July Book Discussion: Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers

TrudyTrudy Heaven Host, 8th Day Host
This month I get the pleasure of leading the conversation around my favourite book in the whole wide world: Gaudy Night, by Dorothy L. Sayers.

I know many folks here, like me, have read this book: possibly many years ago, and possibly more than once. I hope you'll join in either for a reread, or just to talk about it if you remember it well enough without having to reread.

As for anyone unfamiliar with the book who'd like to give it a try: Gaudy Night is the tenth in Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey series of mystery novels. Published in 1935, it qualifies as "Golden Age" detective fiction, but is possibly the least "detective-y" of the series: the focus is much more on Lord Peter's fellow sleuth and love interest Harriet Vane (the main character from whose point of view most of the novel unfolds), and their relationship, which at this point has unfolded over three books. It concerns a series of events -- possibly pranks, possibly something more sinister -- occurring at an Oxford women's college.

For those who haven't read the book before, the discussion here will remain spoiler-free until I post questions on or shortly after July 20, and I'll try to guide the discussion in such a way that we include the perspectives both of re-readers, and those who are coming to this novel afresh.

Who's in?
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Comments

  • Lamb ChoppedLamb Chopped Shipmate
    me.
  • MarsupialMarsupial Shipmate
    I just read this not too long ago and I’m in.
  • SandemaniacSandemaniac Shipmate
    I shall nag the Knotweed into it - unless I find the house copy first!

    I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to state that I've played cricket on the sports ground that is really where her Shrewsbury college was situated.
  • TrudyTrudy Heaven Host, 8th Day Host
    edited July 1
    That is definitely not a spoiler! I would think plot events that directly relate to the outcome of either the mystery plot or the romance plot are spoilers, but comments such as yours about the setting of the novel (for those who don't know: Shrewsbury College is a fictional Oxford women's college in some ways modelled upon, but not located on the same spot as, Sayers' own alma mater of Somerville College) are perfectly fine to toss into the conversation before July 20.
  • BroJamesBroJames Purgatory Host, 8th Day Host
    I’m in if I remember.
  • I'll see if I can find a copy to reread this. If not, I've read it several times.
  • NicoleMRNicoleMR Shipmate
    I shall read the comments with interest and perhaps join in if I remember the book well enough.
  • Net SpinsterNet Spinster Shipmate
    I'll see how much I remember of Gaudy Night.
    The real women's colleges at Oxford at the time were Somerville, Lady Margaret, St Hugh's, and St. Hilda's. The first two opened in 1879 with Somerville a bit broader in religion (Lady Margaret was meant to be more Anglican). St Hugh's was founded in 1886 and St. Hilda's in 1893. However women could not get Oxford degrees until 1920 (Cambridge was even slower).
    I don't have much connection to any of them (except a cousin of a great grandfather was principal of Somerville).
  • MiliMili Shipmate
    My library has a copy so will be joining in.
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    I re-read this a week or two ago, so I’m definitely in.
  • Fawkes CatFawkes Cat Shipmate
    Good luck with the mechanics if you're using a second-hand copy: for some reason all* of the paperback New English Library copies I have come across have fallen out of their bindings, despite being from different printings. I don't know if this is just bad luck, or whether the book is slightly too long to be bound successfully by whatever the short-book technique is, but slightly too short for the long-book approach.

    *Ok, both. But it makes a better story to imply that it's widespread.
  • WandererWanderer Shipmate
    I'm not sure if I still have a copy, but I will certainly read this discussion with interest. I am very fond of the Lord Peter Wimsey stories and have been since I was a teenager. The relationship between him and Harriet Vane always struck me as what a respectful relationship between two self sufficient intelligent people who nevertheless love each other should be.
  • SparrowSparrow Shipmate
    I've read it not long ago, so I'll try and participate.

  • EigonEigon Shipmate
    I love Gaudy Night!
    (I've even written fan fiction).
  • I shall nag the Knotweed into it - unless I find the house copy first!

