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A wonderful journey back to the Oxford of 1935
on 26 August 2010
About her book "Gaudy Night," Dorothy L. Sayers had this to say:
"It would be idle to deny that the city and University of Oxford (in aeternum floreant) do actually exist...." But, "Shrewsbury College, with its dons, students and scouts, is entirely imaginary; nor are the distressing events described as taking place within its wall founded upon any events that have ever occurred anywhere. Detective-story writers are obliged by their disagreeable profession to invent startling and unpleasant incidents and people, and are (I presume) at liberty to imagine what might happen if such incidents and people were to intrude upon the life of an innocent and well-ordered community.... Certain apologies are, however, due from me: first to the University of Oxford, for having presented it ... with a college of 150 women students, in excess of the limit ordained by statute. Next, and with deep humility, to Balliol College--not only for having saddled it with so wayward an alumnus as Peter Wimsey, but also for my monstrous impertinence in having erected Shrewsbury College upon its spacious and sacred cricket-ground."
That passage will give you a feeling for Sayers' rather grand, even lofty (by detective story standards, anyway) prose style, as well as the tongue-in-cheek, in-your-eye amusement that lurks behind her formal persona.
When I first encountered Sayers and fell into a binge of reading her works, I was a teenager. With the breezy assurance of that age, I confidently ranked "Gaudy Night" as her feeblest work and "The Nine Tailors"--or maybe "Murder Must Advertise" as her best. If anyone at the time had asked me why I had done so, I would have pointed out that the mystery element was only a strand among many in "Gaudy Night," and far from the most important one. Moreover, I'd have said, it's a Lord Peter Wimsey novel and Wimsey doesn't even turn up until Chapter IV, after which he promptly disappears for a couple of hundred pages.
And yet, over the years when, for whatever reason, one of these books came to mind, I might think, "Murder Must Advertise," yes, very clever, Lord Peter writing ad copy and all that, or "The Nine Tailors," yes, very clever, those bells and all that. But for "Gaudy Night," my thoughts would more likely take this sort of turn: that Harriet Vane has some very odd ideas and notions. We certainly are beyond that sort of thing today--but I know some people who share most or all of those very some ideas and notions. They are walking anachronisms and yet, here they are, unquestionably my contemporaries. On some days, I even find myself agreeing with her and concluding that the lunatics have taken over our Twenty-first Century asylum.
Or consider Harriet Vane as a fictional character--amusing, humorless, witty, ponderous, brilliant, too often plodding Harriet. She is, of course, Dorothy L. Sayers (in every aspect that Sayers, herself, would regard as significant), pinned on the pages of the book like some strange sort of moth, a specimen preserved and displayed for the examination of the ages.
I recently encountered a 1944, wartime edition of "Gaudy Night" in a bookshop window. On its copyright page, it proudly bore the motto, "Books are weapons in the war of ideas." The book was published in an era of tight paper rationing and extreme austerity, but what a wonderfully sensuous volume it was with its thick, creamy paper, exquisite printing, wide margins and excellent commercial binding in dark blue book cloth. I snapped it up (how could I not?), and read it that evening. It was, I suppose, my fifth or sixth journey through the book.
I am no longer a teenager (alas), and I no longer consider "Gaudy Night" to be Sayers' feeblest work. It might very well be her best: better than "Murder Must Advertise," better than "The Nine Tailors" and certainly much better than the workmanlike (but no more) translation of Dante for which she abandoned her true literary vocation in her final years.
Some mystery fans downgrade "Gaudy Night" because it is a weak mystery novel. A couple of such fans are to be found right here among the Amazon reviewers of the book. They are quite right. It is a weak mystery novel. It is, in fact, just a novel, but a very good one.
The true peers of "Gaudy Night" are not such classic mysteries as Christie's "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd" or Marsh's "A Man Lay Dying," but English academic novels, the likes of Amis' "Lucky Jim" or Snow's "The Masters." If the literary arena is widened to include plays, then "Gaudy Night" shares space with "The Browning Version" and "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
Here is Dorothy L. Sayers again, this time as Sayers the novelist:
"Harriet Vane sat at her writing-table and stared out into Mecklenburg Square.... 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 or old, stretching out reconciling hands to past and present. Folded within its walls lay a trim grass plot, with flower-beds splashed at the angles, and surrounded by a stone plinth. Behind the level roofs of Cotswold slate rose the brick chimneys of an older and less formal pile of buildings--a quadrangle also of a kind, but still keeping a domestic remembrance of the original Victorian dwelling-houses that had sheltered the first shy students of Shrewsbury College....
"Memory peopled the quad with moving figures. Students sauntering in pairs. Students dashing to lectures, their gowns hitched hurriedly over light summer frocks, the wind jerking their flat caps into the absurd likeness of so many jesters' coxcombs. Bicycles stacked in the porters' lodge, their carriers piled with books and gowns twisted about their handle-bars. A grizzled woman don crossing the turf with vague eyes.... Tall spikes of delphiniums against the grey, quiveringly blue like flames. The college cat, preoccupied and remote, stalking with tail erect in the direction of the buttery."
Five stars (with flower-beds splashed at the angles, of course.)