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Thursday, November 10, 2016

We Should Have Figured Out Gaudy Night Earlier

Spoiler Alert! If you have not finished Dorothy L. Sayers’s brilliant 1936 novel Gaudy Night yet, this essay Reveals All. Beware!

When Harriet Vane attends her college’s Gaudy, she has the disagreeable experience of picking up a piece of paper in the quad and finding it is a vulgar, not to say obscene, drawing of a naked female figure attacking an indeterminate figure in a scholar’s cap and gown. This is in chapter II, just after she has had two experiences with Miss de Vine, who has unsettled Harriet to a remarkable degree. As Harriet returns to London at the end of Chapter III, she finds a message on a scrap of paper tucked into the sleeve of her own gown, made with letters cut from a newspaper: “YOU DIRTY MURDERESS. AREN’T YOU ASHAMED TO SHOW YOUR FACE?” She had thought she was leaving this kind of persecution behind her when she had gone to Oxford; to find it there strikes her with pain.

Chapter IV gives a short history of Harriet and Peter Wimsey, explaining Harriet’s dilemma about him in fuller detail. While Harriet and Peter are dining at the Optimist’s Club, Harriet’s bag falls on the floor and a post card falls out: “Ask your boy friend with the title if he likes arsenic in his soup. What did you give him to get you off?” This one is a red herring. It has nothing to do with the Oxford college lunatic, although Harriet lumps it with that one. But it does make her change her mind about ending her relationship with Peter just then.

Further into the same chapter comes the letter from the Dean of Shrewsbury, Miss Martin. She asks Harriet to come up to Oxford and help them with the problem of the Poison Pen. The information in the letter, put together with Harriet’s own messages, points to someone who had been in residence during the time of the Gaudy.

In Chapter V Harriet learns about all the messages to that point:
There were a number of messages, addressed to various members of the S.C.R., and informing them, with various disagreeable epithets, that their sins would find them out, that they were not fit for decent society and that unless they left men alone, various unpleasing things would occur to them. Some of these missives had come by post; others had been found on window-sills or pushed under doors; all were made up of the same cut-out letters pasted on sheets of rough scribbling-paper. Two other messages had been sent to undergraduates: one, to the Senior Student, a very well-bred and inoffensive young woman who was reading Greats; the other to a Miss Flaxman, a brilliant Second Year scholar. The latter was rather more definite than most of the letters, in that it mentioned a name: “If you don’t leave young Farringdon alone,” it said, adding an abusive term, “it will be the worse for you.”
Two other items were books by two of the Faculty that had been destroyed. Miss Barton’s book, The Position of Women in the Modern State, had been found on the fire in the Junior Common Room. Miss Lydgate’s manuscript work, English Prosody, had been stolen out of the library and defaced throughout with black India-ink, and parts of it had been totally destroyed.

Finally, there had been a bonfire one night of academic gowns in one of the quads.

In discussing these things and the suspicions attaching to them, the members of the Senior Common Room reveal various prejudices and opinions, including hostility toward Harriet. They narrow the circle of suspects down to the members of the Senior Common Room, their secretaries, the Scouts (maids) who serve the college, and those few students who had been still in residence when the Gaudy took place.

One of the more important discussions for the purposes of figuring out the mystery is the one about the position of the Scouts. The introduction of the problem of class prejudice is a particularly effective red herring, meant to put off any serious consideration of the Scouts as suspects. One must, mustn’t one, bend over backward to avoid the appearance of a prejudice that has recently become politically incorrect? That is what happens here.

Otherwise the attacks on the two scholars’ works (works that attack male superiority and male scholarship), together with the diatribes against academic women who are full of sins, who don’t leave men alone, who aren’t fit for decent society—all these clearly point to a person who disapproves of women filling a position in society once reserved for men. This woman has to be one who lives in the College—because sometimes things are posted and sometimes they are put in place when there could be no visitor in the college. Furthermore, she has to be someone who goes out of the college on a somewhat regular basis so that she could post letters back in. It is someone who can cut up newspapers and paste letters on papers and dispose of the evidence of that activity without leaving any traces in any rooms in the college.

It all points pretty clearly to a Scout with outside ties being the most likely suspect at this point. By process of elimination, why would a Senior Fellow, a lifelong scholar, suddenly begin to attack her colleagues and students? Not very likely, although Miss Hillyard is put forth as the most likely suspect for that scenario. But Miss Hillyard despises men, not scholarly women. She is the reverse of the character we’re looking for.

