The Book: Dorothy L. Sayers, GAUDY NIGHT. Avon paperback reprint, 1968 (15th printing). Poor condition; pages are badly age-browned, spine is very creased, front cover is badly creased and beginning to separate from spine, spine is cocked, book shows signs of exposure to water.
First read: 1980
Owned since: 1980
While most of Dorothy L. Sayers's Peter Wimsey mysteries are simply intellectual entertainments, bordering on the precious (Peter Wimsey is a wealthy British aristocrat who would be insufferable in real life), the novels that deal with Peter's courtship of the novelist Harriet Vane are something else. GAUDY NIGHT is Sayers's most ambitious work, and the only one of her novels I've found worth keeping and rereading.
I should buy a new copy, as this one is falling apart and looks like it might carry some contagious disease; but this is the book I remember reading at poolside at my grandmother's condominium, the summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school.
As GAUDY NIGHT begins, Harriet Vane and Peter Wimsey have reached a crisis point in their relationship. He saved her from being hanged for murder in STRONG POISON; they investigated a case together in HAVE HIS CARCASE. She believes that he wants her only as a trophy, because he saved her. He doesn't quite know why he wants her, but persists even though she keeps telling him to go away.
Among other things, Harriet is terrified that marrying Peter would mean sacrificing her own identity as an independent, educated woman, a successful novelist in her own right. GAUDY NIGHT begins with Harriet returning to her college (the fictional Somerville) at Oxford, in part to remind herself of her achievements and her youthful ambitions.
Something's very wrong at Somerville, though, and Harriet is drawn into it almost immediately. Someone is sending vicious hate mail to members of the academic community, not only insulting them but threatening them with exposure as murderers. Harriet agrees to spend a term on campus investigating, and discovers a great deal about herself, Peter, and the nature of love.
My grandmother -- who may have handed this book off to me -- said she didn't like this book, and thought it was boring. Certainly it is very talky, as Harriet and her academic colleagues spend pages and pages discussing the nature of academic integrity, women's rights, and personal responsibility.
At 14, though, this dazzled me. The idea of a life of the mind was new to me, as was the idea that someone should love you because of what you consider your faults, not just in spite of them.
I see now that Peter Wimsey was Dorothy L. Sayers's own fantasy of a perfect man, and that she gave Harriet and Peter the relationship she longed for. She never got that relationship, and it's possible that the fantasy ruined her for anything real -- but that is not something I'd have understood at 14, and even now part of me shrugs and says, "So what?"