Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers

[rating=5] Narrated by Ian Carmichael.

Don’t discount Gaudy Night as just another work of genre fiction. It is far more than a mystery novel with romantic aspects, or a romance with a bit of investigation on the side. It is a thoughtful meditation on gender roles, work and progress; a deep exploration of scholarship and university life, and the challenge of reconciling love and relationships with feminist principles. Brilliant.

Indeed, it’s a hard sell as a mystery/romance, defying most genre conventions. Crime but no corpses. Romance but no kisses. It should be dry as a bone, but wonder of wonders, it’s bursting with life.

In fact, it’s home to one of the best dates EVER, the source of many personal dreams and fancies. Imagine yourself punting on the river, exchanging idyllic pleasantries followed by a nap, then roaring around Oxford in a fast car; a pub lunch where you both enjoy a half-pint; your man offers to show you self-defense moves in a field, so you spend an hour throwing one another to the ground and forcing submission holds on one another, hair curling with steam, bodies straining, breath coming fast… Then to lighten the mood he gives you a DOG COLLAR to increase your safety (protection against strangulation) and your fashion sense. Then, enhancing the joke gift with a real one, he buys you an ancient and expensive ivory chess set and challenges another man to a duel for your honour while at the antiques shop. DREAMY.

Sayers draws great caricatures as always, this time of brash American academics abroad, stressed out students, jealous young lovers, aged virginal dons and rude Oxford punters. She paints the follies of sequestered life at college, where too many people living under one roof can wreak havoc and give birth to some awful neuroses, and unflinchingly exhibits the hatred of women against women. The best new character to enter the series is Peter’s nephew the Viscount St. George. I thought of him as “Mini-Wimsey”, and I adored his puckish, shameless, naughty self. Such an adorable puppy.

The first time I encountered this story was via the BBC TV adaptation starring Harriet Walters and Edward Petherbridge, and I was not impressed. The screenplay runs roughshod over the subtleties of dream, poetry, and inner monologue that suffuse the text of the novel. I was also horrified at the depiction of life at a women’s college in Oxford; young harpies being taught by peculiar old hags. This is a book to be read (or, if you can find the Ian Carmichael unabridged audiobook, listened to): Not a story to be viewed onscreen.

Lord Peter, that magnificent beast whose imposing presence is at the core of my Sayers fetish, is absent for most of this investigation of hate letters and vandalism. Harriet tackles the poison pen on her own, and solo work spurs her on to regain the sense of self she lost during her first failed relationship. She remembers who she is: a Master of Arts, a scholar, an author, a woman. So, when Wimsey does arrive on the scene they are at their best, because Vane rises to the occasion.

Reading Gaudy Night in sequence, as the twelfth book featuring Peter, and the third major story that pairs him with Harriet Vane, it feels odd to witness Harriet’s bitter acerbity and sang-froid mellow into mush. Her usual frosty reception to Peter’s wooing is worn down by his departure to the continent. Absence makes the heart grow fonder and all that. This is good, because I simply couldn’t bear any more delays in the progress of their relationship.

Speaking as a woman who has borne mute witness to Peter’s unflagging devotion since I was a hot-blooded adolescent, I felt myself wanting to club Harriet over the head and punch her in the neck, for daring to hesitate. My teenaged angst rose to the boiling point with frustration at the sheer impudence of such a woman, confronted with such a man. How could she keep him waiting? Her objections seem infuriatingly tepid. Say yes, say YES, you damned fool!

Now that I am older, wiser, and possessed of two degrees from my own alma mater, I feel better equipped to absorb the harrowing ‘Yes; No; Wait’ of Harriet’s waffling indecision. Having survived to the ripe old age of 34 without succumbing to the matrimonial state, I get it. Hard-won independence, the fear of limiting one’s freedom, of disappointing someone else, of connecting yourself permanently to another human. It’s scary if you think about it too much, and after 30, you DO think too much.

I comprehend the temptation to return to the peace, order and discipline that can only be found in the Ivory Tower of scholarship. I grasp also the impossibility of retiring to the cloister, once the world has taken hold of you and you have grown too harried and broad and needy, too hungry for MORE to squeeze back into the rigid limits of academia.

In the end, it’s more romance than mystery. Partly thanks to the blossoming heat between Ms. Vane and Lord Peter, but mainly because, like so many English mysteries, this book is a love letter to Oxford. A true rendition of the eternal marriage of optimistic youth and knowing age, of teacher and student, library and lecture hall, residence and river. Forget the pale reflection you see in modern books like “Discovery of Witches” – this is TRUE Oxford, head and heart and blood and bone.

Audio review: Ian Carmichael’s narration of the text is, as ever, crisp and lovely, with feminine strength given to the Dean and the many other female characters who populate the college. Lord Peter’s nephew is voiced with a great admixture of sass, vigor and chagrin. The final confrontation – a scene full of spitting hatred – was delivered with proper venom and cold fury. Romantic contemplations that spring up inside Harriet’s mind are quietly and thoughtfully rendered in dulcet tones. Happily, Carmichael’s grasp of Latin is good, and his pronunciation of that ancient tongue is clean. He delivers both query and reply with grace, and without hesitation.

Denique: ‘Placetne, magistra?’ ‘Placet.’

Edward Petherbridge is so dreamy…What do you mean, you haven’t watched the BBC Television series from the 80s starring Harriet Walters and Edward Petherbridge?!?!


Get better acquainted with my ideal man, Lord Peter Wimsey…

1. ‘Whose body?’ [rating=3]
2. ‘Clouds of Witness’ [rating=3]
3. ‘Unnatural Death’ [rating=2]
4. ‘Lord Peter Views the Body’ [rating=3]
5. ‘The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club’ [rating=3]
6. ‘Strong Poison’ [rating=4]
7. ‘Five Red Herrings’ [rating=1]
8. ‘Have His Carcase’ [rating=4]
9. ‘Hangman’s Holiday: A Collection of Short Mysteries’ [rating=2]
10. ‘Murder Must Advertise’ [rating=4]
11. ‘The Nine Tailors’ [rating=3]
12. ‘Gaudy Night’ [rating=5]
13. ‘Busman’s Honeymoon’ [rating=5]
14. ‘In the Teeth of the Evidence’ [rating=]
15. ‘Striding Folly’ [rating=]

5 of 5 stars / bookshelves: audiobook, mystery, read, romance, 12 discs unabridged, Ian Carmichael (Narrator). Publisher: Chivers on Cassette (2004) / AudioGO on CD (2011); first published 1935. Read from August 03 to 14, 2012

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