‘Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?’
Ever since a friend told me about The Detection Club, a society of authors formed in England’s ‘Golden Age’ of Detective Fiction, I’ve been meaning to investigate. It was (and apparently still is) an exclusive writer’s society in which initiates solemnly swear the above oath. They meet regularly, dine, sip aged sherry and share their drafts and ideas. Founding members included the huge, caped oddball G.K. Chesterton, Agatha Christie, a Catholic priest named Ronald Knox, a Hungarian-born baroness, at least one prominent Socialist and Dorothy L. Sayers.
I decided to delve into the work of some of these fabled names to see if I could learn something about the detective-writing craft. Agatha Christie books are familiar to me thanks to a squandered adolescence, and I’ve tried a few Father Brown mysteries, but was ignorant about the rest.
Dorothy Sayers’ biography suggested a business-like devotion to writing so I started with her. She was an Oxford scholar before women were formally allowed to graduate, a poet, a successful ad copywriter and able translator of Dante’s Divine Comedy (Hell ). Her most famous character was an amateur sleuth named Lord Peter Wimsey, a monocle-wearing aristocrat.
Gaudy Night (1935), the second-last Wimsey novel, is a mystery set in a (fictional) women’s college at Oxford University. The book’s title refers to an annual celebration in which former students revisit the college and have a catch-up; it is during Gaudy Night that the first unfortunate incident occurs. The novel’s heroine is Harriet D. Vane, ‘who had taken her First in English and gone to London to write mystery fiction, to live with a man who was not married to her’. Vane’s resemblance to the author is pronounced –Sayers herself had gained a First in English at Oxford, gone on London to write mystery fiction (and advertising copy), and to live ‘in sin’ with a man
Sayers understood popular British taste, which helped her in her copywriting job and was probably her biggest strength as a novelist. She was celebrated in her lifetime (and still is—see this article). But viewed from outside that era and those shores, her Wimsey novels read like completely unselfconscious love letters to herself and to Ye Olde England, especially its class system. I suspect that was a big reason why the American critic Edmund Wilson was less than thrilled with her work. “I had often heard people say that Dorothy Sayers wrote well,” he said (in a 1946 New Yorker article called ‘Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?’), “…but, really, she does not write very well: it is simply that she is more consciously literary than most of the other detective-story writers and that she thus attracts attention in a field which is mostly on a sub-literary level.” Admittedly Edmund Wilson was often wrong (about J.R.R. Tolkien, for example), and his dislike of genre fiction is snobbish, but on the strength of Gaudy Night it’s tempting to agree with him in this case.
Ten Wince-Worthiest Things in Gaudy Night
Technically speaking, Gaudy Night is a good mystery. The clues are sprinkled judiciously, the sequence of events is clear, the pacing is good, the characters are fleshy and well differentiated. There is conflict and tension. Everything is resolved satisfactorily, including the love story.
That said, it is not so successful in its bid to be a bigger, literary kind of book. You can see the impulse towards a Tolstoyan or George-Eliot type treatment of moral issues. The chapter epigraphs, the motifs of marriage and woman’s role in society are pretty heavy handed. Detailed descriptions of buildings and furniture don’t help.
But even aside from this, there are some moments where I had to put the book down, slap my forehead and say, ‘What was she even thinking?‘.
- Harriet the Love Goddess
Sayers makes Harriet Vane, her thinly disguised literary alter ego, an irresistible love kitten. Despite the fact that she is not-quite beautiful, every eligible, handsome male in the novel is immediately fascinated with her, especially Byronic undergraduates ten years younger than herself. Lord Peter Wimsey himself, a handsome aristocrat and once a renowned international playboy, now restlessly pines after this bolshy bluestocking even though she’s been kicking him in the teeth for five years straight; he sends her a marriage proposal every three months, on the dot. Even the murderer, who denounces everyone at the end, has this highly ambiguous burn for Harriet, “They come after you like wasps round a jam-jar, and then they fall in and die.”
Naturally, she finds all this amorous attention rather a bore. Observe her reaction to the love-making of a young ‘fair-faced goop’:
‘With a large and clumsy gesture Mr. Pomfret swept away the difference of age and plunged on in a flood of eloquence, which Harriet, exasperated with herself and him, could not stop. He loved her, he adored her, he was intensely miserable, he could neither work nor play games for thinking of her, if she refused him he didn’t know what he should do with himself, she must have seen, she must have realized—he wanted to stand between her and all the world—’
- Harriet the Brainiac
The Oxford professors fall over themselves complimenting Harriet’s wondrous brains. Even if she weren’t an obvious stand-in for Dorothy L., it would seem excessive, but as it is, it reads like someone’s obsessive day-dream about being the teacher’s pet. It’s worst when she’s speaking to her old tutor, a great scholar:
[she] spoke appreciatively of her work, and commended her for keeping up a scholarly standard of English, even in mystery fiction.
