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.