Friday 13 February 2015

Gaudy Night

At long last I've reached the Lord Peter Wimsey book that most of Dorothy L. Sayers' fans say is the best of the series: Gaudy Night. I had it on my special TBR shelf of 25 or so books that I really wanted to read this year, so it was an easy matter to reach for it when I fancied a vintage crime read after a couple of months of not reading any at all.

Harriet Vane is the woman Lord Peter Wimsey would most like to marry. They met five years ago when she was accused of poisoning her ex-fiancé - in the events of Strong Poison - but all that happened back then hangs between them like the elephant in the room and prevents her from accepting his constant proposals.

Harriet is also rather afraid that marriage will rob her of her independence. She's now a successful crime author and isn't at all sure that marriage and its inevitable responsibilities will allow her to continue with her writing. She decides to return to Shrewsbury college, one of the few female colleges at Oxford, where she attained her degree, to attend the annual Gaudy Night. It's a kind of reunion weekend for former scholars and Harriet has always avoided it like the plague, but this year an old friend has pleaded with her to go to keep her company.

It's not long before Harriet realises that all is not well at her old college. It seems poison pen letters have been circulating and she herself gets several that refer to her trial and relationship with Peter. She's asked by her old tutors to investigate. They don't want to cause a scandal by calling in the police and Harriet being a crime writer seems to them to be the next best thing. Events escalate. Some nasty pranks are played and the letters continue. Harriet is afraid someone might die. There's only one thing for it, she must beg Lord Peter Wimsey for help...

Hard to do a review of this one as it's long and quite complicated. Although if I think about it, it's not the plot that's complicated it was trying to keep track of all the female dons and who they were and what they taught. I failed in that but in reality it didn't really matter as it's Harriet Vane who takes centre stage here and everyone else is secondary. We find out a lot about her university life, her thoughts on education for women, and the agonising educated women did back then about the effects of marriage on their career prospects. I found all of this incredibly interesting. Many things have changed for women since then but at the same time, many things have stayed the same and women still face exactly the same dilemmas.

This is not at all your average whodunnit, being primarily about mischief and the reasons for it in a women's college. It's also rather romantic, or it is as soon as Lord Peter arrives which sadly is quite a long way into the book. That aspect of it is delightful. One scene, on a punt on the river, was 'take your breath away' beautiful without anything sexual happening at all. Written so matter-of-factly but more erotic in feel than any sexually explicit scene could possibly be. What a writer Dorothy L. Sayers was.

In short, I thought Gaudy Night was fantastic. My favourite Wimsey book so far although I've enjoyed all of those I've read. I had that strange sensation you get sometimes when you finish a book that you hate the fact that it's ended and wouldn't mind starting all over again at the beginning. I certainly think it won't be many years before I do read it again. In the meantime I still have some of the early Wimsey mysteries to read and the last proper Wimsey/Harriet novel, Busman's Honeymoon, is on the way. After that there are several novels featuring these two by Jill Paton-Walsh which I gather are not bad. I hope that's the case as I really love these two and want to read a lot more about them.

Gaudy Night is my book four for Bev's 2015 Mount TBR challenge.



DesLily said...

ahhh... a favorite and one you will reread one day! Those are the best ones by far!! It does sound like this is a series that might need to be read in order?
It's always good when we find an author or series that we enjoy so much ! (since you are into some larger books that you aren't doing puzzles right now?! lol)

Kailana said...

I definitely want to read this series at some point! I am glad you are another one that recommends it. :)

Kay said...

You know, I have not ever read any Sayers novels. How sad for someone who has, I think, read all of Christie's. LOL

Could I start with this one or should I begin at the beginning?

BooksPlease said...

Great Review. It is many years since I read this one - I was just leaving school at the time (yes it was that long ago!)- and now I'm itching to re-read it!

Val said...

It's brilliant isn't it!
and although I'm rarely a fan of follow on books I think Jill Paton Walsh's really work :o)

(Her Imogen Quy quartet of novels are really enjoyable too)

Cath said...

Pat: Some of the books need to be read in order. It's a bit complicated. LOL

I'm doing puzzles online at the moment. Need to do some real ones as I have quite a pile.

Kelly: It's a very good, intelligent series.

Kay: That's a good question. People told me to read the Harriet Vane books first because they're so good, and those start with Strong Poison. After that, Have His Carcase and then Gaudy Night and Busman's Holiday. It seems all the others standalone and can be read as and when. I've read Clouds of Witness and Nine Tailors out of order and it's made no difference. I don't generally read books out of order though.

Margaret: Yes, do reread it as I would love to hear how it stands up for someone who read it a long time ago.

Val: It's wonderful. Looking forward to trying the JPW ones too. I'll look the other series up.