Gaudy Night

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Gaudy Night
File:Gaudy night.JPG
First edition
Author Dorothy Leigh Sayers
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Series Lord Peter Wimsey
Genre Detective fiction, Mystery fiction
Publisher Gollancz
Publication date
Media type Print (hardback & paperback)
Preceded by The Nine Tailors
Followed by Busman's Honeymoon

Gaudy Night (1935) is a mystery novel by Dorothy L. Sayers, the tenth in her popular series about aristocratic sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey, and the third featuring crime writer Harriet Vane.

The dons of Harriet Vane's alma mater, the all-female Shrewsbury College, Oxford (a thinly veiled take on Sayers' own Somerville College[1]), have invited her back to attend the much anticipated annual 'Gaudy' celebrations. However, the mood turns sour when someone begins a series of malicious pranks including poison-pen messages, obscene graffiti, the destruction of a set of proofs and crafting vile effigies. Desperate to avoid a possible murder in college, Harriet eventually asks her old friend Wimsey to investigate.

Explanation of the novel's title

"Gaudy" derives from the Latin gaudium and Old French gaudie, meaning "merry-making" or "enjoyment". A college gaudy is a meeting for former members. The phrase "gaudy night" is taken from Shakespeare's Antony & Cleopatra:

Let's have one other gaudy night: call to me / All my sad captains; fill our bowls once more / Let's mock the midnight bell.

— Antony and Cleopatra, Act III scene 13 line 187

Plot summary

Harriet Vane returns with trepidation to Shrewsbury College, Oxford to attend the Gaudy dinner. Expecting hostility because of her notoriety, she is surprised to be welcomed warmly by the dons, and rediscovers her old love of the academic life.

Some time later the Dean of Shrewsbury writes to ask for help. There has been an outbreak of anonymous letters, vandalism and threats, apparently from someone within the college, and a scandal is feared. Harriet, herself a victim of poison-pen letters since her trial, reluctantly agrees to help, and spends much of the next few months in residence at the college, ostensibly to do research on Sheridan Le Fanu and assist a don with her book.

File:Somerville College, Oxford - Library2.JPG
A modern-day view of Somerville College, Oxford, the inspiration for the fictional Shrewsbury College and Sayer's alma mater

As she wrestles with the case, trying to narrow down the list of suspects and avert a major scandal, Harriet is forced to examine her ambivalent feelings about love and marriage, along with her attraction to academia as an intellectual (and emotional) refuge. Her personal dilemma becomes entangled with darkly hinted suspicions and prejudices raised by the crimes at the college, which appear to have been committed by a sexually frustrated female don. Harriet is forced to re-examine her relationship with Wimsey in the light of what she has discovered about herself. Wimsey eventually arrives in Oxford to help her, and she gains a new perspective on him from those who know him, including his nephew, an undergraduate at the university.

The attacks build to a crisis, and the college community of students, dons and servants is almost torn apart by suspicion and fear. There is an attempt to drive a vulnerable student to suicide and a physical assault on Harriet that almost kills her. The perpetrator is finally unmasked by Wimsey as one of the college servants, revealed to be the widow of a disgraced academic at a northern university. Her husband's academic fraud had been exposed by one of his fellow dons there, destroying his career and driving him to suicide. The don has since moved to Shrewsbury College, and the campaign has been the widow's revenge against intellectual women who move outside their "proper" domestic sphere.

At the end of the book, Harriet Vane finally accepts Wimsey's proposal of marriage. (Their wedding and honeymoon—interrupted by another murder mystery—are depicted in Busman's Honeymoon.)

Characters in Gaudy Night

  • Harriet Vane – protagonist, a mystery writer
  • Lord Peter Wimsey – protagonist, an aristocratic amateur detective
  • Letitia Martin – Dean of Shrewsbury College
  • Helen de Vine – A new Research Fellow at Shrewsbury College
  • Miss Lydgate – Harriet's former tutor[2]
  • Dr Baring – Warden of Shrewsbury College
  • Miss Hillyard – A history don at Shrewsbury College
  • Phoebe Tucker – Harriet's old college friend
  • Lord Saint-George – Lord Peter's nephew, an undergraduate at Christ Church, Oxford
  • Reggie Pomfret – An undergraduate at Queen's College
  • Miss Burrows – The college librarian
  • Annie Wilson – A scout at Shrewsbury College
  • Padgett – The Head Porter at Shrewsbury College
  • Mervyn Bunter – Lord Peter's valet

Literary significance and criticism

Although no murder occurs in Gaudy Night, it is not without a great deal of suspense and psychological thrills. The narrative is interwoven with a love story and an examination of women's struggles to enlarge their roles and achieve some independence within the social climate of 1930s England, and the novel has been described as "the first feminist mystery novel."[3]

