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Sayers, ambivalence and “Gaudy Night”

September 19, 2011

Dorothy Sayers: mystery writer and medievalist.

Dorothy Sayers’ nearly-500-page novel “Gaudy Night” is no ordinary mystery, even though it’s one of her series featuring detective Sir Peter Wimsey and mystery novelist Harriet Vane. The protagonists must work together to identify the person responsible for a series of nasty pranks and poison-pen letters at a women’s college at Oxford; but the novel is equally a feminist exploration of whether — and how — a woman can have both a public career and a private married life. It’s also a romance novel that packs a surprising amount of heat as Harriet, who has been obstinately turning down Lord Peter’s proposals of marriage for five years, begins to realize that it is theoretically possible to have a marriage of equals. And above all, the novel is  a startling display of how a woman novelist invented the perfect man and then fell in love with him for all to see.

Edward Petherbridge played Lord Peter in the 1980s PBS series.

I read “Gaudy Night” for the first time at least twenty years ago, after watching the PBS series of Wimsey mysteries on television in the ’80s. The book astonished me to such a degree upon that first reading that I literally could not put it down until it was over. The same thing happened while re-reading it this past week, even though I remembered quite well how the book turned out in the end; the story is an addictive drug even on the second go-round. The reader cannot resist the simmering tug and pull between the two protagonists, which is as compelling as the mystery itself. The prose baffles and allures the reader by turns. It is erudite beyond the common measure of mystery stories, scattered casually with Latin, Greek and French quotations and with chapter headings consisting of select verses from English poets of the sixteenth century. It’s a novel that was written for a reader with a well-stocked intellect, and is in no way a mindless read (which is what most people think of when they think of mysteries). This book has so many literary allusions that one blogger has annotated it for the benefit of the defectively-educated modern reader (see

Lord Peter, for those who have not read the books, is a wealthy aristocrat with a pedigree that extends back some six hundred years. He is wealthy and urbane, a pale ash-blond with exquisite manners and dress. He is, as he tells Harriet in a previous book, a good lover. He is knowledgeable in techniques of self-defense. He plays the piano and harpsichord perfectly. He understands and relishes the great wines. He is a seasoned traveler. To counterbalance these perfections he wears a monocle and affects a demeanor similar to that of the half-witted genteel type spoofed so often by P.G. Wodehouse. Even his valet, Bunter, is perfect in his own turn: good-looking, resourceful, a good cook, a taker of fingerprints, a developer of photographs, an excellent all-purpose spy.

Actress Harriet Walter as Harriet Vane in the BBC series.

Harriet Vane is — can only be — a stand-in for Dorothy Sayers herself. (Those who say “not so fast, what’s your evidence?” need only read the book.) Her reluctance to marry Lord Peter is the one thing that baffles a modern reader, more so than quotes in Latin or allusions to English ballads. Why not marry the fellow? Why not marry an imminently eligible aristocrat who’s been mooning after her for five years, popping the question twice annually with the regularity of an atomic clock? Harriet suffers from scruples that many modern women might not understand. She wants a marriage of equals, a marriage that is a partnership, and at the time the book was written (1936) that was not how marriages generally were. The man in those times provided the money and the home; the woman was expected to keep house, take care of the children, do the decorating and devise the menus. Harriet, a novelist (like Sayers herself) wants to continue being an independent person rather than nestle under a husband’s protective wing. She will accept only a marriage of equals. This is difficult for a modern reader to grasp because one of our basic assumptions is that marriage is a union of equals. Probably many of us secretly wish for a marriage along the lines of the one that Harriet spurned for so long.

Sayers in a frankly masculine getup.

