I’ve confessed here before that I can have trouble staying “objective and professorial” during discussions of Gaudy Night because I love the novel so much. I have loved it pretty much since the first time I read it, which is a long time ago: my personal copy is from a 1978 edition, and though I can’t see any sign on it of when it was actually printed, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was close to that date, which would mean I’ve been rereading it since I was 12 or 13. (Here’s a possible clue: I have the matching edition of Busman’s Honeymoon, and it’s inscribed to me on my 13th birthday, in 1980.)
I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing for me to let on that I love a particular novel. I make no secret of my strong feelings about Middlemarch, after all, but I am also clear that it’s not my job or my purpose to get students to love it, or even like it: I’m trying to help them understand it, and teach them to appreciate it. I also teach novels I don’t particularly like, though I don’t typically make a big deal about that; again, my job (and theirs) is about something else. What’s important is that I encourage, respect, and support students as they develop their own interpretations: my feelings about the novel should not come into this, only my knowledge of the novel and my experience thinking about how its different elements are related, and what they mean.
But are these aspects — my feelings, and what I’ll call my ‘expertise’ — really so unrelated? Don’t I love the novel because of how I interpret it, and don’t I interpret it as I do because of the time and thought I’ve put into reading and rereading it? Or is it that I read and reread it because I love it, and thus I interpret it as I do because of how I feel about it? What does it mean to “love” a novel anyway? And since this particular novel focuses on precisely the challenge of integrating head and heart, can’t I just stop worrying about which came first, the love or the understanding, and be happy that here I find the perfect fusion of the two?
I could, of course, and yet it wouldn’t be intellectually honest not to think carefully about the problems my students routinely raise on their first reading of the novel, and intellectual honesty is the fundamental principle of Gaudy Night. So here are some of them, and some preliminary responses. I think they are intellectual responses, responses based on my ‘objective and professorial’ understanding of the novel. But I worry that they are excuses, ways of getting around problems with the novel, that are motivated by my loving desire to protect it. Maybe — probably — they are some of both! What do you think?
1. The novel is elitist, and/or Harriet is elitist, about education.
I actually think that this is true, but for me it’s not a telling criticism of either Harriet or the novel. Both idealize a certain kind of education, and a set of values, according to which a university education is not for everyone the way we like to think (or talk as if) a university education is for everyone here and now. I thought this objection might be tempered in my Somerville seminar because we’ve already spent quite a bit of time thinking about Oxford as an idealized space as well as a place with very particular social and historical significance for women at this period. Up to this point the university had never been a democratic institution or even, really, a meritocratic one, but women’s access to it mattered and the dream of Oxford as a means for women to transform their lives was very powerful. Gaudy Night explores both this dream and its limits. I also think that it is self-conscious about this as a dream, including for both Harriet and Peter, neither of whom ever really imagines giving up the rest of their lives to embrace an academic vocation. And academic life is shown very much as a vocation, not a profession. It isn’t right for everyone. It isn’t even, as I’ve said, right for Harriet. Oxford itself, too, is shown to be much more (or is it much less?) than that ideal. But to Harriet, and, I think, in the novel overall, the life of the mind that Oxford symbolically represents is something special, something worth aspiring to and cherishing above other options. If that’s elitist, sign me up, I guess.
A key episode that always provokes intense reactions is Harriet’s conversation with her former classmate Catherine Freemantle, now Mrs Bendick, who has become a farmer’s wife. “What damned waste!” Harriet thinks; “All that brilliance, all that trained intelligence, harnessed to a load that any uneducated country girl could have drawn far better.” Is Harriet just being a snob? She asks Mrs Bendick about the “compensations” of her work and Mrs Bendick asserts that it is “a finer thing than spinning words on paper,” but she goes on to admit that she misses “things” and feels resentful of what she has given up. “It seems queer to me now,” she says, “to think that once I was a scholar.” If Sayers had wanted us to see working the land as a genuinely valuable alternative, couldn’t she have made Mrs Bendick happy and confident in her choice instead? Is she, therefore, dismissing farming as lowly labor, unworthy of a certain better class of woman, or is she regretting that a highly educated woman (still a rarity, in 1936) has lost, or given up, the opportunity to use her education?
There’s also Miss Cattermole, the current student who’s getting in all sorts of scrapes and hates that her parents have insisted she go to Oxford when what she wants is to be a nurse or a cook. “We haven’t got room for women who aren’t and never will be scholars,” rages Harriet after their conversation. Cattermole’s mother is of the generation that fought “to get things open to women,” and now Cattermole feels herself a victim of her mother’s feminist ideology. When Harriet demands, “Why do they send these people here?” is she, once again, being elitist, asserting that not everyone is fit to go to university? Or is she upset that a rare space at a women’s college is being wasted on someone who would be perfectly happy without this particular kind of specialized education? Who’s at fault here, anyway? Oxford, for not being right for Cattermole, or Cattermole’s mother, for mistaking her daughter’s opportunity for her daughter’s obligation?
2. The charge of elitism extends also to a more general complaint about class prejudice, and the identity of the perpetrator adds to the sense that the novel overall is kind of snooty.
