A Review of Gaudy Night (1935) by Dorothy L Sayers

By Ellie Jackson

Ellie, whose reading journey is here, is one of our student bloggers from Sheffield Hallam University. Here is her take on Dorothy L Sayers’ crime novel, Gaudy Night, about poison pen letters in an Oxford College – and about women’s role in the world. Sayers’ stories were popular with many of our interviewees, all born in the middle of the last century, long before Ellie.

Note: The blog includes spoilers.

Dorothy Leigh Sayers published her first novel in 1923 introducing Lord Peter Wimsey, with the publication of Gaudy Night in 1935 being another addition to the Wimsey-Vane Saga. I have sought through many reviews on the internet in order to get a grasp of others’ opinions on the Wimsey-Vane Saga, and come to the conclusion that many have thought Gaudy Night to be the culmination of the Saga, although it is actually not the final piece of the chronicles. There’s Busman’s Honeymoon (1937) and Dorothy Sayers began writing Thrones, Dominations but she later abandoned it and the novel was merely notes and fragments of the story after her death. The novel was later finished by Jill Paton Walsh, and published in 1998. Gaudy Night begins with a reunion at Shrewsbury College, a mysterious crime of poison pen letters and tormenting events in which famous mystery writer Harriet Vane, the protagonist of the novel previously proven innocent and saved by Wimsey after the accusation of a murder she didn’t commit, investigates. The novel is full of gripping techniques of ‘whodunnit’ and I found it rather difficult to put down after beginning. Dorothy was an English crime writer and poet, best known for her mystery novels (The Dorothy L Sayers Society, 2019). Dorothy Sayers is known as one of the ‘big four’ female detective writers from the ‘golden age’ of detective fiction (GBSM, 2012) along with great writers such as Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, and Ngaio Marsh. The golden age of detective fiction is still one of the most popular literary genres generally regarded as spanning from 1920 to 1940, and remains as a generic highpoint in literary fiction (UOO, 2022).

Before I began this project, I had never read or heard of Dorothy Sayers’ series of mystery novels. Truth be told, I had no particular interest in reading mystery fiction before commencing my project on Gaudy Night either. Often in my youth I found murder mystery novels to be particularly lightweight in comparison to other literary texts and novels I had read and enjoyed for its passion and emotion, “gives rise to no feelings or evokes no dream” (Brody, 1985). They tend to be least focused on the emotional development and growth of the main character, and rather concerned with answering the question of ‘who committed the crime?’. It is also suggested that detective fiction is said to ‘continually invent stricter rules for itself’ and ‘it is careful only to leave no suspense, nothing unclear. Everything mysterious that it introduces, it makes coherent.’ (Brody, 1985). For this reason, I have never enjoyed reading detective fiction as there is never room left for the readers’ imagination. Surprisingly, I thoroughly appreciated reading Gaudy Night and after witnessing the development of feminist ideas and how class divisions are being represented even within a mystery novel, I now have a completely different perspective for mystery fiction. Perhaps because I have matured and have more reading experiences now than I did the last time I attempted reading a mystery fiction, or because I found it refreshing to read something entirely different to anything I would usually choose. I found Gaudy Night to be less of a stereotypical detective novel, and was able to leave some ideas to the imagination. Regrettably, I did not read the thrilling series in order of events, and so jumping straight in at Gaudy Night I had to work harder to understand what was unfolding throughout the novel, however this did not hinder the pleasure of reading it. Despite having not read the complete saga, I have searched the internet for many in depth reviews and criticisms for the previous novels, and found that in fact not reading the series in order is the most popular opinion when it comes to discovering the emotional intensity of Gaudy Night, and so the reader has no emotional investment already present for each of the characters. Sayers has a superb writing style that keeps the story flowing but also delivers humorous and thought provoking comments to keep the mystery and development of characters and allows insight into the mind of the heroin and writer. In addition to such research, I found that Gaudy Night is the first to adopt a feminist ideology between all of the Wimsey novels, discussing the struggles and development of female characters toward equality and education. Sayers presents her heroine finally as a centre point in the Wimsey saga, a woman with detective qualities and employed to investigate a crime. Sayers does a wonderful job of creating a meaningful but complicated relationship between Harriet and Peter, in which the heroine does not conform to usual stereotypes for women in the time period and the male character respects such behaviour. I think she allows the reader to see the subtle and unspoken moments but also the significance of them. After researching many newspaper articles from the 20th century on Dorothy Sayers and Gaudy Night, The Times newspaper suggests ‘Dorothy Sayers in her early twenties was a focal point for the young people of literary importance of her time.’ (The Times Newspaper, 1958. Pg 13). Harriet is a successful author, wondering if mystery novels will ever rise to the level of literature, mirroring her creator.

