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Gaudy Night (1935)

by Dorothy L. Sayers

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Peter Wimsey & Harriet Vane (3), Lord Peter Wimsey (12)

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4,6391201,717 (4.32)434
This full-cast audio dramatization of Gaudy Night was specially recorded for BBC Radio. When Harriet Vane attends her Oxford reunion, known as the 'Gaudy, ' the prim academic setting is haunted by a rash of bizarre pranks: scrawled obsentities, burnt effigies and poison-pen letters--including one that says, "Ask your boyfriend with the title if he likes arsenic in his soup." Some of the notes threaten murder; all are perfectly ghastly; yet in spite of their scurrilous nature, all are perfectly worded. And Harriet finds herself ensnared in a nightmare of romance and terror, with only the tiniest shreds of clues to challenge her powers of detection--and those of her paramour, Lord Peter Wimsey.… (more)
  1. 50
    A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold (PhoenixFalls)
    PhoenixFalls: A Civil Campaign is Lois McMaster Bujold's attempt to replicate Gaudy Night -- with an infusion of Georgette Heyer -- in her long-running Vorkosigan Saga.
  2. 30
    The Late Scholar by Jill Paton Walsh (merry10)
    merry10: The Late Scholar is Jill Paton Walsh's further exploration of Dorothy L. Sayers' themes in Gaudy Night.
  3. 20
    A Monstrous Regiment of Women by Laurie R. King (zembla)
    zembla: Both feature good banter, a mystery set in a mostly-female environment, and a tentative romance between the sleuth protagonists.
  4. 20
    Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis (kraaivrouw)
  5. 20
    Death Among the Dons by Janet Neel (littlegreycloud)
    littlegreycloud: A murder mystery, an academic setting, an unusual heroine, a knight in shining armour (although John McLeish is more believable than Lord Peter;): check, check, check and check. But most importantly: really good writing.
  6. 22
    A College of Magics by Caroline Stevermer (bmlg)
    bmlg: lively and engaging depiction of the community of women scholars
1930s (6)
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Showing 1-5 of 113 (next | show all)
This is a book that not only is dated, but feels that way. Harriet Vane goes to her college gaudy (the British term for reunion) at Oxford. At first she is apphensive, fearing that the professors and former classmates will be judgemental in the face of her once having been the accused in a murder trial. The fact that she was proved innocent didn't stop nasty letters and messages from coming, but she goes at the request of an old friend who is in ill health. Once there she discovers that a poison pen is sending nasty letters to the faculity. Not wanting to involve the police, and create a scandal, they ask Harriet to investigate. The investigation eventually need the help of Lord Peter. The crime itself, while not as immediate as a murder, is a nasty one, but the fear of male disapproval for the recently added women's institution, is dated. As a piece of history this is interesting and makes one appherate the college education that I, and all other modern women, take for granted. ( )
  Colleen5096 | Oct 29, 2020 |
Sayers, Dorothy L. Gaudy Night. 1935. Wimsey No. 12. Harper, 2012.
A Gaudy is the quaint name for an Oxford University college festival, something like Homecoming at an American university. Gaudy has nothing to do with garishness but is probably derived from a Latin song of celebration. Unfortunately, the faculty women at fictional Queen’s College are not in a celebratory mood, because someone has been vandalizing the place and posting insulting notes about them. Harriet Vane, one of their alumnae and now a successful mystery novelist, is engaged to investigate. Of course, she must eventually get help from Lord Peter Wimsey and his handsome nephew. The other thing inquiring minds what to know in this novel is whether Harriet will finally accept one of Lord Peter’s repeated marriage proposals. Under its somewhat comic surface, the novel seriously discusses the conflict between a woman’s profession and personal life, between independence and obligation. These questions are important to the women of the college and to Harriet Vane. Gaudy Night is Sayers at the top of her form. It is a must read for anyone who reads mystery novels at all. ( )
  Tom-e | Jun 23, 2020 |
Gaudy Night is the first book on my Wimsey re-read that I hadn't read before. In truth, it's about 3.5-4 stars, but it gets five for breaking my heart.

The first half of this book – written centered on Harriet and her old college, is slow and terribly annoying, though not without charm. Harriet is given to judging people from the outside, and commenting excessively on choice of dress and attractiveness in general. She comes across, not without reason, as narrow-minded and uptight. The other annoying-and-fascinating part is the sexism, sexism everywhere! Sometimes it's the subject of Sayers' point and commentary (implicit and explicit), but sometimes it's just … there.

