Dorothy L Sayers’ Gaudy Night

The great detective novelist Dorothy L Sayers is often mentioned in the 65 interviews which are the foundation of Reading Sheffield. She was an obvious choice for our list of authors and books to be reviewed by the Sheffield Hallam students we have been working with this year. We thought that Gaudy Night (1935), with all it has to say about women’s education and their role in the world, would be an interesting read for the students of today. Here are Ellie Jackson’s thoughts. But beware, for there are spoilers in her review.

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 is Busman’s Honeymoon from 1937 and then 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 Lord Wimsey after the accusation of a murder she didn’t commit, investigates. The novel is full of gripping techniques of ‘whodunit’ 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 their passion and emotion, ‘[giving] rise to no feelings or [evoking] 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 it is 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 heroine 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 suggests ‘Dorothy Sayers in her early twenties was a focal point for the young people of literary importance of her time.’ (The Times Newspaper, issue no. 54037, 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, but it contains no actual murder, just a series of poison pen letters and 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. However it doesn’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.

Bibliography-

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.

The Golden Age of British Detective Fiction. University of Oxford, 2022. https://tinyurl.com/mpjtr8cn

2 thoughts on “Dorothy L Sayers’ Gaudy Night

  1. Better late than never! I discovered DLS at the age of sixteen thanks to my mother and fell in love with Lord Peter. Haven’t changed in 62 years and nor has he. Oddly, I had picked up my daughter’s copy of ‘Busman’s Honeymoon’ about an hour before reading your post, Val. The complexities of character and the literary references make these novels so much more than detective yarns and apart from her prolific output I am unable to understand how Agatha Christie is routinely linked with Sayers. Both being female doesn’t quite hack it nowadays.

    Gaudy Night is very amusing linguistically and in some of the supporting characters, for instance the over-keen American who is in favour of encouraging reproduction among the fit. But lurking in the background is the ever-present possibility of war, all too soon to be realised, and the systematic preying on the vulnerable by X. Clever, this, as we quite neglect to notice until the end that nobody actually died, although two or three easily could have done. In Christie’s more limited world this would not have been acceptable.

    • Yes, I too love Peter and I agree about Agatha and DLS. They bring very different things to the party. I have recently read a couple of Agatha Christie writing as Mary Westmacott. Do you know those? If not, try Absent in the Spring. These are Christie exploring psychology at a deeper level than is possible in a mystery.

      Gaudy Night is interesting for the context of women’s education but also fascinating technically. That slow burn of the tension and menace…

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