Previous DLS posts: Concerning Lord Peter Wimsey
, and Ralph Lynn
, the Hon. Freddy Arbuthnot
, Miss Katharine Alexandra Climpson
, media whimsies
, aspidistra & ampelopsis
, Whose Body?
, Clouds of Witness
, Unnatural Death
, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club 1
, Strong Poison
, The Five Red Herrings
, Have His Carcase 1
, & 7
, Murder Must Advertise
, The Nine Tailors 1
, & 3
Still feeling ill, headachy, and fretful. Need a break from George Eliot. But I've finally figured out where to start talking about Gaudy Night
. I don't know how coherent or insightful this is going to be, but it gives me something to do
Spoilers for the whole book.
And where I'm starting is with the blindingly obvious. Gaudy Night
is about women. We get, if I recall correctly, only one snippet from Peter's point of view, and he is off-stage for most of the book. The other men--Reggie Pomfret, Lionel Farringdon, Dr. Threep, Jukes--appear very much in context of women. Pomfret and Farringdon are adjuncts of the Cattermole disaster; Dr. Threep is brought on stage for the purpose of discussing the College's problem. And Jukes, nasty piece of work that he is, is of concern to the SCR only in the context of his wife. Women populate this novel; women drive it. Peter appears to perform his conjuring trick, but only because Harriet invites him in. And Peter himself is important in the novel largely for his place in the moral/ethical/emotional equation it is trying to solve.
That equation, very broadly, is one that Sayers has been struggling with throughout the series of Wimsey novels, but this is the first time it is allowed to upstage her hero. The question is: what can and should a woman do? Miss Climpson offers one perspective on the question, as do Mary Whittaker, Ann Dorland, Gilda Farren, and even Dian de Momerie. But it is with Harriet that Sayers plunges most deeply into the heart of the thing.Gaudy Night
is set up quite explicitly to present Harriet with a series of alternatives, both in the old students who attend the Gaudy:
the Old Students in the body of the Hall--all types, all ages, all varieties of costume. ... the curious round-shouldered woman in a yellow djibbah and sandals, with her hair coiled in two snail-shells over her ears ... or the sturdy, curly-headed person in tweeds, with a masculine-looking waist-coat and the face like the back of a cab ... the tightly-corseted peroxide of sixty, whose had would better have suited an eighteen-year-old débutante at Ascot ... the innumerable women with "school-teacher" stamped on their resolutely cheery countenances ... the plain person of indeterminate age who sat at the head of her table with the air of a chairman of committee ... that curious little creature dressed in unbecoming pink, who looked as though she had been carelessly packed away in a drawer all winter and put into circulation again without being ironed ... that handsome well-preserved business woman of fifty with the well-manicured hands, who broke into the conversation of total strangers to inform them that she had just opened a new hairdressing establishment "just off Bond Street" ... that tall, haggard, tragedy-queen in black silk marocain who looked like Hamlet's aunt, but was actually Aunt Beatrice who ran the Household Column of the Daily Mercury ... the bony woman with the long horse-face who had devoted herself to Settlement work ... that unconquerably merry and bright little dumpling of a creature who was the highly-valued secretary of a political secretary and had secretaries under her
the students currently at Shrewsbury:
so many unknown quantities. So many destined wives and mothers of the race; or, alternatively, so many potential historians, scientists, schoolteachers, doctors, lawyers; as you liked to think one thing of more importance than the other.
and, most pointedly, in the balanced chiasmus surrounding Harriet at the Gaudy: "Was it worse to be a Mary Attwood (née
Stokes) or a Miss Schuster-Slatt? Was it better to be a Phoebe Bancroft (née
Tucker) or a Miss Lydgate? And would all these people have turned out exactly the same, married or single?" (47). This pattern continues throughout the book, most notably in the clever play of red herring against culprit, Miss Hillyard against Annie Wilson.
Moreover, the question of marriage is inextricably bound up in the question of work. We see that for the first time in Harriet's encounter with Catherine Freemantle Bendick (47-50); it reappears in Harriet's conversation with Peter (67), and again in a conversation with Miss de Vine (179-82). And it emerges again and again in the SCR's squabbles, as they struggle with the question of whether woman's traditional work as wife and mother is more or less important than the work she can do intellectually and artistically.
By setting the novel in a women's college, and by keeping her charismatic hero in Europe most of the time, Sayers keeps her spotlight trained on the women and the choices they are making, and in that way contrives at last to clear the "romance" out of Harriet's relationship with Peter, leaving author and character to deal with the question of what marriage means to an independent woman. By presenting all these options--Phoebe Tucker or Annie Wilson, Miss de Vine or Miss Hillyard, Miss Chilperic, Miss Martin, Mrs. Godwin, Miss Shaw--Sayers demonstrates what is at stake for Harriet, that the question is not one of woman's rightful place or what woman is suited for. It's perfectly clear that the women in this novel are suited for a wide range of different things. It's a question of how, as a human being and a woman, Harriet is to deal with her own intellectual and emotional needs--and to deal with Peter's as well.
This is the first book where we begin to see that Peter needs
Harriet. In Strong Poison
, there's a persistent, gaily Wodehousian air to his courtship. He's in earnest, but it's not terribly serious. In Have His Carcase
, Peter and Harriet form one of many dysfunctional couples. But in Gaudy Night
, their relationship finally begins to balance. We see weakness in Peter for the first time since Whose Body?
; what's more, Harriet sees it, too. Peter is at last reduced to the status of a human being, and Harriet is there waiting for him, having been a human being all along.
I am open to suggestions for other topics in relation to GN
. I feel like I've only scratched the surface.
Sayers, Dorothy L. Gaudy Night
. 1936. New York: Perennial Library-Harper & Row, Publishers, n.d.