Then Lord Peter swoops in and saves Harriet. Not literally, though that happens too, but he saves the book, and her character, and everything is just wonderful.

The mystery itself, as usually, is nothing to write home about, but the *setting*, oh!, the setting. It's lovely and heart-breakingly well-written. As are the characters, even when they are annoying, and the banter, and long-budding romance. In the first half I didn't understand why people would put it up there with Nine Tailors because it was clearly worse, and the second half more than changed my opinion. ( )
  _rixx_ | May 24, 2020 |
"Gaudy Night" is a beautifully written exploration of the importance and difficulty of personal choice, of the nature and relevance of academic life, of the possibility of finding love and the difficulty of deserving it, wrapped up in a mystery set in an all-female Oxford College in 1935-

I'd been told, repeatedly, that this was a wonderful book. I took it on faith, as I had abandoned the first Peter Wimsey book "Whose Body?" because it seemed to me to be a chaotic farce.

I was in the book's thrall before the end of the first chapter. In a few pages I'd already decided that I liked Harriet Vane and wanted to spend time in her company and that I admired Dorothy Sayers' skill in creating empathy for and engagement with an introspective intellectual woman working her way through emotions that she's trying to hold at arms-length.

Dorothy Sayers did so much with so few words. I hadn't read the two Harriet Vane books that preceded "Gaudy Night" yet, within a few pages, I learned a lot about Harriet: her history, her character, her mode of thought. She was already real to me.

What caught me by surprise is the emotional impact.

I left my university thirty years ago. I've never been back. I never will go back. I'm not who I was then and he wouldn't recognise who I am now.

Sayers captured this sense of visiting a previous self, one untested and less well-formed than the self you currently inhabit and the anxiety it produces, perfectly.

Harriet Vane thinks:


It was all so long ago; so closely encompassed and complete; so cut off as by swords from the bitter years that lay between. Could one face it now?


"Closely encompassed and complete." I like that. It's an illusion in one way of course but it's a sentiment that strongly persists for me.

Even on her way to Oxford, Harriet'sanxiety persists. She's glad to be driving to Oxford in her own little car rather than entering by train as her undergraduate self always had and she's glad that:

"For a few hours longer she could ignore the whimpering ghost of her dead youth and tell herself that she was a stranger and a sojourner, a well-to-do woman with a position in the world."

This seemed real to me, this telling ourselves stories of who we are and who we've been so that we can cope with what's to come.

I also liked the moments where, as the reader, I was left to draw my own conclusions. When Harriet opens a long-closed chest in the attic and retrieves her academic gown, she finds it in good order:

"Only the flat cap showed a little touch of the moth’s tooth. As she beat the loose fluff from it, a tortoise-shell butterfly, disturbed from its hibernation beneath the flap of the trunk-lid, fluttered out into the brightness of the window, where it was caught and held by a cobweb."

That's a wonderfully gentle way to introduce foreboding that shows Sayers' lightness of touch and clarity of imagination.

I was also surprised that this book was written in 1935. Based on the handed-down version of period dramas and television stereotypes, Harriet Vane seemed a remarkably strong and independent character, especially when written by a woman of a similar background. Clearly my perceptions need to be adjusted if this was contemporary popular literature.

The central mystery of the book involves discovering the identity sf the person who is making repeated attempts to sabotage the reputation of the all-female Oxford college, the individual members of the Senior Common Room and some of the students.

The attacks are vicious, spiteful and well-executed. They seem to be the product hatred, perhaps the darkest of passions, and it seems likely that the culprit is a member of the Senior Common Room.

Harriet is asked to come and live and work at her old college while discretely but with the full knowledge of senior staff, to investigate the acts of sabotage.

Harriet, five years after having been put on trial for her life for a murder she didn't commit, has built a life for herself as a writer of mysteries. She has a genuine passion for writing but she feels the need for something more.

Harriet has reached a point where she understands she must make a choice. At one point, when talking to a student, she says:

"I’m sure one should do one’s own job, however trivial, and not persuade one’s self into doing somebody else’s, however noble.”

Harriet also recognises how hard it is to make the right choice. Talking to a Don at her college Harriet asks:

“But one has to make some sort of choice,” said Harriet. “And between one desire and another, how is one to know which things are really of overmastering importance?”
“We can only know that,” said Miss de Vine, “when they have overmastered us.”