    I'm in! I know exactly where the house copy should be (I'm sort-of in charge of the fiction shelves), so he'll just have to wait 3 or 4 days whilst I finish the other books I'm reading and then read Gaudy Night. Unless of course, @Sandemaniac can recall how the books are shelved...
  • MooMoo Kerygmania Host
    The book is available on Kindle.
  • TrudyTrudy Heaven Host, 8th Day Host
    Fawkes Cat wrote: »
    Good luck with the mechanics if you're using a second-hand copy: for some reason all* of the paperback New English Library copies I have come across have fallen out of their bindings, despite being from different printings. I don't know if this is just bad luck, or whether the book is slightly too long to be bound successfully by whatever the short-book technique is, but slightly too short for the long-book approach.

    *Ok, both. But it makes a better story to imply that it's widespread.

    I had one of those falling-apart copies (not sure if it was the New English Library edition, but it was an inexpensive mass-market paperback bought many, many years ago). It may have been falling apart because of the poor binding or because I read it so many times, but when I finally, a couple of years ago, treated myself to a proper matching set of nice new editions of the LPW novels and proudly gave them a home on my shelf, I got rid of the rest of my mismatched ones (I had had a jumble of different editions, second hand copies, and some I didn't have at all because I'd read library copies), I found I couldn't throw out the old, tattered Gaudy Night. The physical object of the book itself was like a talisman by that time and I kept with some other very old, very beaten-up paperbacks I couldn't bear to throw out.
  • TrudyTrudy Heaven Host, 8th Day Host
    Eigon wrote: »
    I love Gaudy Night!
    (I've even written fan fiction).

    I think I may need to know more about this ...
  • HelixHelix Shipmate
    My library does not permit me to reserve this book for whatever reason - I haven't enquired. Sorry to say - I am out but I will read the commentary. hope you all enjoy.
  • The thing I thought was "Gaudy Night" turns out to be "Murder Must Advertise", which means that my copy of Gaudy Night has migrated to a different bookshelf. So I'll attempt to track it down, but I hope that I remember enough to participate in the discussion without it.

    Placetne?
  • It's not available in my local library either - no Sayers books at all, not as e-books.
  • PendragonPendragon Shipmate
    My copy is currently in storage, but I have read it fairly recently (for the umpteenth time).

    When we went to a dinner event in London shortly before the arrival of Dragonlet 2, Mr Dragon found somewhere to stay in Mecklenburg Square, which of course is where her flat is in the book.

    10 or so years ago libraries used to be a reliable source of her books, but I think that unfortunately she is a bit unfashionable outside her fan base.
  • BroJamesBroJames Purgatory Host, 8th Day Host
    It is also available online from jurisdictions where it is no longer in copyright.
  • HarryCHHarryCH Shipmate
    I think the Sayers novels about Wimsey are more in need of annotation than most books.
  • HedgehogHedgehog Shipmate
    I'm in. Although it has been a long time since I last read it. I remember the big points, but much of what is good about the book is the smaller moments, that I am a little foggy on. And, unfortunately, it is the smaller bits that make the book.

    It is not my favorite Wimsey book, nor even my favorite Vane book. "Have His Carcase" will always hold that spot. The only mystery I ever read that, immediately after reading it, I re-read. It is brilliant. But that is a story for another day.
  • Lamb ChoppedLamb Chopped Shipmate
    HarryCH wrote: »
    I think the Sayers novels about Wimsey are more in need of annotation than most books.

    Wimsey is rather like Shakespeare--the author is over-generous, making the assumption that you have a bigger vocabulary/acquaintanceship with literature/the classics/music/science than you probably do, and therefore catering for that. But again like Shakespeare, you can enjoy it on a lower level when the author overshoots. And there's a different kind of pleasure available if you go hunting to find out what the allusions actually mean. I adore the ones in Busman's Honeymoon, which are mostly to Shakespeare if I remember correctly, and not at all the kind of positive romantic things you'd expect for Peter and Harriet's first month together... The mismatch is hilarious.
  • AthrawesAthrawes Shipmate
    There is a rather marvelous, truly encyclopaedic book called The Peter Wimsey Companion, which gives every single reference, quote, translation, address, allusion, character etc, cross referenced with the book and edition it appears in! It is self published and as rare as hens’ teeth, but absolutely fascinating. So I no longer feel as ignorant as I did.
  • Penny SPenny S Shipmate
    edited July 3
    I remember feeling peeved by being expected to understand stuff in Greek. I didn't feel that she was being generous in assuming I could, but that she was putting me in a place outside, that I didn't belong. (I could have a stab at Latin.) I was only young at the time.
  • EigonEigon Shipmate
    Trudy wrote: »
    Eigon wrote: »
    I love Gaudy Night!
    (I've even written fan fiction).

