomat, a Balliol scholar, against the backdrop of his long family history and as a tolerant uncle.

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With Harriet it is, of course, easy to interpret her character as the fictional representation of her author, and however true or untrue that is, it is probably fair to assume that Sayers was using Vane and the other women in this book to discuss and present her views on women, their education and status in the world, and the very difficult problem of equality in human relationships.

There is one element I haven’t mentioned yet – ultimately, this book is a love letter to Oxford; the place itself, and the concept of learning, study and the intellectual life. As a teenager who had been brought up with a love of books and learning, obsessed with stories about boarding schools, but unfortunately from a family without the wherewithal to enable me to have a university education, the image of Oxford presented in this book was captivatingly seductive and it still has the same effect on me. The friend I mentioned above was younger than me and actually went to Balliol – one of my fondest memories is visiting the place and staying in the university, in a room in an old building at the top of winding stairs – bliss!

“There, eastward, within a stone’s throw, stood the twin towers of All Souls’, fantastic,  unreal as a house of cards, clear-cut in the sunshine, the drenched oval in the quad beneath brilliant as an emerald in the bezel of a ring. Behind them, black and grey, New College frowning like a fortress, with dark wings wheeling about her belfry louvres; and Queen’s with her dome of green copper; and, as the eye turned southward, Magdalen, yellow and slender, the tall lily of towers; the Schools and the battlemented front of University; Merton, square-pinnacled, half-hidden behind the shadowed North side and mounting spire of St. Mary’s. Westward again, Christ Church, vast beneath Cathedral spire and Tom Tower; Brasenose close at hand; St. Aldate’s and Carfax beyond; spire and tower and quadrangle, all Oxford springing underfoot in living leaf and enduring stone, ringed far off by her bulwark of blue hills.”

It’s a testament to the strength of this book that I could write about it endlessly – and if I were choosing Desert Island books, this volume would be an essential. If you love intelligent writing, wonderful characterisations, mysteries, love affairs and just great storytelling this is a book for you – if I had a star rating, this would get 6 out of 5!

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