My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I picked up Gaudy Night as one of the first books brought to my attention by Jo Walton’s What Makes This Book So Great. (Book list is also here.) My only other brush with Sayers was her translations of Dante’s Divine Comedy, which were thoroughly annotated and full of unique personality. (Her translation of Purgatory opens with an introduction that states she will explain the concept of Purgatory beforehand to us, particularly the ignorant Protestants, so we can now read the poem properly.)
If that introduction is a hint of Sayers’ personality, Gaudy Night is her personal vision of academia & its promises. Although the book is part of the author’s Lord Peter Wimsey series, the story focuses on Harriet Vane, the object of Wimsey’s affection, & her struggles to figure out the next phase of her life. At the age of 32, she has already experienced love, tragedy, and minor fame. But she is torn between Lord Peter’s professions of love and her own drive to find satisfying work. Harriet returns to her college for an alumni celebration, called Gaudy Night, and stumbles upon a mysterious “Poison-Pen” and a vendetta that will cause Harriet to question not only her purposes but the sanctity of the institution that has molded her intellect.
First and foremost, fellow readers, Gaudy Night is long, complex, and at times, very very British. There are long detailed arguments over what a women’s place and priorities should be, about fidelity in academic work, about what one’s etiquette should be while punting in a river full of other watercrafts. This isn’t a bad thing; I simply mention it in case someone considering this book has no patience for this sort of thing. (This perceived stuffiness gets kind of fun, though, if you have a dirty mind. Lord Peter, I’m looking at you & that dog collar.) Secondly, despite being written in the 30s, there are plenty of arguments and problems brought up that still sting to read about since society as a whole are still struggling with them. Like what, you ask? Like anonymously bullying someone until they attempt to commit suicide. Like pushing someone else into a life they aren’t suited for because it fits a personal crusade. Like creating an environment that causes women to attack one another and their works instead of helping one another.
The reveal of the Poison-Pen’s motives behind her attacks on the college & its works are sad & sobering, and Sayers takes no joy in revealing her character’s pain. Instead, she leaves readers with a bittersweet vision of academia and reason as a bright shrine of the mind’s abilities, where two people can meet as equals. I say bittersweet for myself, since viewing her novel through a postmodern lens makes it hard to believe the dream could come true.