Original date of publication: 1935
My edition: 1995 (Harper Collins)
Why I decided to read:
How I acquired my copy: Amazon.com, April 2010
I always prefer the Lord Peter Winsey mysteries when Harriet Vane is in them. The more she appears, the better I like her for savvy, intuition, self-sufficiency, and wit—as well as the attraction she and Lord Peter have towards each other, which is based on intellectualism rather than anything else. You can see perfectly why they’re drawn to each other—and why Harriet keeps pulling away.
In Gaudy Night, Harriet attends her reunion—also known as the Gaudy—at the fictional Oxford college of Shrewsbury. While there, she receives a threatening note, the first of several that members of the college receive over the next few months. Harriet is asked to join the staff of the college, ostensibly to work on a study of Sheridan Le Fanu, but really to investigate the mystery of the notes—which eventually lead to vandalism, among other crimes.
Dorothy Sayers’s mysteries are never just about the mystery; they focus on larger issues, such as the plight of veterans, Russian immigrants, or, in this case, women’s education. The staff of the college are old enough to remember women’s struggle to receive a university degree, and these novels were written at a time when university enrollment for women was capped at 25%. So there’s a sense of bonhomie among the staff and students of Shrewsbury that you don’t really see among college women today. That’s why the events at the college are so shocking to them; they’re unused to having their cloistered lifestyle violated.
Sayers’s mysteries are also about the detective, too, and the complicated choices they make. Harriet is a complicated, unusual character; everything for her has a deeper, more symbolic significance, and so she is naturally drawn to the mysteries that fall into her lap. At the same time, she wrestles with a personal question: how will she balance her work life with a potential relationship or marriage? Sayers is skilled at drawing a nuanced character that we care to read more about. Lord Peter definitely makes an appearance—or several—but the show is definitely Harriet’s.