Dorothy L Sayers’ mystery novels tend to focus on her debonair aristocrat detective Lord Peter Wimsey, but Gaudy Night, he takes on a more supporting role, and the object of his affection, Miss Harriet Vane, is the protagonist and takes centre stage, working to solve a series of very destructive pranks at her old Oxford college.
Harriet, like Sayers herself (it’s widely believed that at least some aspects of Harriet are auto-biographical) is a successful mystery writer. She first appeared in Strong Poison, on trial for poisoning her lover, and Lord Peter unmasked the real killer and literally saved her life. He also fell in love with her and proposed, but Harriet refused for a number of reasons. Over the years, Peter keeps wooing and intermittently proposing to Harriet, they even work together to solve another murder mystery, but Harriet is ambivalent about her feelings about marriage in general and Peter in particular – so at the start of the novel, when they’ve known each other for five years, with Peter still proposing at least four times a year, Harriet is still uncomfortable about the state of affairs.
As well as being Peter’s social inferior (she’s a writer and the daughter of a country doctor, he’s the second son of the Duke of Denver), she feels that they can never be equals in the relationship because of the impossible weight of obligation she feels towards him for saving her from execution. When factoring in the fact that even though she was acquitted of the murder, her name is still very much associated with scandal, and her previous bad luck with romantic relationships, and it’s understandable why she feels they may not have a future together.
When Harriet is invited back to Shrewsbury College for a Gaudy (a formal dinner for former graduates), she’s at first deeply hesitant, but is persuaded by old friends to come, and discovers how much she loves and misses the academic atmosphere. While in Oxford, Harriet finds an obscene drawing on the lawn outside the college, and a threatening note in the sleeve of her formal academic gown. As it’s not an uncommon occurrence for Harriet to receive hate mail or threats, she thinks little of it, until she is contacted by the Dean and some of the senior staff of Shrewsbury some months later, begging her for assistance. The notes Harriet found are only two in a long series of offensive correspondence sent to a number of the students and staff. There’s also been several acts of graffiti, vandalism and unexplained events at the College, and they’re worried that the press or public at large will discover this, embroiling the little women’s college in scandal.
Harriet feels her presence might do more harm than good, and tries to get them to hire professionals to look into the matter. As that proves impossible, she tries to ask Peter for help, but he’s in Rome on a complicated diplomatic mission for the Foreign Office, and she reluctantly accepts that she’s the only one who can help them. Taking up residence at Shrewsbury under the cover of researching a non-fiction book on Sheridan Le Fanu, Harriet tries to identify and unmask the “ghost”. The mystery is not easily solved, however, as the college contains several buildings with winding hallways, there is a huge pool of suspects to begin with, and she has little to no help. After several months, the “ghost” is still unknown and at large, the pool of suspects has only been partially reduced, and an impressionable young student nearly drowns herself because of the series of harassing notes she’s received. The case is becoming more desperate, and Harriet can’t manage on her own.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder, it’s been said, and the time spent away from Peter in the comforting surroundings of her old college has given Harriet a lot of time to consider her ambivalence and feelings towards Peter. She sends a letter, imploring him for help, and he shows up in Oxford to assist her. Peter realises that Harriet has gathered all the information required to unmask the “ghost”, but the fact that most of the evidence seems to point towards a woman she considers a friend, has made Harriet reluctant to take the final steps necessary to close the investigation. The arrival of the famous Lord Peter Wimsey adds further tension to the case, as the sinister “ghost” starts escalating the attacks. Will they be able to catch the culprit before someone dies?
Harriet is clearly a highly intelligent and admirable young woman, but in the very class-based system of 1930s England, it’s impossible for her to forget that she is a figure of notoriety, and even though she was cleared of murder, she still receives hate mail and threats on a regular basis. Her previous romantic relationship ended dreadfully, and while she comes to realise that she’s grown fond of Peter over the years, and might actually return his feelings, she’s still deeply wary of committing herself. This is a time when women were subjugated by men in pretty much every arena, and as Peter is so much her superior in rank and status, it’s natural for Harriet to be a bit cautious. Of course, there were several times when I wanted to reach into the book and shake her until her teeth rattled, as it was quite obvious to me as a reader (as I’m entirely sure Sayers meant it to be) that Harriet is being an idiot.
While understandably uncomfortable in the immediately following her murder trial, five years later, if a rich, charming, intelligent and extremely eligible man insists on courting you and proposing to you, if you actually like him back – trust his judgement and stop dawdling! Stop toying with the man’s affection and accept his proposal, or make a clean break of it.
Sayers has been criticised for writing meandering stories, not always all that focused on the main mystery, and that’s certainly true. She does by taking her time with setting the scene and having a number of story beats not directly concerning the solving of the crime, make the atmosphere of the books much more real and engaging, and she shows you the true personality of her characters brilliantly by showing them in a number of situations, rather than just as sleuths.
My only previous experience with her books is The Nine Tailors (which, in case you can’t be bothered to check the link, I found rather dull). I’m so glad I was convinced to go back and try reading another one, because I enjoyed this a great deal. It helps that there is a romance element to the story, however anyone wanting passionate declarations and steamy sexy times will be deeply disappointed. Harriet and Peter’s understated romance is nonetheless so incredibly satisfying because of the restraint and stiff-upper-lippedness of their manner with each other, and like in the books of Georgette Heyer, for instance, a lingering glance or small act can mean so much more than an overwrought love scene in another story. I suspect Sayers wrote this book partially to show her readers what a worthy match Harriet is to Peter, and now, having read it, I’m much more eager to read more of the author’s work.
This is my second book read and reviewed for R.I.P VII. Crossposted on my blog.