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.