21 October 2018

Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers

A couple of weeks ago I stopped by our local bookshop for a copy of Town & Country, the Autumn edition.  It hadn't arrived from overseas yet, but a wander around lead me to the Mystery section.  It's not a part of the store that I venture into all that often, and even then it's usually to root out something for my husband.  But then I noticed Dorothy L. Sayers' books; they've been reissued with eye-catching covers and Gaudy Night had the highest page count of the bunch....oh, go on then.

'Harriet Vane sat at her writing table and stared out into Mecklenburg Square.  The late tulips made a brave show in the Square garden, and a quartet of early tennis-players were energetically call the score of a rather erratic and unpractised game.  But Harriet saw neither tulips nor tennis-players.  A letter lay open on the blotting-pad before her, but its image had faded from her mind to make way for another picture.  She saw a stone quadrangle, built by a modern architect in a style neither new nor old, but stretching out reconciling hands to past and present.'

Bloomsbury and Oxford - two of my favourites in a long list of favourite places in England.  Gaudy Night should have gone over a treat, but alas....it did not.  I love nothing more than to sink into the prose of Elizabeth Bowen or Virginia Woolf, so I found myself ever more frustrated at the seemingly clinical way in which Sayers doled out late night episodes of vandalism in the colleges of Oxford.  Epithets spray-painted on the wall of the library were apparently too shocking to share, but I wanted to know the topic of the vandal's ire.  I'll admit that I judged the poison pen letters sent to Harriet and other members of staff with a does of twenty-first century cynicism, because the waves of negativity on social media has hardened me.  When Peter Wimsey arrives on the scene to help Harriet wade through a few clues, I laughed out loud.  Would someone employed by the Foreign Office have the time of day to deal with a disgruntled busybody?

I emailed Mary (Mrs Miniver's Daughter) the other day to complain about the lack of description when it came to food in Gaudy Night.  Where were the gas-rings?  The mouthwatering descriptions of cake?  Harriet had been back and forth to her flat in Bloomsbury but I was still none the wiser about the pattern on her curtains or her bedclothes.  Does Harriet wear perfume?  Elizabeth Jane Howard gave her readers all sorts of detail when setting a scene, painting a portrait with words.  Mary was quick in her defense of the author which led me to point out a tea basket pulled out from under the seat of a punt while touring the river.  Not one mention of what was inside said basket until a page and a half later when Wimsey feeds crumbs to the ducks.  Crumbs from what, I ask you?

My favourite character in Gaudy Night is Lord Peter Wimsey's unabashedly entitled young nephew, Lord Saint-George.  Charm and handsomeness aside, his posh ignorance as to the cost of anything was more entertaining than it should have been.

Then a message kept creeping in - equality for women and the desire to choose education and profession over marriage.  It was what drove me to keep turning pages, because I couldn't have cared less who was sending poison pen letters to women at the college.  Although, I did gasp when Harriet left a women, while drunk and unconscious, flat on her back as she went for help.  Didn't they know about the recovery position in the 30s?  I digress.

It wasn't until the last handful of pages that I warmed up to Harriet Vane, or rather Dorothy L. Sayers' writing.  A heartwarming scene at the end of the story won me over...it probably had something to do with the fact it was absent of a single clue or red herring!  I wanted more of that style of writing, but it wouldn't be the sort of writing that made Sayers so popular.  The problem is all mine.

We drove to the lovely university city of Guelph yesterday, to scan the tables at their annual Friends of the Guelph Library book sale (a must if you live within travelling range!).  My husband came looking for me with a book in a pretty shade of blue in his hand....a Folio Society, no less.


I'm willing to give Dorothy L. Sayers another chance....

12 comments:

  1. oh, no! I was hoping you would like this. But I see your point(s)...
    I think you would like one of the books I'm reading now: What she ate, by Laura Shapiro. :)

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    1. Hi Audrey! What She Ate is wonderful...although, I only read the parts featuring Pym and Brawn. I recently read a bio on Rosa Lewis so I didn`t feel the need to revisit her culinary tastes. As for Sayers...all the elements were there, so the only thing I can come up with is that I`m simply not drawn to that style of mystery novel. Oh well, there`s no room on my shelves for another genre anyway!
      Hope the autumnal view from your window is lovely, Audrey!

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  2. I think that to fully appreciate Gaudy Night you have to have read the books leading up to it. The characters and their relationship develop over the course of several books. Strong Poison is the first one with Harriet Vane and is the one where Peter Wimsey comes into his own. The earlier ones are very much detective novels and, while the later ones are as well, the characters come more to the fore in subsequent books. I must admit, I fell in love with these books as a teenager and it is hard for me to look at them with an impartial eye!

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    1. Thanks for stopping by, Jennifer! You`re a wonderful ambassador for this series and I promise to delve further into Sayers` work!

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  3. I really disliked this novel, and have found few people who feel the same - though my reasons were different. I find Peter W completely unbearable - one of the most smug and unpleasant characters I've ever read. And the plot of this one was so snobby...

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    1. Wasn`t it just, Simon! I suppose we have to take the bad with the awesome when reading novels from this era. Sayers did make me feel slightly inadequate for not having a bolthole on Curzon Street.....ha!

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  4. I like Gaudy Night, which I first read in my very early teens, quite a long time ago, but I don't think it's aging well, some of Sayers attitudes really grate now. If you don't like this one it's probably best to ignore her altogether (though in some of the other books there are extensive descriptions of interior design, what Lord Peter is wearing, and what he's drinking).

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    1. Well that gives me hope that the Wimsey short stories will provide no end of entertainment when it comes to social and domestic history. When we watch a mystery together, my husband is the one who nails down the culprit within the first ten minutes, while I`m busy looking at the cut of the clothes and style of furniture.
      My favourite stories are decades old, so I understand what you mean about this one not aging well. Thank you for the encouragement to keep investigating more of Sayers` work!

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  5. Don't give up on Dorothy Sayers until, or unless, you have read "The Nine Tailors."

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    1. That title came up on a podcast about books featuring London quite prominently. Being over-the-top fond of the city, it`s definitely one I will try. And judging by the synopsis I`ll learn a fair bit about bell ringing too! Thanks, John, and lovely of you to stop by.

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    2. My pleasure, but not at all sure about the London connection, the bulk of the book takes place in Fenchurch St. Paul, a village in the Fen country. There is, however quite a bit about bell ringing, but the real attraction, at least to me, is the plot, the writing, the characters and the locale. Supposedly Sinclair Lewis said it is one of four mysteries that everyone should read - the others are Bleak House, Malice Aforethought and The Lodger.

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    3. LOL! I fall asleep listening to podcasts so it`s entirely possible that I heard the beginning of a chat on one thing...and stirred while they were discussing something else. I could be creating my very own version of fake news! Whatever the case, thanks for steering my in the right direction, John, and I`ll heed your advice about `The Nine Tailors`. Cheers!

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