An excess of feelings in this weekend’s column.
There’s an episode towards the end of Antonia Forest’s The Ready-Made Family where her protagonist, the teenaged Nicola Marlow, travels alone to Oxford. She has never been to the city, but she has read of it; her first experiences of Oxford are filtered through the lens of one who has read Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey books; particularly Gaudy Night, which is set entirely in Oxford. Nicola is not the only one to love those books—a mention of “Wimsey of Balliol” soon after sparks a friendship between her and her new brother-in-law.
But Gaudy Night is one of those books that can feel like admission to some sort of special club, because so many people love it so much. There’s no reason to think of it as obscure—if its status as a mystery novel hinders its being considered a true Classic it still shows up regularly on “best detective story of all time” type lists. Antonia Forest can assume her readers know it; so can Connie Willis who alludes to it in To Say Nothing Of The Dog. It’s not obscurity that leads readers to want to reach out to other people who have loved it with that “you too?”; it must be something else.
Gaudy Night sees Harriet Vane return to Oxford, where she spent her student years, to investigate a crime under the pretext of doing some research on Sheridan Le Fanu. Members of the fictional Shrewsbury College are receiving cruel anonymous letters, and it seems likely that the perpetrator is a member of the Senior Common Room.
This isn’t really a Peter Wimsey book; it’s a Harriet Vane book, and perhaps part of the reason people feel so strongly for it is that it is such a personal, interior work. A return to her old college also means a revisiting of her own past. A large part of the book is the working out of her feelings about Wimsey, and the possibilities that that relationship holds. And while their romance exists in very specific circumstances (in an earlier book he saved her from being convicted for the murder of her former lover) it’s also strongly tied up in the gender politics of its own time—what forms will relationships take in a world where women as well as men are educated, and acknowledged to be as capable of intellectual achievement, as well as of vocations to which they can be completely dedicated? This is also where the “romance” plot (if you can call it that) intersects with the crime plot. There may be no brutal murders, but the ramifications of the college coming into disrepute are far wider than the individual careers of its academics; this is all part of a struggle for women’s education, a struggle in which, historically, Sayers herself was deeply involved. The Author’s Note at the beginning of the book contains a barbed “apology” to Oxford as a whole for perhaps including more women than the regulations of the time permitted, and even the college’s name, Shrewsbury, has a gendered (Shakespeare, but with less “taming”?) feel to it. As a result the whole thing becomes a meditation on gender roles in a changing world; one that is both intensely political and deeply personal. Women often still struggle, nearly eighty years later, to have our intellectual and academic pursuits prioritised to the same extent. If Gaudy Night feels personal to us it’s because its subject still is.
And so it’s important that Peter and Harriet both have Masters degrees, it’s important that at one point he accidentally puts on her scholar’s robes and they fit him (as his would fit her); it’s important that his final proposal to her is in Latin, explicitly refers to her education and comes with a symbolic offering of all of Oxford and what it means to both of them. A partnership of equals, an implicit promise that she should never subsume herself in him, an unending right to a life of the mind. It’s far more touching than a single phrase in a dead language has any right to be.