Gaudy Night is absolutely a mystery novel – however it contains no actual murder, just a series of poison pen letters, in which the heroine of the story, Harriet, is asked to capture the culprit of these letters and practical jokes played by an individual attending Shrewsbury College. The perpetrator is found to be a servant, an individual seemingly invisible to the rest of the population of the College. Sayers represents the idea of class division by making the invisible servant visible, and reinforcing prejudices against class and femininity throughout the novel. Upon commencing research for this novel and author, I discovered the interview of Kath and Ken conducted by Reading Sheffield. As conversation is flowing, Ken begins to discuss the works of Dorothy Sayers, particularly Gaudy Night. He refers to it as a ‘fantastically written thing’, an opinion I would be inclined to agree with. He also makes a great point about the class distinctions and prejudices throughout the novel, relevant to the time frame in which it was written and the view others have on reading about more old-fashioned ideas and particularly rejecting them, and suggests that ‘if you can’t read a book because that puts you off, it deprives you of so much that’s been written’. Ken makes a valid observation, as most popular fiction from the 1930s contain old-fashioned ideas and can be seen as controversial in modern literature, but don’t take away the significance at the time, or the significance of the message throughout.

Gaudy Night was an absolute pleasure to read, and I can confirm I will be reading the complete saga.

Here is Ellie’s reading journey.


Brody, M. (1985). The Haunting of “Gaudy Night”: Misreadings in a Work of Detective Fiction. Style, 19(1), 94–116. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42945532

Gerard Bianco Storyteller Marketing, 2012. DO YOU KNOW THE “BIG FOUR” FEMALE DETECTIVE WRITERS FROM THE “GOLDEN AGE”? https://gerardbianco.blogspot.com/2012/08/do-you-know-big-four-female-detective.html

The Dorothy L Sayers Society, 2019. About Dorothy L Sayers. https://www.sayers.org.uk/biography

The Times Newspaper, 1958. Miss Dorothy Sayers. Issue no. 54037. Pg 13. University of Oxford, 2022. The Golden Age of British Detective Fiction. https://www.conted.ox.ac.uk/courses/the-golden-age-of-british-detective-fiction?gclid=Cj0KCQiAu62QBhC7ARIsALXijXQM5rQy9do9UC32rA1tvaqJKBwvLhR_SCWuF2EyyH7vt2mB8ulYh8kaAgHqEALw_wcB

Ellie Jackson’s reading journey

Here is another of the guest blogs from the Sheffield Hallam University students working with us through the Ideas into Action programme. We ask the students to write their own reading journey (a task they seem to enjoy, as they’re rarely given the opportunity to think about reading for pleasure) and to review a book or author popular with our original interviewees, all born at least 60 years before the students. It’s always interesting to see our material through the eyes of people born in this century, and we hope that the chance they get to look back increases their understanding of the world when their grandparents and great-grandparents were young.

Ellie’s memories of visiting the library and discovering Enid Blyton are pin-sharp.

As a child, I was introduced to books from the first moment I can remember. I was born and raised in a small town on the outskirts of Nottingham, and moved to Sheffield in September 2020 to complete my degree in English Literature. I was taken to the library in our small town multiple times a week by my grandparents, with rows and rows of more books than I could count. This experience is encapsulated into my memory; my younger self being completely mesmerized by them. I later realized that the library probably had no more books than a couple of hundred, a miniscule amount as opposed to other libraries I have visited after this. And so my reading journey began at a young age; the earliest books I remember reading are the Tales of Beatrix Potter and the Winnie the Pooh collection. My parents would read them to me before bedtime each night over and over again. I was fascinated by how the pictures in the books came to life, from the authors’ writing and the way my parents would adopt a new tone for each character. In my room I had a bookcase of around 200 books, and even more that were given a space in our spare bedroom as my parents would never throw them out, and I must have gotten at least five new for each birthday and Christmas.

