a marriage of two independent and equally irritable intelligences
November 14, 2019 8:52 AM   Subscribe

An Overlooked Novel from 1935 by the Godmother of Feminist Detective Fiction "Many histories of feminist detective fiction find foremothers for today’s anti-heroines in the hardboiled sleuths of the nineteen-seventies and eighties—in P. D. James’s Cordelia Gray, for example, and Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski. But Harriet Vane is an earlier, often overlooked member of the same lineage."
posted by betweenthebars (41 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
 
Gaudy Night isn’t overlooked, I made my book club read it last year! I think it’s my favorite book.
I guess I should read the article.
posted by bq at 9:11 AM on November 14, 2019 [17 favorites]


It shows up on a fair number of Books You Should Read lists, and it is well worth reading. I loved the Wimsey series, though I'll bet the class issues would jump out at me on re-read.
posted by theora55 at 9:15 AM on November 14, 2019


Read it, bq! I had the same reaction -- Sayers is hardly obscure. But the article is a good review of what sounds like an excellent biography of Sayers. One of my favorite things about Gaudy Night is its clear defense of women's right to a life of the mind.
posted by jrochest at 9:20 AM on November 14, 2019 [10 favorites]


I'm really looking forward to rereading/first reading the Sayers books and then Mutual Admiration Society, but "Gaudy Night is overlooked" is some flaming hot take.
posted by jeather at 9:22 AM on November 14, 2019 [13 favorites]


Atherton (Mac) Fleming, a journalist and photographer, seems to have viewed his wife’s success with ambivalence—even though, or especially because, her earnings supported him.

Haha, what a dingaling. Imagine being married to someone who is so great at writing they can support your dumpy ass off the strength of their created literature and feeling anything less than exuberant enthusiasm. That's a Big Fucking Deal, it is extremely rare that any person be able to support themselves, let alone someone else just because people love buying their art. That's peak life under capitalism imo.

Gaudy Night sounds interesting, adding it to my wishlist. I haven't seen or read Gone Girl, but this essay paints them in a different light for me and I'm curious to check it out.
posted by GoblinHoney at 9:23 AM on November 14, 2019 [3 favorites]


Yes, I was only skimming the article (I'll read it later) trying to find what this obscure novel is. Gaudy Night?!? We have users here on this very website named after characters from it.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:24 AM on November 14, 2019 [16 favorites]


Gaudy Night is excellent, but I no longer recommend Dorothy L. Sayers as a first choice because there is a strain of intense antisemitism through her work. It's a plot point in the first Wimsey novel and like a B-plot with a minor character in several novels. Just a heads up that it will come out of nowhere and be played for laughs. The class stuff is also very interesting and sometimes almost unintelligible without the background knowledge of interwar England and how it all works, but it's worth looking into.

Other than that, her stuff is incredible. You get the best of it with the Harriet-centered novels. Gaudy Night is the better book, but Murder Must Advertise is my favorite. If you like these, you'll also like the works of Josephine Tey.
posted by blnkfrnk at 9:30 AM on November 14, 2019 [10 favorites]


If you like these, you'll also like the works of Josephine Tey.

I must disagree as Tey takes the unfortunate bigotry of the Golden Age and turns it up to 11 against anyone who doesn’t fit her predetermined idea of a Good Person. Worse, she excuses horrible things done by characters who do fit her idea (having good table manners and not being A Poor comprising most of it.)
posted by Hypatia at 10:10 AM on November 14, 2019 [9 favorites]


Yeah, what Hypatia said. Tey is an elegant and intelligent writer, but she's also uberconservative, and the villains in her books are always uppity poor people.
posted by jrochest at 10:16 AM on November 14, 2019 [5 favorites]


But if you like a Golden-age vibe to your detective fiction, do try Sarah Caudwell -- Thus Was Adonis Murdered is the first of four, and they're all good. No more are forthcoming, alas, because Caudwell died after publishing the fourth book.

Also a lovely example of a gender-ambigious narrator.
posted by jrochest at 10:20 AM on November 14, 2019 [14 favorites]


I’ve got to read this biography. And I don’t think it’s fair to condemn DS’s work as anti-Semitic. Her Jewish characters are generally portrayed positively and one of Wimsy’s close friends ends up married to one. It’s not a modern treatment of Jewish identity in the UK, but it’s worlds beyond, say, Agatha Christie. However, I respect that other people may have different opinions.
posted by bq at 10:36 AM on November 14, 2019 [9 favorites]


I reread Gaudy Night every couple of years, along with Pride and Prejudice, and for not dissimilar reasons.
posted by Peach at 12:24 PM on November 14, 2019 [5 favorites]


I think Gaudy Night is a magnificent failure. By that I mean that it's a beautiful love letter to Oxford and women's scholarship, and fascinating except whenever it has to go and be a mystery novel. It was the first Sayers I read, and so I found the sudden arrival of Peter Wimsey rather disturbing... who was this weird rich dude who was taking over Harriet's book?
posted by zompist at 2:10 PM on November 14, 2019 [5 favorites]


But if you like a Golden-age vibe to your detective fiction, do try Sarah Caudwell -- Thus Was Adonis Murdered is the first of four, and they're all good.

