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A splendid examination of women's role in early 20thC academia
on 8 February 2013
This is my favourite of Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey novels, and has continued to be since I first came across it in my teens.
It doesn't have much in the way of a crime plot, but is very much a story of its time: one which provides a rather wonderful picture of women in academic life, written with the real understanding of someone who has been part of this environment. The book also gives Sayers' best and most sympathetic depiction of Harriet Vane, who (as in `Have His Carcass') is the focal point for much of the novel.
In this book, Harriet has returned to her former Oxford College (the fictitious Shrewsbury) in order to engage in some serious research and academic reflection. As well, perhaps, as to puzzle out what she ought to do about the attentions of a certain, persistent, aristocratic suitor. She seems to be fitting back in quite well with her quiet, intellectual surroundings. Until a series of vitriolic stunts, accompanied by venomous quotations citing female academics as unnatural and unwomanly harpies start to make themselves known.
To put the setting of this novel into perspective: women had only been permitted to obtain degree qualifications from Oxford since 1920 (Sayers herself having been one of the earliest granted a degree), just 15 years prior to the book's first publication. High-ranking and respected women academics, whose qualifications were equal to those of their male counterparts were thus a relatively recent phenomenon.
In academia, women were breaking through into serious careers - though it's clear from the rather cloistered environment of the Shrewsbury Senior Common Room that a woman's decision to pursue this path in the long term could only be at the cost of family. As academic opportunities re-appear for Harriet there is a very real sense of Peter's understanding that she might choose to follow this path and be lost to him, but that if this is her honest, intellectual choice then she must be allowed to make it.
Sayers' stance on the importance of equality in women's educational opportunities rings true throughout this book, though her pro-women platform is not blind to the kinds of cattiness and jealousies that can arise amongst groups of women. There's even some criticism of the university: Sayers evidently opposed the quota restricting the number of women who might enter the institution (introduced in 1927), her fictitious college suppressing the caps imposed by university statute. In this she was ahead of the university by over 20 years.
The courtship between Peter and Harriet also takes a somewhat intellectual turn. There's wooing in the form of Metaphysical-style poetry, and a lyrically-written scene where Harriet sees Peter for the first time as an attractive man. It's a moment of mutual awareness in an idyllic setting - a picnic on the banks of the Isis.
Overall, a rather splendid novel that's perhaps better viewed as a piece of social and educational commentary than as a work of detective fiction.