Sunday 8 July 2018

Gaudy Night

Dorothy L Sayers was one of the first generation of women to receive her degree from Somerville College in Oxford.  She described her Oxford days as her happiest and created a fictional women's college for her greatest novel Gaudy Night which provides a fascinating insight into what life must have been like for female academics in the 1930s. 
Pre-occupied by the life of the mind, the female dons only concern on a more mundane level is how to stop the undergraduates sunbathing in only 'a brassiere and a pair or drawers' on the Quad. That is until the college is troubled at night by what appears to be a poltergeist who sends poison pen letters and leaves an alarming effigy in an academic robe hanging in the library.

When Harriet Vane visits her old alma mater for the gaudy (an Oxford alumni celebration) she is asked to stay on and investigate the poison pen letters.  Harriet's only real experience is as a writer of detective novels, but the college is anxious to avoid publicity, particularly as it appears that the poison pen is a member of staff.  When Harriet feels that events are getting beyond her control she calls in her friend Lord Peter Wimsey.

It is thought that Dorothy L Sayers had fallen in love with her main character the infamous Lord Peter Death Bredon Wimsey. Monocled blue-blooded aristocrat and amateur sleuth.  Discovered to be a brilliant all-round natural cricketer at Eton.  Accomplished musician who read History at Balliol.  A man of sensitivity who was mentally scarred by the Great War and regularly proposes to Harriet - he manages to get all the female dons in Gaudy Night in a flutter, too!

It has to be said that the dialogue in Gaudy Night has dated and there is also class snobbery, but it is still my favourite novel and full of memorable scenes and imagery including the 'poltergeist' running through the college at night switching all the lights off, the antique ivory chess set purchased by Peter for Harriet and the memorable final scene where Harriet and Peter sit on a turret at the top of the Radcliffe Camera gazing out over Oxford shining after the rain.