Sayers, Dorothy L.: (12) Gaudy Night

When I was leaving for Thanksgiving break, I wanted to bring along a nice long dense paperback, so I got Dorothy Sayer’s Gaudy Night from the library. The cover of the most recent U.S. paperback calls it “A Lord Peter Wimsey Mystery, with Harriet Vane,” but really (and unlike the other Wimsey-Vane stories) it ought to be the other way ’round. This is very much Harriet’s book, both in plot and theme.

The plot centers around a nasty campaign of vandalism and poison pen letters at Harriet’s old Oxford college, the fictional Shrewsbury. Harriet experiences the start of the Poison-Pen’s campaign when she goes back for a Gaudy (which appears to be something like Homecoming or Alumni weekend in American terms). When the administration discovers the problem, they ask Harriet to quietly investigate, which she does alone for most of the book (Peter is present a distinct minority of the time). It’s hard to say how mysterious the mystery is, because I’ve read this before—all I remembered was the solution, so whodunnit was blindingly obvious to me the first time the person appeared. However, the puzzle in this book is at least as important for its effect on the characters as for the sake of being a puzzle itself.

It is also tightly integrated with the themes of the book, love, intellect, and independence. Harriet, who has excellent reasons for fearing a relationship with Peter, learns rather a lot about herself, him, and themselves over the course of the book, so that she finally (after a five-year courtship) agrees to marry Peter. Their relationship is painted with exquisite detail and sense, and while I’m not sure it had to take five years, it certainly had to take a while.

I finished the book, though, and realized it made me feel vaguely uneasy. After thinking about it for a bit, I pinned it down. It is entirely understandable that Harriet should fear marriage and see it as a loss of her autonomy and intellectual life, given her past history. But practically everyone else in the book sees marriage the same way, and (it seemed at the time) spends rather a lot of time pondering the question of

Could there ever be any alliance between the intellect and the flesh? It was this business of asking questions and analysing everything that sterilised and stultified all one’s passions. Experience, perhaps, had a formula to get over this difficulty; one kept the bitter, tormenting brain on one side of the wall and the languorous sweet body on the other, and never let them meet. So that if you were made that way you could argue about loyalties in an Oxford common-room and refresh yourself elsewhere with—say—Viennese singers, presenting an unruffled surface on both sides of yourself. Easy for a man, and possible even for a woman, if one avoided foolish accidents like being tried for murder [as Harriet had been]. But to seek to force incompatibles into a compromise was madness; one should neither do it nor be a party to it. . . . Let the male animal take the female animal and be content; the busy brain could very well be “left talking” . . . . In a long monologue, of course; for the female animal could only listen without contributing. Otherwise one would get the sort of couple . . . who rolled on the floor and hammered one another when they weren’t making love, because they (obviously) had no conventional resources. A vista of crashing boredom, either way.

Granted, Harriet was a bit overwrought when she thought that, but the theme bothered me; I eventually decided that it made me wonder if I was shallow or thoughtless not to have agonized at length on the question, when all those intellectual and thoughtful women in the book had done so. (An entirely idiosyncratic reaction, to be sure.) Now that the question’s presented, though, I don’t think I am; instead, I’m lucky in at least two ways. I live in a time and a place where it is accepted that a woman’s independent existence need not be, and is usually not, extinguished upon marriage (Gaudy Night was written and set in the mid-1930s); and I have had no personal experiences to contradict my instinctive belief that of course one can have intellect and passion all together with the same person. Late in the book, the reader is told that Harriet “went to bed thinking more about another person than about herself. This goes to prove that even minor poetry may have its practical uses.” Novels too may have their practical uses, spurring realizations about ourselves and others.

I now want to re-read the start of Peter & Harriet’s story, Strong Poison, and the end, Busman’s Honeymoon, and since I got both of them from the library today (my copies being elsewhere presently), I shall. The Fiery Cross can wait a bit more, I think. But then I might want to re-read Possession (though probably not Tam Lin) . . . hmmm. Decisions, decisions.

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