Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L. Sayers, Edward Petherbridge, Harriet Walter, Julian Barnes
I said some time ago that Dorothy L. Sayers’s mysteries were at their worst when they concentrated on the mechanics of the crime, and at their best when the crime was an incidental way of focussing upon some social or cultural issue. Gaudy Night, which now completes my reading of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels, is the exception that proves the rule.
It should be one of the better novels, because at its heart is a social issue – specifically, women’s education; more generally, the position of women in society – that was important to Sayers herself. But it is not, because she gets the balance wrong in the other direction, forgetting for large swathes of the novel that she is supposed to be telling a crime story.
The central problem is that there are three love stories going on around this novel. The least of them is actually taking place within the narrative: this is the love story of Harriet Vane and Peter Wimsey. The relationship between the two is curiously old-fashioned, even for the 1930s (the novel was published in 1935, and set in 1935). This is five years after their first encounter in Strong Poison, and though Harriet has been absent from all but one of the intervening novels, the suggestion is that there has been a continuing but arms-length relationship throughout that period. Wimsey has asked her to marry him at regular intervals, and she has just as regularly turned him down. And yet, although we are asked to believe this is some great love affair, it is curiously bloodless. Wimsey is all intellect, wise, clever, charming in a very measured and chivalrous manner; he is not caught in some overwhelming passion (nothing can overwhelm Wimsey), he does not press his suit, he is content to propose and then withdraw. Similarly, Harriet continually rejects him for reasons that even she cannot fully articulate, and that seem to be connected with issues of self-worth; though in no other aspect of her life, her writing, her interaction with others, her involvement in the crime at the heart of Have His Carcase, does she betray any problem with her sense of self-worth. The two characters, therefore, seem to be locked in an artful and artificial pavane, dancing around each other because that is what Sayers’s mood music demands rather than because it entirely makes sense. We are asked to believe that, immersed in the all-female atmosphere of Shrewsbury College, the reaction of the dons to Wimsey makes Harriet see him in physical, animal terms for the very first time, even though all of her descriptions of him begin with the bodily, his build, his refined features, his hair and so forth. The novel is filled with conversations about marriage, many of them very pointedly addressed by the dons of Shrewsbury College to Harriet herself, so that at the end, when she inevitably says yes to his latest proposal, it seems to be as much a response to peer pressure as a genuine change of heart.
But that, as I say, is just the least of the three love stories that make up Gaudy Night, and the only one that is written into the novel itself. The second love story is part of what shapes the novel, what lies behind the Harriet-Wimsey romance. It has become a truism among those who comment on the Wimsey novels that Sayers fell in love with her creation, and so wrote herself into the novels as Harriet Vane in order to have the romance she so craved with her charming detective. It is a truism because it is so obviously true. Every description of Wimsey, certainly from say The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club onwards, seems to be accompanied by an invisible parenthetical remark: isn’t he wise? isn’t he clever? isn’t he wonderful? And Harriet Vane, heroic, best-selling crime writer, always ready with a learned aside or a latin tag, is exactly what Sayers wanted to be, and probably was, though she may not have recognised this. It occurs to me that when we read something like Julian Barnes’s Arthur and George, there is an instinctive identification of detective and writer. The true story that Barnes fictionalised suggests that Arthur Conan Doyle was all too ready to see himself as Sherlock Holmes. But Sayers may be the first case of the writer wanting not just to be the detective, but to marry him as well.
Gaudy Night has a sub-plot in which Harriet is struggling with her latest crime novel. She raises the problem with Wimsey, who immediately suggests that she needs to think herself more fully into the psychology of her character (another variant on the identification of detective and writer). When Harriet, a little reluctantly, follows this advice, she ends up having to ditch the detective story mechanisms and produces a work that is much more of a social novel than her usual stuff. Sayers is not just putting herself into the novel, but she is, I suspect, putting the writing of Gaudy Night into Gaudy Night. The relationship between detective writer and detective thus shapes the novel in more ways than one. And the book is full of often repetitive conversations, and long introspective musings by Harriet, which all come down to the one point: Wimsey is a catch, and Harriet/Sayers is mad for resisting him.
However it is the third love story that, I suspect, does most damage to the novel. Because Sayers is not just in love with Lord Peter Wimsey, she is also in love with her time at Somerville, and the book is one long hymn to the loveliness of her Oxford days. Long, indeed; this is, by some way, the longest of her Lord Peter Wimsey novels, and yet crime and its investigation take up a smaller proportion of the work than in any of her books. Instead, she can barely go for an entire paragraph without extolling the beauties of Oxford or the utopian aspects of college life, or the manifold and manifest delights of academia. Harriet is called back to her old college to discreetly investigate an outbreak of vandalism and poison pen letters that has beset the college; she is also writing, and more importantly re-writing her next detective novel (and, of course, despite her doubts about the appropriateness of her career, all of the dons prove to be fans of crime fiction, and of her books in particular). Yet what seems dearest to her heart throughout her stay (other than the curious and shifting nature of her relationship with Wimsey, of course) is assisting one of the dons in editing her unwieldy and ever-changing manuscript on aspects of prosody, and dozing in Duke Humfrey’s Library while researching her own academic paper on Sheridan LeFanu. This is Harriet/Sayers as academic-manque, and it is inescapable throughout the book.