I tried that first one (largely because of the gender-ambiguous narrator) and I thought it was the most boring book I had ever read. Laying a mystery among chartered accountants just didn't do it for me.
posted by dlugoczaj at 2:29 PM on November 14, 2019


Gaudy Night ranks number 4 on the Crime Writers Association's top novel list
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 2:41 PM on November 14, 2019


I'm so confused by people who start with Gaudy Night - I think both of the people making the new As My Wimsey Takes Me podcast started there. I think I started with Murder Must Advertise, and then backed up and read the rest of the books. (by the way, it's a great podcast.)

It's definitely not a lost novel though, or maybe my circle of people just all love it.

I adore Sayers and I know there are issues with whether or not she was an anti-Semite (I think she was not exactly, but was thoughtless about a lot of tropes that were floating around in her sphere, and she was even less aware of class stuff.) I honestly was a little shocked by Ngaio Marsh, who has lovely characterization and settings and mysteries and then will toss off a line that's truly shocking and keep moving.
posted by PussKillian at 3:05 PM on November 14, 2019 [2 favorites]


Oh gosh, yeah, I would not start with Gaudy Night. I think I read them in order the first time, and it really helps to work up to Harriet's whole journey through her quadrilogy, and especially through Gaudy Night. It puts placetne magistra? in such context. Also, as much as I love Harriet the best, Peter is an awfully wonderful character in his own right. (I'm really past due re-reading The Nine Tailors.)

(Speaking of Sayers and how she handles Jewish people, note that there is a really shocking reference to Hitler in GN, with one -- minor -- character kind of approving of fascism in general? It is extremely 1935. My take on Sayers' anti-Semitism is the same as PussKillian's; it's not exactly a great thing about her, and I wouldn't blame anyone who couldn't deal. I tend to recommend her books with an asterisk for that.)

Gaudy Night is my favorite book in the world, and as I get older I appreciate Harriet's anger and prickliness and desire for everything so much more. I re-read it every year, and even sprang for a first edition when I found one in a Hay-on-Wye bookshop a few years ago. (/humblebrag. Also it's damaged and has no dustjacket, so it wasn't very much tbh.) I love the world of Oxford she moves into, and I love all of the women who we spend time with. I'm insanely excited to read Moulton's book. I hope this means that Gaudy Night, and Sayers, are a bit less slept on -- I used to call it the 20th century's great forgotten feminist novel, but perhaps it's really not very forgotten.

Tey is an elegant and intelligent writer, but she's also uberconservative, and the villains in her books are always uppity poor people.
Ahh, that explains a particularly Hot Take in The Daughter of Time that I think had me pretty well throwing the book at the wall.
posted by kalimac at 4:09 PM on November 14, 2019 [7 favorites]


This seems to be a good time to mention that when I first read the highly-recommended ‘Daughter of Time’ I thought it was going to be about time travel so naturally I hated it.
posted by bq at 4:19 PM on November 14, 2019 [2 favorites]


About Josephine Tey, I feel like I've linked both of these articles here before:

The Detective Novel That Convinced a Generation Richard III wasn't Evil

Sarah Waters on The Franchise Affair

There is so much I love about Tey, but even setting the snobbery and classism aside, Face Detecting is the worst of the Golden Age detecting methods. In fact, it's the worst fictional crime solving method until Fred Vargas shows up in the 1990s with a detective who doesn't do any crime solving at all. Because it is the worst I love it a lot and Inspector Grant angsting about eyebrows in The Singing Sands is one of my favourite things ever.

Gaudy Night isn't overlooked as a mystery novel, so I charitably assumed the writer meant it hasn't really made it into the feminist canon. How well does it work on its own with no knowledge of the series? Do readers need to start with Strong Poison? Murder Must Advertise is the best (imho), but I feel like it's not a great place to start. You kind of need to work up to "being too good at cricket" as a character flaw.
posted by betweenthebars at 5:48 PM on November 14, 2019 [1 favorite]


> I think I started with Murder Must Advertise, and then backed up and read the rest of the books.

