This is a mystery that encompasses large questions of life and love – and your verdict on the case will swing my judgment of you
Wednesday 6 January 2016
Books, as I’m sure you all realise, make the perfect gifts. Firstly, as anyone who found themselves unwrapping a paperback can attest, they’re economically efficient: stick to paperbacks and you can furnish someone with a world entire for under a tenner. Secondly, they’re easy to wrap. Thirdly, and crucially, they’re a brilliant means of expressing regard: by matching your recipient with just the right book, you’re demonstrating how well you know them, and how much you care.
The best book presents are those that say something about, and to, the person doing the opening; the acme of my own book-gifting career came when I gave my dad – a socialist with a geography degree – a copy of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel for Christmas. Almost a decade later, he’s still finding new ways to work it into conversation.
To give a book, then, is an unselfish, outward-looking act – but to share one is something quite different. The act of sharing a book you love is fraught with anxiety and risk: you are, in effect, deliberately creating a test situation for your share-ee, on which your long-term view of them will depend. The books you share say little about the person with whom you’re sharing them, beyond the fact that you view them as worthy of the test. These are the books that say something about you.
I first came across Dorothy L Sayers’ Gaudy Night about a decade ago, when my ex-boyfriend’s father pressed a copy on me. “You’ll like this,” he said, pulling it off a bookshelf as we were leaving after a weekend’s visit. I’d never heard of Sayers before; I wasn’t much of a crime aficionado (I’m still not), and my acquaintance with Golden Age detective fiction to that point had been limited to the 1980s TV series of Miss Marple, which my grandma used to let me stay up to watch. When he gave me the book, therefore, I thanked him vaguely and forgot all about it until, halfway through the train journey home and in lieu of alternative entertainment (this was during the pre-smartphone era), I dug it out and cracked the spine.
The book feels so fundamental to me, now, that I find it hard to cast my mind back to a time when I hadn’t read it, and harder still to explain what it’s about, because it seems to be about everything. It’s a novel about work and the moral value of work; the importance – indeed the necessity – of finding the job you’re fitted for and doing it to the very best of your abilities. It’s about truth, and the need, in a slippery, shifting world, to find the one true thing you’re willing to defend, no matter what the personal cost. It’s about friendship, and how it ebbs and flows as you yourself grow – or stop growing. It’s about writing: what it means to write well and how to do it. It’s about love and integrity, and the thought and work and consideration that must go into establishing and maintaining a relationship of equality and mutual respect. It’s about class and sex and society between the wars. And above all, it’s about the age-old question (which at the time of writing was a fresh, new one) of whether it’s possible for a woman to have it all: to have a life of the mind and of the heart, and to do equal honour to them both.
All of which makes the book sound like very heavy weather – but it isn’t, not at all. Though it carries all of those things with it, Gaudy Night is also a cracking detective story: a locked-room mystery in which the room is the fictional Oxford women’s college of Shrewsbury, the suspects the college’s staff and senior members, and the crime not a nice, neat murder, but a spiteful, sticky jumble of vicious pranks and poison pen letters. The book is the 10th in Sayers’ series of novels featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, her aristocratic amateur sleuth, but the first to be told entirely from the point of view of Harriet Vane, herself an author of detective fiction. She was introduced in an earlier novel in which she was saved from the hangman’s noose by Lord Peter after being mistakenly charged with the murder of her former lover. Peter fell in love with her during the trial and proposed to her. But scared, scarred and aware that her gratitude to him would put any relationship on a profoundly unequal basis, she refused. She crops up again in Have His Carcase, in which the pair find an easier footing as they solve a murder case together. But Gaudy Night marks a significant gear-change for the series, in terms of Harriet’s move to centre stage and the fact that, having liberated herself from the point of view of her hero, Sayers is also free to shrug off the constraints of efficiency and emotional absence imposed by the detective genre itself.
As Harriet attempts to solve the crime that has set her old college by the ears, while grappling with her feelings for Peter and struggling with the possibility of introducing psychological realism into her own orderly and (metaphorically) bloodless crime novels, Sayers is busily doing the same. “You haven’t yet written the book you could write if you tried,” Peter says to Harriet halfway through the novel. “And you’ll get no peace until you do.” This is Sayers’ own attempt at fulfilling her potential as a writer – and the result is raw, provocative and deeply moving.
Really, I messed things up by reading this book first out of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels. I wish now that I’d started at the beginning and built up to it, in order to feel its full impact in the context of the series. When I turned greedily to the earlier books I was disappointed. They’re clever and amusing and well-written, but in the wake of Gaudy Night they seemed to me to be depthless: all head, no heart. While the novel has its critics (Golden Age purists notoriously view Harriet as a Yoko Ono figure who lured Sayers away from the true path) and is, even to my eyes, not without flaws. The lazy assumptions around class are jarring, but it’s nevertheless the most honest, rigorous and robustly feminist interrogation of love and work that I’ve come across. I can think of few books that I love more.
Over the years, I’ve been extremely selective about whom I’ve shared Gaudy Night with; the idea of someone I love responding to it in a lukewarm fashion is distressing. But by the same token, when it comes to people who really matter to me, I’m unable to keep it to myself. The stakes are high, but I need to know how they feel about it, so that I know how to feel about them. So please, before you comment, bear this in mind. I’ve shared this book with you, and like it or not, I’ll be judging you on what you say about it.