I often re-read classics or “oldies-but-goodies” over the holidays. This year, I found myself absorbed in “Gaudy Night: a Lord Peter Wimsey Novel” by renowned British mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers. Written and set in 1935, it has more of Harriet Vane, successful mystery writer, and less of Lord Peter, aristocratic amateur detective and Renaissance man, than her other mysteries.
The title refers to a reunion event at Harriet’s college (deliciously named Shrewsbury), modeled on the women’s college at Oxford. It is just a few years since the notorious case involving Harriet’s lover’s death by arsenic. While at Shrewsbury, she receives a poison pen letter, and comes across another ominous communication. Later she is invited back to investigate ongoing alarming behaviors among the all-female faculty, students, and staff. Although Lord Peter’s secret work for the British government has him away on the continent, eventually he joins up with Harriet and the mystery is solved.
The character of Harriet Vane is generally considered an autobiographical depiction of Sayers, who completed degree requirements at Oxford in the years before women were granted degrees there. In “Gaudy Night,” discussions of women’s education go on and on, as do reflections on the impact of education on women’s fitness for marriage and motherhood, and consideration of of the degree to which a woman’s scholarly rigor would hold up against her personal loyalties. Some consider this the first feminist mystery.
Sayers’ own classical education is much on display, with Latin phrases sprinkled throughout, and quotes from classical authors introducing each chapter. Her writing is both lovely and lively; she seems to enjoy poking fun at convention. The incipient romance between Harriet and Lord Peter adds emotional energy to the already charged atmosphere, even as they conform to academic and societal proprieties.
A thin thread in the story refers to events in Germany at this time, particular eugenics and the role of women there, topics addressed in a book I recently finished, “Hitler’s Furies.”
As I was reading “Gaudy Night,” I sensed the datedness of some of the discussions, and wasn’t sure that it had aged well. But as I’ve reflected on it further, I’ve realilzed how unresolved and relevant many of the issues remain. I recommend “Gaudy Night” to mystery fans, and to students of popular writing or feminism.