You started with Murder Must Advertise and thought "this is great, I have to read more"? I love the bits in the advertising office but all the Bright Young Thing scenes are so terribly sick-making. But I agree that Gaudy Night is not a good place to start; the romance won't make any sense.

I think I started with Strange Poison, which is where my username comes from, or else with one of the collections of short stories.
posted by The corpse in the library at 5:49 PM on November 14, 2019 [2 favorites]


"Eliot’s friend and collaborator, Ezra Pound, improbably wrote a fan letter to Dorothy L Sayers after enjoying the Lord Peter Wimsey mystery The Nine Tailors.
Operating as a sort of archaeologist, Edwards is able, unlike other diggers of the past, to give his finds a second life."
posted by clavdivs at 6:39 PM on November 14, 2019 [1 favorite]


I read them in order but a long time ago. I honestly didn't love the mystery of most her works. OTOH the essay makes me want to reread the Harriet Vane books.

And say what you want about anti-Semitism in Sayers but it's rounding error on the stuff in Chesterton's works.

The Detective Novel That Convinced a Generation Richard III wasn't Evil

Daughter of Time really annoyed me for being superficially convincing while out there enough to not be worth historical debate, so it took me a while to sort out how to interpret.

My favorite comment from a historian on the controversy was that the set up was believing someone who ruled pretty well and justly couldn't have also murdered his rivals. It's an obviously false claim. Believing "character" necessarily exists in quite that way is the bigger failure than believing you can see it in a portrait.
posted by mark k at 6:47 PM on November 14, 2019 [1 favorite]


Strong Poison is really good, and it's the first Harriet-and-Peter book; Wimsey finds Vane on trial for the poisoning of her lover, and 1) falls utterly and completely in love and 2) discovers that she's not really all that interested. The feminist subtext is strong -- the assumptions of the judge and jury about Vane, who lived with the victim without being married to him, threaten to get her hanged without evidence.

I find Murder Must Advertise weird as hell -- although like Corpse in the Library, I like the advertising scenes. Sayers was working as a copywriter at the time, so it's stuff she knew, but she obviously knew nothing about the drug trade among the Bright Young Things, and it shows.

I started with Whose Body, which is a nice satisfying locked room puzzle. And besides Gaudy Night, I think my favorite is Have His Carcase. That, or Clouds of Witness, which turns on an untranslated French letter. Nine Tailors is a magnificent ode to the Fens, and it has the best writing of the bunch, but I find it rather dull.
posted by jrochest at 7:05 PM on November 14, 2019 [4 favorites]


Also, it's lawyers, not accountants, dlugoczaj!

Accountancy is dull. Law is *powerfully* dull.
posted by jrochest at 7:10 PM on November 14, 2019


None of my fellow book club members had read any of the other books and they got a lot out of it.
posted by bq at 7:36 PM on November 14, 2019


Read them in order. You really need to understand who Peter is and who Harriet is to understand why their love is a Big Deal. This way when you get to Gaudy Night and Busman’s Holiday it’s a payoff worth the road.
posted by corb at 7:40 PM on November 14, 2019 [5 favorites]


Had I read Gaudy Night alone it might have been even better as a problem novel, though. “Immovable, implacable” Miss de Vine and singleminded Miss Lydgate and the Chilperic, all together.
posted by clew at 8:50 PM on November 14, 2019


I read Gaudy Night because I loved Tam Lin so much that I asked Pamela Dean where she got her inspiration. What I learned from this exercise is that writers don't really understand why other people like their books. I got more of what I was looking for by reading a giddy sophomore English major's LiveJournal.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 11:01 PM on November 14, 2019


Dorothy Sayers in general and Gaudy Night in particular I was pointed to by the powerful rec.arts.sf.fandom clique (people like Jo Walton and the Nielsen Haydens and such) back in the day.

Tam Lin was another one and the connection is obvious to me: love lettres to being in a small university with like minded, smart people, for people who are new to all this.

Both gave me an enormous sense of nostalgia for the sort of university life I never had.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:05 AM on November 15, 2019 [5 favorites]


The thing about Harriet Vane of course is that she is Dorothy Sayer's own idealised self insert, having fallen in love with her own creation. Basically everything from Strong Poison onwards is Lord Peter fanfic.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:06 AM on November 15, 2019


she is Dorothy Sayer's own idealised self insert

...commonly known among male authors, of course, as "the protagonist."
posted by praemunire at 1:16 AM on November 15, 2019 [17 favorites]


I no longer recommend Dorothy L. Sayers as a first choice because there is a strain of intense antisemitism through her work