“’You give a lot of pleasure in the S.C.R. [Senior Common Room]’ she added.”
Later on, the same tutor gushes:
“You always had a scholarly mind….and I expect you find your training a help in some ways, don’t you? I used to think you might take up an academic career.”
The Dean herself, not given to effusion, says, “The Warden is longing to see you. She simply loved The Sands of Crime.”
8 Harriet the Superior
Harriet judges almost everyone harshly. Her appraisal of an old school friend (who happens to be dying of a serious illness) is typically generous: ‘”I suppose,” thought Harriet, “she had one of those small, summery brains, that flower early and run to seed.”‘
She even disapproves of the furniture. Here is her assessment of the college room where she stays for the night for the Gaudy Night weekend:
“The present owner’s short gown hung behind the door; judging by the bookshelves, she was reading History; judging by her personal belongings, she was a Fresher with an urge for modernity and very little natural taste. The narrow bed, on which Harriet flung down her belongings, was covered with drapery of a crude green color and ill-considered Futuristic pattern; a bad picture in the neo-archaic manner hung above it; a chromium-plated lamp of angular and inconvenient design swore acidly at the table and wardrobe provided by the college, which were of a style usually associated with the Tottenham Court Road; while the disharmony was crowned and accentuated by the presence, on the chest of drawers, of a curious statuette or three-dimensional diagram carried out in aluminum, which resembled a gigantic and contorted corkscrew, and was labeled upon its base: ASPIRATION. It was with surprise and relief that Harriet discovered three practicable dress-hangers in the wardrobe.”
- Punny Names
Wimsey, Vane – that’s just the tip of the groanberg. Here is a handful of other efforts:
Peter Death Bredon Wimsey
Miss de Vine
Miss Bracey the secretary
Jukes the petty thief
Mr. Garrick Drury, the actor
Mrs. Snell-Wilmington, author of Passion-flower Pie
Miss Sugar Toobin
Jacqueline Squills the author
The Sands of Crime (a novel by Harriet Vane)
6.. The Dog Collar Incident
A significant development in the romance between Lord Wimsey and Harriet occurs when, after ‘teaching her self defence’ by throttling her a few times, he buys her a dog collar… for protection?
I don’t want to kink-shame, but there is a time and a place…you don’t expect two posh Oxbridge gits from the 1930s to launch cheerily into a hardcore S&M routine; it’s embarrassing, like watching dementia patients walking around wearing nothing but leather thongs.
Here is the whole passage, just to show I’m not making it up:
It was when they were passing through a small town that Peter caught sight of a leather-and-harness shop, and pulled up suddenly.
“I know what you want,” he said. “You want a dog collar. I’m going to get you one. The kind with brass knobs.”
“A dog collar? Whatever for? As a badge of ownership?”
“God forbid. To guard against the bites of sharks. Excellent also against thugs and throat slitters.”
“My dear man!”
“Honestly. It’s too stiff to squeeze and it’ll turn the edge of the blade—and even if anybody hangs you by it, it won’t choke you as a rope would.”
“I can’t go about in a dog collar.”
“Well, not in the daytime. But it would give confidence when patrolling at night. And you could sleep in it with a little practice. You needn’t bother to come in—I’ve had my hands round your neck often enough to guess the size.”
He vanished into the shop and was seen through the window conferring with the proprietor. Presently he came out with a parcel and took the wheel again.
“The man was very much interested,” he observed, “in my bull terrier bitch. Extremely plucky animals, but reckless and obstinate fighter. Personally, he said, he preferred greyhounds. He told me where I could get my name and address put on the collar, but I said that could wait. Now we’re out of the town, you can try it on.”
He drew in to the side of the road for this purpose, and assisted her (with, Harriet fancied, a touch of self satisfaction), to buckle the heavy strap. It was a massive kind of necklace and quite surprisingly uncomfortable. Harriet fished in her bag for a hand mirror and surveyed the effect.