    I think I may need to know more about this ...

    I'm Eigon on AO3, and I've written some gender-swapped Lord Peter Wimsey fan fiction in which Peter becomes Lady Petra (but still falls in love with Harriet Vane). In the Gaudy Night one, she's still rather bitter about not being awarded a degree, since she graduated in 1912.
  • SandemaniacSandemaniac Shipmate
    Well, I got to it first, and (I was jesting, @Trudy !) the observation about where the college is is actually in the preface. It's a careful selection - it's a big ground, close to the size of a county cricket ground (you know when you've chased a ball to the boundary), so plenty of room to fit in a college.

    I should probably mention, BTW, that I worked for the University for 16 years (about 8 too long), including several years in a building overlooking the fictional Shrewsbury College site, so I've been thinking about Sayers' Oxford and, as someone who moved there and was that inconvenience a staff member, never a college member, an outsider.

    When Sayers was writing, it would have been on the very edge of collegiate Oxford - the new colleges of the later 20th century were not spreading outwards yet, and much of the Science Area was still to be built, so just a few isolated buildings North of Shrewsbury before you met the University Parks and Dragonland (the largely Victorian suburbs in the rich area around the Dragon school). The site now is far more enclosed - regular development since has added buildings around it, the 1920s buildings on St Cross Road that Sayers would have seen bounding her college have been pulled down in the last five years and replaced by blocky student housing, while Merton Cricket Pitch as was is currently home to the temporary buildings hosting the Zoology teaching labs. Pointless aside - Sayers' Mansfield Lane runs through the Kings Mound and the bank seperating the two cricket grounds, which are just about the only surviving above-ground remains of Oxford's defences from the Engish Civil War.

    I think it's position on the edge of the town centre is, to a certain amount geographical need (though Max Beerbohm did invent Judas College bang in the middle of town), and also symbolic that a new women's college would be stuck out on the edge somewhere - Somerville and St Hilda's were both rather squeezed into available corners. I can''t remember whether that edge-of-townness has any bearing on the plot yet.

    There's also mention of Shrewsbury's shortness of cash - Oxford has a byzantine system inherited over the centuries where the older colleges have vast endowments, whereas many of the newer colleges are very short on readies. At least one science department is notorious for building its new lab in two goes ten years apart because of a shortage of assets, and I remember when you had to send four copies of your CV and covering letter to it if you wanted to apply for a job, to save them photocopying it! But legend has it that you could walk from St John's College in Oxford to St John's in Cambridge and never set foot off land owned by one or the other. Saying that the University is rich is a misnomer - some parts are very rich, especially the old colleges, while others are flippin' skint.

    To give you an idea of the scale of St John's - at the North it starts by the annotation of St Giles, and the buildings by Blackhall Road are St Johns, and *everything* down that side of St Giles as far as the buildings marked as St John's are the college, going right out to Parks Road behind Trinity College - it's huge.

    Just for completism's sake, here's St Giles to the left and Balliol Rec, the fictional Shrewsbury, to the right.

    OK, I think I've blathered enough - do tell me to foxtrot oscar if I am being boring!
  • HelenEvaHelenEva Shipmate
    edited July 3
    I'll see how much I remember of Gaudy Night.
    The real women's colleges at Oxford at the time were Somerville, Lady Margaret, St Hugh's, and St. Hilda's. The first two opened in 1879 with Somerville a bit broader in religion (Lady Margaret was meant to be more Anglican). St Hugh's was founded in 1886 and St. Hilda's in 1893. However women could not get Oxford degrees until 1920 (Cambridge was even slower).
    I don't have much connection to any of them (except a cousin of a great grandfather was principal of Somerville).

    It only recently struck me that Sayers created Harriet Vane to be exactly the right age to be in the first lot of women to get Oxford degrees.

