I’m quite selective about whom I share certain books with. By sharing a book, you essentially create a test situation for the share-ee on which your entire future relationship may depend. At best, the share-ee either loves it or hates it, and your relationship can continue as before. The worst case scenario, however, is a lukewarm reaction. How can a book that means so much to you fail to even resonate with somebody else? The books we share say very little about the person we share with, but say quite a lot about us. The book that I’m really thinking about in the midst of all this spiel is Gaudy Night (1935).
I first came across Dorothy L. Sayers’ and her be-monocled aristocratic amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey last summer. I’d just graduated from university, and as I do every summer, I took my copy of Ulysses from the shelf, opened it, read two pages, despaired, and chucked it aside with some vague intention of picking it up later. While casting about for something to fill the void this book left. Something in my mind turned up a vague memory of a Dorothy L. Sayers’ mystery story set in an Oxford ladies’ college. I wasn’t a big crime reader, and had always regarded the genre with a certain literary snobbery, but this sounded like too much of a novelty not to read. And besides, I didn’t particularly want to be considered a snob anyway.
I worked my way through the stories in a rather haphazard fashion, thanks to a combination of book shop and library supplies. The early books are original, clever and well-written crossword-style mysteries, but seemingly not much more. It wasn’t until I got to Strong Poison (1930), the fifth book in the series, that I became a convert. The reason for this is Harriet Vane.
An obvious parallel for Sayers herself, Harriet is an Oxford-educated, bluestocking detective novelist. It’s easy to identify with Harriet: she’s prickly, possesses a natural self-honesty and integrity, and is set on forging a very independent thorough through life. What’s not to like? She first enters the stories when she stands on trial in the Old Bailey accessed of the murder of her ex-lover. Lord Peter falls in love with her, proposes to her immediately, and brings the real murderer to justice. Harriet, frightened and scarred by her experience, is unable to enter into a relationship where her gratitude would put any relationship on a profoundly unequal footing, and refuses him. She later reappears in Have His Carcase (1932), after she finds a dead body on the beach, but it is not until Gaudy Night, the penultimate novel, that Harriet fully takes centre stage.
I’ve often wondered why Gaudy Night became a book that was of such fundamental importance to me. Without waxing lyrical, I think the answer is actually relatively simple: it asks the questions that I also desperately wanted an answer to at that time. It’s a book with weighty themes -freedom and responsibility, emotion and intellect, love and work – but above all it is concerned with the question of how women should live, and the whether it is possible to do honour to the competing demands of both heart and mind.
This may make it sound like rather a trying read, but it is not in the slightest. The joy of the book is that it carries all this and is still a cracking locked room mystery. Harriet returns to her Alma Mater, the fictional Oxford ladies’ college of Shrewsbury, only to find that it is beset not by the nice, neat murders she writes about in her novels, but a series of messy, misogynistic and spiteful pranks and poison pen letters. All the dons are suspects, but the question of guilt is not what most interests the reader. As Harriet attempts to resolve the mystery, she is simultaneous grappling with her feelings for Peter and her latest novel which has gone ‘sticky’. Like Sayers herself, Harriet is trying to introduce more psychological realism into her novels, and this feeds into the real mystery of the novel: the difficulty of understanding human hearts, particularly your own.
Throughout the novel, Harriet struggles to solve the mystery throughout because she cannot interpret the evidence that is before her. Cursed with both a heart and a mind, her own fear prevents her from unraveling the mystery and coming face-to-face with the content of her own heart: that she loves Peter Wimsey, but fears losing her own independence. Only once she realises this truth, and that Peter will offer her a marriage of two equal but independent intellects, can she live a fulfilling human life. As I said, I read the book just after leaving my own very pretty Cambridge college, and perhaps the novel struck such a cord because I was avoiding asking whether the path I had laid out for my own life was actually the one I wanted to follow, or whether I had forced myself into false feeling. Unfortunately, it was the latter. But if the book has taught me anything, I shall not fall victim again.
The book certainly has its critics, and even I can see that it is far from perfect; it’s baggy in parts, and Sayers fondness for classical illusions and Latin quotes (she was a linguist after all) mean a reference book is never far off hand. But that doesn’t prevent Gaudy Night from being an engaging feminist treatise on women’s lives, which also has the integrity to be intellectually honest and rigorous. On a more superficial level, the book also thrills. If you want an accurate description, albeit somewhat dated, depiction of life in an Oxbridge college, then nowhere else is it done better than in Sayers. It will also do as a very cheap tour of Oxford – punting, libraries, tea, it’s all there. Another much overlooked point is how funny the book is. A remark about a former member of Harriet’s year who has ‘gone nudist’ has always stuck out to me: ‘If you can’t be naked, be as ill-dressed as possible, I suppose.” Perhaps that says more about me than the book…
Now that I’ve parked my usual reluctance about this book in this rather earnest post, I can finally urge everyone to go out and read it. Start with Whose Body? (1923) and work your way through until Busman’s Honeymoon (1937) to get the full impact. I’ll admit that that is quite a busy reading schedule, but I think it will be well worth it. Be warned though. Now that I’ve shared this book with you, any future interaction between us will depend on what you say about it.
Image: Márcio Cabral de Moura/Flickr (free creative commons)