The only other suspect among the Senior Common Room is Miss de Vine. But great care has been taken by the author to describe Miss de Vine’s character. She is introduced to Harriet in Chapter I as a person who is a Research Fellow, “a nice person,” and one who likes Harriet’s books and looks forward to talking with her about them. She has had a recent breakdown of some kind and does not have a professorship because she is judged not able to handle tutorials. That’s a red flag, but it’s a red herring too, because when Harriet looks at her, she sees through her:
And, looking at her, she saw at once that here was a scholar . . . . Here was a fighter, indeed; but one to whom the quadrangle of Shrewsbury was a native and proper arena: a soldier knowing no personal loyalties, whose sole allegiance was to the fact. A Miss Lydgate, standing serenely untouched by the world, could enfold it in a genial warmth of charity; this woman, with infinitely more knowledge of the world, would rate it at a just value and set it out of her path if it incommoded her. The thin, eager face, with its large grey eyes deeply set and luminous behind thick glasses, was sensitive to impressions; but behind that sensitiveness was a mind as hard and immovable as granite. . . . If anything came between her and the service of truth, she would walk over it without rancour and without pity—even if it were her own reputation.
Her encounter with Harriet about Harriet’s books is even more pointedly clear about Miss de Vine’s core character, which functions as the Voice of Truth throughout the novel:
After ten minutes, during which Miss de Vine ruthlessly turned her victim’s brain inside out, shook the facts out of it like a vigorous housemaid shaking dust from a carpet, beat it, refreshed it, rubbed up the surface of it, relaid it in a new position and tacked it into place with a firm hand, the Dean mercifully came up and burst into the conversation.
This is clearly not the sort of woman who would stoop to Poison Pen letters. She would confront any problem she saw head on with clarity and a view to solving it.

Next possibility, would a student attack these women? No case is made yet for this scenario, but on the face of it, it must be unlikely, as Harriet seemed to be one of the very earliest targets, and at the Gaudy none of the students in residence apparently knew who she was or what her particular notoriety consisted of.

One discussion tries to rule out the Scouts, which is that all the messages thus far have contained no spelling errors. As the Dean puts it to Harriet, “A good speller could pretend to be a bad one; but a bad speller can’t pretend to be a good one”; they go on to discuss whether they can rule out Scouts who might be better spellers than they are.

The theme of why the Scouts should be ruled out continues with a message pinned to an effigy in academic dress, the message a description of harpies written in Latin hexameters by the ancient poet Virgil, something presumably the Scouts would not know. But just before that is found, in Chapter VI the college lunatic attacks the preparations for the dedication of the Library by throwing around all the books and pictures and painting obscenities on the walls. Harriet and Miss Barton, the Bursar, discover it in the middle of the night and are able to alert everyone necessary to get everything put back in order before the guests arrive and the ceremony is held.

In the course of that morning, Harriet has a conversation with one of the Scouts, Annie, who brings her some food while she is watching over things in the Library before the ceremony starts. The conversation reveals that Annie has two little girls, that she and they used to live in a manufacturing town, that she feels that Harriet ought to be married and have children, and that she thinks it is not natural to see “all these unmarried ladies living together”—at which Harriet changes the subject to the Library. And this provokes Annie to reveal this opinion: “But it seems a great shame to keep up this big place just for women to study books in. I can’t see what girls want with books. Books won’t teach them to be good wives.” She further says that the scholarly women there have no heart in them, and that the Bible says “much learning hath made thee mad” as though that applies to the women Annie serves, and Harriet catches a very odd look in Annie’s eyes. Annie finishes by saying that everything started happening “since a certain person came into the college,” meaning Miss de Vine.

Harriet interprets it all to mean that Annie knows something about the college poltergeist. But she thinks Annie has only seen the culprit, not that Annie could be the culprit herself, despite the clues to this point fitting perfectly with Annie’s situation, personality, and opinions.

Still, this is very early, only Chapter VI, and there have been several red herrings thrown out, as the Virgilian hexameters will obscure things in the very next chapter. Miss Sayers has outwitted most of her readers by this point, and will continue to obfuscate the matter until much later in the book. After all, the reader has been waiting for the arrival of Lord Peter, and before that happens, we will be almost diverted from our detective purpose by the antics of Lord Peter’s nephew, by the big, blundering student Reggie Pomfret who develops a mad crush on Harriet, and by the consideration of one after another of those red herrings—students and faculty. Finally, when Peter arrives, he himself introduces an extreme diversion in the furtherance of the romance between himself and Harriet. It becomes almost more important than the solution of the mystery—almost, but the solution of the romance would be quite unsatisfying without Peter’s explanation of the simplicity of the mystery.

Perhaps the simplicity is why Peter had to be held off stage for so long. Had he come too soon, he would have seen too soon, as we might have done in Chapter VI, that there was really only one likely solution after all, classist though it might seem.




Note: This photograph from Somerville College has nothing to do with the story of Gaudy Night, but Dorothy L. Sayers is one of its distinguished alumnae.

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