I think this is partly true, but that it oversimplifies. Harriet herself is not upper class or aristocratic, and the difference in class and wealth between her and Peter is a major stumbling block in their relationship. Her education has changed her social position in some respects, and Oxford itself is a symbolically leveling environment for their relationship (their academic gowns are the same size, even). The privilege represented by the university is not exactly a matter of class, though, and the prejudices most on display in the novel are against the uneducated, or the enemies of (women’s) education. Annie’s own position at the college is a bit of a red herring, as far as class goes: yes, she’s working as a servant, but if things had gone differently she’d be a faculty wife. She’s dangerous and vilified because of her Nazi-affiliated views on women’s proper place, not because the novel (despite being set in a hierarchical, class-conscious world and full of people who take that structure for granted, Harriet included) is anti-working-class. I usually suggest that the central crime in a mystery novel can be read symptomatically. In Gaudy Night, the most dangerous force is a regressive sexism directed against women who have gone, or seek to go beyond, their historically limited roles through education. Such reactionary misogyny is, tragically, not a fiction in today’s world, where as we’ve just seen, it can take a tragically violent turn. Early Oxford women obviously did not face the same literal level of threat, but Annie embodies a version of the kinds of hostilities they really did incite.
3. Peter swoops in and solves the case, reducing Harriet to the status of a sidekick.
It’s true that Peter is the ‘closer’ on this case. It’s also true that he withholds information and delays identifying his chief suspect, nominally on the grounds that he does not have sufficient proof and does not want to drive the suspect into hiding. But he also does so explicitly on the grounds that he thinks Harriet can figure things out for herself. He plays very nearly the ‘Great Detective’ role, including a classic reveal scene in which he lays out the facts of the case as he has sorted them out. Harriet’s role in the dénouement is closer to that of victim than that of heroine or detective: in classic Gothic style, she goes wandering down a dark hallway and nearly gets herself killed. But Peter makes clear that he solved the case only with the help of Harriet’s dossier, and Harriet is taking risks in dark hallways because Peter has joined her on the case but not excluded her from it. Worried for her safety, he nonetheless accepts her right to take risks and encounter danger. Early in the novel he is injured because of a close encounter with a bad guy; now it’s her turn. It might be neater, if equality is the standard, for them to have worked literally together at each stage of the investigation, but their work until this point has been complementary yet not without conflict, and it’s not until after the case has been resolved that their relationship finally achieves mutuality (and they can finally kiss!). Disappointment that Harriet doesn’t triumphantly solve the case on her own ignores the novel’s dual purpose: it’s both a detective novel and a novel about the complicated relationship between Harriet and Peter. It is set up from the beginning so that both of these aspects need resolution. Harriet needs to figure out how she can retain her autonomy and love Peter. Feminism doesn’t have to mean doing everything without anyone else’s help. And love doesn’t have to mean capitulation. Harriet herself at one point imagines how much easier it would be to be “ridden over roughshod,” because hammering out an equitable alternative is exhausting in a world that sets up obstacles rather than providing models. Peter is not the man for that job, however–and a good thing, too, or she’d have to do a full-out Jane Eyre on him before they could marry with no threat to her self-respect.
4. Peter buys Harriet a dog collar to wear. He even wants to put his name on it! Clearly that’s a sign that their relationship is about her submission and his control.
When I brought this up on Twitter, other readers promptly chimed in to say that, like me, they had never been perturbed by this–one noted that the dog collar is a handy solution to a pragmatic problem (what else could she wear as protection against strangulation?), while another remarked that her sense of the Harriet-Peter relationship was already strong enough at that point that there didn’t seem to be a problem. All three of us are resisting reading the dog collar symbolically, or at least as a symbol of ownership or control. In any other book, I don’t think I would resist this reading. Am I being disingenuous in arguing that I think it’s crucial to put the incident and the gift in context? Peter spends most of the novel explicitly not controlling Harriet: that’s not what he wants from their relationship, and the dog collar is proposed, in fact, as a means to her ends — with its protection, she can continue to take whatever risks she wants and live to fight (or write) another day. He doesn’t force it on her: she accepts it and later chooses to wear it. I’ve always felt that its symbolic role lies in that acceptance, which ties back to the problem of balancing independence with love. She has held Peter at bay because she believes she’s only safe (only retains her dignity and autonomy) if she takes nothing from anybody, or at any rate takes nothing from him. Gaudy Night is about her evolution away from that premise. What she finds at Oxford, and through her work on this case, is enough confidence in herself not to fear his generosity. The admittedly weird but fundamentally pragmatic gift of the dog collar opens the way to the gift of the chess set, which is an apt marker of the changing balance in their relationship. (There was another interpretation bandied about on Twitter, something to do with dog collars and their, er, erotic potential. Can we just rule out of order any attempt to turn this into 50 Shades of Sayers? As your whimsy takes you, indeed…)
5. In Busman’s Honeymoon Harriet is marginalized even further from the detective plot; this just completes the downward trajectory of Gaudy Night.
It is definitely true that in Busman’s Honeymoon Harriet is no longer on the case, and if the true measure of equality in their marriage was co-detecting happily ever after, then I concede the failure. But Harriet is a writer, not a detective! In Gaudy Night, that’s the strength she brings to the case and also the real quest she’s on (transforming the two-dimensional plot of her own detective novel into something more layered and complex)–well, that and learning to love again. I love Busman’s Honeymoon too, but the murder case in it always annoys me because I’m reading it for the romance. Gaudy Night is special because all of these aspects converge so splendidly.
Oh dear. Although I believe everything I’ve said here with all my head and my heart, and also believe these interpretations are entirely, dispassionately, defensible, there is an air of special pleading, isn’t there? And a disconcerting tendency to talk about Harriet and Peter as if they are really truly real … Please feel free to pitch in with your thoughts on the novel, and particularly on Objections 1-5. Clearly, I can use all the help I can get. Luckily for me, and perhaps also for them, tomorrow we begin discussions of South Riding, which I don’t know nearly well enough to love.