Book Review (and Profligate Excerpting): Gaudy Night

In case you didn’t know already, Dorothy Sayers was brilliant. A theologian and Christian humanist in the era of the Inklings, she treated the Trinity in The Mind of the Maker and recapped the Christian tradition in Creed or Chaos?. She attended Socratic Club meetings with her friend C.S. Lewis, although his pal Tolkien apparently didn’t like her work. Sayers translated the Divine Comedy and penned a collection of essays entitled Are Women Human?, to which question anyone open-minded enough to read a book by a member of the fairer sex ought already have been certain of the answer. She wrote poems and plays and dabbled in distributism, and wrote an influential piece on classical education called The Lost Tools of Learning.

Sayers also wrote mystery novels. Delightful ones. Most famously, she wrote about a British gentleman detective by the name of Peter Death Bredon Wimsey, which is undeniably a mouthful of a name, but you may call him Lord Peter. Some of the Lord Peter mysteries—four novels, by my count, and at least one short story—incorporate a female protagonist named Harriet Vane. Vane’s questionable past, Oxford education, and line of work (she happens to be a mystery novelist) all tend to lend her to scrutiny as a thinly veiled literary incarnation of Sayers herself. This may be bad form from an editorial perspective, but I have no problem with it. I love them both.

My current favorite—and the only Sayers novel I brought to DC with me, sadly—is Gaudy Night. (Pronounced “gow-dy,” Oxonian term for an all-college reunion.) The third novel in the Wimsey-Vane saga, Gaudy Night chronicles Harriet’s temporary return to her Oxford women’s college and her resolution, with the aid of her noble bon vivant counterpart, of a nasty mystery plaguing everyone in college from the first years to the Senior Common Room.

Gaudy Night is wonderful for many reasons. Sayers’ meticulous attention to detail—the hallmark of a well-trained mind—weaves a relational tapestry of well-developed characters, almost too many to keep them straight. The plot itself is psychologically brilliant, turning on the complexity of human nature instead of train schedules or the timing of tolling bells. Vane’s strong narrative seamlessly integrates the fictional Shrewsbury College into the very real place that is Oxford. And most of all, Gaudy Night has things to say.

About vocation, for example. At Shrewsbury for the gaudy, Harriet meets a former classmate of noted and exceptional brilliance, who has abandoned the life of the mind to marry a farmer:

What damned waste! All that brilliance, all that trained intelligence, harnessed to a load that any uneducated country girl could have drawn, and drawn far better. The thing had its compensations, she supposed. She asked the question bluntly.

Worth it? Said Mrs. Bendick. Oh yes, it was certainly worth it. The job was worth doing. One was serving the land. And that, she managed to convey, was a service harsh and austere indeed, but a finer thing than spinning words on paper.

“I’m quite prepared to admit that,” said Harriet. “A ploughshare is a nobler object than a razor. But if your natural talent is for barbering, wouldn’t it be better to be a barber, and a good barber—and use the profits (if you like) to speed the plough? However grand the job may be, is it your job?

“Look here! I admire you like hell, but I believe you’re all wrong. I’m sure one should do one’s own job, however trivial, and not persuade oneself into doing somebody else’s, however noble.”

And the dilemma when one vocation runs up against another:

“That’s all very well,” replied Mrs. Bendick. “But one’s rather apt to marry into somebody else’s job.”

Sadly, the struggle between heart and mind is more difficult for women, at least in Harriet’s world:

The prospect seemed discouraging for Miss Schuster-Slatt’s matrimonial campaign [encouraging marriage among the intelligentsia], since the rule seemed to be that a great woman must either die unwed, or find a still greater man to marry her. And that limited the great woman’s choice considerably, since, though the world of course abounded in great men, it contained a very much larger number of middling and common-place men. The great man, on the other hand, could marry where he liked, not being restricted to great women; indeed, it was often found sweet and commendable in him to choose a woman of no sort of greatness at all.

Why, one wonders? Vane—and Sayers—both know, because they both know what it is to be a woman in a world that had always belonged to men:

Bess of Hardwick’s daughter had been a great intellectual, indeed, but something of a holy terror; uncontrollable by her menfolk, undaunted by the Tower, contemptuously silent before the Privy Council, an obstinate recusant, a staunch friend and implacable enemy and a lady with a turn for invective remarkable even in an age when few mouths suffered from mealiness. She seemed, in fact, to be the epitome of every alarming quality which a learned woman is popularly credited with developing.

Sharp, thoughtful, and often hilarious. Sayers is certainly worth reading.


  • March 2, 2010

    Margaret Perry

    Sayers won my heart when I read the first Lord Peter story and was introduced to Miss Climpson, the “old maid” who can get in and out of any scrape, and is perfectly kind and humble and brilliant and womanly all at once. How refreshing. Now I’ll have to read Guady Night.

  • March 2, 2010

    Miriel M. Thomas

    Hooray! Although you really ought to read Strong Poison first–you’ll understand the characters so much more clearly.

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  • February 26, 2011

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  • February 28, 2011


    Fascinating. Thank you. Reading Sayers is now something I want to do.

    A question: Does “gaudy” in Gaudy Night rhyme with “Howdy” and not “Gordie”? That’s what it looks like from what you wrote, but this seems odd.

    Thanks in advance for anything you can add to clear this up. Is there a reference in the book itself, for instance?

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