This is so manifest that everything about the dons that populate the book repeats, endlessly, how wise, how sensible, how clever, how generous they all are. Oh they are irritable and annoying and gossipy and sometimes (though not really all that often) unworldly, but these are petty flaws that only serve to throw their overall goodness into sharp relief. And yet there is a problem with this, because the dons are meant to be our list of prime suspects. Oh, often enough there are infelicities of behaviour that might have allowed them to do some of the deeds, but the characters we are presented with are emotionally and psychologically incapable of such action. The only way Sayers can get around this and try to suggest that they are plausible suspects, is to trot out the old argument about the the perverse and pervasive hothouse atmosphere of single-sex establishments, how unnatural it is for so many single women to be in such close association, and therefore how possible it is that they could do such wrong. This argument, in one form or another, is repeated with quite astonishing regularity throughout the book. Yet it is manifest that Sayers does not believe it for one moment, and neither do Harriet or Wimsey or any of the other characters who voice it. And because there is no conviction in the expression, there is no conviction in the argument. We shouldn’t believe this tosh, so this cannot be what lies behind the criminality, so any person who is suspect only because of this argument cannot possibly be guilty after all.
That isn’t the only way in which Sayers’s devotion to Oxford University hampers the drive of the novel. In her note at the beginning of the novel, Sayers thanks the Principal and Fellows of Somerville for their information about “proctorial rules and general college discipline”. And the information they provided is all laid out in the novel, in precise and excessive detail. If you also love Oxford, and the geekery of college life and governance, then this is fascinating; but given that she spends at least as much time on such minutiae as she does on the crime that is supposedly the subject of the novel, then something feels out of kilter.
And then we come to the denouement. Harriet has collected as much information as she can on the events at Shrewsbury College, and laid them all out with the precision and narrative structure inherent in her work, then she gives it all to Wimsey. He generously declares that she had collected enough clues to identify the villain; but of course she hadn’t, she couldn’t make that connection. Even in a novel that so heavily promotes the ideas of female intelligence and independence, in the end everything must defer to the love-object, Wimsey. The detective must be the one to actually solve the crime. And he does this in what must be the most stereotypical scene in all of the Wimsey novels. At least, I don’t remember any other Wimsey novel in which all of the suspects are gathered together in one room, in this case the Senior Common Room, and the grandstanding detective lays out the evidence and points the finger. It was routine for Agatha Christie, but it was a convention that Sayers normally eschewed. I think that the fact that she does use such a conventional device here is indicative of the fact that she really wasn’t that interested in the crime. But even here she misuses the stereotype: there are rules to these things, the detective lays out the clues, explains their real meaning, and only when everything is set out in this way is the identity of the malefactor revealed. That, however, is not what happens here. Sayers uses the denouement to do three things: she makes Wimsey the centre of attention, with everyone attracted towards him; she displays Wimsey’s old fashioned politeness and acute sensitivity to the rules of behaviour in any particular situation; and she offers one last illustration of the workings of the college and the innate goodness of those in positions of authority. These, collectively, derail the narrative purpose of the scene, which is to lay out what led the detective to the solution and only then to identify the guilty party. In fact, in this scene, Wimsey casually names the perpetrator even before he has finished laying out the evidence. There’s a sense of clumsiness about this, a sudden rush after the villain is named with Wimsey having to hurriedly add: yes, and there’s this reason and this reason and this reason. When the novel was dramatised in the BBC series with Edward Petherbridge as Wimsey and Harriet Walter as Harriet Vane, this scene is quietly restructured so that the naming of the perpetrator comes fittingly as the climax. It doesn’t take much to make the change, and the fact that Sayers doesn’t suggests a carelessness about the crime story elements of the novel.
In fact I think Harriet’s recognition within the novel that she can no longer write a straightforward crime story was also Sayers’s recognition. She wrote one more Wimsey novel after this, Busman’s Honeymoon, which was based on a play and which was stagey in the extreme, and not really very good. Otherwise, her subsequent publications were her translations of The Divine Comedy, and her non-fiction, usually on religious subjects. She had, just like Harriet Vane, retreated into academia.
Is Gaudy Night any good? As an account of academic practices within an all-women college in the 1930s it is fascinating; as a detective story, it rather lacks whatever it was that had made The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club or Murder Must Advertise so rivetting. I think Gaudy Night must mark the point at which Sayers realised that her love for her creation meant she could no longer write about him as just another character. If she had not combined it with that other great love, for her university experience, she might have got away with it. But the combination is fatal.