Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

In Gaudy Night, Dorothy L. Sayers builds upon the basic structure of the mystery story to present a novel considering three separate but interwoven themes. At first glance, the mystery—ostensibly the reason for the novel’s existence—seems comparatively tame: Shrewsbury College is plagued by a malevolent writer of “poison pen” messages. The plot involves the struggle to unmask the Poison Pen. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Sayers has employed this petty but malicious brand of crime to examine two far more critical issues; namely, the role of the intellectual woman in modern society and the proper relationship between a man and a woman bonded in marriage.

As the story opens, Harriet Vane nervously prepares to return to Shrewsbury College after an absence of several years. She attends the Gaudy, a reunion of old classmates, to discover that her rather public sins—she was wrongly accused of poisoning her lover and tried for murder—do not preclude her acceptance as an equal by students and faculty alike. Prospects of marriage and family may be closed off because of her past, but the world of the intellect lay open. The only event to mar her return is the discovery of two lewd and disgusting messages, crude notes which have no place at the University of Oxford. Some months later, Harriet is called back to consult with the Shrewsbury faculty. The college has been plagued by a series of vulgar sheets and malicious pranks; the Poison Pen has set to work to undermine the intellectual camaraderie of the college. When it becomes...

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Gaudy Night Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Much to the surprise of Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night became a best-seller both in Great Britain and in the United States. Although she was unusually pleased with this particular work, she expected that the plot, turning on issues of women’s roles in modern society, would not appeal to many readers. By weaving such issues into a superlative work in a popular genre, she successfully placed feminist questions before a widespread and atypical reading audience.

Sayers did not consider herself a feminist, arguing that she wanted to advance not merely the cause of women, but rather of the whole of humankind. To her mind, there was no particular woman’s point of view to be promoted, but rather a need to free all people to exercise their abilities to the fullest in whatever occupation they choose. Her own field, detective fiction, was dominated by men, but this fact did not prevent her from exploring and extending her skills simply because she was a woman. To Sayers, the practice of writing understood no gender bias, nor did any other kind of occupation. To discriminate on the basis of gender was to inhibit the human race from getting on with its work.

In Gaudy Night, Sayers integrated these ideas into the character and experience of Harriet Vane. Because of her trial for murder, a significant segment of the public maintains that it is improper for Harriet to continue to write crime fiction. Yet that attitude denies Harriet her proper work merely on the basis of defined societal expectations, ideals bearing no relationship to her actual abilities. By continuing to write, Harriet upholds the duty of each human individual to undertake that which they do best, regardless of prescribed social norms.

Gaudy Night Bibliography

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Brabazon, James. Dorothy L. Sayers: A Biography. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1981. Generally accepted as the standard biography of Sayers, Brabazon’s work is certainly the most thorough and includes a generous selection of primary quotations otherwise unavailable to researchers. Authorized by the Sayers estate to write the story of her life, Brabazon deals sympathetically with Sayers’ passionate religious beliefs, but errs in casting her as desiring a too traditional female existence.

Dale, Alzina Stone, ed. Dorothy L. Sayers: The Centenary Celebration. New York: Walker, 1993. A collection of fourteen essays, including personal reminiscences of Sayers and analyses of her work, both the Wimsey novels and her later plays and translations. Especially pertinent are “Gaudy Night: Quintessential Sayers,” by Carolyn G. Hart, and “The Marriage of True Minds,” by B. J. Rahn, which details the entirety of the Wimsey-Vane romance.

Haycraft, Howard, ed. The Art of the Mystery Story. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1946. Still considered to be the best compilation of essays and commentary on crime fiction, this collection includes the observations of several noted detective authors regarding Sayers’ work, generally acknowledging her as the “Queen of Crime.” Most important, this book includes an essay by Sayers in which she details her long struggle to raise the detective story to the artistic level of the novel and to turn Peter Wimsey from a cardboard character into a human being.

Hone, Ralph. Dorothy L. Sayers: A Literary Biography. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1979. Although necessarily less complete than James Brabazon’s biography (above), Hone’s book does include a number of sources neglected in the authorized work. Moreover, Hone, an American Baptist minister, is far more knowledgeable regarding Sayers’ Christianity and more carefully attuned to her feminist ideas.

Reynolds, Barbara. Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993. Reynolds worked closely with Sayers in the last years of her life and completed her translations of Dante’s poetry. This biography provides perhaps the most intimate portrait of the artist at work. Includes an excellent selection of photographs.