Gaudy Night (Dorothy L. Sayers)

By Dorothy L. Sayers

First published: UK, Gollancz, 1935; US, Harcourt Brace, 1935

Blurb (US)

  1. Sayers - Gaudy Night US.JPG
    Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

    Gaudy Night, which gives this new full-length mystery its title, is a night of special significance at Oxford University where the chief events of this story take place.

  2. In the solution of the mystery created during, or after, the celebrations of Gaudy Night, Lord Peter Wimsey plays his usual essential rôle.
  3. This mystery is also a novel.  This novel is also a romance, culminating in a moment as delightful for Lord Peter as for Harriet Vane.
  4. The first review of this new book appeared in the London Times Literary Supplement, concluding with these words: “The interplay of interests, of psychology and detection, is so subtle and well-ordered that Gaudy Night stands out even among Miss Sayers’s novels.  And Miss Sayers has long stood in a class by herself.”

My review

Sayers - Gaudy Night.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

When I first read Gaudy Night at the age of thirteen, I found it extremely dull and pompous, stuffed with pretentious conversation and without a murder; above all, it was (shudder!) a romance. Eight years later, older and wiser I am able to recognise it for what it is: very long, very talky, and very, very good. It scores full marks as both a novel and a detective story. The whole story is nearly all seen from the perspective of Harriet Vane (apart from a few brief scenes from Wimsey’s), who has returned to Oxford for the Gaudy, and finds herself called back to investigate a poltergeist-cum-poison-pen. The villain is extremely well hidden, but satisfying and inevitable: the motive is the logical consequence of all that has gone before: all the careful presentation of a way of life, a world, and the intelligent discussions of women’s place in the world and of principle vs. loyalty. The themes and the plot march hand in hand—as it appears Harriet and Wimsey walk towards the altar.

(Me aet. 21)

Gaudy Night emphasises characterisation and theme over plot; it is “a novel not without detection”, rather than a detective novel.  Sayers considered it the book in which she most successfully integrated setting, plot and theme to form a whole (“Gaudy Night”).  It is perhaps Sayers’s richest novel, in terms of incident and humour, but is less satisfying as a detective story than the previous two novels.  The novel is not so much a mystery (crime already committed, investigators try to work out what happened) as an ongoing sequence of events which the investigators try to fit in to the overall pattern.  Mystery and detection are largely subordinated to the central themes of “intellectual integrity as the one great permanent value in an emotionally unstable world” (“Gaudy Night”), woman’s place in society, the choice between the celibate intellect and marriage, principle vs. loyalty, the competing needs of duty to the truth and duty to other people, and the importance of balance.  Truth, Sayers argues, cannot exist in a vacuum, but must be seen in terms of its context and consequences.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (Simon Harcourt Nowell Smith, 9th November 1935):


Gaudy night at Shrewsbury College, Oxford.  Harriet Vane has returned to the serene scholastic atmosphere for the first time since her acquittal of murder was secured by the detective genius of Lord Peter Wimsey.  She sees the dons afresh, and through her observant eyes the reader quickly becomes acquainted with the austere but understanding Warden; the sprightly Dean; Miss Lydgate, charitable in all but scholarship; the youthfully embittered Miss Hillyard; the uncomfortably enigmatic Miss de Vine; and the rest.  She leaves the city of dreaming spires, with more than one reluctant backward glance from the uneasy world of the literary lioness, till there flutters from her M.A. gown a sheet of scribbling paper: “You dirty murderess.  Aren’t you ashamed to show your face?”

It was some months before Harriet, to whom such libels were not new, learnt that she was not the only victim in the college.  Others had received scurrilous letters; obscene words and pictures were painted on the walls; a mind diseased, and later dangerous, had been poisoning the serene atmosphere.  Harriet, called in to unravel the mystery, made the tension doubly tense: one or two students at most, she pointed out, perhaps one or two of the scouts, but every member of the Senior Common Room, must be held suspect.  And if, as seemed certain, the scurrilities of the poison-pen were the result of natural instincts repressed, who more likely than a don—intellect to outward seeming only disembodied?

