Lights on the river. The plash of sculls. The steady chock of the rowlocks.
The boat crept slowly downstream. The constable, crouched in the bows, swept the beam of a powerful torch from bank to bank. Harriet holding the rudder-lines, divided her attention between the dark current and the moving light ahead. The Dean, setting a slow and steady stroke, kept her eyes before her and her wits on the job.
At a word from the policeman, Harriet checked the boat and let her drift down towards a dismal shape, black and slimy on the black water. The boat lurched as the man leaned out. In the silence came the answering groan, plash, chuck of oars on the far side of the next bend.
“All right,” said the policeman. “Only a bit o’ sacking.”
I always seem to forget how enjoyable it is to read Dorothy L. Sayers. I approach each new Lord Peter Wimsey mystery with trepidation, expecting something stodgy and dull, and each time I find myself delighted beyond expectation. Gaudy Night is only my third Sayers, after Murder Must Advertise and Busman’s Honeymoon (yes, I am reading them out of order), but it has thoroughly cemented my high opinion of Sayers and my fondness for Lord Peter and made Harriet Vane one of my favorite characters in fiction.
Gaudy Night is principally a book about Harriet Vane, a character introduced in Strong Poison and Lord Peter’s love interest. She has been invited to attend a reunion – the “Gaudy Night” of the title – at Shrewsbury College in Oxford (a fictional all-women’s college modeled on Sayers’ alma mater of Somerville, in much the same way, one suspects, Harriet is modeled on Sayers herself). Concerned about her somewhat tarnished reputation, Harriet is initially inclined to refuse, but eventually her dread of being thought a coward overcomes her reluctance.
The reunion turns out far better than Harriet had hoped, in large part thanks to the warm welcome she receives from the Dean and tutors at Shrewsbury. Her pleasant weekend is marred, however, when she happens across a crude drawing of
a naked figure of exaggeratedly feminine outlines, inflicting savage and humiliating outrage upon some person of indeterminate gender clad in a cap and gown. It was neither sane nor healthy; it was, in fact, a nasty, dirty and lunatic scribble.
Presuming the drawing to be a vulgar prank, Harriet disposes of it and puts it out of her mind.
A few months later, Harriet returns to Shrewsbury for an extended visit to work on her latest novel and try to sort out her complicated feelings about Lord Peter, who has been steadfastly trying to persuade her to marry him. Shortly after she is settled in, she is dismayed to discover that the college has been haunted by a poison pen – someone has been leaving nasty notes and other messages like the one Harriet found for the college staff. The identity of this poison pen and their motive for harassing the college constitutes the mystery at the heart of Gaudy Night. Harriet initially undertakes the investigation to find the harasser, but soon matters escalate, and she is grateful when circumstances bring Lord Peter to Oxford, where he is able to lend an expert hand. On the other hand, his presence in Oxford forces Harriet to confront her feelings about him:
[H]e relapsed into silence, while she studied his half-averted face. Considered generally, as a façade, it was by this time tolerably familiar to her, but now she saw details, magnified as it were by some glass in her own mind. The flat setting and fine scroll-work of the ear, and the height of the skull above it. The glitter of close-cropped hair where the neck-muscles lifted to meet the head. A minute sickle-shaped scar on the left temple. The faint laughter-lines at the corner of the eye and the droop of the lid at its outer end. The gleam of gold down on the cheekbone. The wide spring of the nostril. An almost imperceptible beading of sweat on the upper lip and a tiny muscle that twitched the sensitive corner of the mouth. The slight sun-reddening of the fair skin and its sudden whiteness below the base of the throat.. The little hollow above the points of the collarbone.
He looked up, and she was instantly scarlet, as though she had been dipped in boiling water. Through the confusion of her darkened eyes and drumming ears some enormous bulk seemed to stoop over her. Then the mist cleared. His eyes were riveted upon the manuscript again, but he breathed as though he had been running.
