The phrase “gaudy night” is not unique to Dorothy Sayers. Shakespeare employed it in “Antonius and 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.”1
However, Ms. Sayers’ usage is unique in that her title turns on an uncommon meaning of the word “gaudy”. It refers to a celebratory dinner held at Oxford in honor of its alumni. 2She may also be hinting at the Middle English origins of the word, which refer to a prank or trick.3
Although the cover proclaims the book to be “A Lord Peter Wimsey Novel”, the story actually focuses on an investigation led by Harriet Vane. It is not until the last third of the novel that Lord Peter becomes an actively major character.
I say “actively”, because a recurring theme throughout the novel is Harriet’s dilemma of what to do about Peter. It has been five years since he saved her life in Strong Poison, and throughout those years he has persistently proposed marriage to her in every possible way. Just as persistently, she has refused him. And yet he just won’t give up.
As the book begins, Harriet is a bitter, defensive, selfish person trapped by her past. Gradually, she begins to change. She begins to be observant, to focus on someone other that herself, to realize the falsity of her assumptions, and to see the value of Peter’s friendship. Some of the book’s most poignant passages occur at these points.
It is hard to decide whether the love story or the mystery itself comprises the subplot.
The big problem in re the mystery is who is responsible for an obscene reign of terror that has plagued Shrewsbury women’s college, Oxford, ever since the gaudy Harriet attends at the beginning of the book. What seems to be an annoying rash of anonymous letters and destructive pranks turns sinister when it becomes obvious that murder may soon enter the picture.
Things begin to get rather tense with suspicions and nerves running high, and Harriet finds that she cannot handle the case on her own.
For the first time, she feels her need for Peter–and he is not there.
There are several very unsatisfactory elements in the story. The first is Lord Peter’s frank admission that “I have nothing much in the way of religion, or even morality.”4 This is hardly remedied by his subsequent statement that “I do recognize a code of behavior of sorts.”5 And yet, this fictional character is perhaps more honest in this admission than many people today who claim religion but whose lives do not bear evident fruit.
The second unsatisfactory element is the book’s strong feministic overtones. It is hard to tell whether this expresses the author’s true philosophy or whether she is merely using it to her advantage in this story dominated by education and women.
Finally, most unsatisfactory is the ultimate end of the captured criminal: medical rehabilitation. This is not a Biblical method of dealing with obscenity, destruction of property, slander, and attempted murder. “Madness” does not excuse one from the penalty of one’s sin.
Despite these faults, I still found this book completely enthralling, and believe it was worth reading. One thing I especially like about Ms. Sayers’ writing is the frequent references she made to other literature within her books, such as the Bible, Shakespeare, and Edmund Spenser. It gives one a pleasant feeling of knowledge if you happen to be familiar with a passage, and if not, you are spurred on to learn where it came from. If all the references and quotations were meant to be understood by the average reader, then Sayers lived in a much more literate time than our own.
1.Shakespeare, “Antonius and Cleopatra” XI,11, 225, cited in “Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night, annotated by Bill Peschel”, http://www.planetpeschel.com/index/wimsey/notes/C16/
2.Compact Oxford English Dictionary of Current English, http://www.askoxford.com/concise_oed/gaudy_2?view=uk
3.The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, http://www.bartleby.com/61/9/G0060900.html
4.Sayers, Dorothy L. Gaudy Night (Harper & Row, 1936), 465