Dorothy Sayers’ GAUDY NIGHT

Photo: Lord Peter Wimsey on Television

Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night (1935) is one of the best English-language novels I’ve read (and re-read). Her sense of the subtlety of complex human experience — among women, between lovers and would-be lovers, between rivals for love or success, among intellectual equals, and within the introspective human being; the rich and exact use of language for scene-setting, dialogue, poetical language and quotation settings, slang, scholarly argument; the multiple arguments that thread the pages of book, arguments that can seem dated at face value but on closer inspection turn out to be at the root of contemporary divides; and her delicious sense of the dance of romance and friendship between two independent, intellectual, and integrity-bound humans — all of these, plus a pretty good mystery plot, add up to a novel that many readers will wish could continue indefinitely.


The general plot is that mystery writer Harriet Vane, after attending a college reunion weekend, finds herself rather reluctantly heading an investigation into some poison-pen letters and related pranks that take place at her alma mater, the fictitious all-female Shrewsbury College in Oxford. About midway through the book, Harriet asks her friend and one-time saviour Lord Peter Wimsey, an amateur sleuth and amiable chatterer for the British Foreign Office (which was rather busy in 1935), for his help. Peter’s sleuthing had exonerated Harriet from a charge of murder against her live-in lover in Strong Poison, and her concern about her notoriety as a loose woman and her debt of gratitude to Peter remain wedges between them, even five years later, when Gaudy Night is set.


I think the overriding theme of the book, visited again and again in conversation and in the plot, is the necessity of detachment concerning truth and in relationships, for the health and welfare of the individual, the relationship, and the whole of society.

Several strands relating to this one idea weave together in the earnest conversation of the dons, in dialogue between Peter and Harriet, and in Harriet’s introspection, as well as in the actions of dominant players.
I. Personal Loyalty / Personal Claims  vs.  Principle / Professional Honour

A primary argument concerns two related polarities: personal loyalty vs. professional honour, and acting only on strict principal vs. acting only with an eye towards consequences of one’s actions for others. What is the right course when acting on a principle, or according to the rules of scholarly or professional honour, may result in great harm to persons? Several examples are introduced at various times.

Peter introduces his own example, from Unnatural Death, a case where murder of an old woman who was ill and dying had been done; he says that as soon as he started to meddle in the case, urged on by his inquisitiveness and by the social principle that those murdered should have justice and that the innocent should be exonerated (this last is a hallmark of Agatha Christie’s sleuths, too), the murderer killed others:

If I’d left her alone, there might have been only one death instead of four.” One of the dons objects, “But the woman would have been at large.

Peter admits that she wasn’t a nice person, and even when not murdering “had a nasty influence on others,” but he asks, who is responsible for the deaths of those other innocent people — the murderer or society? (The answer seems to be that the innocent died for the sake of a beneficial social principle.)

Another central example given is of a don, Miss deV., who, while examining theses at a previous university, found that a man had deliberately suppressed evidence that was contrary to his argument. The man admitted this but said he’d found the evidence when it was too late to re-write the thesis. He lost his professorship and his degree and ended up financially ruined. The dons hypothesise about whether his wife would support her husband in such intellectual dishonesty, with several agreeing that a wife would be pleased that her husband sacrificed his honour for her sake, for the sake of the family:

‘How many women care two hoots about anybody’s intellectual integrity? Only over-educated women like us. … They’d back up their husbands, in any case. My man, right or wrong, they’d say. … Of course they would … That’s what the man wants.'” Harriet disagrees, saying that “‘If anybody did a dishonourable thing and then said he did it for one’s own sake, it would be the last insult. How could one ever feel the same to him again?’

In between these two stories is action that mirrors and emphasises it.

The dons’ secretary, Mrs. Goodwin, who is married with kids, has been absent for a time taking care of a frail child with measles, and in her absence some of the dons have complained that for women with families and jobs, the duties to family always seem to take precedence. One avers that if her own sister’s difficult childbirth (first baby over age 35!) had not occured during a school holiday, it would of course have taken place without her assistance, as her first loyalty is to her work. Another mildly comments that

It is always dificult to say which duty one should put first. … Each case must be decided individually. I presume that, in bringing children into the world, one accepts a certain responsbility towards them.” To which is replied, “I’m not denying it. … But if the domestic responsibility is to take precedence of the public responsibility, then the work should be handed over to someone else to do.

Now Mrs. Goodwin has returned to school, and in between the story of Peter’s crime-solving and Miss deV’s actions concerning the unscholarly thesis, Mrs. Goodwin is asked what she thinks about the idea that if one’s job duties interfere with one’s personal duties, one should give up the job duties. She rather surprisingly replies that she agrees with this and has submitted her resignation because “under the circumstances I can’t do my work as well as I ought.”