My grandparents have always had a vast impact on my life in general, but more so when it comes to my reading experiences. I never had a positive reading experience during my years at primary school. Having to make my way up the reading stages with the Biff and Chip book collection was something I dreaded and remember asking my then teacher, if I could read The Wind in the Willows, or Peter Pan. I sped through the books, and I knew I could read more advanced ones. I was told that I was lacking in punctuation and quite far behind in writing skills than most of the other children in my school year, and that I needed extracurricular sessions with my English teacher after school. I became completely disheartened and despite knowing I was a great reader and it being my favorite pastime, I started reading less and less. My grandparents would collect me from school each day, and later informed me that they had noticed I wasn’t as interested in reading anymore, and no longer wanted to sit with my nose buried into a book before dinner. And so, instead of taking me to the library to borrow a book, they had taken me into their attic and let me have the choice of what I would like to read. From this day, I discovered multiple authors that have had a huge impact on my personal reading journey so far, such as Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five, as well as Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte and Charles Dickens. After listening to many of the Readers’ Voices interviews on the Reading Sheffield website, I realized myself and Margaret Young both shared our first reading experiences and with our grandparents, as her grandfather was an ‘avid reader’ and grandmother read classic novels much like the ones I was introduced to by my own grandparents, ‘Dickens and so on’.

As I was searching through the Reading Sheffield website to find more of others’ reading journeys, I came across Gillian Applegate’s interview, and despite being born 61 years apart, I noticed we share a similar enjoyment in reading Charles Dickens, specifically Great Expectations. This story is one I remember well and also studied during my GCSEs and came across again during my first year of university. I enjoyed watching the BBC adaptation of Great Expectations almost as much as I enjoyed reading the book for the first time, and found a love for watching TV and film adaptations of other celebrated novels too. Gillian also discusses her love for historical novels, which definitely resonates with myself as I prefer to read classic, timeless novels such as Wuthering Heights and War and Peace, both of which I have appreciated in the past few years.

Enid Blyton’s work as a whole has inspired much of my reading journey, The Magic Faraway Tree and The Enchanted Wood becoming my favorite books for years of my childhood after being read by my mum before bedtime. I also used Enid Blyton as a case in point within my Extended Project Qualification at A level, discussing her as an author but also arguments put out through the media about her work. I absolutely loved creating this project as her books had been a huge part of my childhood, and I achieved an A*.  Regrettably, in order to complete my degree, I have many great (and some, in my opinion not so great) books that I have to read, consequently causing a lack of reading for pleasure and rather for work purposes. An example of the books I haven’t enjoyed so much throughout my modules is Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe and A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. Both are great books for those who enjoy adventure fiction, and I loved the psychological analysis of both novels involving Freudian analysis. However I personally did not engage as well with these novels as I have with the others I have studied, such as Defoe’s Moll Flanders and Animal’s People by Indra Sinha. I hope to begin reading much more for myself from now on and to work on managing my workload of novels along with ones I am personally eager to read, as there are so many books still sat on my bookshelf that I feel guilty for neglecting, while picking up the same books I have been reading all year. I have recently commenced reading Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers for the other half of this project, and plan to purchase the rest of the collection to this book for my own reading pleasure.

Here is Ellie’s review of Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers..

My Reading Journey

For the last couple of years, Reading Sheffield has taken part in Sheffield Hallam University’s Ideas into Action project. The participating students examine our research and read a novel popular with our readers born in the 20th century. Then they write their own reading journey and review the novel. For many of the students, it’s a new experience to write about something as personal as their reading history. They say too that they have often never heard of the novel they review, or don’t know much of the context in which it was written.

Here is a powerful reading journey about the impact, both physical and imaginative, which reading can have. The student has asked to remain anonymous.

One of the earliest memories I have of myself as a child is where I was curled up next to my mother, both of our bodies wrapped in the sheets with only the warm faint glow of the lamp’s light to illuminate our faces and most important of all: the words scribbled upon the page of the book she was reading to me. I found great comfort in her warmth as one of her arms wrapped around my body, causing my head to rest on her chest and the other firmly holding the book into place, so I could be in awe of all of its illustrations and languages. Most importantly I was in awe of how my mother read.

Her sweet voice seemed to make the author’s words come to life in a way film never could. The way she mimicked certain characters’ voices helped to give me a sense of immersion. It encouraged me to imagine the characters right in front of me, talking with me. As though I was their friend. As though I myself were a character in one of these pages. Is it any wonder why I chanted ‘Again! Again! Again!’?

The fact of the matter is, I was surrounded by all forms of literature work, and often finding reality boring and unkind, I’d purposefully attempt to sneak a book off the shelf in desperate notion to create some form of escapism. To me, it truly didn’t matter what I was reading, even if I couldn’t understand the words, even if the phrasing of the words themselves were strung together in ways that would intimidate me, I would still persevere and read on. It didn’t matter to me that I didn’t understand the deep intricacies of the violent nature of men or their beautifully woven words of peace and love throughout the works of non-fiction. As long as I was reading, I didn’t have to interact with the world, and that’s what mattered to me the most. To this day I still regard reading as a private activity, something to only be indulged in with myself and by myself.