The book seethes with ambivalence; it continually see-saws in different directions as Harriet uses the opportunity to stay at her old college at Oxford as a sabbatical in which she can work out her complicated feelings. My guess is that Dorothy Sayers herself was ambivalent: torn by both pride and doubt at being one of the first women awarded an Oxford degree and an independent woman who lived by her pen. Harriet’s feminist evolution during the course of the book includes newly-enhanced self-esteem and the underlined resolve to follow a career, but the book contains plenty of anti-feminist sentiments. The very name of the women’s college, Shrewsbury, bodes ill. Tensions between the women dons run high in the story; they were not permitted at that time to have both a marriage and a career and were therefore depicted as thwarted virgins who suspect each other of sending the poison-pen letters. The women constantly make snide comments behind the others’ backs regarding their appearance and behavior. Frustrated sexuality is shown as being as great a threat as sexuality that is openly expressed. These women, some of whom can be read as lesbians, are threatening caricatures while Harriet, who has had heterosexual sex outside of marriage, sees herself as a bit of a pariah. Sayers herself had three heterosexual relationships, two of them outside of marriage, so she was certainly in the sexual avant-garde of her time; so it’s curious that she viewed celibates and/or lesbians as the enemy rather than as fellow avant-gardists. One wonders about Sayer’s own sexuality after seeing the ambiguous photo of her wearing masculine clothing (doth she protest too much about lesbians, perhaps?); but “Gaudy Night” is completely heterosexual, emphatically so. The amount of steam that Sayers generates while describing Wimsey’s tireless pursuit and Harriet’s continual retreats is impressive, particularly as Harriet’s retreats become more and more uncertain. Harriet’s dilemma is this: if she follows her inclination to have a career, she must give up Life and Love; but if she chooses Life and Love, she fears that she must sacrifice her career.

A curious book, “Gaudy Night.” It’s long; it’s ornate; it’s ambivalent and it writhes with tension. Its author obviously wanted — badly — for Lord Peter to be real so he could marry her. Despite its complexity and strangeness, it’s completely mesmerizing. It ends with Lord Peter’s final proposal, termed in Latin this time in order to acknowledge Harriet’s equality to him: “Placetne, magistra?” (loosely meaning, “Is it acceptable, [female-equivalent-of-a-Master-of-Arts]?”) Her response: “Placet.” (“It is agreeable.”) The book itself, for all its oddity (and perhaps because of that oddity) is far more than a mere run-of-the-mill mystery. Placet!


From → books

  1. “In all of Sayers’ novels, lesbians are threatening caricatures…”

    Please forgive me for jumping in so late. I’m just on my way to reread my collection of Sayers’ novels, and this is the first time I’ve turned to the Net to look up other readers’ ideas. I never saw your post before today.

    On the whole, your post is thoughtful and a pleasure to read. However, I’m unable to understand the assertion I quoted at the beginning. I didn’t get across any lesbian couples I recognized as such in the books I’ve reread up till now — with one exception. In the book I last finished, which is “Unnatural Death”, there is the relationship between Clara Whittaker and Agatha Dawson, which might very well have been a lesbian one. However, nothing about it suggests that those two women are seen as “threatening caricatures”. They are both dead when the novel sets in, and are both remembered fondly … even admiringly. Their relationship is thought to have been a great success, by many people. As to the villain of the novel, their great-niece Mary Whittaker, it is true that she enters into what may seem a lesbian relationship — but it is rather obvious that she only uses the girl she seduces to provide herself with an alibi, and discards her, after the girl begins to see through her deceit. In the end, one is left with the impression that Mary Whittaker has no sexuality at all (and BTW, she’s not one of Sayers’ best creations; one simply can’t see her tick).

    Could you, please, give me a hint in which of Sayers’ novels I might find those lesbians that are described as “threatening caricatures”?

    • Dear PF, thank you for reading and for contributing your thoughtful critique. I hang my head and acknowledge that I should not have written that sentence in that way because I have not read ALL of Sayers’ works, only the Lord Peter series, and it was so long ago that the individual points which once seemed sharp in my memory have now faded and left me unable to defend my thesis. The overall takeaway that I recall from “Gaudy Night” in particular is that women without a man in their lives are unstable and liable to pose a threat, sexual or personal, to others. I get the impression that works of that period tended to view lesbians as unnatural and threatening rather than domestic and satisfied; think of C.S. Lewis’ awful Miss Hardcastle in “That Hideous Strength”. —But bringing up another author is neither here nor there. Your point was well made and I will revise the text accordingly.—Carrol

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