Maybe I should say, every female writer. The book I’m recommending is about women, yes. But was it written for women only? I’ll hold to the faith that my literary male friends might find some familiar sentiments in this story—timeless to my mind—of a woman struggling to balance romance and intellectual rigor with a successful writing career.
As a young woman scribbling away on various unworthy projects, I loved Dorothy Sayers’s whimsical accounts of the escapades of her patrician hero, Lord Peter Wimsey. At a time when the puzzle mysteries of Agatha Christie seemed to be the fashion, I much preferred the slower, character-driven, comedies of manners in Sayers’s accounts of aristocratic England between the wars.
Of course this world was completely exotic to me. A quintessential baby-boomer, I knew no English lords and thus tended to take her depiction as truth. I also knew little about Europe at that time, and skimmed over the occasional reference to world events, most of which were used more or less to demonstrate that Wimsey was not just a chatty dilettante but a behind-the-scenes actor on the veiled world stage. Social commentary in Sayers’s books gently speared the kinds of people who, forty years earlier, would have been the inhabitants of Downton Abbey.
Recently, though, looking for some relatively mindless pleasure while I recovered from surgery, I retrieved some old favorites for bedtime reading. I had always remembered Sayers’s earlier novel, The Nine Tailors, as haunting and original; I was surprised at how slowly it read on new acquaintance, how it relied on stereotypes (I’m now guessing) of inhabitants of the fen country. But I’d also remembered Gaudy Night as more lively—comic, actually—and decided to revisit it as well.
It is indeed lively, comic, sometimes even brutal in its depictions of British social types of the era. But it is more than social comedy. It is about an intelligent independent woman trying to decide whether such a woman can achieve love and marriage on her own terms, especially to a personality as overwhelming as Wimsey’s. It is about a woman exploring what it means to be an intellectual when combining “intellectual” and “woman” in the same breath was both oxymoronic and somehow unclean.
But above all—and hence this invitation to my colleagues—it is about writing. Harriet Vane, the protagonist, grapples not just with how to bring characters to life in the latest of her best-selling mystery novels, but also with writing as a vocation. As a way of touching the heavens, mentally and emotionally. In Gaudy Night, she writes both as a novelist and as a scholar, parsing the definitions of excellence in writing, of finding one’s voice in a fine, close piece of work that requires, and reflects, one’s best self. Watching these three themes—romance, intellectual rigor, and writing—converge is one of the pleasures of this book.
Harriet appears as foil to Wimsey in four of the Lord Peter novels; Gaudy Night is the third. The novel takes place in a fantasy world: Shrewsbury College, a woman’s college in Oxford at a time when there was no such thing! Female administrators, scholars, and students pursue deep, arcane questions just as their male counterparts did and do. But this devotion to academic excellence sets them up for attack from a world that is not ready for them.
Harriet returns to Shrewsbury for a “Gaudy,” which is sort of a homecoming/class reunion, and, seeking surcease from the emotional conflicts created by Lord Peter’s determination to marry her, finds herself drawn into the narrow-focused but fine-tuned academic life—and into a terrifying mystery as well. A “Poison Pen” berates, threatens, and ultimately injures the scholars as punishment for not recognizing a woman’s proper place in the world.
Yes, Harriet must partner with Lord Peter to solve the puzzle. But I suggest looking for a subtle comparison with the relationship we may, all of us, be so lucky as to experience with a superb editor whose fierce intelligence we combine with our own skills to produce something whole and deserving. And again, there’s that lovely convergence of themes: solving a difficult puzzle with high stakes, finding a way to love without surrendering oneself, and turning it all into a work of art.
These are themes that resonate for me. I don’t know a Lord Peter, so I don’t share that precise challenge. But here’s a Harriet I do know, returned to Shrewsbury to escape the publishing circus, and perhaps you know this person, too. This is from Chapter XI:
. . . In that melodious silence, something came back to her that had lain dumb and dead ever since the old innocent undergraduate days. The singing voice, stifled long ago by the pressure of the struggle for existence, and throttled into dumbness by that queer, unhappy contact with physical passion, began to stammer a few uncertain notes. Great golden phrases, rising from nothing and leading to nothing, swam up out of her dreaming mind like the huge, sluggish carp in the cool waters of Mercury. One day she climbed up Shotover and sat looking over the spires of the city, deep-down, fathom-drowned, striking from the round bowl of the river-basin, improbably remote and lovely as the towers of Tirnan-Og beneath the green sea-rollers. She held on her knee the looseleaf notebook that contained her notes upon the Shrewsbury scandal; but her heart was not in that sordid inquiry. A detached pentameter, echoing out of nowhere, was beating in her ears—seven marching feet—a pentameter and half:—
To that still center where the spinning world
Sleeps on its axis—
Had she made it or remembered it? It sounded familiar, but in her heart she knew certainly that it was her own, and seemed familiar only because it was inevitable and right.
To all our moments like this.