Comment of the Day: Weekend Reading: George Orwell: Review of Dorothy L. Sayers's: Gaudy Night: "Personally, I find Sayers fascinating for the things that she almost says...:
...but doesn't ever quite say--about both women's issues and class issues. When it comes to class, the best Sayers novel has got to be Murder Must Advertise, with all the tensions and resentments between the public school graduates and the grammar school graduates. Even Busman's Honeymoon has a good dose of that with the relationships between the various policemen. Even Gaudy Night has some interesting insights into British class structure, if you look for them. But yes, one must admit that Lord Peter as a protagonist plays to the snobbery and conceit of the audience.
Perhaps we ought to forgive writers for writing about subjects who will propel interest in their novels? Orwell seems to find this choice shabby and unforgivable, but not every book must (or indeed can) accomplish everything. Sayers explores English society as it was at the time she wrote it, and if she had written more exclusively about the 'lower orders' it likely would have been condescending and inauthentic, since she was herself Oxford educated and more or less akin to the Bloomsbury set.
I would also point out that Harriet never quite matches Peter's intellectual capacities, which is almost certainly a decision made by Sayers in order to soothe the feelings of her readers (and perhaps to avoid incredulity). You can see that play out when Peter finishes and improves Harriet's poem, and later when he solves 'her' mystery for her. Very few writers are able to achieve commercial success without bowing at least somewhat to the prejudices of their readers, and Sayers is not one of the rare exceptions. (In fact, one might argue that in that era women writers in particular had to cater more strongly to the perceived whims of readers--as understood by publishers--in order to demonstrate that they were viable. It is hard to imagine that such double standards were not in play in the pre-WWII publishing world, or that Sayers was naive enough not to be aware of them. It was far easier for male writers to throw convention out the window--the amount of avant garde literary crap published by male writers in interwar England should be enough to demonstrate that.)
Gaudy Night is perhaps my favorite novel, and has been for most of grad school, largely because in many ways it does a better job of capturing the tensions in women's choices than anything else I have read, including non-fiction magazine features (e.g. that one published in the Atlantic a few years ago) that have generated a lot of buzz. The plot of Gaudy Night, taken as an actual mystery, is so far from the point of the book that one would have to be nearly an idiot to read the novel and think it was written to be a mystery rather than simply to sell as a mystery. Orwell must have understood this distinction, but in this review he seems determined to pretend incomprehension in order to give himself license for further kvetching.
Gaudy Night captures the reality that (at least as a women, the jury is out for men) one cannot actually chose everything, and that whatever choices you make there will be people you like--even (and particularly) other women--who strongly disapprove of you for them. And frankly, the reality that the only bearable choice is to be lucky enough to find a partner who respects your mind as much as your character is as true today as it was when Sayers was writing (though these days there are far more men who are eligible partners in this respect).
The book also does an excellent job of capturing the tension between wanting to do good, focused academic work and being drawn by the world outside of the academy's walls--the knife edge of balance for those of us who are neither wholly natural academics nor wholly free of the attractions of scholarly work. Very few books manage to capture so neatly the truth that there are always costs to any balance you choose, always things given up, always some degree of longing or bitterness (depending on personality).
IMO, the most fascinating thing about the Wimsey novels is the way that they progressively move from clever, intellectual little murder mysteries into richly drawn novels that capture quite a bit about social structure and the internal lives of her characters. They start out as genre novels--it's hard to call Clouds of Witness anything but--but they do not really end as genre novels. That in itself makes them worth reading.