    I was at St Hugh's where we're a lot more chilled out than either Somerville or Shrewsbury and a HECK of a long way out of the centre of town.
  • Curiosity killedCuriosity killed Shipmate
    edited July 3
    I don't think I've reread this book since I saw Blue Stockings (link to Wikipedia) in 2013, when it was first performed at Shakespeare's Globe. Blue Stockings is a play by Jessica Swale about the first women students at Girton College, Cambridge in 1896 and their experiences of studying without being awarded degrees, although there was a vote to decide if women could be awarded degrees within the play; that thought makes me want to reread Gaudy Night and dig out my theatre programme. Not the most critically acclaimed play as somewhat polemical and lacking in subtlety, but was adopted into the GCSE curriculum in 2015.

    (I did think I'd started a Ship thread on this, but I can't find it now.)
  • MarthaMartha Shipmate
    I love Gaudy Night too. Definitely in!

    I would also love a copy of that reference guide to the quotations. But it's quite fun when you're reading something else and recognise a quote, and think, Ah! That's where it comes from!
  • HelenEvaHelenEva Shipmate
    I don't think I've reread this book since I saw Blue Stockings (link to Wikipedia) in 2013, when it was first performed at Shakespeare's Globe. Blue Stockings is a play by Jessica Swale about the first women students at Girton College, Cambridge in 1896 and their experiences of studying without being awarded degrees, although there was a vote to decide if women could be awarded degrees within the play; that thought makes me want to reread Gaudy Night and dig out my theatre programme. Not the most critically acclaimed play as somewhat polemical and lacking in subtlety, but was adopted into the GCSE curriculum in 2015.

    (I did think I'd started a Ship thread on this, but I can't find it now.)

    Yes - I saw that. The part about the male undergraduates attacking Girton on the day of the vote was really shocking.
  • john holdingjohn holding Ecclesiantics Host, Mystery Worshipper Host
    Eigon wrote: »
    Trudy wrote: »
    Eigon wrote: »
    I love Gaudy Night!
    (I've even written fan fiction).

    I think I may need to know more about this ...

    I'm Eigon on AO3, and I've written some gender-swapped Lord Peter Wimsey fan fiction in which Peter becomes Lady Petra (but still falls in love with Harriet Vane). In the Gaudy Night one, she's still rather bitter about not being awarded a degree, since she graduated in 1912.

    In Gaudy Night she is quite explicitly an MA.
  • BroJamesBroJames Purgatory Host, 8th Day Host
    I wonder if it was the Lady Petra character who didn’t graduate?
  • Net SpinsterNet Spinster Shipmate
    At least at Cambridge, women who qualified (other on grounds of being female) earlier were retroactively given degrees when women were allowed to take degrees in 1948 (my grandmother, a couple of great aunts and at least one of my aunts fell into that category).
  • PendragonPendragon Shipmate
    Oxford did the same thing: Sayers herself claimed her degree in person the first year that women were awarded them.
  • TukaiTukai Shipmate
    edited July 4
    I had a paperback copy of Gaudy Night a few years ago, and put it out for resale on the church bookstall as I thought it one of the weaker Wimsey's (too much romance, not enough detective work or action). We still have it as an audiobook on Audible (bundled with 3 other Wimsey stories) so may revisit more carefully, but I doubt it.
  • MiliMili Shipmate
    I realised I have watched the T.V. series version of 'Strong Poison', where Harriet Vane is first introduced, and I think also listened to a radio play, though the radio play did not have all the events. It makes it easier to understand where Harriet is coming from in 'Gaudy Night'.
  • SandemaniacSandemaniac Shipmate
    Having got stuck in yesterday, I've realised how rammed it is with Oxford jargon as well. I get the feeling that Sayers was determined to get it exactly right so no one could say "Ooh, that's wrong! ", but I wonder how hard it makes it for the non-Oxonian reader? The book is very, very, Oxford!

    On the other hand, I did snort at the trifling debt to Blackwells that, at the end of a long catalogue of other debts, confirmed exactly what I was being told about the young man in question.

    Do I recall correctly that you can wait a certain length of time, and pay a fee to convert your undergraduate degree to an MA? I vaguely recall a colleague doing just that about twenty years ago.
  • HelenEvaHelenEva Shipmate
    edited July 4

    On the other hand, I did snort at the trifling debt to Blackwells that, at the end of a long catalogue of other debts, confirmed exactly what I was being told about the young man in question.

