From the Library: Our Book Club Reads (and Loves) Gaudy Night

On Tuesday night, the Bitch Book Club got together to discuss Gaudy Night, a mystery novel by Dorothy Sayers that was first published in 1935. While snacking on cinnamon rolls and apple rosemary scones donated by Dovetail Bakery, we talked about this smart and witty book that has gained a reputation as the first feminist novel of its genre.

Gaudy Night is the twelfth novel in a popular crime series that Dorothy Sayers wrote from 1923 to 1937. These novels followed Lord Peter Wimsey, a gentlemanly British detective that solved mysteries the world over. But this book is different from the rest in the series, as Wimsey is moved to the back burner in order to make way for Harriet Vane's story. Harriet is an English woman who has gained notoriety as a crime novelist since graduating from Oxford's women's college (she also happens to receive marriage proposals from Peter Wimsey on a regular basis).

In this story, Harriet returns to her alma mater for a Gaudy dinner, becomes reacquainted with old teachers and peers, and then finds a sadistic scribble on a piece of paper in the quad. Before returning home, Harriet finds a second offensive piece of paper in the sleeve of her gown. On the piece of paper are letters cut from a newspaper that read: "YOU DIRTY MURDERESS. AREN'T YOU AFRAID TO SHOW YOUR FACE?" Harriet dismisses the message; she's received notes like this in past books because of her live-in relationship with a man she wasn't married to, and as a response to false charges of murder that had been dealt to her. She goes home and some time goes by before she receives a letter from the warden of the college asking for help. The "poison-pen" that tucked the note into Harriet's gown had increased her rate of vandalism. An outbreak of vicious letters, torn-up manuscripts, and broken windows has ensued, and the college administration decides that in order to uphold their reputation they must refrain from getting the police involved. So Harriet moves to Shrewsbury College and works to turn her crime-writing skills into crime-solving skills.

Our book club was pretty impressed with this story. We were excited to find a crime novel written in 1935 whose main detective, victims, and suspects were all women. Sayers used this novel to earnestly explore the role of women in British society. Her characters debate often over whether one has to choose between being an intellectual and being married, between having children and devoting oneself to the books. She paints thoughtful portrayals of women who have lost themselves in their marriages, in addition to creating characters like Phoebe Tucker, a college friend of Harriet's whose marriage has been successful due to her ability to maintain and share her hobbies with her husband. Throughout the book, Harriet struggles with her own identity as a single woman. She looks to old friends and teachers to determine whether she might be able to maintain her autonomy and career as a writer if she were to get married. While she repeatedly turns down Peter's proposals of marriage, she struggles with her feelings for him and with her desire to be truly recognized as his equal.

Our book club found that the villain in this story is motivated by a desire to destroy female academics, which raises questions about the level of respect that was afforded to academic women in the '30s. The women who run and attend the college are already struggling with sexist criticism from male academics, which makes the vandalism on campus that much more frustrating. It definitely humiliates the women at the college, and it calls attention from outsiders who can't find themselves bothered to take women in academia seriously:

One day in the Michaelmas Term there was a paragraph in one of the more foolish London dailies about an "Undergraduettes' Rag," informing the world that somebody had made a bonfire of gowns in Shrewsbury Quad and that the "Lady Head" was said to be taking disciplinary measures. Women, of course, were always news. Harriet wrote a tart letter to the paper, pointing out that either "undergraduate" or "woman student" would be seemlier English than "undergraduette," and that the correct method of describing Dr. Baring was "the Warden." The only result of this was to provoke a correspondence headed "Lady Undergrads," and a reference to "sweet girl-graduates." She informed Wimsey - who happened to be the nearest male person handy for scarifying - that this kind of vulgarity was typical of the average man's attitude to women's intellectual interests.

Harriet Vane is a detective with an eye for sexism! I just love that she called this newspaper out for their misogynist remarks, and I couldn't help but think that Harriet Vane would do a wonderful job providing commentary on our Douchebag Decree each week.

Have you read Gaudy Night? Let's keep our book club discussion going on the blog! Let us know who your favorite character was, which marriage-critiquing scene you were most fond of, or what you thought about the class issues brought up in the book. If you've yet to read the book, well, what are you waiting for? We'll be excited to hear what you think of it when you finish.

Gaudy Night was the first of three mystery novels that we'll be reading as part of our Bitch Book Clubs. On January 18th we'll be discussing Everything You Have Is Mine, a mystery novel with a lesbian detective written by Sandra Scoppettone in 1992. And on February 15th we'll be talking about To The Power of Three, a 2005 mystery novel about three teenage girls written by the fantastic Laura Lippman.

Are you in Portland and interested in joining in on the book club fun? Stop by the library to pick up a copy of the upcoming books. And if you can't be at the book club in person but you still want to discuss the book, look out for blog posts covering each of our book club picks. While we won't be able to offer those of you who aren't in Portland a scone or a glass of wine, we'll make sure that these virtual book clubs are fun for everyone!

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Comments

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Harriet Vane and Peter Wimsey

LOVE LOVE LOVE these books.
I must confess to re-reading the entire Wimsey-Vane series every 18 months or so. I also bought the audiobooks (read by Ian Carmichael, not the radio theater versions) and listen to them regularly. Sayers works magic with language and character development and even though I am long past wondering "whodunit", I am always rewarded with something wonderful when opening (or listening to) any of the Wimsey novels or short stories.
As Vane and Wimsey work towards their partnership, neither one is given short shrift or has their needs ignored by Sayers; as Vane deals with the poor decisions she has made in her past, Wimsey does the same and when they stand on equal footing, it is welcomed by both.
Firmly rooted in inter-war Britain as they are, the books never feel dated or old-fashioned. The closest contemporary series I read is Laurie King's Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series that begins with The Beekeeper's Apprentice.

I adore these books, and both

I adore these books, and both Vane and Wimsey. This book has been responsible for a great deal of my world view - the part where Harriet's talking to Miss De Vine about how you don't make fundamental mistakes with people, or things, that you really care about. I hold myself to it, and the people I have friendships or relationships with.
I was introduced to them by my sister in my early teens and now in my 30s I know them all so well I could probably read them by heart. They are indeed always rewarding, however many times you read them.

Gaudy Night is on my

Gaudy Night is on my short-list of favorites. My mom recommended it to me probably ten years ago, as one of her all time favorites, and I resisted; at sixteen it was beneath my dignity to listen to my mother's book recs. Also she insisted that I couldn't read it until I'd read some other Peter Wimseys first, and that just seemed like a lot of work.

I finally read it three years ago, and I probably reread it around once or twice a year. It is the kind of male/female partnership I just love, in all my entertainment; I'm such a sucker for the Wimsey/Vane dynamic that I will stomach some pretty crappy plotlines if there is a hint of it in other characters. (As a side note, I know many great writers who count Sayers among their favorites, among them Laurie King, the author of the Mary Russell books a commenter mentioned above. Peter actually makes a very brief cameo in that series, and King's other series features a modern detective who is written as a fan of Sayers's work.)

All of which distracts from my main point, which is that it's gorgeous, feminist, intelligent, and interesting; things that people don't associate with genre novels, or novels written by women, or novels from earlier eras. Gaudy Night is the perfect counter-example; the book that operates on several levels and excels at them all.