Gaudy Night

gaudy nightIt’s 1935 and mystery writer, Harriet Vane alumna of  Shrewsbury College, Oxford, returns for their annual ‘Gaudy Night’ dinner.  But all is not well, poison pen letters and coarse graffiti are disturbing the peace before properly sinister things start to happen. Harriet is asked to stay on and investigate which she does with the help of her friend Lord Peter Wimsey, who arrives like the cavalry.

I read this as my ‘classic from somewhere you’ve lived’ for the Back to the Classics Challenge, so from the beginning it was fun, following the drive from London to Oxford; stopping in High Wycombe for lunch with half a bottle of  wine (!) and then walking around Oxford. As it’s one of those books that names every street it was all very cosy. Added to that the academic setting of a women’s college with debates and discussions around coffee, tea or sherry in the Senior Common Room and it was all I could wish for really. Except . . .

I can’t say I was particularly taken with Harriet Vane, she seemed a prickly sort to say the least, but once the story got going I was hooked.  The plot went along at a good pace, lots of red herrings, things going bump in the night and characters that could, possibly, be guilty.  ‘We want torches and blankets. Hot coffee. Brandy. Better get the police to send up a constable’, I had no idea whodunnit and revelled in the old style policing.

But . . .  as I would expect from a novel with this setting and author, women’s education and whether or not it’s worthwhile came up a lot, ‘the usual masculine spite against educated women’, was one of the first reasons given for the graffiti and Annie, while bringing in the lunch remarks to Harriet ‘you ought to be married . . . it seems to me a dreadful thing to see all these unmarried ladies living together. It isn’t natural’.  Women should be at home, to be able to be both an academic and a wife isn’t considered even as a fantasy and the debate comes to a head in the SCR one evening when Miss Hillyard says:

‘The fact is, though you will never admit it, that everybody in this place has an inferiority complex about married women and children.  For all your talk about careers and independence you all believe in your hearts that we ought to abase ourselves before any woman who has fulfilled her animal functions.’

This must have been a very topical even radical discussion for its contemporary readers and although it isn’t carried through that didn’t trouble me – it’s a crime novel after all.  My problem was Harriet Vane, as Dorothy Sayers’ heroine. She’s an educated ‘modern’ women with (it seems) a flourishing career and has expressed outrage at Annie’s opinions. So then why does she continually speak about the female undergraduate in a derogatory way? They’re ‘little idiots’ or ‘little beasts’, they’re told to ‘run along’ or ‘there’s a good girl’ or grumbled at for being ‘sloppy’ as if they were school children.

The male undergraduate’s, however, are ‘gentleman’. There’s ‘the Byronic profile’ of Mr. Farringdon, Mr. Rogers is ‘tall, dark, lively’,’ she goes to dinner and a show with Mr. Pomfret – she’s in her ’30’s and he’s no more than 21!  In a conversation with Lord Saint-George he refers to ‘the rotten little gold-diggers one carts around’, and still she defers to him: ‘I’m not very good dorothy l. sayersat arithmetic. You’d better check this up.’  It’s appalling the way she flirts and sucks up to them.

I don’t understand why Sayers’ has done this.  I would have thought she (and Harriet Vane) would have been proud of the female students and treated them with the respect they deserved having got to university in 1935.

Anyway, despite my misgivings, I am interested to know what Harriet Vane got up to that was so terrible in an earlier book, so will read more and I might find that I’ve completely misread the sexual politics of this one!


7 thoughts on “Gaudy Night

  1. How interesting! I don’t get along with Sayers at all, especially in the Harriet Vane books, and haven’t re-read them in literally decades – probably forty years. But I had to re-read one for a challenge recently – Clouds of Witness – and I came away from it thinking that she actually came over as rather misogynistic. Perhaps she was! I actually commented on her sexism in my review – seixsm against women, that is. The men could and did behave intolerably but she spoke of them indulgently. The women – if they were good, they were dull, and if they were bad, well then, they deserved all they got, silly fools. I’m now almost tempted to re-read Gaudy Night… almost… but not quite… 😉

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  2. The men were indulged, that’s just the right word. I remember your review and dislike of Sayers – I’ll read Clouds of Witness next and then read your review again!


  3. Gaudy Nights has been near the top of my TBR heap for a couple of months now, so it’s interesting to read your review. I’ve read a few of her other novels, and suspect that what you’ve identified was part of who she was. The few women featuring in the Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club didn’t strike me as any kind of role model to us, but maybe she was playing to her audience of the time…

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  4. I think you’re right this is just ‘of the time’, but since she was a scholarship student at Oxford herself and had raised the issue of career v marriage at the beginning of the book, I was surprised (and disappointed) that she was so blatantly sexist. Still, a good, fun crime – I’m interested to see what you think of it

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  5. I guess it is time for a reread because I never read it in this way. Admittedly I always focused more on the discussion on what an equal marriage would entail, than on Harriet’s relations to the students.

    I do think you judge her a bit harshly though. In the conversation with Saint-George she seemingly only refers the calculation, of his own debt, to him when the sum she comes up with seems completely unreasonable, that sounds sensible to me. I really don’t get the impression that she is flirting in that conversation.

    I agree that she in general is much harsher on the female students than the male ones but their behaviour, although no worse than the male students, are probably much more likely to hurt themselves or the college. I also got the impression that Harriet cares about the reputation of her college, hence the investigation, whereas the other colleges’ reputations are not her problem. That, plus the fact that someone in the college clearly has more disturbing problems, always seemed enough to explain much of the difference to me.

    It will be interesting to reread it and see if my opinion still holds, or if I too will get annoyed by the same things 🙂


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