Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers: A+

gaudynightFrom the back cover:
When Harriet Vane attends her Oxford reunion, known as the “Gaudy,” the prim academic setting is haunted by a rash of bizarre pranks: scrawled obscenities, 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.

I’m trying to recall precisely when I first heard of Gaudy Night. It must’ve been somewhere around 2001 or 2002, because my first attempt to read the Wimsey series (I couldn’t just jump straight to the penultimate novel, after all!) occurred early in 2002. In any case, here is a book I’ve been waiting to read for at least eight years and, unlike so much else in life, it completely lived up to (and even exceeded) my expectations.

Because I blindly accepted the accounts of this book’s excellence, I didn’t read much about it before its time came. Therefore, it was an exceedingly pleasant surprise that the narrative is told from the point of view of Harriet Vane, a mystery novelist and long-time object of Wimsey’s affections. After discovering a couple of disturbing messages when attending her Oxford reunion, Harriet is later called back to the college to conduct a discreet investigation. While investigating the origins of poison-pen letters, foiling pranks, and settling into the academic life once more, Harriet also engages in many conversations with the members of the Senior Common Room on the virtues of a life devoted to scholarship as opposed to the traditional womanly duties, and uses the experience of her former schoolmates to help form conclusions about whether marriage is worth it. The overall message is an unapologetically feminist one, though some characters do persist in advocating for stereotypical gender roles.

Of course, this isn’t the first book to present Harriet’s point of view. Have His Carcase is similar, but it’s more breezy and amusing. This time, it feels like we really get to know Harriet inside and out and understand exactly what it is that keeps her from accepting Peter’s marriage proposals: her belief that she has so thoroughly messed up attempts at love (Peter first meets her in Strong Poison when she is on trial for killing her lover) that she had better give up, and, most strongly, the pesky feelings of gratitude toward Peter that would forever keep them on unequal footing. As fond as she is of Peter, she can’t really believe he would be happy with her or treat her as an equal, and it’s in this novel that he finally, finally manages to convince her that both are true.

Eventually, Harriet reaches a point in the case where it’s necessary to call for Peter’s assistance and it’s here that she begins to compare the kind of marriage he would offer as opposed to the variety more normally encountered. For example, Peter doesn’t want a sweet, uncritical, and dependent spouse: he wants an honest and independent one. “Anybody can have the harmony,” he says, giving voice to a lovely musical metaphor, “if they will leave us the counterpoint.” It takes a little bit for this to sink in, however. Instead of trying to dissuade Harriet from continuing the investigation when her life is in jeopardy, for example, Peter teaches her self-defense moves. He basically encourages all the independence she could ask for and more, giving her the freedom to risk the life she still believes she owes to him. Lastly, he reveals more of his own weaknesses, showing that he’s flawed and human, too. At last she realizes that he truly means to accept her as she is and when Peter proposes one last time, she accepts.

While the disturbances on campus and Harriet’s investigation are truly fascinating—I’m thinking particularly of the fabulous scene where the culprit is dashing about removing fuses from all of the buildings and casting everyone into darkness—it really is the relationship between these two that shines most brightly. In terms of intelligence and independence, Harriet and Peter perhaps the closest thing 20th century literature has to a couple like Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. Without them, Gaudy Night would’ve earned a solid A, which is nothing to sneer at.

Reiterating that Gaudy Night is highly recommended is unnecessary at this point, but I do advise reading at least the Wimsey novels that have been linked to here before tackling it so as to have a better idea as to the origins of Harriet and Peter’s relationship and how they’ve circled around one another for the last five years. That’ll make the novel’s conclusion all the more satisfying.

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  1. That sounds about right. You sent me the Harriet books for Christmas 2003. Of course I knew nothing about them at the time and thus read them without the other Wimsey books.

    Personally, I think the LPW series is not so long that having people read it all to this point would not be out of line. Strong Poison is a very odd book indeed without having read any of the books that came before.

    But definitely to start with Gaudy Night would be like to start the Vorkosigan series at A Civil Campaign. The impact would be completely lessened without having all of the very important backstory.

    • I couldn’t remember how well Strong Poison would hold up without having read the earlier books. It *is* true that there are a couple of references to Peter’s earlier cases in Gaudy Night that one would miss out on if one neglected the Harriet-free books. 🙂

      • When I read it, I remembered thinking that LPW fell in love for no apparent reason, especially since he hardly spent any time with Harriet — he was like those people who send letters to guys in prison and then get married to them.

        When I reread it a while later, in its proper order, I could more easily accept what happened. And also noticed that he did actually talk to her more than it seemed the first time I read it.

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