The idea that having the self-awareness and discipline to choose how to live your life to follow your desire is necessary to find fulfillment but that real happiness can only be achieved by opening yourself up to a desire and allowing it to overwhelm you, is central to this book.

Harriet values her intellect and her control over her own life. She is self-aware and tries not to lie to herself. She wants to avoid harming herself or those around her. This makes it difficult for her to surrender to passion. I imagine that letting oneself be overwhelmed must feel a little like drowning to a woman like Harriet Vane. It takes courage not to keep your head below the water.

The mystery at her old college allows Harriet to hear the call of two of her passions: the lure of the academic life where she can excel at something that has more meaning to her than writing the fiction with which she makes her living, and the opportunity to deepen her understanding of Peter Wimsey, by getting to see him in different context, so that she can decide what to do about this man who regularly offers to marry her and will continue to do so until she tells him to stop.

For a while, Harriet lets herself fall back in love with the all-female academic life and the peace it offers. She sees it as:

"a Holy War, and that whole wildly heterogeneous, that even slightly absurd collection of chattering women fused into a corporate unity with one another and with every man and woman to whom integrity of mind meant more than material gain—defenders in the central keep of Man-soul, their personal differences forgotten in face of a common foe. To be true to one’s calling, whatever follies one might commit in one’s emotional life, that was the way to spiritual peace."

She also recognises that academic life could be an opportunity to make herself immune to the interference of men. As Miss Hilyard, one of the Dons, puts it, men:

"have an admirable talent for imposing their point of view on society in general. All women are sensitive to male criticism. Men are not sensitive to female criticism. They despise the critics.”

While Harriet can imagine choosing the academic life, she also recognises its distance from day to day life. As one of the few non-academic women says to the Dons:

None of you care in the least for my interests, and yours all seem to me to be mere beating the air. You don’t seem to have anything to do with real life. You are going about in a dream.” She stopped speaking, and her angry voice softened. “But it’s a beautiful dream in its way.

It seemed to me that Harriet sees the world too clearly and is too honest with herself to be content with "a beautiful dream".

It's also clear that Harriet's attraction to men and to Peter Wimsey in particular, is real and may not easily be ignored. At one point, as Harriet lets Peter Wimsey occupy her thoughts, she reproachfully tells herself:

“This won’t do,” said Harriet. “This really will not do. My sub-conscious has a most treacherous imagination.”

Harriet gains an admirer young male admirer during her stay at college in the form of the charmingly inexperienced Mr. Pomfret. This is her reaction when Pomfret asks her to spend some time with him:

Harriet was opening her mouth to say No, when she looked at Mr. Pomfret, and her heart softened. He had the appeal of a very young dog of a very large breed—a kind of amiable absurdity.

She is kind to Pomfrrz but sees mostly his youth, and in his youth, her own age. This provides a context for her consideration of what to do about Lord Peter Wimsey.

She feels unable to move forward with him because she owes him her life and she fears that there can be no equal partnership when one person is so indebted to the other.

I loved the way Wimesy is depicted in "Gaudy Night". He is mostly physically absent. When he is present, he does not dominate, nor does he seek to replace Harriet's judgment on the mystery with his own. He is attentive and supportive but he doesn't crowd her.

Harriet is given the opportunity to see Peter through the eyes of others and discovers him to be a valued scholar in the eyes of the academics and a revered officer in the eyes of the college Porter, who served under Wimesy in the trenches. She sees him through the eyes of his heir-to-a-major-fortune-one-day nephew, who views his uncle with affection and respect.

Although "Gaudy Night" is a mystery story, it seems to me that it is also something much rarer, at least in fiction: a romance between two intellectual, introverted, independent, habitually rational people, with all the challenges and opportunities that that implies.

I was delighted with it. I want to spend more time with Harriet and Peter so I'll be reading my way through the sub-series.

One thing that did disappoint me was the poor proofing of this particular ebook (ASIN B00R1T46K8). It has dozens of typos, presumably OCR errors, that should have been found and corrected. I think this is disrespectful to the text and to the reader.

( )
  MikeFinnFiction | May 16, 2020 |
Dorothy L. Sayers was a snob of the highest order, and not at all my cup of tea. Don't get me wrong, I have nothing wrong with authors who are antiquated in style (Proust, one of my homeboys) or problematic (Woody Allen's comedy) or indeed high-and-mighty, antiquated, and problematic (my bookshelf is a shrine to Lawrence Durrell) but something about Sayers puts me off.

