Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Poison Pen: Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers

published 1935







[Harriet D. Vane is questioning the Senior Common Room of her Oxford college]

‘Who, by the way, owns a black semi-evening crêpe-de-chine, figured with bunches of red and green poppies, with a draped cross-over front, deep hip-yoke and flared skirt and sleeves about three years out of date?’ She looked round the dining-room, which was by now fairly well filled with dons. ‘Miss Shaw – you have a very good eye for a frock. Can you identify it?’

‘I might if I saw it,’ said Miss Shaw. ‘I don’t recollect one like it from your description.’

‘Have you found one?’ asked the Bursar.

‘Another chapter in the mystery?’ suggested Miss Barton.

‘I’m sure none of my students has one like it,’ said Miss Shaw. ‘They like to come and show me their frocks. I think it’s a good thing to take an interest in them.’

‘I don’t remember a frock like that in the Senior Common Room,’ said the Bursar.

‘Didn’t Miss Wrigley have a black figured crêpe-de-chine?’ asked Mrs. Goodwin.

‘Yes,’ said Miss Shaw. ‘But she’s left. And anyhow, hers had a square neck and no hip-yoke. I remember it very well.’




observations: That’s a pretty specific dress description isn’t it? From when I first read this book, many years ago, I was puzzled by her using the words ‘three years out of date’ as a way of summoning a visual image – would not ‘wide sleeves’ or ‘tight sleeves’ or ‘leg of mutton sleeves’ be more to the point? Or, in fact, showing the garment to the women?

The dress has been used to make a kind of dummy or guy, which has a cap and gown over it and is found hanging and knifed in the college chapel. Someone really doesn’t like the women academics of Shrewsbury College: the anonymous letters were just the beginning.

It’s poison pen week on the blog, and Gaudy Night is a classic of the genre – the book has appeared before for sunbathing and for a handsome young man. It is a book that divides readers, because the exact features that make it infuriating to a non-fan, are those that the true believers love.

Here (in part) is what I said about it in an early entry:

Gaudy Night should by all standards be a tiresome book. There is no murder, and when the culprit for the various vandalistic crimes is revealed it is not at all convincing that the revenge would take this form. There are endless scenes where DLS puts her own opinions into approved characters’ mouths, and then has (less clever and attractive) others arguing with those views and being defeated.

But it has a special place in the affections of hard-core fans of Dorothy L Sayers – even though there are also long descriptions of the day-by-day running of a women’s college in the 1930s, and the social AND intellectual snobbery run unchecked. Good sociological interest, as we like to say when we can’t explain why we like books.
Tomorrow there will be an overview of poison pen mysteries, and a couple of lists, and also a highly unlikely connection between Dorothy Sayers and Enid Blyton. More books later in the week. Click on the poison pen label below for more entries.

The picture is a 1938 Vogue picture (NOT three years out of date!) from the lovely Clover Vintage Tumblr and is not a bad match, IF you just look at it very quickly. Sayers herself took clothes very seriously but was famed for a rather odd fashion sense.

21 comments:

  1. Sounds rather delightful, a classic I must read in the near future.

    The dress and hat are great, and mostly fit the description in the book.

    I wonder if there is a film version of this.

    I think there is a movie called Gaudy Night with Judy Davis, but I don't think it's the same story.

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  2. Now you've jogged my memory - there is a film called Gaudi Afternoon with Judy Davis. It was based on a crime story by Barbara Wilson, and the name was clearly a reference to the Sayers book, but was actually set in Barcelona, as in Gaudi the architect. I attended the premiere at the Seattle Film Festival, around 2001 - Barbara Wilson was a local author.
    This Gaudy Night was made into a TV series back in the 1980s, with Harriet Walter playing Harriet Vane. They were reasonably well done, but look very low-rent compared with today's sumptuous costume dramas. There would definitely be room for someone to do a nice period version of this.

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  3. Moira - Oh, I've always loved the university atmosphere in this one. I also like the way Harriet Vane's character starts to take shape. And yes, the social structure in the novel really is interesting. This is one of the good Sayers novels I think. And it's an absolute perfect fit for your theme.

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    1. Always happy to do a Sayers, and this is one of my favourites, so great chance to look at it again.