Suspicion in the S.C.R. gives Miss Sayers a peg.  The detective merits of this novel need no praise.  Does not Lord Peter take a hand?  And where Lord Peter is, “fair and Mayfair” though he be, unfaltering logic always discovers the clues which Miss Sayers has placed in his path and the reader’s.  Nor do the humours and excitements that march so amicably hand-in-hand demand more than the customary passing salute: Miss Sayers’s readers know them well.  The peg is not a detective novelist’s, but just a novelist’s, peg.  On it hangs a garment of many shades and colours, to which Harriet gives an occasional shake revealing new folds—a discussion from every standpoint of the problem of Woman and the Intellectual Life.  The conversations in the S.C.R. before, during and after the suspicion and suspense are brilliantly developed: each clearly differentiated don contributes; even Lord Peter, the courteous aristocrat and scholar (for he plays many parts) puts the male point of view, one to which few male readers will demur.  Even if, as is of course denied, the dons were drawn from life, their prototypes could not complain in view of the essential sanity of Miss Sayers’s position.  Yet this is not a novel of purpose or propaganda; or if it is the pill is cunningly disguised.  It is a novel of character, and each speech serves to develop the character of the speaker, at the same time serving to advance or complicate the detective issue.  The interplay of interests, of psychology and detection, is so subtle and well-ordered that Gaudy Night stands out even among Miss Sayers’s novels.  And Miss Sayers has long stood in a class by herself.


Observer (Torquemada, 10th November 1935):


We have waited a long time for the new Peter Wimsey tale; Gaudy Night, now that it has come, proves that it was emphatically worth our while to do so.

Ever since Miss Sayers began to write criticism of other people’s detective stories she has been swift to recognise and encourage any gleams of beauty and sound writing in them, and has gone so far as to prophesy that the whole future of the kind will depend on the ability of authors to graft their crimes upon books which are fine novels per se.  Many argued that she herself succeeded in doing this when she wrote The Nine Tailors; but in that very pleasant campanological treatise the criminal problem was, I thought, the easiest to guess of any she had given us; she most certainly rang the bell, but she rather failed to return the penny.

In Gaudy Night the proportion is intentionally different: the secret is well kept, and the book itself is as fine a novel as I have read for a long time.  Miss Sayers, in studying the vocation of female scholars at Oxford, shirks none of its problems.  Her heroine is Harriet Vane, who, you will remember, has kept Lord Peter at arm’s length for several books.  This uncompromising, thorny, passionate character, too able and individual to be quick to risk submerging her personality in another’s and yet needing fulfilment in the dual life, is exposed for us in a way which puts Miss Sayers definitely among the great writers.  If she continues to produce work like this her books will become a confusion to the conscientious librarian.  For the present I allow Gaudy Night its place among the Lord Peters, since, after all, it has not only given him a wife but has also cleverly developed his character: yet I find my eyes straying to an unfilled space beside Zuleika Dobson, the last great Oxford novel but one.


New Statesman & Nation (Ralph Partridge, 16th November 1935, 600w):


For years Miss Sayers’s admirers have been waiting for her next book.  Some nine months ago, Messrs. Gollancz announced a future addition to the Wimsey family; and now, in very human shape, Gaudy Night comes to light.  So devastatingly human, indeed, is its appeal that it hardly befits a callous reviewer of detective stories to criticise its dimples or investigate its parentage.  Nevertheless, seeing that Miss Sayers did once write very good detective stories and that the publisher is handing it out as “a novel not without detection”, I shall not hesitate to do my duty.

Let us begin with the pedigree of this imposing tome (for it is 483 pages long, costs 8s. 6d., and will be thought well worth the money by all the girls at Somerville and Lady Margaret Hall).  In The Nine Tailors and even as far back as Murder Must Advertise, you had been warned that Miss Sayers was approaching a dangerous cross-roads.  The path of glory leading but to the grave along which she had been proceeding, showed signs of being intersected by the long, long trail a-winding into the land of her dreams.  Lord Peter scored rather too fast for comfort in the famous cricket match in Murder Must Advertise; and what with ringing that phenomenal peal of bells and saving the beautiful fen country from the worst horrors of inundation he had hardly time to find the body and solve the murder in The Nine Tailors.  Miss Sayers’s heart was no longer entirely in her original work.  She was beginning to show great talents and still greater inclination for writing novels instead of detective stories—and novels of the particularly successful type in which acute observation and a ready mastery of the dialogue of every-day life are exploited to gain credence for a set of purely day-dream characters and conclusions.  There is no element of surprise, therefore, in this new departure of Miss Sayers.  Where the roads crossed she has taken a sharp turn, not right but left, and downhill at that—facilis descensus Averni—into those luscious lanes frequented by constant nymphs, autumn crocuses, and little boys who never grow up.  And I, for one, shall leave her there with the utmost regret.  It is no place in my opinion for the authoress of Unnatural Death and Clouds of Witness.