On Sayers and antisemitism, I'd recommend Amy E. Schwartz's essay, 'The Curious Case of Dorothy L. Sayers and the Jew who Wasn't There:
Just how did the celebrated detective novelist actually feel about her Jewish characters—and why, in these books, can’t she seem to shut up about them? Why are there so many? Something is going on, something more complicated and personal than casual anti-Semitism and a good deal more interesting.
Schwartz argues that Sayers's conflicted feelings about the Jewish characters in her novels have a lot to do with her own unhappy love affair with the Jewish novelist John Cournos.
posted by verstegan at 1:16 AM on November 15, 2019 [6 favorites]


Relevant podcast from Shedunnit: Episode 25 discusses Moulton's book and beyond. Great podcast for anyone interested in golden age crime fiction by women.
posted by sedimentary_deer at 2:22 AM on November 15, 2019 [1 favorite]


but she obviously knew nothing about the drug trade among the Bright Young Things, and it shows.

Oh God I know and I love it! I shamelessly love Murder Must Advertise, every part of it, even the stupid BYT's.

(I actually read Vile Bodies, novel that the film Bright Young Things is based on, and it was the most exhausting thing I've got through in a long time. Every character makes the entire cast of characters in The Great Gatsby look selfless, interesting, and deep by comparison. And that's on purpose.)
posted by kalimac at 7:30 AM on November 15, 2019 [5 favorites]


Speaking of BYTs, KJ Charles has been doing research for her next book.
> I'm using the Bright Young Things of the 1920s as setting for my next MS. This is Day 1 of reading/planning and I am already ready to invent time travel just so I can go back and kill the next person who talks about "drinkie-poos".

> I was planning to do a murder mystery but one corpse may not be enough. I might have to make it a serial killer.
Or an epidemic.
Or an apocalypse.

> Reader: Does it have a HEA?
Me: Yes, everyone dies horribly.
Reader: That isn't--
Me: *silently holds up picture of Bright Young People in fancy dress as babies sucking on dummies or wearing romper suits*
Reader: --Okay, cool.
posted by Lexica at 7:48 AM on November 15, 2019 [8 favorites]


The thing about Harriet Vane of course is that she is Dorothy Sayer's own idealised self insert, having fallen in love with her own creation.

Lord Peter himself is the original wish-fulfillment self-insert. If I had more internet time today I'd look for the quote about how she gave Lord Peter all the nice books and furniture she wanted for herself but didn't have.
posted by betweenthebars at 9:47 AM on November 15, 2019 [5 favorites]


"When I was dissatisfied with my single unfurnished room I took a luxurious flat for him in Piccadilly. When my cheap rug got a hole in it, I ordered him an Aubusson carpet. ... I can heartily recommend this inexpensive way of furnishing to all who are discontented with their incomes. It relieves the mind and does no harm to anybody."
from her essay "How I came to invent the Character of Lord Peter."
posted by PussKillian at 9:52 AM on November 15, 2019 [10 favorites]


Feeling happy to be part of Metafilter, where internet people have also read and enjoyed my favorite books :)
posted by Red Desk at 1:25 PM on November 15, 2019 [6 favorites]


I think GN was my introduction to Sayers, but I read it as an undergrad as An Oxford Novel, having been romanced by Oxford when studying abroad there. So I was surprised to be grabbed so thoroughly by Harriet's struggle between heart and brain and all the questions thereof. They're less urgent questions for me personally now than they were 20+ years ago, but GN is still one of the few books I regularly reread. Looking forward to reading this biography.
posted by percolatrix at 8:18 AM on November 16, 2019 [2 favorites]


My only problem with Gaudy Night is that instilled a deep longing in me to become an academic, something that I was and am not suited for. The conflict between longing and reality was a difficult thing to face as I barely scratched my way through an MA. Also, no American university was going to live up to my dreams of Oxford.
posted by PussKillian at 1:21 PM on November 16, 2019 [2 favorites]


Schwartz argues that Sayers's conflicted feelings about the Jewish characters in her novels have a lot to do with her own unhappy love affair with the Jewish novelist John Cournos.
posted by verstegan

The link I posted reviewed a book on that age of crime writing and briefly mentions Cournos and ezra Pound, as no one was friends with pound, correspondence ensued as did their work. Silly to posit but does this confliction occur with pound before he went full batshitinsane. I don't think Pound was conflicted nor Sayers. It was that age for the most, anti Semitic writings were everywhere, hidden or outright. Historically, the two writers get a history Pog and for what, to place on some tomb?

D'oh no really, but my grandmother, who's Dad sold Fords, graduated high school in 1921. I asked her once if she ever read the Dearborn Independent and she gave an evasive NO. She lied I knew but in that no was yes but I was wrong you wouldn't understand.

History is a loaded Marlin .22.
posted by clavdivs at 3:25 PM on November 16, 2019 [1 favorite]


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