Study Guide

Gaudy Night

by Dorothy L. Sayers

Gaudy Night Summary

Summary (Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Ten years after she is graduated from Shrewsbury College, in Oxford, Harriet Vane accepts the invitation of a classmate, Mary Stokes Attwood, to return for an annual celebration, the “Gaudy.” While at the college, she finds a scrap of paper blowing around the quadrangle; on it, she finds a crudely drawn picture of a naked woman stabbing a figure in academic dress. Later, on her way back to London, a message flutters from her gown: “YOU DIRTY MURDERESS. AREN’T YOU ASHAMED TO SHOW YOUR FACE?” The words have been formed with letters cut from newspaper headlines.

Harriet thinks no more of the picture and assumes that since she was accused of murdering her lover, Philip Boyles (as recounted in Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison, 1930), the message is a personal attack. Several months later, however, Dean Letitia Martin asks Harriet to return to Shrewsbury, because many similar notes have been appearing on campus. In addition to these hateful letters, vandalism has become a problem. The manuscript of Miss Lydgate’s study of English prosody has been mutilated, gowns have been burned in the quadrangle, and library books have been torn.

Reluctantly, Harriet accepts the task of trying to find the person who is responsible for these bizarre occurrences. Despite her careful records of each episode and her attempts to catch or at least discourage the vandal, she cannot identify or apprehend the perpetrator. Members of the faculty begin to...

(The entire section is 590 words.)

Gaudy Night Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Sayers set this novel in Shrewsbury, a women’s college. Sayers uses this novel to explore women’s place and rights in the brave new postwar world. She refutes some of the biases attributed to Tertullian, Saint Thomas Aquinas, and other early philosophers that are so embedded in language as to be taken as fact. These assumptions still influence women’s lives and the laws and social issues that affect them.

Still suffering from the repercussions of the trial and its attendant publicity, Vane decides to attend her college reunion, which has been named a Gaudy Night. Just as she begins to enjoy herself, she finds a particularly vicious note in her academic robe. After the gala weekend is over, some unpleasant incidents that began at Shrewsbury continue and start to escalate. Vane is asked to investigate.

Vane takes up residence at Shrewsbury and, under the cover of scholarly research, begins her inquiries. Inevitably she examines her own wants, needs, and motives. She must, for example, decide why she calls Lord Peter Wimsey to help her. As Wimsey helps her find the culprit, he helps her come to the conclusion that men and women can love as equals. Vane decides that marriage need not be conducted along the old traditional lines. She discovers that women can retain their identities and their interests. Wimsey offers what he says will be his final marriage proposal, in impeccable Latin. Vane accepts him in equally correct Latin syntax.

By combining romance with mystery, Sayers introduced a subtle variation into the genre. This variation has been taken up by modern authors, and books in this new genre regularly appear on the best-seller lists.