Is it her half-page epigraphs at the commencement of each chapter? Her rambling style? Her characters' proclivity to burst into Latin without a footnote, even in a modern edition (not necessarily a problem for a classicist such as myself, but still annoying)? Or the sheer audacity of a 520-page mystery novel? I mean, even at their best, these things - whether by Christie, Marsh, Tey, or Innes - were designed to be amusements to pass the time, not Tolstoy. Perhaps it's Harriet Vane's unwillingness to really get involved in solving the mystery, and leaving it up to her bf.

Either way, I didn't enjoy Sayers in highschool and I still don't care for Gaudy Night but I appreciate that - much like my willingness to get lost in Pym or Zola - for some, Sayers fits their heart and soul specifically. I'll stick to the other Golden Age crime writers, thanks. (Delectable speech by the non-murderer at the end, though!) ( )
  therebelprince | Apr 27, 2020 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Dorothy L. Sayersprimary authorall editionscalculated
George, ElizabethIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Juva, KerstiTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ledwidge, NatachaIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
McDowell, JaneNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
The University is a Paradise. Rivers of Knowledge are there. Arts and Sciences flow from thence. Counsell Tables are Horti conclusi, (as it is said in the Canticles) Gardens that are walled in, and they are Fontes signati. Wells that are sealed up; bottomless depths of unsearchable Counsels there.

John Donne
Dedication
First words
Harriet Vane sat at her writing-table and stared out into Mecklenburg Square.
[Introduction] I came to the wonderful detective novels of Dorothy L. Sayers in a way that would probably make that distinguished novelist spin in her grave.
[Author's Note] It would be idle to deny that the City and University of Oxford (in aeternum floreant) do actually exist, and contain a number of colleges and other buildings, some of which are mentioned by name in this book.
Quotations
'The social principle seems to be,' suggested Miss Pyke, 'that we should die for our own fun and not other people's.' 'Of course I admit,' said Miss Barton, rather angrily, 'that murder must be prevented and murderers kept from doing further harm. But they ought not to be punished and they certainly ought not to be killed.' 'I suppose they ought to be kept in hospitals at vast expense, along with other unfit specimens,' said Miss Edwards. 'Speaking as a biologist, I must say I think public money might be better employed. What with the number of imbeciles and physical wrecks we allow to go about and propagate their species, we shall end by devitalising whole nations.' 'Miss Schuster-Slatt would advocate sterilisation,' said the Dean. 'They're trying it in Germany, I believe,' said Miss Edwards. 'Together,' said Miss Hillyard, 'with the relegation of woman to her proper place in the home.' 'But they execute people there quite a lot,' said Wimsey, 'so Miss Barton can't take over their organisation lock, stock and barrel.'
`Were you really being as cautious and exacting about it as you would be about writing a passage of fine prose?’
‘That’s rather a difficult sort of comparison. One can’t, surely, deal with emotional excitements in that detached spirit’.
‘Isn’t the writing of good prose an emotional excitement?’
‘Yes, of course it is. At least, when you get the thing dead right and know it’s dead right, there’s no excitement like it. It’s marvellous. It makes you feel like God on the Seventh Day – for a bit, anyhow.’
‘Well, that’s what I mean. You expend the trouble and you don’t make any mistake – and then you experience the ecstasy. But if there’s any subject in which you’re content with the second-rate, then it isn’t really your subject.’
All the children seem to be coming out quite intelligent, thank goodness. It would have been such a bore to be the mother of morons, and it's an absolute toss-up, isn't it? If one could only invent them, like characters in books, it would be much more satisfactory to a well-regulated mind.
Detachment is a rare virtue, and very few people find it lovable, either in themselves or in others. If you ever find a person who likes you in spite of it--still more, because of it--that liking has very great value, because it is perfectly sincere, and because, with that person, you will never need to be anything but sincere yourself.
...never again would she mistake the will to feel for the feeling itself.
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This full-cast audio dramatization of Gaudy Night was specially recorded for BBC Radio. When Harriet Vane attends her Oxford reunion, known as the 'Gaudy, ' the prim academic setting is haunted by a rash of bizarre pranks: scrawled obsentities, burnt effigies and poison-pen letters--including one that says, "Ask your boyfriend with the title if he likes arsenic in his soup." Some of the notes threaten murder; all are perfectly ghastly; yet in spite of their scurrilous nature, all are perfectly worded. And Harriet finds herself ensnared in a nightmare of romance and terror, with only the tiniest shreds of clues to challenge her powers of detection--and those of her paramour, Lord Peter Wimsey.

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