Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Gaudy Night

Gaudy Night / Dorothy Sayers
London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2003, c1935.
557 p.

What great fun I had on my recent holiday reading this detective novel! I've been meaning to read it for ages, but just got my hands on a copy in time to take it with me on my mini-break last week. Now I must go back and read all the Peter Wimsey books in order, as I think I've fallen a little bit in love with him!

I've done things backward, starting with the book at the end of the series - but many people have told me it is the best so I wanted to start with it. Also, Lord Peter and Harriet's romance is a strong part of this book and is so very well done (for those of you who've read it, the river scene? Fanning myself...)

Starting out with quotations, Latin, Oxford settings, sonnet writing and so much philosophical discussion, this novel gripped me almost immediately. I love the depth of the characters, and I love the fascinating discussions the group of female Oxford scholars get into with Harriet. It makes me nostalgic for an Oxford I never knew (and never could have) -- quite an authorial accomplishment, I think.

I do have to admit that there are large swathes of the novel that I didn't understand. There are many literary allusions that I missed, but when I did catch one I felt so proud of myself ;) And I did really feel the lack of a Latin dictionary -- I am sure a grasp of Latin would have added to the experience, especially the ending. There are also elements of the social structure that I didn't quite get, for example, in discussion of a certain woman, Harriet and the Dons look at each other significantly and say something like "You know the way that is" and "Exactly". But I didn't know how it was, and I knew I was missing some fine point of social expectations and meaning regarding women's characters in 1930's England. Nonetheless I enjoyed this novel immensely. I often enjoy reading something I don't quite understand fully, a habit I picked up in childhood. And this novel did make me feel woefully uneducated at times, but never excluded from the story and its many rewards.

In this novel there is no actual crime to investigate; but there is implied threat followed by real violence - Harriet and Peter are trying to pinpoint the potential for crime before it moves beyond nuisance to something very serious. When Harriet is called to Oxford, it is because there has been a string of obscene grafitti and messages and various unpleasant incidents seeming to be aimed at the educated women in Harriet's alma mater, Shrewsbury College. Since any noise about a scandal in the college would damage the still precarious state of women's education there is great need for discretion; thus Harriet's involvement, and by extension Peter's, rather than the police being called in.

The setting and the motive for the nasty incidents all combine to give us insight into Harriet's mind and the reasons for her resistance and eventual capitulation to her love for Peter. It is extremely well written, challenging to read and yet easy to follow even when skimming the more abstruse elements.

Rewarding and entertaining reading, certainly. And a couple of favourite quotes:

However loudly we may assert our own unworthiness, few of us are really offended by hearing the assertion contradicted by a disinterested party.

"The trouble is," said the Librarian, "that everybody sneers at restrictions and demands freedom, till something annoying happens; then they demand angrily what has become of the discipline."

Other views:

Kerry at Pickle Me This is intrigued by hysteria among the teacups

Nymeth at Things Mean a Lot says "Before I can even begin to try to be coherent, I need to get this out of the way: the! river! scene! AHFHGF!!@ "

Dorothy at Of Books and Bicycles thinks that "It’s a mystery novel and also an illustration of just how much a “mere” mystery novel can do."


  1. Oh Frabjous day! Another Sayers convert! And this isn't exactly the end of the series. Busman's Honeymoon, which is also wonderful, comes next. But do go back and read Strong Poison and Have His Carcase as well. And then the other Lord Peter books. I only have one left to read (poor me), but I've enjoyed each and every one, with this one standing right at the top of the heap.

    And if you ever get a chance to see it, the BBC miniseries with Edward Petherbridge and Harriet Walter is wonderful (although Gaudy Night itself was a disappointment).

  2. Teresa - definitely a convert! I'm searching for all 4 of the Peter & Harriet books now. (and I love Edward Petherbridge!)

  3. I have never read Dorothy Sayers but you have made me a convert.

  4. i'm not a big mystery fan, so the chances of me ever reading this are pretty slim. But I've always loved (and wondered about) the title.

  5. I started at the beginning of the series and my next is Strong Poison in which, at last, Peter and Harriet meet. I can hardly wait! BTW, if you want to be completely and entirely obsessive about the series, you can intersperse the short stories that have been gathered in Lord Peter, which were published throughout her career. Not that *I* am ever obsessive about such things.

  6. I'm very glad you enjoyed this, but I'm a little sad you started with this one :( Reading it without all the Peter and Harriet backstory is just not the same. I almost did that too, but a group of book bloggers jumped in and stopped me :P

  7. Yolanda - hope you'll give her a try!

    Softdrink - the title refers to an Oxford tradition, alumni dinner/gatherings -- I knew that only because of Robertson Davies being so fixated on Englishness...

    Buried in Print - I'm going back to do the same, have read the 1st 2 already but must say I'm really anticipating reading the 4 with Peter and Harriet in them most.

    Nymeth - I wish I would have caught that before I read Gaudy Night - only saw your comments afterward. Oh well, I'll read Strong Poison & Have his Carcase and then Gaudy Night again. :)

  8. Can't wait to read this (when I'm back 'on' fiction; am taking a break, immersing myself in memoir and biography). Strangely, one of the random ten or so I pulled off my shelves the other day in preparation, was 'Such a Strange Lady', a bio of Dorothy L. Sayers, who I'd never read, never heard of and only bought the book because I liked the suggestion of eccentricity in the title.

    One of the things the biographer (Janet Hitchman) pointed out was Sayer's delight in a kind of 'snobbishness' in her books -- the Latin, the in-jokes, the high-brow references and long passages in French, without a hint of translation. One school of thought reckoned she did it purely for her own entertainment while another saw it as a put-down to anyone who didn't get it, a kind of class commentary.

    In which case, wot a little bugger!

    Not sure it matters though. She sounds like great fun.

  9. I read all the Sayers novels when I was in college, but am now inspired to go back and read them all again. I love your blog--especially the way you link to other opinions about the books you are reviewing. I have just begun blogging in my non-librarian persona and am learning as I go along. Your blog has a lot of great stuff that is giving me ideas. Thanks!

  10. Mary - so glad you found me and have liked what you see ;) Always nice to hear. It's great to find new bloggers -- congrats on beginning, I am sure you'll find it great fun. (and also nice to hear you are another Sayers fan!)


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