In the midst of this conversation (which occurs on all of about 10 pages in the book), another don says,

You can’t carry through any principle without doing violence to somebody. Either directly or indirectly. Every time you disturb the balance of nature you let in violence. And if you leave nature alone you get violence in any case.” (Given the context, I assume the word ‘nature’ to mean primarily ‘human nature’ here.)

Sayers suggests, though, that there is middle ground between obeying the dictates of one’s professional integrity and having compassion for those who may suffer the consequences of it: Much later in the book, Miss deV., who outed the unscrupulous thesis-writer, comments that she blames herself for what happened to the disbarred man, partly as a result of her actions. She repents not for her original action, “which was unavoidable,” but for the sequel. … “One ought to take some thought for other people. Miss L.  would have done what I did in the first place; but she would have made it her business to see what became of that unhappy man and his wife.”

A final insight on this theme of principle/public loyalty vs. personal loyalty is captured through the lens of C.P. Snow’s novel, The Search (certain pages of which have been cut as one of the poison-pen writer’s pranks). The novel, as Peter and the Dean explain it, concerns the need for absolute scrupulousness in the context of scientific inquiry:

‘The point about it,’ said Wimsey, ‘is what an elderly scientist says to him. He tells him: “The only ethical principle which has made science possible is that the truth shall be told all the time. If we do not penalize false statements made in error, we open up the way for false statements by intention. And a false statement of fact, made deliberately, is the most serious crime a scientist can commit.”‘

The Dean continues,

‘In the same novel … somebody deliberately falsifies a result … in order to get a job. And the man who made the original mistake [the falsification in error] finds it out. But he says nothing, because the other man is very badly off and has a wife and family to keep.’

Peter suggests that Snow agrees with this act, as the novel ends here. Then he asks the dons if anyone there would let a false statement go out of charitable consideration. No one says that they would. One says, “‘Of course one couldn’t do that. … Not for ten wives and fifty children.”

Peter furthers the general conversation at one point by asking whether an artist of genius should honour his great talent even if his family starves when the paintings don’t sell, or paint ‘pot-boilers’ to keep them all fed. One don replies that “he’s no business to have a wife and family,” while another is sure that he “musn’t paint bad pictures — that would be really immoral” because “a bad picture by a good painter is a betrayal of truth — his own truth.”

Soon after this, in a private conversation, Peter tells Harriet, “If I am honest, I shall probably lose you altogether. If I am not —” to which Harriet replies, “If you are not … then I shall lose you, because you wouldn’t be the same person, would you?”

Finally, in the midst of a dinner conversation, Peter, who consults for the Foreign Office, soberly says,

Now that you have the age of national self-realization, the age of colonial expansion, the age of barbarian invasions and the age of the decline and fall, all jammed cheek by jowl in time and space, all armed alike with poison-gas and going through the outward motions of an advanced civilization, principles have become more dangerous than passions. It’s getting uncommonly easy to kill people in large numbers, and the first thing a principle does — if it really is a principle — is to kill somebody.

The point seems clear, that we cannot betray our own truth (whatever it is?) without damage to ourselves and those who love us; while at the same time, if we act only on what we see to be truth or the highest good, we run the risk of damaging others in the process and not giving a thought to this consequence. Detachment of some sort is necessary in order to speak and act truthfully, free from impingement, but perhaps detachment (from consequences to oneself?) is different from indifference (to consequences to others?). Acting with detachment and on principle, without compassion, can lead to callous disregard for others.

II. Love, Personal Claims, Passion

Sayers seems to set up detachment and personal attachment as Scylla and Charybdis, between which the wise person charts a narrow course. While detachment can be inadvertently cruel and lead to terrible consequences, love — or what is commonly considered to be love, i.e., an overriding attachment to another person — can be malevolent and dangerous as well. Sayers’ concept of love seems to be not a blind and unswerving loyalty towards another human, which incites the lover to do and sacrifice anything for the sake of the beloved; but rather a virtue borne of patience, fidelity, respect, admiration, a knowledge of one’s own worth, a resolute honesty with oneself and each other, and of course, joyful passion. As Peter says, “Perhaps the only sin … passion can commit is to be joyless. … Don’t, for God’s sake, ever think you owe me anything. … I will not have surrenders or crucifixions.”

Peter tells Harriet that he loves her for her “devastating talent for keeping to the point and speaking the truth.” (Harriet “thought that a more unattractive pair of qualities could seldom have been put forward as an excuse for devotion.”)

