Dorothy L. Sayers: Gaudy Night (1935)
This novel was apparently dubbed “the first feminist mystery novel”, and feminist it definitely is. It may not be much in the way of a crime novel – there is no murder, for instance – but it is an amazingly interesting novel about women’s right to and use of education and about love versus independence. Just like Sayer’s previous novel about Harriet Vane, Have his Carcase, it’s surprisingly modern, and I was thoroughly gripped by the very intellectual love story in the very intellectual setting of an Oxford college between the very intellectual couple, Vane and Peter Wimsey.
Also, it had a lot of nice meta-commentaries on being a writer and on writing a novel with a somewhat cold, wooden lead character. Because that is what Harriet, who is a writer of crime fiction, is doing within the novel, until she decides to give her protagonist, Wilfrid, a more plausible interior, even though it hurts a lot more to write. And Wimsey is the one who suggests it, while Sayers suddenly makes him into a lot more plausible flesh-and-blood human. Sayers utilises this parallel brilliantly several times during the novel, for instance when Wimsey, at a point in the novel where the sexual tension between the two is rather substantial, is teaching Harriet how to defend herself against being strangled. He goes about it as politely and impersonally as possible, and Sayers describes the scene in an extremely sterile and neutral style. And then:
Harriet took the cigarette, which she felt she had deserved, and sat with her hands about her knees, mentally turning the incidents of the last hour into a scene in a book (as is the novelist’s unpleasant habit) and thinking how, with a little vulgarity on both sides, it could be worked up into a nice piece of exhibitionism for the male and provocation for the female concerned. With a little manipulation it might come in for the chapter where the wart Everard was due to seduce the glamourous but neglected wife, Sheila. He could lock her to him, knee to knee and breast to breast in an inbreakable grip and smile challengingly into her flushed face: and Sheila could go all limp – at which point Everard could either rain fierce kisses on her mouth, or say, “My God! don’t tempt me!” which would come to exactly the same thing in the end. “It would suit them very well,” thought Harriet, “the cheap skates!” and passed an exploring finger under the angle of her jaw, where the pressure of a relentless thumb had left its memory. (p. 365, ‘63 edition)
A perfect example of postmodernist frame-within-a-frame prose. Beautiful.
There’s loads of good asides about being a writer, for instance when she receives a letter from Italy: “Imbecile, writing very bad English, was eager to translate Miss Vane’s works into Italian. Could Miss Vane inform the writer of what books she had composed? Translators were all like that – no English, no sense, no backing.” (p. 204, ‘63 edition) I’m not quite sure I agree with the generalization, though.
The sequel to the novel, which was also Sayers’ last full-length novel about Wimsey, is on its way to me by post. I’ve only ever read the Danish translation, so it’ll be interesting to read the original.