Gaudy Night

Gaudy Night

Punting on the Isis at Oxford. Photo by ZxbSelf-photographed, CC BY-SA 2.0 at, Link

Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers

My friend Nicole, who had never read any Sayers and to whom I had recommended Gaudy Night, noticed that the Kindle version was on sale for just $1.99. So I snapped it up and then having it right there and having a friend who started sharing quotes on Facebook was all the shove I needed to impel me to a re-read.

I haven’t read Gaudy Night in probably a decade and it feels very different now than it did when I was a young adult. Now I understand so much more clearly the questions about marriage and the intellectual life that Harriet Vane struggles with and they feel much more urgent and personal. I still am in awe of the way both she and Peter throw around quotations, though now I recognize that I do the same thing, it’s just that I’m not familiar with the body of literature they are quoting from so it still has some of that very exotic and mysteriously intellectual mystique that it had for me when I was younger.

I also understand a lot more of the emotional subtleties this time around, the nuances and subtexts that Sayers hints at but does not spell out for the reader, the things left unsaid that she expects you to fill in. Those were lost on my younger self, who sensed there was something there but lacked the ability to crack the code. Now mature me has the life experience to fill in the gaps and read between the lines.

This time through I was really drawn into the complexity of Harriet and Peter’s relationship: how they are both unable to see the other properly until they meet at Oxford. The new context shows them a new way for them to be not just intellectual equals but partners and also incredibly vulnerable to each other. I now feel a need to rush out to acquire a copy of Busman’s Honeymoon, the follow up where we get to see how perfectly they do work together in a marriage that is not always smooth sailing, but is deeply real.

What was helpful to me on this re-read was this very handy guide to the Latin quotations by Ellen Brundige, which not only provides a literal translation but also identifies the source and explains the context. You can read and enjoy the novel without understanding the classical tags, but my understanding is so much richer with a little crib to provide the fuller context.

In general Gaudy Night makes me nostalgic about my college days, even though Oxford is very different from the University of Dallas or Boston College. But I had a moment of total disorientation at how upset everyone is about the undergraduates sitting on the grass:

“By the way, Dean, couldn’t you put up a notice about sitting on the grass in the New Quad? I have had to chase two parties off. We cannot have the place looking like Margate Beach.”
“Certainly not. They know quite well it isn’t allowed. Why are women undergraduates so sloppy?”

. . .

“It’s nice to sit out in the open air in this lovely weather,” suggested Miss Chilperic, almost apologetically (for her student days were not far behind her), and they don’t think how awful it looks.”

I do understand rules about staying off the grass because to trample it makes muddy ruts, but being told to stay off because it looks sloppy when you’re having a picnic. . . it’s just one of those cultural moments when I as a late 20th century American do not get the English formality. Sometimes I identify a little too much with the brash American woman who keeps cornering Harriet and asking her questions. I know I’m not that bold, but it’s only shyness that would keep me from firing questions at people. I don’t understand Oxford and how it all works.

+ + +

One of my favorite sections of the novel is the chapter in which Harriet and Peter take a holiday and go on the river in a punt. Especially the scene in the punt when Harriet finds herself watching Peter and suddenly is overcome with an awareness of him as a man, as a man she is perhaps already in love with.

Accepting rebuke, he relapsed into silence, while she studied his half-averted face. Considered generally, as a façade, it was by this time tolerably familiar to her, but now she saw details, magnified as it were by some glass in her own mind. The flat setting and fine scroll-work of the ear, and the height of the skull above it. The glitter of close-cropped hair where the neck-muscles lifted to meet the head. A minute sickle-shaped scar on the left temple. The faint laughter-lines at the corner of the eye and the droop of the lid at its outer end. The gleam of gold down on the cheekbone. The wide spring of the nostril. An almost imperceptible beading of sweat on the upper lip and a tiny muscle that twitched the sensitive corner of the mouth. The slight sun-reddening of the fair skin and its sudden whiteness below the base of the throat. The little hollow above the points of the collarbone.

He looked up; and she was instantly scarlet, as though she had been dipped in boiling water. Through the confusion of her darkened eyes and drumming ears some enormous bulk seemed to stoop over her. Then the mist cleared. His eyes were riveted upon the manuscript again, but he breathed as though he had been running.

So, thought Harriet, it has happened. But it happened long ago. The only new thing that has happened is that now I have got to admit it to myself. I have known it for some time. But does he know it? He has very little excuse, after this, for not knowing it. Apparently he refuses to see it, and that may be new. If so, it ought to be easier to do what I meant to do.

She stared out resolutely across the dimpling water. But she was conscious of his every movement, of every page he turned, of every breath he drew. She seemed to be separately conscious of every bone in his body. At length he spoke, and she wondered how she could ever have mistaken another man’s voice for his.

Sayers doesn’t say what “it” is. She doesn’t analyze the moment. She simply lets it be, a moment of hyper consciousness and wordless communication that turns Harriet red and leaves Peter breathing as though he had been running. It’s just about perfect.

But I also love the paragraph a few pages later when Peter falls asleep:

It was a neat and noiseless kind of sleep; the posture might be described as the half-hedgehog, and offered neither mouth nor stomach as a target for missiles. But asleep he undoubtedly was. And here was Miss Harriet Vane, gone suddenly sympathetic, afraid to move for fear of waking him and savagely resenting the approach of a boatload of idiots whose gramophone was playing (for a change) “Love in Bloom.”

There’s a neat bit about how our reaction to someone sleeping in public reveals the true nature of our feelings: Harriet realizes that she is incredibly protective of Peter’s sleep. But that doesn’t stop her from rifling through his pockets to borrow matches and then to also borrow the book she finds there. Perhaps it was this passage in Gaudy Night that pushed me to formulate my own early conviction that the height of friendship is being able to sit together and read in each other’s presence: each lost in his or her own book and yet companionably together.

Finally, I cannot leave Gaudy Night without expressing my deep admiration for the proposal at the end of the novel. I love its simplicity, the way the nuances only work in Latin, no English exchange could possibly be as apt. Ellen Brundige gives a beautiful close reading of the context of that exchange in her article that I linked to above, but it really is a most perfect conclusion to one of the most swoony courtships in literature.

Also, I was struck again how much Dorothy Dunnett’s hero, Francis Crawford of Lymond, owes to Lord Peter Wimsey. Both are highly sensitive blond haired aristocrats who are widely misunderstood, who love throwing around quotations, who love music and play brilliantly, and both solve mysteries. I’m more than half convinced that Lymond must somehow be one of Peter’s distant ancestors.

Join the discussion

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • This has made me want to reread Gaudy Night! And I’m almost 100% sure Dunnett modeled Lymond on Peter purposefully, i.e. I read that somewhere.. I actually started reading Sayers because of Dunnett!