Very early in the book,  Miss deV. tells Harriet:

Detachment is a rare virtue, and very few people find it lovable, either in themselves or in others. If you ever find a person who likes you in spite of it — still more, because of it — that liking has very great value, because it is perfectly sincere, and because, with that person, you will never need to be anything but sincere yourself.

In action, we see that Harriet supports another’s activities in the world even when it’s at her expense. When Peter is called away to Foreign Office duties while Harriet is recuperating from a serious incident, Peter’s nephew calls her “an unnatural woman” because she agrees with Peter that he is right to do his public duty rather than “weeping into the sheets and letting the international situation blow itself to blazes.”

Likewise, concerning Peter, Miss deV. comments that he “is a man able to subdue himself to his own ends. I should be sorry for anyone who came up against his principles — whatever they are, and if he has any.”

Later, after Harriet says it would “be quite a relief to be ridden over rough-shod for a change,” Miss deV. replies that Peter “will never do that. … He’ll never make up your mind for you. You’ll have to make your own decisions. You needn’t be afraid of losing your independence; he will always force it back on you. If you ever find any kind of repose with him, it can only be the repose of very delicate balance.”

While Peter is deeply in love with Harriet and has been, with little encouragement and quite a bit of discouragement, for five years, he exerts very little influence to “make her his” other than to routinely propose to her and ask her out on occasion. Miss deV. assesses Peter as “‘a very unselfish and a very honest man. He has done what you asked him without caring what it cost him and without shirking the issue. He hasn’t tried to disguise the facts or bias your judgment.'”

Harriet herself recognises Peter’s honesty on several occasions, once remarking to him, “I can’t see you burking a fact to support a thesis.”

It’s the estimable Miss deV. again, fairly early on in the book, who tells Harriet that someone who commits “all the sins in the calendar” yet is faithful and honest towards one person, who makes one person their job and gives them their complete loyalty, is dangerous, and devastates the character of the other, ending up being devoured or devouring. Peter echoes this later when he tells Harriet that it’s dangerous to care for anyone, that love is a brute and a devil. And of course, we see this in the outcome of the plot, about which Peter says to Harriet, “You are free now and for ever, so far as I am concerned. You saw yesterday what personal claims might lead to — though I didn’t intend you to see it in quite that brutal way.”

While Peter sleeps in a punt on the river, Harriet thumbs through a copy of Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici she finds in Peter’s blazer pocket. She reads,

When I am from him, I am dead till I be with him. United souls are not satisfied with embraces, but desire to be truly each other, which being impossible, these desires are infinite, and must proceed without a possibility of satisfaction.

Harriet thinks it a “most uncomfortable passage, whichever way you looked at it” (later, she recalls the first line and remonstrates with herself not to feel as the line describes). We’re reminded of this passage later when Peter speaks of his preference for counterpoint rather than harmony, his desire for separate voices and not a blended whole where individual notes can’t be heard. He implies that he wants to be neither an “autocratic virtuoso” nor a “meek accompanist” and questions whether Harriet would want to be, either.

In another context — civic this time rather than personal — Peter inveighs against the “unscholarly, insincere” nature of the activity involved in the current “international situation,” and against the overwhelming appeal of each to his own loyalties and personal claims:

‘God! how I loathe haste and violence and all that ghastly, slippery cleverness. Unsound, unscholarly, insincere — nothing but propaganda and special pleading and ‘what do we get out of this?” No time, no peace, no silence ….’

While there is evidence in the book of Harriet’s growing realisation of her attraction not only to Peter’s mind and heart, but also to his body — she meditates on his hands more than once, and she feels confused and flushes scarlet when he looks up as she’s caressingly inventorying his face with her eyes (it’s also pointed out on various occasions how dashed attractive Peter is to other women), and of Harriet’s physical appeal for Peter — “he breathed as though he had been running” when he catches Harriet looking at him — it’s clear that this undercurrent of physical passion and attraction is not the same as a desperate need that lays personal claim to another’s being. There is always a sense of detachment, of respecting the sanctity, integrity, and “apartness” of the other, that pervades their interactions. Is this then love?

At the end of of the book, after Peter’s final marriage proposal, Harriet asks him, “‘Will it make you desperately unhappy if I say No?'” He replies, “‘Desperately? … My dear, I will not insult either you or myself with a word like that. I can only tell you that if you will marry me it will give me very great happiness.'”

Apparently, Peter is heedless of Miss deV’s words to Harriet: “A marriage of two independent and equally irritable intelligences seems to me reckless to the point of insanity. You can hurt one another so dreadfully.”