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  4. I have the book of this on the pile somewhere. I think I got a few recommendations from Margot for GA female authors, who ought to be tried. Still the intention, but not just yet!

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    1. One of these days. I'm going to throw a spanner in the works and suggest that a different Sayers might be a better one for you to start with - Unnantural Death or Clouds of Witness.

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  5. Lovely book - and now you've made me want to read all of them again, except that one with the train timetables. I think my head still hurts from that. I'm fascinated by 'three years out of date' -- how does one tell that specifically?! Maybe it's the "hip-yoke" - had to google that. ;-)

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    1. Yes, totally agree about the train timetables, and also the deadly mushrooms - I have never read either of those two. I know, I love '3 years out of date'. As a deeply unstylish teenager, I used to take that sort of thing seriously, worried that I would never know what such a sleeve would look like. It was a relief when I grew older and realized that it was just DLS being DLS, and I didn't have to have to categorize sleeves.

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    2. should say * I have never RE-READ either of those two*

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  6. There is obviously a lot in the book that appeals specifically but one has to forgive a lot and I am always slightly flummoxed by those who love it unconditionally - as you say, the imperfections add to the fascination because they point to other things of value but it is not a Sayers I really want to re-read compared with others of her books (give me NINE TAILORS any day). On the other hand I really liked the TV adaptation and thought Walter and Petherbridge were great together - in fact I even went to see the final performance of a stage revival of BUSMAN'S HONEYMOON in which he again played Lord Peter though Harrier was played by Emily Richard (who was, and is, Mrs Petherbridge in real life)

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    1. I thought Edward Petherbridge made an excellent Lord Peter, because he wasn't just a silly ass, and I tend to think of Harriet Shaw when I think of Harriet V. I think I read Gaudy Night more as a novel about women's issues - as a crime story it is less good. For detection, absolutely, Nine Tailors every time. And Murder Must Advertise.

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  7. Ahh to think they wore that crazy stuff back then. :)

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    1. Yes indeed Scott, and then they come back into fashion and suddenly look attractive again...

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  8. Read them in sequence - start with Who's Body?

    What I like about Gaudy Night is the institutional atmosphere (as in Miss Pym Disposes). She really makes an all-female outfit sound attractive, and one of the few alternatives to marriage and children. But do women wither in such surroundings, she asks?

    If you like all-female institutions try The Girls of Slender Means, The Town in Bloom, Shroud for a Nightingale and One Pair of Feet.

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    1. Convents also - of course they were restrictive, but in the distant past, hardly more so than many women's lives anyway. If you weren't bothered about a husband and children, a convent could be a very reasonable option.
      I think all-female institutions is going to have to get a list of its own soon.

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  9. Well, *I* love Gaudy Night unconditionally, flaws and all! The sleeping Lord Peter under the willows and all...what womanly heart doesn't thump a little harder during *that* scene? Well, a little more seriously, for all its bizarre little side excursions and DLS lecturing everyone dreadfully obviously, it is a rather thought-provoking book regarding the roles of women in society - her motherhood versus career discussion is still exceedingly topical - and the moral agonizings of both Harriet and Peter regarding marriage are of a sort seldom addressed in a book of this vintage. DLS is such a smart writer, and expects so much out of her readers, that I find all of her works appealing, though her assumptions are frequently appallingly snobbish. (Intellectually and socially.)

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    1. Yes, that's a great summing-up of what's right about the book, and what other people might not like. I say to someone above, I think I like it in the way I enjoy a straight novel, and I have found her arguments on women's lives thought-provoking and relevant since I first read it many years ago, and right through till now.

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  10. I am sure I am repeating myself but I like Strong Poison and Have his Carcase but not Gaudy Night. Or at least not when I reread it. I liked all of them the first time through. Don't like Nine Tailors either but love Murder Must Advertise.

    Lovely image for that extract.

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    1. I am surprised you didn't like the Nine Tailors, but agree with you that Murder Must Advertise is one of the best. I'm ready to re-read some Sayers, but it will definitely be selected volumes - the ones I love, I love hugely, but there are some I could definitely do without.

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  11. I found a set of three videos at the library, one is Strong Poison and another is Gaudy Night; these are BBC Productions. However, when I tried to reserve all three (500 minutes!), I could only reserve one and Gaudy Night wasn't on the list there.

    So, I'll watch Strong Poison.

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