So, thought Harriet, it has happened. But it happened long ago. The only new thing that has happened is that now I have got to admit it to myself.
I was introduced to Sayers, in a manner of speaking, by my graduate advisor in medieval history, who is an ardent fan of the Lord Peter Wimsey series. I mention this because Dr. E’s specialty is in medieval monasticism, and the depiction of Shrewsbury College in Gaudy Night as a community of women who remove themselves from the larger, male-dominated world – a world in which sex defines and circumscribes the roles they must play – in order to pursue an academic life, was strongly reminiscent of women’s monasteries and, later, lay communities in the Middle Ages. Sayers’ presentation of the women scholars at Shrewsbury is sensitive, vivid, and insightful, and though it is often difficult to keep the various characters straight, they are all nonetheless fully-fleshed and granted lively personalities. Some of my favorite scenes in Gaudy Night were those set in the Senior Common Room or at high table, when the women gather to discuss their research, or the troublesome situation with the poison pen, or Harriet’s relationship with Lord Peter.
Sex, and the desire to escape its social bonds, is a unifying thread in Gaudy Night. Just as the dons of Shrewsbury have sought freedom from sex in their semi-cloister, so Harriet seeks a similar refuge from her past mistakes and the threat of making a greater mistake with Lord Peter. When she turns to Lord Peter for advice on how to find the poison pen, however, he turns her argument that sex repression must be the motive back on her:
“Isn’t it a fact that, having more or less made up your mind to a spot of celibacy you are eagerly peopling the cloister with bogies? If you want to do without personal relationships, then do without them. Don’t stampede yourself into them by imagining that you’ve got to have them or qualify for a Freudian casebook.”
“We’re not talking about me and my feelings. We’re talking about the beastly case in College.”
“But you can’t keep your feelings out of the case. It’s no use saying vaguely that sex is at the bottom of all these phenomena—that’s about as helpful as saying that human nature is at the bottom of them. Sex isn’t a separate thing functioning away all by itself. It’s usually found attached to a person of some sort.”
Ashamed of her faulty logic, Harriet confesses her deepest fear, that her heart will lead her astray:
“[T]he reason why I want to—to get clear of people and feelings and go back to the intellectual side is that it is the only side of life I haven’t betrayed and made a mess of.”
“I know that,” he said, more gently. “And it’s upsetting to think that it may betray you in its turn. But why should you think that? Even if much learning makes one person mad it need not make everyone mad. All these women are beginning to look abnormal to you because you don’t know which one to suspect, but actually even you don’t suspect more than one.”
Eventually it turns out that while sex repression may not be the motive behind the poison pen, sex is undeniably the driving force behind the offensive behavior. Without giving away too much, I was impressed with the way Sayers used the words and actions of the poison pen as an attack on women who renounce typical and traditional women’s roles – particularly those of wife and mother – as unnatural, and thereby offer her own counter-argument: that it’s criminal to bind women to sex-determined roles in society. Just as in the Middle Ages convents offered women who were unmarried, for whatever reason, a safe haven and nurturing community, so places like Shrewsbury College provide modern women a place where they can be something other than adjuncts to men.
Sayers then takes this issue one step further, because she cannot leave Harriet’s feelings for Lord Peter unresolved. Here she has one of the Shrewsbury tutors open Harriet’s eyes to the truth:
“Miss Vane—I’ve no wish to pry impertinently into your affairs. Stop me if I am saying too much. But we have talked a good deal about facing the facts. Isn’t it time you faced the facts about that man?”
“I have been facing one fact for some time,” said Harriet, staring out with unseeing eyes into the quad, “and that is, that if I once gave way to Peter, I should go up like straw.”
“That,” said Miss de Vine, drily, “is moderately obvious. How often has he used that weapon against you?”
“Never,” said Harriet, remembering the moments when he might have used it. “Never.”
“Then what are you afraid of? Yourself?”
I cannot recommend Gaudy Night highly enough.