Both the setting and the crime provide fitting counterpoint to the unfolding of Harriet and Peter's relationship. Oxford had only recently admitted women to membership in the university; the women's colleges (dorms) Lady Mary Hall and Somerville had opened in 1879, but even as late as 1906, male dons could exclude women from their classrooms if they wished. Women students pushed to be allowed to take the same examinations as their male counterparts, a request that led to much controversy during the opening decades of the century. Even those who passed their exams, such as Dorothy Sayers, who took first-class honors in 1915, were not granted degrees until 1920, when at last the University deigned to give women students full status.
|Women of St. Hilda's College, Oxford, 1921|
The issue of gender equality also lies at the heart of Harriet and Peter's potential relationship, a relationship that began under the most unequal of circumstances. Harriet's motive for murdering her former lover, stems not from jealousy or betrayal, but because he made a fool of her. Insisting that she live openly with him because he did not believe in marriage, Philip Boyes only told her a year later that in fact her acquiescence was only a test of how abject her devotion was. Harriet immediately broke up with him. "Were you friends?" Peter asks her when they first meet. "No" she says, "the word [breaking] out with a kind of repressed savagery that startled him" (SP 36). Her former lover didn't want a friend, especially a female one, and Harriet despises herself for not seeing his self-absorption sooner.
At first, Peter seems little better than Harriet's callow former lover. So overwhelmed by his unexpected reaction to her during her first trial (which results in a hung jury), he can't stop himself from proposing the first time they meet—while she is still in gaol. He tells her:
I was absolutely stunned that first day in court, and I rushed off to my mater, who's an absolute dear, and the kind of person who really understands things, and I said, 'Look here! here's the absolute one and only woman, and she's being put through a simply ghastly awful business and for God's sake come and hold my hand!' You simply don't know how foul it is. (SP 38)
Throughout the middle book, Have His Carcase, Harriet's frustrations at being beholden to Peter, being cast in the role of beggar girl to his beneficent king, continue to plague her, and the two fall into bouts of snapping and bickering worthy of any romance novel. But still, at novel's end, they remain apart.
|King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, by|
John Byam Liston Shaw
The question for Harriet, then, becomes not "do I love him," but rather, is "a marriage of two independent and equally irritable intelligences... reckless to the point of insanity" (376)? Can a romantic relationship exist without one party being subordinated to the other, subsumed by the other? Though the means by which Harriet and Peter explore this question—sonnets, chess sets, punting on the river, classical concert-going, and above all, arguments both abstract and personal—are grounded in the fierce intellectualism of 1935's Oxford elite, the answer this early 20th century novel provides proves just as feminist, and just as romantically satisfying, as that found in any 21st century romance.
Who are your favorite romantic mystery-solving couples?
St. Hilda students: Oxford Today
Shaw, King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid: Incredible Art Gallery
Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night 1935