Hence why my first experience to the library was an odd one. On the way there my body was riddled with immense giddiness that I tried my best to rein in. Well, as much as an eight-year-old could rein in anyway. I knew my expression didn’t hide my joy, or for a better term, it couldn’t hide my joy. My mother’s hand had already enveloped mine and I squeezed it in turn to silently showcase my brimming glee.

The steps towards the library seemed magnificent to me. I soon imagined how it was a replica of what I had read in the books. I looked up in awe as from my view, the top of the building seemed to tickle the clouds with its touch. My imagination soon encouraged me to envision a flying creature of sorts (truthfully, I imagined a tiger with wings) looming over just above those same clouds, watching me with eagerness.

It all seemed to be going fine so far, right? Of course, that’s what I thought of as well, until we stepped foot and made our way into the building then I saw other people.  Now this may confuse you, after all you may ask, ‘Well, what else did you expect? It’s a library.’ This is where my thinking becomes nonsensical so allow me to explain.

Whenever I read, I became completely under control of whatever the piece was, regardless of its contents. Due to this I let myself be engulfed and, in my mind, I let myself be vulnerable. I grew so attached to fiction and it morphed into something so private in my mind that when I saw people there with the same interests as me, rather than make me tremendously happy, it scared me.

Honestly, I couldn’t tell you how I got from that position to soon seating myself down on a hardened chair, my eyes scanning the pages of the book right in front me, yearning to know just why this version of Cinderella gave me the perspective of the stepsisters and not Cinderella herself, but I’m so grateful it happened.

It wasn’t long before I was at the mercy of the words again, and once again nothing else mattered, once again, it was just the book and I. Soon I began to venture out to my primary school library when allowed to and I’d find myself reading Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, The Tempest, etc.

I soon found myself immersed in the stories of the Celtic warrior Boudicca and the Egyptian Pharaoh Cleopatra. I wanted to be just like them, strong, intelligent, brave, willing to do anything for ones they love. I still do. Some things never change.

My love for reading only grew as did my experience of life in general. I soon learned that reading didn’t only enhance my life, but how through reading I was able to engage in life, constantly balancing the two. My cousin would often gift me her unwanted books, that were in pristine condition on the sole basis that she knew I would love to read.

It would take every ounce of my self-control to not tear the bag right from her hands there and then. On those days I’d spend the rest of my day reading what was gifted to me. If I correctly recall my current total for most books read in a day is roughly five to six. I’m determined to beat it one day.

Throughout my degree I find myself reading more to not only widen my collection but to ensure I succeed academically. Do I still love to read? Yes, absolutely. I remind myself that excelling academically is only a benefit to wider reading and not the sole reason why I choose to engage in it. I still write my stories, sonnets and poems that are not addressed to anyone else but I.

I am proud to call myself a writer and a reader. Writing forced me to acknowledge myself, and reading, no matter whether it be from a book, or a video game, allowed me to fall in love with myself and that is something no one can take away from me, but I’d sure like to see them try.

Reading Memories

By Lynne Gibbons

Our friend Lynne Gibbons shares her reading memories, prompted by her book group’s choosing to read Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading (London, Square Peg, 2018).

I really enjoyed Bookworm and I’m sure it will have sparked many memories for all our group. I can imagine there will be lots of ‘I loved that…’ and ‘I couldn’t stand that!’. I was reminded of books from my own childhood, from my daughter’s childhood and from my days teaching infants.

I’m still quite partial to books labelled ‘for children’ or ‘YA – young adults’. (That’s a whole other discussion – should books be age categorized at all?) I have to confess that I caused great arguments at my Lancashire book group, by recommending YA books. The one they really hated was The Knife of Never Letting Go (Walker Books, 2013) by Patrick Ness, but I was so sad when they were quite dismissive about Here Lies Arthur (Marion Lloyd Books, 2011) by Philip Reeve. I won’t expand on either book, but I still recommend them!

I still have some books from my childhood, including the Enid Blytons shown below. Apparently I had hysterics whenever the blue book was suggested. In that one, Mary Mouse, who was the family’s nursemaid, left the children because they were so naughty. She did return in the end, but I obviously couldn’t stand the upset and eventually I took to hiding it! ‘Not the blue book – don’t read the blue book!’ 

