Sunday, 6 January 2013

Gaudy Night


I spent Christmas racing through the Martin Beck novels by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo and I'm now compiling a tbr list of Scandi-crime from your suggestions.  Thank you so much.  I've temporarily moved from the seedy underbelly of Stockholm to the dreaming spires of Oxford to re-read Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers.  Published in 1935 Gaudy Night is part of the golden age of detective fiction.  It is highly enjoyable but it has dated and some of the snobbish references to 'common shop girls' can grate.  However, I think if you read a lot of early 20th C fiction you do have to keep a sense of time and place.

The main premise of the story is that detective writer  Harriet Vane visits her alma mater, Oxford University for the Gaudy Night celebrations.  While she is staying there someone sends poison pen letters to staff and students and acts like a deranged poltergeist at night.  The female dons ask Harriet to help them discover the 'poltergeist's' identity without too much adverse publicity for the college.  Harriet agrees but soon finds the situation beyond her and calls in her old friend Lord Peter Wimsey.

I loved the descriptions of Oxford, 'students dashing to lectures their gowns hitched hurriedly over light summer frocks', the porter's lodge stacked with bicycles and punting on the Isis.  Sayers is wickedly funny on academia and there is a long running joke about Miss Lydgate's epic work History of Prosody which always needs just one more footnote.

The actual crime element is pretty slight.  The novel is really about the relationship between Lord Peter and Harriet and the dilemma of intellect versus domesticity for women.  I did enjoy it though.  Did anyone who has read it find the business about the dog collar absolutely bizarre?

11 comments:

Audrey said...

One of my favorites, but I don''t remember the bit about the dog collar, so a re-reading is probably in order. :) I have yet to dip into the Scandinavians (except for watching Kenneth Branagh play Wallander) so hopefully I'll be able to benefit from your suggestions too.
Happy New Year1

Kat said...

I love Dorothy Sayers! I reread Gaudy Night a few years ago, and though I didn't enjoy it as much as I thought I would, most of Sayers's books hold up well. My favorite is The Nine Tailors, and why didn't I reread it this holiday? It starts on New Year's Eve.

Happy New Year!

Ellen said...

Happy New Year. I have never read any of the Harriet Vane series, would this one be a good one to start with? For some strange reason I do like books set in Oxford!

Desperate Reader said...

The dog collar bit is quite odd, though practical, I do love that book.

Alex said...

I love this book and re-read it quite frequently. I'm interested that you see the crime element as slight. I suspect you're not an academic. To those of us who are, plagiarism is quite simply the worst possible crime anyone can commit:)

StuckInABook said...

Oh gosh Nicola, I have to admit that I loathe this book. Everyone with similar taste to mine loves it, so it's inexplicable... but I can't stand Peter, found the plot really silly, and the whole thing dragged so much... maybe I'll try it again one day, but I can't see myself doing so... (perhaps if I didn't live in Oxford any more, it would work for nostalgic reasons?)

Sunday Taylor said...

Nicola, I remember reading this book many, many years ago and really enjoying it. I like your description of the "golden age of detective books." I do think that is correct. I don't remember the dog collar incident but I do remember loving most of Dorothy Sayers' books and this one in particular. Maybe because of the setting? And the romance between Harriet and Peter? Thanks for reminding me of a book that I would now like to revisit!

callmemadam said...

I think of this book and Busman's Honeymoon as two halves of the same story. In spite of the irritations, they are the two DLS books I re-read most often. I think the dog collar is very sexy and that DLS meant it to be.

BTW you won't be seeing many posts from me for a while as I've broken my right arm. Bleh!

musingsfromthesofa said...

I have a particular soft spot for Gaudy Night, because it was the first Sayers that I read. All unknowing I picked i from a second-hand bookstore in Oslo because it was about the only English language book there and I'd run out of reading material.

So, I love it and revisit it often, and I think Harriet's choice between independence and domesticity is truly a tough one.

Vintage Reading said...

Audrey, I know this is a favourite novel in the book blogging community. Sayers writes beautifully, hope you can squeeze in a re-read!

Kat, thanks for The Nine Tailors recommendation I don't feel as if I've read the best of Sayers and I'd like to read more.

Ellen, if you love Oxford, you will love this. Harriet is very sweet, too. Do post a review if you do read it.

Desperate Reader, yes the dog collar is highly practical but such a striking image!

Alex, I'm not an academic;-) I read for pleasure and as such the crime story wasn't satisfying. Not to say I disliked it though!

Simon, I know where you are coming from! I did find it irritating when Peter has to begin every sentence with a Latin quote or allusion to literature. I certainly think some aspects of the book have dated badly. Loved the Oxford setting though.

Sunday, you know I will be looking out for your review if you do re-read it! I certainly will read more Sayers.

Callmemadam, yes! There is certainly sexual imagery in the dog collar business - that's why I found it quite unsettling. I will look for Busman's Honeymoon and The Nine Tailors when buying my next Sayers. Oh sorry about your arm, mind you I'm replying so late to my comments at the moment you will probably have recovered by now!

Musings, yes Harriet was facing the classic educated women's dilemma. I loved that aspect of the book - the crime however, just seemed slotted around it. Love your Oslo story!

Nan said...

Somehow I missed all the Harriet Vane books except Busman's Honeymoon, and am catching up by reading the beautiful new Bourbon Street Books versions. I love the covers, both the pictures and the colors. Am partway through Strong Poison, and enjoying it immensely.