Gaudy Night is not Dorothy Sayers’s most amusing mystery, but it is undoubtedly her most brilliant literary novel.
The elaborate plot is disturbing and hyperrealistic. The heroine, Harriet Vane, a tormented mystery writer who was tried and acquitted for the murder of her lover, returns to her alma mater, Shrewsbury College, a women’s college at Oxford, to investigate a poison pen writer who is also playing poltergeist. Her long-time suitor, Lord Peter Wimsey, the amateur detective and star of most of Sayers’s novels, comes to her aid. The women at the college, who pride themselves on their independence in the 1930s when women’s education was not the status quo, ironically need a man to solve the case.
And yet, despite this clichéd business of the women’s failure to find the perpetrator, Sayers deepens the psychology of her characters.. Harriet, who has always been improbably annoyed by Peter’s attentions, becomes more vulnerable and sympathetic as she seeks a refuge in scholarship at Oxford, only to be tormented by fear again. And it turns out that Peter, exhausted by work at the Foreign Office, has a similar temperament. He got a first at Oxford, which Harriet had not known. He also wishes he could retreat to Oxford, but the world exists there, too.
Usually I read for character, not plot, but what strikes me on my third reading of Gaudy Night is the very contemporary problem of the poison pen. On the internet there are trolls. Oddly, it is TV-watching that has brought this issue to my attention. The beautiful Rumer Willis, one of the finalists on Dancing with the Stars this season, has said that she was “bullied” on social media about her unconventional looks (and, indeed, some of these horrifying tweets were shown on this DWTS episode).
I rarely see this kind of comment at book blogs, and fortunately am under the radar at Mirabile Dictu. But social media can be risky, and even online book discussions can be contentious. I have seen perfectly nice online groups splinter over very insignificant matters. Indeed, I have never been forgiven by a Virago group, or perhaps it was a Persephone group, for gently mocking the constant Virago and Persephone reading weeks. And I love Viragos!
Jason Silverman’s wrote in article in 2012 about the pressure on the internet to be “nice,” i.e., uncritical. I wrote a response at my old blog:
I once said something about Persephone books (or was it Virago?) that upset quite a few bloggers who every few months declared it Persephone Week (or was it Virago Week?). I spoke out against “Amazon affiliates” and got even more grief. And recently I was called a “bitch” and a “bad reader” for trashing John Irving’s In One Person. …but I delete all comments that call me a bitch, unless I forget (which happens if I’m busy).
There are poison pens online, and there are patrol pens online. But of course there are also good friends on the net.
I’ve read Gaudy Night twice and I love it. I recently picked up a nice old copy to re-read, you make me want to read it soon.
Dorothy Sayers is so good! I had forgotten how interesting Harriet Vane is. Ooh, the nice old copies never turn up here, but I have a nice paperback.
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Gaudy Night is a truly wonderful book on many levels – and possibly my favourite Sayers book (though I do find it hard to choose). I’ve read it many times and just thinking about it makes me want to pick it up and start reading again.
As for the nasties out there – there have *always* been the poison pen types (there are plenty of them in Christie too) but unfortunately the internet has given them a new platform where it’s very easy to be anonymous. I ignore them too – it’s the only way, there’s no point in engaging. But I do feel for the people who receive all this venom – it just shows what a nasty race we humans really can be.
Dorothy Sayers is so special! and I don’t know Christie well enough to know the poison pen books. I do feel that I have read several of her books, but only a small percentage really. Really most book blog comments are very nice, but someone anonymous occasionally turns up, and of course they get screened. But it seems celebs are singled out on Twitter.
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Yes – who’d be a celeb nowadays! 🙂
I just saw Gaudy Night on a list of the best campus novels. It appears quite interesting.
Oh, it is remarkable! There is so much in it. There is a splendid article on it by Jo Walton at Tor. She is an award-winning SF writer, but often blogs about literary fiction and other genres. Hers is the best essay I’ve read on Gaudy Night! http://www.tor.com/2010/03/26/the-mind-the-heart-sex-class-feminism-true-love-intrigue-not-your-everyday-ho-hum-detective-story-dorothy-sayerss-lemggaudy-nightlemg/