Post-war books look so sad now, but my Dad sought out some lovely picture books for me and later enrolled me in the Children’s Book Club. I think it was run by Foyles and happily it didn’t seem to have specific boy or girl choices, so I read lots of Biggles, by Captain W E Johns, as well as Dodie Smith!

I also accumulated piles of pre-war, vintage volumes from jumble sales, mostly run by the local Labour Party. I loved Susan Coolidge’s Katy books, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women series and L M Montgomery’s novels about Anne Shirley. But I have to say some of the more obscure volumes were puzzling, to say the least! Two Missionary Ladies in Tibet or Little Maid Marigold? These books are ‘prize fiction’, that is, moralising novels given as prizes for punctuality and the like at school or Sunday School in late 19th and early 20th centuries. The photographs below show a prize book, Doreen (London, John F Shaw, 1928), by Charles Herbert, and the bookplate awarding it to Ivy Eyre. I think Ivy was a friend of my parents from the Labour Party.

Little Maid Marigold (London, Religious Tract Society, 1902) is by Eleanora H. Stooke. Two Lady Missionaries in Tibet (London, S W Partridge, 1909) is by Isabel Suart Robson and includes a photograph of the two ladies, Annie R Taylor and Susie Carson Moyes, and a fascinating 30-page catalogue of the publisher’s Popular Illustrated Books which range in price from 6s to 3d. The Missionary Ladies come in the 1s 6d list.

And there was always the library to borrow books from! Highfield was my first one, when I was aged 4.

Thanks to Bookworm, I was reminded of a conversation with my friend Frances. She never had a doll’s house when she was a child. Her lack of this toy has stayed with her as my ‘blue book’ horrors have with me. Did we suffer any long-term consequences? I don’t know but the memories are sharp. I’ve recommended to Frances that she read Rumer Godden’s The Doll’s House (London, Michael Joseph, 1947). This is a surprisingly dark story about the dolls who live in the house. When I checked in Bookworm, it turns out that Lucy Mangan knows and loves this book too.

Tea, cake and books

On Saturday 3 September we held a tea party to support Mary Grover’s new book, Steel City Readers. We want to raise £12,500 so that the publisher, Liverpool University Press, can make the book free to download online.

Steel City Readers is based on the memories of 65 Sheffielders. We asked them about the books they read for pleasure between 1925 and 1955. (You can read or listen to the interviews in full here.) Mary explores their compulsion to read when there seemed little to be gained, the background – home, school, library – to their reading and the effect of factors like class and gender on their reading choices.

The tea party was a wonderful occasion. Tea, cake and talk about books. What’s not to like?

We heard from Mary, who described how she researched the book, formed the narrative running through it and put her own reading journey into it.

Some of the books informing Steel City Readers

The Sheffield artist Lizz Tuckerman brought along some of the pictures from her exhibition In Praise of Libraries, illustrating the reading journeys of some of our interviewees.

The Lord Mayor and other guests viewing Lizz Tuckerman’s pictures

Sheffield poet Eleanor Brown read poems inspired by our interviewees. You can read the poems in Eleanor’s latest collection, White Ink Stains, published by Bloodaxe Books and available from local and online booksellers.

Slaap kindje slaap
Sleep baby sleep
Daar buiten loopt een schaup
Outside is a sheep
Een schaap met witte voetjes
A sheep with little white feet
drinkt eijn melk zo zoetjes
who drinks his milk so sweet.

from White Ink, by Eleanor Brown, in White Ink Stains (Bloodaxe Books, 2019).

Julia Banks and Shirley Ellins, two of our interviewees, described the pleasure and pride they had gained from their participation in Steel City Readers. Julia talked about her life in the Netherlands, learning Dutch nursery rhymes to help her young children as they went to nursery school. Shirley told how reading helped her discover her passion for history, the subject she taught for many years.

The young Shirley Ellins
Julia Banks

Our special guests were Sheffield’s Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress, Councillors Sioned-Mair Richards and Jackie Satur. The Lord Mayor, who regularly reads to groups of schoolchildren in the Lord Mayor’s Parlour, spoke about what reading meant to her and about her discovery of books like The Little House on the Prairie series, Little Women, school stories, Susan Coolidge’s Katy books and Jean Plaidy’s historical romances, to name but a few.

Councillor Sioned-Mair Richards, Lord Mayor of Sheffield

Many thanks to everyone who worked so hard to make the tea party so enjoyable.

Here is the link to our Just Giving page. We are grateful, especially in these hard times, to everyone who has donated so far, and hope for more donations.