It’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 at 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!