III. Decision-Making

Of course, some detachment or objectivity, some appeal to principles, is a handy tool for making difficult personal decisions. Interesting, then, that Sayers (through Miss deV. again) recommends that we can know which choice to make and how to feel when we are “overmastered” by the choice or feeling. This sounds rather like one doesn’t quite know what one is doing, as though one is following a compulsion rather than a principle — but perhaps the realisation that we have been overmastered by our own feelings stands in contrast to being overmastered by another’s, whether by the sheer will of another person or by the subtle force of another’s personality in emotional proximity to ours, which compels us — intentionally or wholly unintentionally (but thoughtlessly) — to do other than we would. Is Sayers again arguing for some detachment from “the other,” some standing of one’s own apart from even the most intimate partner, which allows one to think, feel, and act with one’s own integrity?

Harriet tells Miss deV. that she never knows how to feel. Miss deV. replies,

‘I don’t think that matters, provided one doesn’t try to persuade one’s self into appropriate feelings.’ … ‘But one has to make some sort of choice,’ said Harriet. ‘And between one desire and another, how is one to know which things are really over overmastering importance?’ ‘We can only know that,’ said Miss deV., ‘when they have overmastered us.’

Reflecting on this, Harriet recalls that all of her own tragedy

had sprung from ‘persuading herself into appropriate feelings’ towards a man [not Peter] whose own feelings had not stood up to the test of sincerity either. And all her subsequent instability of purpose had sprung from the determination that never again would she mistake the will to feel for the feeling itself.

She considers whether anything at all has stood firm in the midst of her indecisions, and determines that her work, her writing, has. “She had no doubt that the thing itself was the right thing for her. It had overmastered her without her knowledge or notice, and that was the proof of its mastery.”

Much later in the book, after a row with Peter (Peter says he’s a millstone around her neck and should clear off, and Harriet in exasperation agrees with him), Harriet’s mind goes ’round and ’round, trying to decide how to feel about Peter while indulging in some self-pity at the same time. She alternately tells herself “It’s a good thing Peter’s gone” and that she certainly ought not feel as the passage in the Religio Medici, “dead till I be with him;” decides that Peter “probably wishes by now he’d left me alone,” and that “we should both be perfectly miserable” together; and asks God what she has done to be such a misery to herself and others.

Almost 100 pages later, she says almost the same things to Miss deV. (“‘I shouldn’t be at all a comfortable person for him to live with;’ “‘I should only make his life a misery.'”) and she adds that she doesn’t think she can “stand being hurt anymore.”

Through a sonnet stanza that Peter writes, in response to one Harriet has written, we learn (and Harriet learns) that Peter “did not want to forget, or to be quiet, or to be spared things, or to stay put. All he wanted was some kind of central stability, and he was apparently ready to take anything that came along, so long as it stimulated him to keep that precarious balance.”

She recalls his comments to her in the past as consistent now with this core desire: ‘Mine is only a balance of opposing forces.’ ‘What does it matter if it hurts like hell, so long as it makes a good book?’ ‘Feeling like Judas is part of the job.’  She concludes, “If this was his attitude, it was clearly ridiculous to urge him, in kindly tones, to stand aside for fear  he might get a rap over the shins.”

Harriet seems to be always resisting her own feelings, afraid of giving way and losing herself absolutely in another person. She says to Miss deV. she has “‘been facing one fact for some time … and that is, that if I once gave way to Peter, I should go up like straw.'” Miss deV. says that this is obvious, and asks if Peter has ever used this weapon against her. “‘Never,’ said Harriet, remembering the moments when he might have used it. ‘Never.'” Miss deV. asks her, “‘Then what are you afraid of? Yourself?'” to which Harriet replies that the scene they had witnessed that afternoon — the disclosure of hate, envy, lies, and murderous intent by a woman who has stood up for her “own flesh and blood” — is warning enough against that kind of bond.

Until Harriet discovers, understands, and believes that Peter will neither devour nor be devoured, will seek not to overmaster her or run rough-shod over her, she denies her love for him and can think of a thousand reaons they should remain apart. She works hard to will herself to feelings that aren’t hers and to rid herself of feelings that are. In the end, it’s Peter who risks, who humbles himself, as he leads Harriet to a place where she too can accept the risk of their precarious equilibrium.

For the utter enthusiast, some amazingly detailed and useful (though not essential to enjoying the book, by any means)  notes on Gaudy Night, by Bill Peschel.


2 thoughts on “Dorothy Sayers’ GAUDY NIGHT

  1. I feel like I’ve come along to read this rather later than might have been wished, but it’s brilliant. I could read Gaudy Night about 8 more times before laying out any of it so well as you have here.

  2. Ditto. Brilliant article. I knew there was something great about Gaudy Night, but I hadn’t quite figured it out.

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