Sunday 11 January 2009

Gaudy Night

I made a mistake with Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novel, Gaudy Night. Having devoured, and enjoyed hugely, most of her output, I read it in 1970 at the age of 14. At this point, I'd never once visited Oxford (and certainly I'd never dreamed that one day I’d be a student at Lord Peter's old college, or be invited to tea at Somerville, Sayers' college, on which the fictional Shrewsbury College was based.)

The result was that I was horribly disappointed – the youthful Martin Edwards really didn’t fit the profile of the sort of reader who would get something out of a long story, set in an all-women’s college, that doesn’t even include a decent murder mystery. Even after I fell in love with Oxford, and even though I remain a fairly ardent Sayers fan, I never broached Gaudy Night again.

I felt it was time to give it another chance, but I decided to wimp out by watching the 1987 tv adaptation by Philip Broadley (a prolific and talented writer of mystery screenplays, who sadly died a few weeks ago.) It was part of the series featuring Edward Petherbridge as Wimsey and Harriet Walter as Harriet Vane – casting choices made in Heaven, I think.

I enjoyed the adaptation much more than the book, and appreciated the thinking behind the story in a way I failed to do as a teenager. But I remain to be convinced that Gaudy Night is a masterpiece of detective fiction (a view that a number of good judges hold.) Along with Five Red Herrings and Busman’s Honeymoon, it ranks as the type of Sayers ‘mystery’ that simply doesn’t excite my interest because the good stuff is buried with too much long-winded material that isn’t necessary for the story.

It wasn’t the fault of the excellent cast, or of Broadley, who did his best to jazz things up, but still couldn’t avoid the need to pad the story out. My own feeling is that, if anyone tries to adapt Gaudy Night in future, the best plan would be to make fairly radical changes to the action of the plot, while trying to remain faithful to some of the underlying themes – and to make it short and sharp.


Jilly said...

Gaudy Night is one of my personal favourites though not because of the 'crime' element. I think its importance lies in the way it deals with Peter and Harriet's relationship. The circumstances at Oxford are the catalyst which forces them both to face the obstacles between them. I think some of the problems with Gaudy Night lie with the differences between the morals and culture of the 1930s and those of the current century - there is a huge gulf there. The BBC radio adaptation works bettter I think - depending on whether you believe Ian Carmichael's voice was right for Wimsey.

Martin Edwards said...

I'm sure you're right, Jilly. I definitely read it at the wrong age and with the wrong expectations. I haven't heard the radio version - I thought the Carmichael tv episodes were enjoyable, although perhaps not as good as the Petherbridge series.

Dorte H said...

Hi Martin.

I think Sayers´ books about Harriet Vane appeal to more women than men. One of my university teachers once said that he liked Dorothy Sayers a lot - until she fell in love with Peter Wimsey and created Harriet/ Dorothy :) Perhaps it is as simple as that?
As a Danish reader I do not always notice British readers until they are recognized in DK as well but your books sound interesting. Would any of them do for my "2009 suspense and thriller challenge" do you think? If not, I will just have to try them later.

Martin Edwards said...

Hello, Dorte, good to hear from you. I agree that Gaudy Night and Busman's Honeymoon in particular appeal more to women readers. Mind you, I've long been intrigued by the fact that, as far as I can tell, the great majority of my readers are female too. As for your challenge, perhaps 'Waterloo Sunset' fits your 'murder mystery' category and 'The Arsenic Labyrinth' (or one of the other Lake District mysteries) your police story category. Let me know what you think!

Dorte H said...

Thank you for answering me so soon.

Police procedure + Lake District Mystery sounds exactly like me!
Is "The Arsenic Labyrinth" the first one?
- and if you categorize it like that, that is OK according to the rules, but of course I will let you know what I think.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Dorte. The first book in the Lakes series is The Coffin Trail. There is more information about the series at
The Harry Devlin books feature a lawyer who is an amateur detective. The Lakes book feature a professional police detective, Hannah Scarlett, although the police scenes focus on the nature of police work in Britain today, rather than technical investigative procedures.

Jodie Robson said...

I can't help feeling you should give the book another go - maybe not absolutely a masterpiece, but I think it's pretty good, and the TV adaptation can't really do it justice. But then, it doesn't sound as though you are a completely wholehearted Sayers fan, so perhaps you've tried hard enough. I like it very much, though Have His Carcase is probably my favourite. My husband is another who thinks that Sayers went wrong with Harriet Vane, describing the relationship between Vane and Wimsey as wish fulfillment. But I think Sayers admitted that she was in love with Wimsey herself, didn't she?

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Geranium Cat. I think it does deserve another reading, one day. I count myself as a pretty loyal Sayers fan, but not uncritical. As is almost inevitable with any ground-breaking author, her work was variable. And of course she changed her approach, including her approach to Wimsey, during the course of her career. The Documents in the Case, a non-Wimsey, is a truly fascinating experiment.

Anonymous said...

This book seems to me to so much idealize scholarship and the life of the scholar, I could never believe it. If only! It seemed to me like Sayers was trying so hard to justify the type of life she had led, Harriet seems such a stand-in for Sayers. My greatest interest in this novel is what it tells us about Sayers herself.

I can see why this book is popular, dealing as it does with feminist themes of women and marriage and career, but it's really more a "middlebrow" straight novel than a detective novel. There's a mild mystery element buried in there that makes the novel a "mystery," which is probably why it survives today, though it is hard to imagine anyone reading this primarily for the mystery.

For me, the most interesting character is the lower class woman. I would love to have seen what Ruth Rendell might have done with her!