The words on the dust cover of Gaudy Night, “a novel—not without detection”, betray a desire in the publishers to make the best of both worlds, but the suggestion of a litotes where there is no justification for one is bound to arouse hostile criticism in any one who is misled.  The book, it must be admitted, is not utterly destitute of a detective element, since a lunatic who keeps on sending scurrilous letters to the members of a women’s college at Oxford and perpetrating freakish acts of annoyance on them is at last tactfully identified and gently relegated for medical treatment.  But the body of the story is just an Oxford halo encircling the love affair of Miss Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey.  Some of us wondered why Miss Sayers deprived Lord Peter of Harriet five years ago for no apparent reason.  The answer is Gaudy Night.  No words of mine will do justice to the juiciness of this protracted surrender of emancipated womanhood to that brilliant scion of the peerage.  And the fun in the Women’s Senior Common Room!  The female donnish merriment about the dress shirts of visiting male dons!  Amidst such a plenitude of local knowledge as Miss Sayers reveals, spiced with all kinds of topical references and Latin tags, it gave me a certain unworthy satisfaction to catch her sending one of her aristocrat friends to “Christ Church College”.

The psycho-analysts are better qualified than a mere reviewer to draw attention to the seamy side of this idyll.  But the data about the heroine—Miss Harriet Vane is (1) an Oxford M.A., (2) a highly successful detective authoress and reviewer, (3) a believer in putting episodes from real life into her novels, and (4) persuaded by Lord Peter “to abandon the jig-saw kind of story and write a book about human beings for a change”—seem “not without” a dreary significance.


Spectator (Nicholas Blake, 15th September 1935, 480w):

The development of the emotional situations is beautifully done, but it rather overshadows the unfolding of the detective plot…  Miss Sayers has fallen short of the Platonic ideal.  We may feel, too, a puritan twinge at seeing so much erudition, sensibility and humour devoted exclusively to this kind of fiction.  Still, if Miss Sayers prefers the hall to the legitimate stage, that is her business; and it is silly to carp at an old favourite who has always given great pleasure and this time a royal performance.



Sat R of Lit (Edith Hamilton, 22nd February 1936, 900w):

Miss Sayers has, for one reader at least, completely succeeded in what she evidently aimed to do, arouse an immense interest in the mad happenings that turn the staid college up side down, and yet perpetually divert the attention from the puzzle to discussions on anything and everything totally unconnected with it.  That takes very skilful writing.  Miss Sayers has done a real tour de force, and done it with ease and grace.  And yet with all her skill, the book often shows a surprising naïveté.


Books (W.C. Weber, 23rd February 1936, 1000w):

A full-fledged novel, with mystery trimmings, that excels most of her earlier books and is equalled only by The Nine Tailors.  The dyed-in-the-wool Wimseyans will enjoy it for the clever way in which the ducal detective sifts the mass of conflicting evidence that Harriet Vane has accumulated and, through the answer to a rather nice question in ethics, grasps the clew which eventually leads to the person who so upset the decorum of
Shrewsbury College in Oxford.


NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 23rd February 1936, 340w):

The story is much too long and much too heavily burdened with quotations from the classics.  Dorothy Sayers has gone highbrow, and so have Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey.  The mystery, although it is puzzling enough, might have been cleared up in jig time had Lord Peter been on the scene in the beginning…  Gaudy Night is not precisely dull, but it falls far short of achieving the sheer magic of The Nine Taylors [sic].


Time (24th February 1936, 550w):

Gaudy Night is written by one who knows and loves her Oxford—from the vantage of a woman’s college.  Her story is brightly in the Oxford manner, and for that reason may not recommend itself to Anglophobes.  But she is not above poking a little feminine fun at the solemn inanities of academic rigmarole, and her satire—especially of conversation at the dons’ high table—is kindly but rich.


Chicago Sunday Tribune (Mortimer Quick, 29th February 1936, 440w):

I predict that you will be immensely interested or immensely bored, and whichever it may be you will emerge from the book with masses of information about English university life, its students, tradition, patois, and customs.  Much of this you will find engaging, some of it distinctly tiresome; but you will have to admit, with her fellow countrymen, that Dorothy Sayers is ‘in a class by herself’.


Canadian Forum (Gilbert Norwood, March 1936, 550w):

The crime part is somewhat trivial and rather disgusting; nor does the solution convince, for it is hard to believe that the person who proves to be the offender would have developed and worked on such a theory.  The rest is a very keen and clever study of life in a women’s college…  It is definitely good, but in these days, when remarkable novels are appearing in such profusion, it is not good enough.


Nation (Mary McCarthy, 8th April 1936, 600w):

As a novel Gaudy Night has moments of atmospheric interest; but as a detective story it is a thoroughgoing, dismal flop.