- Wimsey is Perfect and it’s Weird
In the words of his nephew, Peter Wimsey is “dashed well-off and he’s got good manners and he’s in the stud-book [i.e. is nobility].” He goes on to admit that, ‘Uncle Peter’s weakness…is his strong sense of public duty.’
plays the spinet.
has nice hands
a ‘pretty punter to watch’ (rowing)
a good fighter in his college days
a cricketing Blue
unconquerable sweetness of disposition
perfect English aristocrat
brave Major, beloved by his inferiors in WWI
insists on being clean-shaven and wearing well-tailored clothes
took a First in History at Balliol college, Oxford
writes and reads poetry
knows martial arts
- Erudite Love Babble
Harriet and Peter don’t talk normal:
“Well?” he said, lightly, “how doth my lady? What, sweeting, all amort?…Yes, something has happened; I see it has. What is it, domina?”
Though the tone was half-jesting, nothing could have reassured her like that grave, academic title.
Every chapter has a godawful epigraph written by some moldy English poet or scholar and it’s too hard to bother figuring out the thematic link to the action.
Honestly, see if you can get through this one (epigraph to Chapter 5) without getting your eyes crossed:
Virginity is a fine picture, as Bonaventure calls it, a blessed thing in itself, and if you will believe a Papist, meritorious. And although there be some inconveniences, irksomeness, solitariness, etc., incident to such persons…yet they are but toys in respect, easily to be endured, if conferred to those frequent incumbrances of marriage…And methinks sometime or other, amongst so many rich Bachelors, a benefactor should be found to build a monastical College for old, decayed, deformed, or discontented maids to live together in, that have lost their first loves, or otherwise miscarried, or else are willing howsoever to lead a single life. The rest, I say, are toys in respect, and sufficiently recompensed by those innumberable contents and incomparable priveleges of Virginity.
- Servant Patter
The faithful retainer Padgett offers an opportunity for comic relief and Sayers is not one to pass up on a softball like that. The Dean complains to Harriet of all the opening ceremonies that have been going on in the College as it is being refurbished. She then relates an amusing conversation she had with Padgett:
“Excuse me madam Dean, miss, but could you tell me the date of the Opening?” “What Opening, Padgett?” said I. “We aren’t opening anything this term. What is then to open?” “Well, miss,” says Padgett, “I was thinking of these here new lavatories, if you’ll excuse me, madam Dean, miss. We’ve opened everything there was to open up to the present, miss, and if there was to be a Ceremony, miss, it would be convenient if I was to know in good time, on account of arranging for taxis and parking accommodation.”
“Dear Padgett,” said Miss Burrows, “He’s the brightest spot in this university.”
- The ‘C’ Word
Class is a problematic issue in Gaudy Night. The villain turns out to be a servant at the college (spoiler alert, too late, oh well). She’s an unknown element in social terms, with no definite position in the rigid class system. She was originally a ‘landlady’s daughter’ but transcended her status by marrying an academic. When he died, she went crazy. She blames her husband’s death on a female academic (with some justification) and despises all female academics, believing women shouldn’t impinge on men’s traditional spheres. Of course, the servant is implicitly condemned for her backward-looking attitude to gender roles. It’s quite interesting, then, that she’s also damned for hating the upper-middle class women she had to slave for. Her speech is presented as the raving of a lunatic:
“I wanted to see you thrown out to starve, like us. I wanted to see you all dragged into the gutter. I wanted to see you—you sneered at and trampled on and degraded and despised as we were. It would do you good to learn to scrub floors for a living as I’ve done, and use your hands for something, and say ‘madam’ to a lot of scum…”
It’s hard not to feel some sympathy for the poor woman, especially after hearing Wimsey lisp Keats at Harriet. However, our heroine has already declared her views on the topic so we know the skivvy is wrong.
Back in chapter three, Harriet met a woman who used to be a promising scholar but who married a farmer and had to labor alongside him in the fields, Harriet is forthright:
“But Miss Freemantle—I mean, Mrs.—Mrs. Bendick—it’s absurd that you should have to do this kind of thing. I mean, pick your own fruit and get up at all hours to feed poultry and slave like a navvy. Surely to goodness it would have paid far better for you to take on some kind of writing or intellectual job and get someone else to do the manual work.”….
What a damned waste! Was all Harriet could say to herself. All that brilliance, all that trained intelligence, harnessed to a load that any uneducated country girl could have drawn, and drawn far better.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that social mobility is here presented as an evil, destabilizing influence on society. Some people are meant to be lady academics, others to be navvies.