Form and Content
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...
(The entire section is 640 words.)