If you've been reading along with me then you know that the Dean of Harvard College has swell taste in mysteries. Gaudy Night (1935, this edition Bourbon Street Books 2012) is one of the Dean's most favorite books, and he's read a lot more Dorothy Sayers than I have. But I have to agree that this is one swell read.
To get the full benefit of Sayers' prodigious intellect as displayed in Gaudy Night, it helps if you a) know something about life in a residential college that just happens to be modeled on the colleges at Oxford) b) are familiar with women's colleges and c) are an Anglophile. I happen to hit this trifecta, so reveled in Sayers' witty commentary on life in a residential college, student shenanigans, and faculty attitude. The magisterial Warden, warm and witty Dean, and dons ranging from vague to prickly but all deeply intellectual and immensely deserving of their academic titles, combine to make one feel instantly at home.
I've said this before so I won't go into again but . . . that British upper crust command of language and intellectual allusion and gentle self-mockery is just invigorating. This story has so many examples, but I particularly like this description of a formal portion at the Gaudy:
"The procession came into sight beneath the archway; a small crocodile-walk of elderly people, dressed with the incongruous brilliance of a more sumptuous era, and moving with the slovenly dignity characteristic of university functions in England. They crossed the quad; they mounted the plinth beneath the clock; the male dons removed their Tudor bonnets and mortar-boards in deference to the Vice-Chancellor; the female dons a reverential attitude suggestive of a prayer-meeting. In a thin, delicate voice, the Vice-Chancellor began to speak. He spoke of the history of the college; he made a graceful allusion to achievements which could not be measured by the mere passing of time; he cracked a dry and nutty little jest about relativity and adorned it with a classical tag; he referred to the generosity of the donor and the beloved personality of the deceased member of Council in whose memory the clock was presented; he expressed himself happy to unveil this handsome clock, which would add so greatly to the beauty of the quadrangle - a quadrangle, he would add, which, although a newcomer in point of time, was fully worthy to take its place among those ancient and noble buildings which were the glory of our University." (13)
If you've ever been to a Commencement or a Convocation or some other academic ceremony you know exactly how this whole scene does down. Sayers just nails it.
Our Heroine, Harriet Vane, is returning to Shrewsbury College at Oxford for Gaudy Night, a Reunion-like event, complete with festive dinners, endless speeches by University officials, and drinks before, during, and after. Harriet writes detective novels, and apparently just extricated herself from a murder charge (her former lover) with the help of her new sort-of beau, the witty, handsome, aristocratic, basically what-a-catch Lord Peter Wimsey. But Harriet hasn't been asked to come to the Gaudy just because the Dean really likes her (which she does). There is a vicious prankster at hand, terrorizing the College community with nasty notes and destructive behavior, vaguely aimed at tearing down the hard-built walls of this new, and first in Oxford, women's college. Is it a student, faculty, staff? All we really know is that it is a member of the College community. The members of the college community do not want word of this discord to become public, lest it tarnish the College's new and hard-won reputation as a place of serious scholarship. The idea of a women's college is so new, they fear that the criticism will be used to undermine the larger mission of educating women.
The long (527 pages!) story is really not that exciting from a crime perspective. Harriet digs and probes, but doesn't come up with much. She calls in Peter for help, reluctantly, because they have a complicated relationship. Basically, Peter is in love with Harriet, but is too smart to push her into a relationship, and she is skittish for reasons that are not entirely clear to me but I think have something to do with the previous episode, and not wanting to give up her delightful-sounding independence for what society generally deems a subordinate position in a relationship. I think it a bit of a cop-out on Sayers' part to have Peter be the one to solve the mystery in the end. But perhaps by this time in the Wimsey series, Sayers couldn't get away with him not taking a central role. There is something a bit meta about a mystery writer writing about a mystery writer, who is having trouble keeping her characters in line.
A central theme in this book therefore, is not whodunit so much as why and what does that say about this society? This is not an unusual tack for crime fiction, which is often all about social context, but in this case it strikes rather closer to home. One of the better known quotes from this book is "But what are you going to do with the people who are cursed with both hearts and brains?" (74) The first time we read this, it is during a conversation between Harriet and Peter that is really about their own relationship but is played out as a debate about whether one can maintain personal relationships and be really truly brilliant at some vocation, at the same time. It doesn't take much for this to be applied in a feminist context, and I see it as the old working-mother debate. As the prankster's actions become nastier, they take on a distinctly anti-feminist (if we can call these doughty academics feminists - I think they just consider themselves genderless scholars) tone. Someone really hates these women who have presumed to stray from the natural order of home and hearth.
Pretty much everyone in this book has an opinion on whether women should try and be part of a heretofore man's world, and Harriet is right in the thick of it. At one point she rails against wasting the hard-earned spaces at Oxford on girls who don't want to take it seriously. "We haven't got room for women who aren't and never will be scholars." Her pal the Dean agrees. "I know . . . but schoolmistresses and parents are such jugginses. We do our best, but can't always weed out their mistakes. And here's my secretary - called away, just when we're all so busy, because her tiresome little boy's got chicken-pox at his infuriating school. Oh, dear! I oughtn't to talk like that, because he's a delicate child and naturally children must come first but it is too crushing!" (180) Come on, you know you've had that same thought at some point, even if you have kids of your own. And the child-free have certainly thought it about us.
Team Family doesn't get much of a hearing, and I think it is because the senior Shrewsbury scholars are the vanguard (as is Sayers herself), the first group to win their degrees. The younger faculty and students are a generation removed from the struggle and while their path is not entirely smooth, neither is their every move questioned and challenged. The only women with families are those in service, or the secretaries. Even the younger dons, some of whom might actually be engaged, are only that - they've not become the ball and chain.
Gaudy Night does not settle the debate. If Harriet agrees to ride off into the sunset with Peter at the end, let it be noted that it is with a career, and without a family. One can't help but admire Harriet's glorious independence, dashing about in her roadster, making her own decisions, working away in the library when she wants, taking a break with the dons when she needs. The story is ultimately a noble effort to secure women's place in a man's world, but at what expense? Sayers can't answer that one satisfactorily, but then, who has?