Leave Us the Counterpoint
May 20, 2015 3:45 AM   Subscribe

"I like my music polyphonic. If you think I meant anything else, you know what I meant." So Lord Peter Wimsey tells Harriet Vane in Dorothy L Sayers's classic novel, Gaudy Night, this year celebrating its 80th birthday. But as Mo Moulton writes in her essay with personal interruptions on The Toast, "Of course he did mean something else, and not only Harriet but the reader understands exactly what: that his ideal relationship, like his ideal music, is produced by the combination of equals rather than the hierarchy of melody and harmony, or man and wife."

Jennifer Ouellette expands on the theme of polyphonic music and its aptness as a metaphor for the relationship between Harriet and Peter in Leave Us the Counterpoint.

For anyone interested in delving into the complex literary, cultural and mythological references in Gaudy Night, (not to mention translations of pesky Latin phrases) I humbly suggest Bill Peschel's annotations.
posted by Athanassiel (17 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
I love Gaudy Night. What a lovely collection of things to chew on!
posted by hydropsyche at 3:59 AM on May 20, 2015 [4 favorites]

Thank you for posting this.

I can measure my personal emotional growth by the difference between my first reaction to Gaudy Night, when I was a teenager, and my reaction to reading it a second time in my late twenties. It is such a rare, almost unclassifiable novel. I find it a constant delight.
posted by andraste at 4:12 AM on May 20, 2015 [4 favorites]

Another big fan here, obviously :) thanks for these, they're great links.
posted by harriet vane at 4:40 AM on May 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh wow, thank you for this! Gaudy Night is my favourite book of all time, and it means so very much to me. Can't wait to dig into these links - I'm convinced that it's the great forgotten feminist novel of the 20th century.
posted by kalimac at 4:51 AM on May 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

These are lovely, thank you for posting. (I'm very grateful to the mefite who recommended Gaudy Night in a book AskMe some time last year too - reading it (and the ensuing epic Dorothy L. Sayers readathon) was one of the highlights of my year.)
posted by Otto the Magnificent at 5:06 AM on May 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

> that his ideal relationship, like his ideal music, is produced by the combination of equals
> rather than the hierarchy of melody and harmony, or man and wife

Placetne, Magistra?


So does this marriage end up a hierarchy of melody and harmony, or a two-part invention?
posted by jfuller at 5:29 AM on May 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

Reminds me of Shakespeare's Sonnet #8:
Mark how one string, sweet husband to another,
Strikes each in each by mutual ordering,
Resembling sire and child and happy mother
Who all in one, one pleasing note do sing:
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:18 AM on May 20, 2015 [3 favorites]

BBC Radio 4's Great Lives had an episode on Dorothy L Sayers a while ago. Podcast here.
posted by NailsTheCat at 8:14 AM on May 20, 2015 [3 favorites]

Excellent piece of writing, and I'm now prompted to reread Gaudy Night with all of this in mind.
posted by scratch at 8:23 AM on May 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

What a lovely essay. I feel like I should bookmark it for rereading if I'm ever thinking seriously about getting married.
posted by ostro at 9:19 AM on May 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

I am occasionally desired by congenital imbeciles and the editors of magazines to say something about the writing of detective fiction “from the woman’s point of view.” To such demands, one can only say “Go away and don’t be silly. You might as well ask what is the female angle on an equilateral triangle.”

A man once asked me ... how I managed in my books to write such natural conversation between men when they were by themselves. Was I, by any chance, a member of a large, mixed family with a lot of male friends? I replied that, on the contrary, I was an only child and had practically never seen or spoken to any men of my own age till I was about twenty-five. "Well," said the man, "I shouldn't have expected a woman (meaning me) to have been able to make it so convincing." I replied that I had coped with this difficult problem by making my men talk, as far as possible, like ordinary human beings. This aspect of the matter seemed to surprise the other speaker; he said no more, but took it away to chew it over. One of these days it may quite likely occur to him that women, as well as men, when left to themselves, talk very much like human beings also.
Those are a few quotes from "Are Women Human" and “The Human-Not-Quite-Human,” a pair of fantastic feminist essays (usually collected together) by Sayers. They aren't available online but let me drop a few more quotes to encourage you to track them down.
There has never been any question but that the women of the poor should toil alongside their men. No angry, and no compassionate, voice has been raised to say that women should not break their backs with harvest work, or soil their hands with blacking grates and peeling potatoes. The objection is only to work that is pleasant, exciting or profitable—the work that any human being might think it worth while to do.
(She also talks about how factories took craft work previously done by women and men at home and created a system where women are excluded and men are alienated, removing the satisfaction of any creativity or ownership in the products they make.)
The period from which we are emerging was like no other: a period when empty head and idle hands were qualities for which a man prized his woman and despised her. When, by an odd, sadistic twist of morality, sexual intercourse was deemed to be a marital right to be religiously enforced upon a meek reluctance—as though the insatiable appetite of wives were not one of the oldest jokes in the world, older that mothers-in law, and far more venerable than kippers. When to think about sex was considered indelicate in a woman, and to think about anything else unfeminine. When to “manage” a husband by lying and the exploitation of sex was held to be honesty and virtue.
And she talks about what she likes about Jesus:
A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronised; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as "The women, God help us!" or "The ladies, God bless them!"; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unself-conscious. There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything "funny" about woman's nature.
posted by straight at 9:24 AM on May 20, 2015 [15 favorites]

Gaudy Night is one of those books that just seems to get richer and more meaningful the older I get, and I marvel too at how timeless that dilemma of brain vs heart seems to be, as well as the dilemma of wanting connection whilst not wanting to sacrifice independence (or perhaps those are just variations on a theme). These essays are both similarly rich - I've read both multiple times, and not just to make sure I really wanted to post them. I'm glad others are enjoying and appreciating them too.
posted by Athanassiel at 7:07 PM on May 20, 2015 [4 favorites]

ostro, when I realised I really wanted to spend my life with the fella who is now my husband, I made him read Gaudy Night. He loved it. Superstitious of me, maybe, but it was a relief to know that he could see the tensions and beauties of a partnership of equals, how negotiation could be more authentic than just falling into stereotypes.
posted by harriet vane at 5:19 AM on May 21, 2015 [3 favorites]

Ugh, posting in this thread has reminded me how much I regret not putting capitals in my username. As if Ms Vane would neglect a detail like that!
posted by harriet vane at 5:21 AM on May 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

Thanks for linking to my annotations. I loved hanging out here back in the day before I retired to full-time writing, so it was like hearing from an old friend.
posted by Bill Peschel at 5:18 PM on May 21, 2015 [5 favorites]

Wow, what a great article. And the comments on it are excellent, too — the discussion of the scene in the punt under the willows sent a thrill up my spine.

I started clicking on links from things (of course) and found an excellent article which hides, under the undramatic title Translations of Latin in Dorothy Sayers' Gaudy Night a number of fascinating points, including (for those of us who don't speak Latin), why, in "Placetne, magistra?", The -ne at the end of Peter's question is the sweet part, and the most significant part, and the part that just cannot be translated.

Darnit, my to-be-read pile is already teeteringly out of control — I don't have time to reread these books right now!
posted by Lexica at 1:47 PM on May 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

Nice one, Lexica! That num to -ne makes so much more sense now! I was always convinced that it had to be thrillingly romantic and it was just my ignorance of Latin that made it blunt, I am glad that I was right (if no less ignorant).
posted by Athanassiel at 10:04 PM on May 26, 2015

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