Remember the impassioned speech children’s bookstore-owner Kathleen Kelly makes to Joe Fox in You’ve Got Mail? “And it wasn’t that she [Kathleen’s mother] was just selling books, it was that she was helping people become whoever it was they were going to turn out to be. Because when you read a book as a child it becomes part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does…” While not exactly a child when I first read Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night, it made enough of an impression that I’ve now re-read it more often than any other book in my library. At different points in my life, at least yearly as it turns out, I gravitate toward the comfort of its counsel regarding the co-existence of hearts and brains and the pursuit of one’s “proper job,” revelations made in the midst of a mystery, set against the background of Oxford’s spires and rivers and directed at the female dons and students of fictional Shrewsbury College. For me, it is the literary equivalent of stopping for gas when the gauge is low or rummaging for aspirin to ease a headache.
Published in 1935, Gaudy Night is the eleventh book (omitting two collections of short stories) in Dorothy Sayers’ mystery series featuring the accomplished and impeccable Lord Peter Wimsey and the third also featuring mystery novelist and scholar Harriet Vane. When the novel opens, it has been five years since Wimsey’s persistent investigation saved Harriet Vane from the gallows in Strong Poison, their first appearance together. In the interim, they butted heads after Harriet discovered a corpse on a beach but they solved that mystery together in Have His Carcase. In Gaudy Night, Harriet attends Shrewsbury College’s Gaudy (reunion) and as she begins to regain her confidence in the face of her remembered notoriety, anonymous poison pen letters directed at academic women begin to appear. The senior members of Shrewsbury College, citing Harriet’s experience with detective procedure, her allegiance to the college, and women’s education in general, ask her to help unmask the culprit. When the poison pen’s letters and increasingly violent actions begin to risk lives in the college (including her own), Harriet calls upon Lord Peter Wimsey for additional insight (“nasty clear-headed way he has of putting things”) and matters on every hand come to a close.
At war in Harriet’s mind throughout the novel is the compatibility of a woman’s scholarly interests with marriage. On meeting one of her former classmates at the Gaudy, a woman with an exceptional mind who married a farmer, she had the “depressed feeling that she had seen a Derby winner making shift with a coal-cart.” In the end, one must do one’s proper job, whatever it may be, while taking care to avoid making another person your job. Harriet is confused about how to recognise one’s proper job and the trap of trying “to persuade one’s self into inappropriate feelings.” How these issues about women and education, and women in society, relate to Harriet’s dilemma regarding Lord Peter (who determinedly proposes to her ‘at decent intervals, as a birthday treat, and, of course, on All Fool’s Day’) is what keeps me coming back. Or, I simply have an incredibly thick skull that demands repeated immersion in Gaudy Night‘s good sense.
Do you have a touchstone novel you feel compelled to read again and again?