Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Detective Love, 1930's style: Dorothy Sayers' GAUDY NIGHT

Before I discovered romance novels as an early adolescent, the genre that occupied most of my reading hours was the mystery. It was rare to find me without a yellow-spined Nancy Drew, or, later, a Trixie Belden, in hand, pages turning almost as fast as my eye could scan. In the days before amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Waldenbooks, I haunted the book aisle of the local Child World toy store, eagerly awaiting the arrival of the latest installment in my favorite series. Even after I became a romance reader, I still read a lot of mysteries (although Nancy's relationship with bland beau Ned Nickerson hardly supplied the romantic punch of a Harlequin). My go-to author during those teen years, as she was for so many other millions of mystery fans, was Agatha Christie. My favorite of her detectives was not the intellectual Hercule Poirot, nor even the small-town amateur sleuth Miss Marple, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, the friends who turn into lovers and later marriage partners Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. My paperback copies of The Secret Adversary (1922), Partners in Crime (1922) and N or M? (1941) all had pages leaking out of their bindings, so often had I cracked them open to read and reread about the intrepid, impulsive Tuppence and the solid, loyal Tommy, bright young things whose complimenting personalities made them not only the perfect detective pair, but a winning romantic couple.

It wasn't until college, though, when I discovered the works of Dorothy Sayers, that I truly found a writer who was as interested in the workings of egalitarian romantic relationships as she was in teasing out the intricacies of a tangled mystery plot. The difficult courtship between Lord Peter Wimsey, English aristocratic gentleman detective, and mystery writer Harriet Vane, unfolds over the course of three novels. In 1931's Strong Poison, Harriet is accused of murder, and Peter discovers the true culprit; in 1932's Have His Carcase, the two work together to discover a murder after Harriet stumbles across a dead body while on holiday; and in 1935's Gaudy Night, Harriet calls Peter in to help her find the culprit behind a rash of poison pen notes and other offensive pranks played against the dons and scholars of her alma mater, the invented Shrewsbury College of the very real Oxford University.

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 quest for gender equality serves as the backdrop against which the novel's mystery—who is the perpetrator of the smear campaign being conducted against the unmarried dons and the most successful female students of Shrewsbury—plays out. Is it a man, disgruntled by the unprecedented inroads female scholars have made in the previously male-only preserve of Oxford? Is is a failed student, out for revenge against the women dons? Or is it, more frighteningly, the very specter misogynistic nay-sayers have been waving for years to warn against the dangers of educating women—the specter of the repressed virgin intellectual spinster, a female scholar whose overtaxed brain and sexually-frustrated body had driven her mad, turning her viciously against her own kind? Even though any intelligent female would laugh to scorn such an obviously sexist straw woman, Sayers seems to suggest, its all-too-frequent invocation cannot but echo, sending invidious tendrils of doubt creeping even into the minds of the most rational.

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)

Even for Lord Peter, renowned for hiding his sensitivity and intelligence behind a self-mockingly loquacious manner, the outburst is ridiculously self-absorbed. But the novel ends a bit more promisingly: rather than hang about after Harriet's acquittal, Peter drives off. As Harriet's friend tells her, "He's not going to do the King Cophetua stunt, and I take my hat off to him. If you want him, you'll have to send for him" (SP 192). King Cophetua, the king in the story of the King and the Beggar Maid, feels no sexual stirring for any woman until he spies a beggar maid outside his window. Rushing outside, he scatters coins to the beggars; when the girl draws near, he tells her that she must be his wife. Harriet's friend thus suggests that Peter won't use Harriet's gratitude toward him for saving her life to guilt her into marrying him. Harriet insists she won't be sending for Peter, despite her friend's assurances that she will.

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
At the start of Gaudy Night, though, when Harriet revisits Shrewsbury for the first time since graduating, and impertinent people cannot help but ask her about the famous aristocratic detective, she finds herself taken aback by how "the mere sound of his name still had the power to provoke such explosions in herself—that she could so passionately resent, at one and the same time, either praise or blame of him on other people's lips" (GN 57). And when she asks him for his help with the mystery at Shrewsbury, and he comes to offer his aid in person, she sees him through the eyes of others—his nephew, now at Oxford himself; a college porter who once served in Wimsey's army brigade (he served as a Major in WWI); the Balloil dons who taught him while he was an undergraduate; former college friends. Their assumptions about Peter, as well as her own newly awakened eyes, allow Harriet to realize that there is far more to Peter than her initial embittered perceptions allowed her to see.

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.

Placetne, magistra?

Who are your favorite romantic mystery-solving couples?

Photo credits:
St. Hilda students: Oxford Today
Shaw, King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid: Incredible Art Gallery

Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night 1935


  1. Oh, I can't settle on one, but "classically," Hammett's Nick and Nora Charles. More recently, Julia Spencer-Fleming's PC Russ Van Alstyne and Reverend Claire Fergusson.

    1. Thanks, Miss Bates, for the Spencer-Fleming rec. I'll have to check that series out. And of course, Nick & Nora -- anyone interested in learning the difference between boring bickering and witty banter should check them out!

  2. GAUDY NIGHT - the first feminist mystery novel. (Or at least the first one I'm aware of.) The relationship between Harriet and Peter in that book is what I aspire to.

