Saturday, January 22, 2011

Gaudy Night

Gaudy Night. Dorothy L. Sayers. 1936/1995. HarperCollins. 512 pages.

Harriet Vane sat at her writing-table and stared out into Mecklenburg Square. The late tulips made a brave show in the Square garden, and a quartet of early tennis-players were energetically calling the score of a rather erratic and unpracticed game. But Harriet saw neither tulips nor tennis-players.

This is the third novel starring Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. The first two being Strong Poison and Have His Carcase. Both featured Lord Peter prominently. In the first, he "rescued" an accused murderess, Harriet Vane, she stood accused of poisoning her former lover. In a little under a month, he proved his love by proving her innocence. Upon their first meeting, he proposed. It was--for him--love at first sight. In the second, Lord Peter proves helpful once again when Harriet discovers a dead body on the beach. He doesn't even wait for there to be a sign of trouble, he's there on the spot to do what he does best.

In the third novel, Lord Peter is strangely absent for the first half of the novel. At first, this irritated me. I mean, I want LORD PETER to be appearing in every chapter--if not on every page. I mean, I just can't get enough of him. I LOVE AND ADORE him. But. I think his absence serves at least two purposes. First, I think it reflects the times surprisingly well. Sayers has Lord Peter working for the Foreign Office; she has Lord Peter off in Europe trying to be a peacemaker. There are a few conversations that reflect that all is not as it should be in Europe, in the world, that there are tremors of political turmoil and uprising. That another war may be coming. Second, I think it's for Harriet's benefit. With Peter gone, she realizes--perhaps a little too slowly for this reader--just how much she needs him. Needs him not to "rescue" her perhaps though he has a way of doing just that. But needs him--as in needs his company, his humor, his wit, his strength, his intelligence. She almost aches for him. If that makes sense. So Harriet and I were both in the same place (for a change), we were both wanting Lord Peter, longing to hear his voice again.

So what is Gaudy Night about? Well, Harriet Vane has returned to Oxford, to her college (Shrewsbury College). At first this return is just for the "Gaudy" reunion. But. After the women's college experiences a series of pranks and other (small) crimes, she's called back to lend a hand in the investigation. They don't want to go to the police. They don't want outsiders to know that there is someone writing obscene letters and destroying college property. Since these letters are anti-feminist--the person writing them obviously feels that women should not be educated or work outside the home. A large part of this one is set in an academic environment. It features a handful of women discussing big issues of the day. It was hard, for me, to keep track of all the new characters introduced. All the women professors, tutors, dons, and students. But there was one new character that was unforgettable: Lord Peter's nephew, Lord St. George! (I really, really liked him!) As the months go by, the crimes start to change. The case may prove a little too challenging to solve all on her own, but Lord Peter can't stay away forever. And together, they may just do more than solve the case...

I enjoyed the romance in Gaudy Night. I enjoyed seeing Lord Peter through different eyes. (For example, Wimsey is discussed by a good many women at the college. Sometimes in a flattering way, sometimes not. But it is interesting to see Harriet's reaction to other people's opinion of Lord Peter. When she sees that Lord Peter is a desirable man in other women's eyes, well, it doesn't hurt the situation any!) I loved the characterization too. I loved Lord St. George and Reggie Pomfret, for example.  I wasn't such a big fan of the mystery plot in this one--it wasn't much of a surprise to me who was at fault. But overall, the writing still worked well for me.

Favorite quotes:

"How all occasions do inform against me!" muttered Harriet to herself. One would have thought that Oxford at least would offer a respite from Peter Wimsey and the marriage question. But although she herself was a notoriety, if not precisely a celebrity, it was an annoying fact that Peter was a still more spectacular celebrity, and that, of the two, people would rather know about him than about her. As regards marriage--well, here one certainly had a chance to find out whether it worked or not. Was it worse to be a Mary Atwood (nee Stokes) or a Miss Schuster-Slatt? Was it better to be a Phoebe Bancroft (nee Tucker) or a Miss Lydgate? And would all these people have turned out exactly the same, married or single? (46)

"Do you know any man who sincerely admires a woman for her brains?"
"Well, said Harriet, "certainly not many."
"You may think you know one," said Miss Hillyard, with a bitter emphasis. "Most of us think at some time or other that we know one. But the man usually has some other little axe to grind." (55)