Jacques Barzun: "Gaudy Night is a remarkable achievement. Harriet Vane and Saint-George, the undergraduate nephew of Lord Peter, help give variety, and the college setting justifies good intellectual debate. The motive is magnificently orated on by the culprit in a scene that is a striking set-piece. And though the Shrewsbury dons are sometimes hard to distinguish one from another, the College architecture is very good. Note a reference to C. P. Snow's The Search, and sound views on counterpoint versus harmony."[4]

Gaudy Night deals with a number of philosophical themes, such as the right relation between love and independence or between principles and personal loyalties. Susan Haack has an essay on Gaudy Night as a philosophical novel.[5]

Women's education

The issue of women's right to academic education is central to the book's plot. The lecturers of Shrewsbury College are veterans of the prolonged struggle for academic degrees to women, which Oxford granted only reluctantly (Sayers herself took part in this struggle). The lecturers are surprised and a bit dismayed at the attitude of their students, who take for granted this right for which such a hard struggle had to be waged.

And in fact, the struggle is not yet completely won. Some of the male lecturers in Oxford are still not happy with women getting degrees; the number of women in the University is restricted by statute to no more than 25% (a restriction which would only be removed in the 1970s); women are segregated in special women's colleges such as Shrewsbury, while the prestigious historic colleges remain exclusively male; women's colleges are starved for funds and run on a shoestring.

Publication of such going-ons as happen in the book (poison-pen letters, vandalism, the near-suicide of a student and near-murder of a lecturer) would discredit and severely damage Shrewsbury College in particular and the cause of women's education in general. Therefore, all this must be kept secret – which rules out any approach to the police or other outside agency.

For most of the book, it is assumed that the perpetrator is mentally deranged and that this is a sufficient motive. But as it turned out, in fact all these acts were carried out by deliberate design, with the conscious intention of causing just such a discrediting of women's education. Ironically the perpetrator turns out to be a strong, assertive woman, capable of taking bold initiatives and setting the agenda for everybody else – and making use of all this to aggressively promote a violently anti-feminist agenda.

International background

A subplot in the book is Peter Wimsey's role as an informal envoy of the British Foreign Ministry, called upon to help defuse international crises where more conventional diplomats have failed. For much of the book he is in Italy, dealing with a major crisis which for a time seemed to threaten the outbreak of a new European war (as he tells Bunter). Though not explicitly named, this was clearly the Abyssinia Crisis, and the reference would probably have been clear to readers at the time. The book reflects the mindset at the time of writing, when the outbreak of the Second World War had not yet come to seem inevitable.

In the frame of the book's plot, Wimsey's diplomatic obligations serve as a plot device to keep him away from Britain, and leave Harriet on her own for most of the book, to try to resolve the mystery at Oxford without his help.

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

It was adapted for television in 1987 as part of a series starring Edward Petherbridge as Lord Peter and Harriet Walter as Harriet Vane.

In 2005, an adaptation of the novel was released on CD by the BBC Radio Collection to finally complete the run of Wimsey adaptations begun with Whose Body? in 1973; the role of Harriet was played by Joanna David, and Wimsey by Ian Carmichael.

In 2006, a theatrical adaptation was created by Frances Limoncelli and directed by Dorothy Milne at Lifeline Theatre in Chicago.[6]

The plot of Gaudy Night was adapted to become the two-part Out of the Past episode (#155 & #156) of the American television mystery series Diagnosis: Murder starring Dick van Dyke as Dr. Mark Sloan. The episode first aired on 11 May 2000.

See also


  1. Somerville Stories – Dorothy L Sayers, Somerville College, University of Oxford, UK.
  2. This character is based on Mildred Pope, Sayers' tutor at Somerville College. Kennedy, Elspeth (2005). "Mildred K. Pope (1872–1956): Anglo-Norman Scholar". In Jane Chance (ed.). Women medievalists and the academy. Madison: U of Wisconsin Press. pp. 147–56. ISBN 978-0-299-20750-2.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Randi Sørsdal (2006). From Mystery to Manners: A Study of Five Detective Novels by Dorothy L. Sayers (Masters thesis). University of Bergen. p. 45.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>[1]
  4. Barzun, Jacques and Taylor, Wendell Hertig. A Catalogue of Crime. New York: Harper & Row. 1971, revised and enlarged edition 1989. ISBN 0-06-015796-8
  5. Haack, Susan (May 2001). "After my own heart: Dorothy Sayers' feminism. Reflections on Gaudy Night, the philosophical novel, and old-school feminism", The New Criterion, Vol. 19. Reprinted in Cassandra L. Pinnick, Noretta Koertge, and Robert F. Almeder (eds) (2003). Scrutinizing Feminist Epistemology: An Examination of Gender in Science. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, pp. 244–251. ISBN 0-8135-3227-2.
  6. Gaudy Night in Chicago

External links