>> Thursday, April 01, 2004
I confess it: I am, first and foremost, a romance reader, so even in books outside the genre, it's the romantic threads that capture my imagination the most. As such, I've been looking forward to reading Gaudy Night, ever since I started reading Dorothy L Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey series, of which this one would be book # 10, because I knew this was where the relationship between Peter and Harriet Vane got to some kind of conclusion.
When Harriet Vane attends her Oxford reunion, known as the "Gaudy," the prim academic setting is haunted by a rash of bizarre pranks: scrawled obsentities, burnt effigies and poison-pen letters -- including one that says, "Ask your boyfriend with the title if he likes arsenic in his soup."Some of the notes threaten murder; all are perfectly ghastly; yet in spite of their scurrilous nature, all are perfectly worded. And Harriet finds herself ensnared in a nightmare of romance and terror, with only the tiniest shreds of clues to challenge her powers of detection, and those of her paramour, Lord Peter Wimsey.It's hard for me to gush, but that's exactly what an A+ book like this one deserves. I loved it so much I didn't want it to end. I didn't care if it took me hundreds and hundreds of pages to reach the conclusion, I just wanted to stay in that world. I tried to read as slowly as possible, getting more and more disconsolate as I saw the pile of pages left till the end rapidly diminish. And when I finally finished it, it took me quite a bit of time to get in the right frame of mind to start something else.
Gaudy Night worked perfectly for me both as a mystery and as a romance.
The mystery was very different to the usual Sayers, not in the least because it wasn't a murder. In fact, I found it even chillier than the garden variety murder! The solution fit in very well, and it was one I guessed, though I must confess that my "guessing" was not so much rational as wishful thinking, because I found the culprit and her opinions despicable.
As for the romance, well, that aspect was what made the book so good for me. Sayers focuses the spotlight firmly on Harriet and Peter and their relationship here, and unfolds it slowly and very, very satisfyingly. It's a very rational developing on Harriet's part. Her attraction to Peter is not something physical (though of course, that element is not absent), but intellectual, and what we see here is her trying to understand Peter's mind and attitudes. By the end of the book, both Harriet and the reader are perfectly satisfied that theirs will be a marriage of perfect understanding.
The introspective mood of the romance is reflected by the leisurely pace of the writing, and by the many academical comments on sundry subjects, including a scholar's responsability to abstract "truth" and the role of women. This made for slow, but rich reading, and I enjoyed every single line immensely.
I was especially interested to note how wonderfully feminist the book was in these and other respects. Used to reading about the overbearing, dominating, overprotective males which abound in the romance genre, I especially appreciated how Peter completely respected Harriet. From recognizing that she and only she had the right to decide whether to take physical risks, to not pressuring into having a love relationship with him, he is my perfect man.
The setting, in an all-female college in Oxford, was of course, fascinating. I've been reading about the Realistic School of Detective Fiction, with its emphasis on giving the reader a realistic portrayal of the various settings, a "look inside", as it were, and this is something I very much enjoy. It was just as fascinating here as it was in previous Sayers books as Murder Must Advertise and The Nine Tailors.
All this made Gaudy Night a joy to read. And I musn't forget that ending! I must have reread it 10 times already. Every time I think of "Placetne, magistra? - Placet", I sigh :-)