Gaudy Night

Cover of Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers.
Cover by Robin Bilardello. Click to read an excerpt!

Title: Gaudy Night

Author: Dorothy Sayers

Nutshell: Harriet Vane returns! Still plagued by the ever charming and mischievous Peter Wimsey, the as-yet-un-fully-moved Harriet returns to her alma mater, Oxford University, for what amounts to a class reunion. She expects nothing more than to see the hallowed past tarnished by the unfortunate present, but someone decides to pen vile messages and leave them around the grounds for incomprehensible reasons. Harriet manages to be the only member of the college above suspicion, and as her day job has exalted her logical faculties in the eyes of her college’s faculty, they appoint her to investigate. What joy. Happy day. Harriet accepts, if only to keep the messages from getting into the gossip channels and damaging the college’s reputation, but this case will run close to her heart — like a knife.

Readalikes: This is so much more like a novel of manners (and social commentary) than a detective novel that I’m claiming Jane Austen as a readalike.


This book. You guys. This book. There is not a book on this blog that has challenged me so much in so many ways. The deep examination of the central questions Harriet is confronting. The quotes in French and Latin, used in cold blood as though the average reader will breeze through them. The social commentary on the gender divide in the 1930s. It was intensely thought-provoking.

Okay. Small thoughts first. I felt a bit under-educated while reading this book (in an inspiring way, not in a frustrating way.) Miss Sayers was fantastically well steeped in the classics, and this book is set in Oxford, so there are a great many references to classics, to Greek and Latin, and to the sorts of things that would be common knowledge to scholars. Fortunately important things that were said in Latin were reiterated in other ways, and unimportant things that were said in non-English languages or references to poems were usually able to be made out from context. So don’t let the English-ness or the old-ness or the occasional obscure-ness of the language deter you.

There is a decided tone-change between Strong Poison and Gaudy Night.* I mentioned in that review that the characters ran close to the edge of caricature. There is none of that here. These characters are people. People with friendships, and opinions, and conflicts, and conflicts within friendships that are caused by opinions. And at the center of the maelstrom of humanity is Harriet Vane, Senior Member, mystery writer, trying to pry deeply enough into the minds involved to find which one holds her opinions strongly and maliciously enough to write poisonous letters meant to destroy the College.**

At first, I thought that the entire character arc would be Harriet facing the ghosts of her past as she unravels a mystery in the hallowed halls of her youth. She certainly deals with the way the fond memories she has of Oxford are spoiled by returning there. (Goodness knows the very worst thing one can do for one’s fondest memories is mix too much of the grim dullness that is called “reality” into them.) But Miss Sayers subtly shifts the arc away from the relationship between the past and the present and focuses it squarely on what I’m going to call the “Woman’s Question.”

I doubt there’s a woman out there that doesn’t know what I mean (save perhaps the younger ones.) The great struggle between Family and Career. The tug-of-war between personal loyalties and professional ones. The downside to staying true to your intellect. The dangers of losing yourself in relationship. This is the question Harriet Vane is facing. To marry, or not. And if to marry, to become a meek little wife or not. Would she be happy if her husband was a fellow-colleague, or would even that be stifling? Would she always feel the pressure of other people’s opinions of her as the wife of a peer, or would she feel that anyway as a woman with a profession? She agonizes. And the other characters, in the courses of their own lives, offer their opinions through their words, their actions, and their own choices.

Miss Sayers does not choose for the reader. Ultimately, in fact, it is the villain that believes they have the right to choose for all women. Miss Sayers only makes the choice for her own characters, and opens their hearts to show you how their choices turned out. And very last, when all the evidence is gathered in, and all the arguments made, she makes Harriet’s choice. I found it satisfying. I thought it was the right one. Will you?

There is much more in this book that I could talk about. I could exclaim over the novelty of a book written just before WWII, that talks about Hitler’s Germany without knowledge of what was about to break loose there. What was already happening. I could talk about the acute social commentary, the evolution of the Peter Wimsey character, and the fascinating depiction of boating as a Sunday afternoon pursuit. But these are all superfluous. The book’s purpose is not to solve “whodunnit” or depict life and romance in 1935. It is to ask the question: Can one accept the responsibility of loyalty to another and still be to one’s own self true?

* In fact, there is a discussion between Harriet and Peter Wimsey in which she is struggling with a character that has insipid and disappointing motivations, and he makes some suggestions for how to improve. “But that would throw the book out of balance,” Harriet protests “You would have to write a book about humans,”Wimsey informs her. I feel as though this was included by way of explanation for the shift between light-hearted mystery and character drama.

** College, by the way, is sort of a sub-University within a University. A person might attend Oxford, but all their classes were taken in a particular college, governed by the staff of that college. I’m not sure what made any given college different from any other, though.

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