August 31, 2003

Gaudy Night, by Dorothy Sayers

I picked this book up in a used bookstore in Washburn, WI, a very small town on the shore of Lake Superior just south of Bayfield. The year-round population can't be more than 500 but when we drove by and I spotted it, the store looked so interesting we had to stop. And it was nearly the best used bookstore I have been in for ages. They had everything from lit crit to Roman history to regional stuff to a dynamite sci-fi section that my son mined with glee. And they had a coffee shop attached so I could sip an iced French roast coffee while browsing. What more could a girl ask for?

Anyway, I read the entire Lord Peter Wimsey series some years ago before the kids went to school and I had two hours of naptime every single afternoon to do with as I pleased. This one stuck with me as the best of the lot and, as I recall, seemed to me more a feminist tract than a serious murder mystery. When I saw it on the shelf I wondered whether my perception of it had changed with the passing of time and my ever changing taste in books.

Essentially, it still strikes me as feminist in tone, though having recently read Sayers' essay on education and having read more about her classical studies and work, I can see the emphasis on education and serious scholarly work for women that she puts into the book. Originally I thought it just a vehicle for her ideas about women and work. Now I see the emphasis on higher education for women and allowing women the same respect for academic achievement that is afforded to men. All of this is very dated, of course. She was writing preWWII when college and work for women was a choice of the upper class only and not taken more seriously than a way to bag a well educated husband. It's the same argument that Virginia Woolf makes in A Room of One's Own, another book I read about the same time.

The plot is quite simple on the surface. Harriet Vane has gone down to Oxford for a reunion of graduates called a "Gaudy Night." She has just returned from a tour of the continent designed to give her some breathing space from Wimsey's attentions and allow her to come to some decisions. There she meets old classmates, some who have married and given up intellectual life and some who have gone on in their studies and missed marriage and kids. On her way out, she finds a piece of hate mail tucked into her gown sleeve and, thinking it the work of some belligerent undergrad, burns it and travels back to London--only to be called back to Oxford when the notes continue with other members of the college along with obscene graffiti on the bathroom walls and burning gowns in the commons. The head of the college wants it stopped with a minimum of fuss and, more importantly, publicity so she calls on Harriet as a detective fiction writer to help them out. She comes to Oxford under the pretense of doing research on Sheridan Le Fanu and quietly tries to figure out who is doing it.

To a point, I really enjoyed the book. The mystery aspects of it were well done. Although half way thru the book, I suddenly remembered the ending, I still could follow the laying out of clues and the setting up of the plot with enjoyment. The Oxford setting was interesting also since I now have a dear friend who attended Oxford in the 50's and has told me stories about women in the academic setting there. What bugged me this time is that having set the book up as feminist in tone, she cops out at the end and brings Wimsey in to save the day. Ok, he IS the detective in the series and I have to admit, I found him a compelling suitor for Harriet. I kept wanting to tell her to quit thinking so much and just give him a kiss, you twit. On the other hand, to be consistent, Wimsey shouldn’t have come into it until Harriet had the whole thing figured out. After I finished it and thought about it a bit, I was disappointed in Sayers for doing that.

However, I wasn't disappointed enough to bypass the bookstore on the way home rather than stopping and picking up some more in the series. I have to find out if she marries him or not.

Posted by Deb English at August 31, 2003 07:51 PM

Steven said:

Don't get Busman's Honeymoon. You will be disapointed.

David Hart said:

Here is a reference to the bookstore (which is great but I'm biased since I live up here): Chequamegon Books (http://www.abebooks.com/home/cheqbookco/ ). Lousy website, since it is just an abebooks form page. Other links:
http://www.bookhunterpress.com/index.cgi/samplefly.html?mv_arg=2536
http://www.retailmerchandising.net/coffee/2003/0308/0308cp2.asp