(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Dorothy L. Sayers’ career as a detective novelist flourished in the era immediately after the first great goal of the women’s movement, the right to vote, was won. With such corollary rights as equal educational opportunity also in place, the essential feminist question for Sayers was to determine the proper role of women in society. Was it possible for women of talent and intellect to enter into marriage as equal partners with men? Did dedication to intellectual pursuit impede marriage, as it sacrificed domestic devotion to academic rigor? Were family and children the most important goals for a woman? Need she sacrifice her brain to achieve them? In Gaudy Night, Sayers set out to examine these important questions, structuring her story around the peculiar relationship between the aristocratic and sensitive Peter Wimsey and the intelligent but bitter Harriet Vane that had been developed in two previous novels. Unlike its predecessors, Gaudy Night concentrates almost exclusively on the thoughts and activities of Harriet. It is she who must wrestle with the question of head versus heart.

Sayers maintains that each woman must determine for herself what her proper “job” in life is to be. In a key conversation with Miss DeVine, Harriet Vane agrees that a proper job could be writing, research, or even traditional domesticity and devotion to a man. The important thing is to discover one’s own proper job. Miss DeVine argues that when one does the correct job in the proper fashion, one does not make careless mistakes. Uncompromising determination makes such mistakes impossible. Harriet can ruefully confirm this; she made horrid mistakes in her personal life, but never in her writing. Harriet’s job of writing precludes marriage unless she can find a partner willing to accept her as an equal and willing to accept her writing as a part of herself.


(The entire section is 770 words.)