    Do I recall correctly that you can wait a certain length of time, and pay a fee to convert your undergraduate degree to an MA? I vaguely recall a colleague doing just that about twenty years ago.

    Yes - I dimly recall paying some trivial sum to get my BA converted into an MA.

    And re the Blackwell's bill, I think it was mainly an opportunity to use the quote: "a half pennyworth of bread to this intolerable deal of sack".
  • Tukai wrote: »
    I had a paperback copy of Gaudy Night a few years ago, and put it out for resale on the church bookstall as I thought it one of the weaker Wimsey's (too much romance, not enough detective work or action). We still have it as an audiobook on Audible (bundled with 3 other Wimsey stories) so may revisit more carefully, but I doubt it.

    I find it depends if you like your detective fiction as an entertaining intellectual puzzle without much blood, for example Five Red Herrings, or whether you like your detective fiction to deal with contemporary issues too. This book looks like a romance, but there are a lot of other strands embedded here, which is why so many of us love and reread it, to unpick the other problems, not just the crime, whereas I find that the intellectual puzzles don't give me much to find on rereading.
  • TrudyTrudy Heaven Host, 8th Day Host
    I think Gaudy Night itself is the book that Peter challenges Harriet to write in Gaudy Night -- a detective story that's not just a puzzle but a book about real people and real feelings -- but that's a bit of meta-narrative that we can get into when we dive into the book itself, as it may be a bit spoilery otherwise. I know that while it's a well-loved book for many like me, it's also quite a polarizing book within the Sayers canon.
  • HelenEvaHelenEva Shipmate
    Trudy wrote: »
    I think Gaudy Night itself is the book that Peter challenges Harriet to write in Gaudy Night -- a detective story that's not just a puzzle but a book about real people and real feelings -- but that's a bit of meta-narrative that we can get into when we dive into the book itself, as it may be a bit spoilery otherwise. I know that while it's a well-loved book for many like me, it's also quite a polarizing book within the Sayers canon.

    I agree. I take that interaction about writing a real book with real characters rather than detective fiction cardboard cutout ones to be Sayers' justification for the book she's writing, although also the trajectory she's been on for the previous few books which have become more about rounded characters than the early ones.
  • Do I recall correctly that you can wait a certain length of time, and pay a fee to convert your undergraduate degree to an MA? I vaguely recall a colleague doing just that about twenty years ago.

    Seven years after matriculation, as I recall, and I think the fee used to be GBP 10.
  • HelenEva wrote: »
    <snip> I take that interaction about writing a real book with real characters rather than detective fiction cardboard cutout ones to be Sayers' justification for the book she's writing, although also the trajectory she's been on for the previous few books which have become more about rounded characters than the early ones.

    I think that's one of the reasons why the Jill Paton Walsh books don't work for me, other than she can't get the feel or details of the period right, she's not developing that trajectory in the same way as Sayers was over those last Wimsey books.

  • DoublethinkDoublethink Shipmate
    Sayers lovers may enjoy this podcast: https://asmywimseytakesme.com/ - they are on a break at the moment and I am not sure they got as far as Gaudy Night, but they do close reading analysis of the novels and short stories.
  • EigonEigon Shipmate
    Eigon wrote: »
    Trudy wrote: »
    Eigon wrote: »
    I love Gaudy Night!
    (I've even written fan fiction).

    I think I may need to know more about this ...

    I'm Eigon on AO3, and I've written some gender-swapped Lord Peter Wimsey fan fiction in which Peter becomes Lady Petra (but still falls in love with Harriet Vane). In the Gaudy Night one, she's still rather bitter about not being awarded a degree, since she graduated in 1912.

    In Gaudy Night she is quite explicitly an MA.

    Harriet Vane got her degree - Lady Petra graduated in 1912, just as Lord Peter did in the real books, so wasn't awarded a degree.
  • MarthaMartha Shipmate
    @Doublethink someone recommended that to me on the podcast thread here (I don't think it was you but I could have misremembered). I've been really enjoying it. Sadly they haven't got anywhere near Gaudy Night, and I imagine they could spend at least 4 episodes on it when they get there.
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