    I read the Tommy and Tuppence Beresford books too, though they weren't my favorite Christie novels the way they were yours. As for detective couples who are also romantically involved, the only one that comes to mind is Nick and Nora Charles. I've only seen a couple of the movies; I haven't read the books. There are plenty that are platonic or where the man's wife or SO plays an important role in a few but not all stories (Troy and Roderick Alleyn; Albert Campion and Amanda Fitton).

    1. Since we're coming up with so few examples, I'm wondering whether there is something genre-wise that sets romance at odds with mystery. There's a lot of romantic suspense out there, but far fewer books with mystery-solving couples.

      One key feminist moment in GAUDY NIGHT is when Peter, despite his protective urges, does not insist that Harriet leave Shrewsbury, that she place herself away from danger while he stays behind and does the real investigating. Romantic suspense focuses so much on the "woman in danger" for its tension and kick; is mystery-solving more cerebral? So it seems at odds with the emotional focus of a romance?

    2. I haven't found that to be true. In cozy mysteries, the heroine often falls for a member of law enforcement. It's a convenient plot device that allows our amateur sleuth to be front and center for all the excitement.

  3. I first read Sayers back in the 1970s when Masterpiece Theatre was showing the Ian Carmichael Lord Peter's. I have to say I liked Edward Petherbridge as well although I'd like to shoot the person who adapted Gaudy Night. Gaudy Night was totally Harriet's story and whoever wrote the script seemed to make it Peter's story. As far as other crime-solving couples, there's Nick and Nora Charles and of course, MacMillan and Wife!

    1. Interesting that our examples are primarily from film & TV -- I was a HUGE Laura Holt/Remington Steele fan (at least the first season or two), and also loved MOONLIGHTING...

  4. Once I started reading Georgette Heyer's mysteries, it was hard for me to go back to Agatha Christie. Her dialogue and characters have such a delicious bite to them -I think two of her heroines raise pit bulls (?). But her mysteries never seemed as well plotted as her romances - oddly - and while some of her mystery heroines were interesting, I can't think of one where the hero and heroine together solved the crime (I didn't have time to research, so maybe there's one out there). Her best female detective might be Sophy from The Grand Sophy (a regency romance), who is the only one who clues in that another character is in danger, then promptly takes her gun and deals with it.

    I mentioned this in a comment on another post, but I agree most authors struggle to have a strong heroine in a romantic suspense (which I think of as the romantic corollary to the mystery genre). This is a real gap. I love mystery and suspense, but doormat heroines are one of my turn-offs. Unfortunately, the TSTL heroine is alive and well in romantic suspense. I wrote about this on my blog a while ago - as heroes get more alpha, the heroines need to be more bold, or the power dynamic of the romance feels seriously unbalanced.

    1. It depends on what romantic suspense you read. So far, all of the female MCs in Mary Stewart books of romantic suspense I've read are self-reliant and not TSTL or damsels in distress; in general, they save themselves. The same is true of female MCs who are themselves in law enforcement like Eve Dallas in J.D. Robb/Nora Robert's In Death series. I've actually had better luck with romantic suspense than with contemporary romance when it comes to finding women who aren't doormats.

      It seems to me that the insistence on alpha "heroes," and on alphas being more and more alpha, is part of the problem. If (and I don't know enough about romance as a genre to say whether it's true or not) alpha status is more important than it used to be, and what it means more extreme, that seems like a partial explanation for why so much of today's romance genre seems so retrogressive to the point where I find Mary Stewart's forty-plus year old novels refreshing. .

  5. What a coincidence! I've been on a Dorothy L. Sayers kick lately, and I just finished that one last week. There is one part I remember in particular: The dons are debating work/life balance ( I think they refer to it as public life versus private life) and I couldn't help thinking, "It's been eighty years, and we've still made no progress on this issue!"

    Okay, on to the recommendations. One of my favorite crime-fighting couples is probably Brooklyn and Derek from the Bibliophile series by Kate Carlisle. They're both so emotionally healthy and put together, it's just a pleasure to read about them. They use their words and everything! All the drama comes from the mystery, not the relationship.

    Also, I just read a great historical mystery series by Tasha Alexander. The first book is called "And Only To Deceive". It gave me a great insight into gender roles/expectations in Victorian England, and it has a great crime-fighting couple.

  6. Well there's Elizabeth Peter's Amelia Peabody and Radcliffe Emerson and her Vicky Bliss and John Tregarth/Smythe. Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels also wrote some great couples who solve mysteries in her one-off romanatic suspense/gothics as well.

    Margaret Maron's Judge Deborah Knott and Sheriff's Deputy Dwight Bryant. At the beginning of Maron's series Knot and Bryant are involved with other people -- and only gradually do they become involved and then married.

    Another couple whose relationship evolves slowly is Deborah Crombie's Scotland Yard series with Superintendent Duncan Kincaid and his assistant Sergeant Gemma James. Crombie's an American, but she lived for years in the UK and still visits there regularly and these books feel very, very British.

    1. Thanks for the recs, anonymous. I'm looking forward to checking them out.

    2. I utterly adore Peabody and Emerson and would have chimed in with them earlier except I missed the post the first time around.

  7. Vicky's mention of Tasha Alexander "And Only To Deceive" reminds me of another good Victorian series being written now by Deanna Raybourn, the Lady Julia Grey series starting with Silent in the Grave, which also features a woman fighting the role imposed on her as a new widow and a man who understands her concerns. Like Miss Bates, I love Julia Spencer-Fleming's Russ Van Alstyne and Reverend Claire Fergusson. But Peter and Harriet remain my favourites!