"Peter" said Harriet. And with the sound of her own voice she came drowsing and floating up out of the strong circle of his arms, through a green sea of sun-dappled beechleaves into darkness. "Oh damn," said Harriet softly to herself. "Oh, damn, I didn't want to wake up." The clock in the New Quad struck three musically. "This won't do," said Harriet. "This really will not do. My sub-conscious has a most treacherous imagination." She groped for the switch of her bedside lamp, "It's disquieting to reflect that one's dreams never symbolize one's real wishes, but always something Much Worse." She turned the light on and sat up. "If I really wanted to be passionately embraced by Peter,  I should dream of something like dentists or gardening." (113)

If you learn how to tackle one subject--any subject--you've learnt how to tackle all subjects. (171)

"But what's Mock Turtle about?" inquired Harriet? On this point the authors were for the most part vague; but a young man who wrote humorous magazine stories, and could therefore afford to be wide-minded about novels, said he had read it and thought it rather interesting, only a bit long. It was about a swimming instructor at a watering place, who had contracted such an unfortunate anti-nudity complex through watching so many bathing-beauties that it completely inhibited all his natural emotions. So he got a job on a whaler and fell in love at first sight with an Eskimo, because she was such a beautiful bundle of garments. So he married her and brought her back to live in a suburb, where she fell in love with a vegetarian nudist. So then the husband went slightly mad and contracted a complex about giant turtles, and spent all his spare time staring into the turtle tank at the Aquarium, and watching the strange, slow monsters swimming significantly round in their encasing shells. But of course a lot of things into it--it was one of those books that reflect the author's reaction to Things in General. Altogether, significant was, he thought, the word to describe it. (233)

"He's a precocious little monkey," said his uncle, without enthusiasm. "Though I can't blame him for that; it runs in the blood. But it's characteristic of his impudence that he should have gate-crashed your acquaintance, after you had firmly refused to meet any of my people."
"I found him for myself, you see, Peter."
"Literally, or so he says. I gather that he nearly knocked you down, damaged your property and generally made a nuisance of himself, and that you instantly concluded he must be some relation to me."
"That's--If he said that, you know better than to believe it. But I couldn't very well miss the likeness."
"Yet people have been known to speak slightingly of my personal appearance! I congratulate you on a perception worthy of Sherlock Holmes at his keenest." (308)

How fleeting are all human passions compared with the massive continuity of ducks... (325)

"Do you find it easy to get drunk on words?"
"So easy that, to tell you the truth, I am seldom perfectly sober. Which accounts for my talking so much." (330)

"Something worried you about this room. What was it?"
"You don't need to be told."
"No, I am convinced that our two hearts beat as one. But tell Miss Martin." (345)

"Just exercise your devastating talent for keeping to the point and speaking the truth."
"That sounds easy."
"It is--for you. That's what I love you for. Didn't you know?" (365)

"I don't know. I have a reputation for flippant insincerity. You think I'm honest?"
"I know you are. I couldn't imagine your being anything else." (382)

It is said that love and a cough cannot be hid. (427)

© 2011 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews


Bev Hankins said...

Once again you've snagged some of the best quotes! Here's a couple of my favorites:

I have the most ill-regulated memory. It does those things which it ought not to have done, and leaves undone the thing it ought to have done. But it has not yet gone on strike altogether.
Lord Peter Wimsey
—Sayers (56)

She was taken aback, not by what he said, but by his saying it. She had never imagined that he regarded her work very seriously, and she had certainly not expected him to take this attitude about it. The protective male? He was about as protective as a can opener.
—Sayers (256)

Shirley said...

These all appeal to my sense of adventure and desire to read a good mystery! Thanks for the wonderful reviews!

Becky said...

Bev, I can't believe I missed those!!!

Shirley, I definitely recommend Sayers for a good mystery!

JaneGS said...

I have just got to read the HV/PW stories again. I swallowed them whole a few years ago, and now want to go back and just enjoy them. I love Peter Wimsey too--great review.

Kailana said...

I am curious about this series. I have the first book out from the library, but I am worried I won't get a chance to get to it. I am determined to by the end of the year, though.

Beth said...

Yes, the mystery is a much smaller part of this book, which is more about autonomy and marriage and truth and integrity.

I do miss Lord Peter when he isn't on the page, though.