Gaudy Night

A Reunion with Old Friends – Gaudy Night

Book Review: Dorothy L Sayers, Gaudy Night (1935)

Note: Contains spoilers

This year marks the 80th anniversary of the publication of Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers. For me this particular novel will always be connected with my memories of a holiday in Oxford, where most of the action of this novellater takes place. This holiday in the ‘city of dreaming spires’ was in 1973, and I bought the book a couple of years later. For years it remained one of my favourite books – amply documented by the by now rather tatty state of my copy – but as time went by it was pushed aside by new favourites. So I decided to have another look. And I read it and was hooked again. Since my first stay in Oxford in that magical summer of 1973 as a German school girl, I have been back a number of times. Whatever the circumstances, the novel still holds its old magic.

About Dorothy L. Sayers and her Connection to Oxford

Dorothy L Sayers was born on 13 June 1893 in the Choir House in Brewer Street in Oxford. Brewer Street is a narrow side street opening off St Aldate’s not far from the main entrance to Christ Church College, where her father was headmaster of the Choir School. In the unpublished fragment of My Edwardian Childhood, Sayers renames Christ Church “Wolsey College” (incidentally it has the same name in the episode ‘The Daughters of Cain’ in the Inspector Morse TV series). The name is appropriate, as Christ Church was founded by Cardinal Wolsey as “Cardinal College” in 1525. When Dorothy was 4 years old her family moved to the fen country of East Anglia (which we later find in The Nine Tailors). Sayers returned to Oxford in 1912 to study at Somerville College. In 1915 she took a first in modern (medieval) French, five years before women could become full members of the university and were awarded actual degrees. Sayers returned to receive hers in the first ceremony of this kind in 1920. She died in London on 18 December 1957.

86 Brewer Street, Oxford

86 Brewer Street, Oxford

Sayers is best known as the author of twelve detective novels, though she also wrote religious works and translated Dante’s Divine Comedy. Her most famous detective is Lord Peter Wimsey. The “immortal Lord Peter Wimsey walked blithely into her mind” (ODNB) and first appeared in Whose Body? (1923). Four stories also feature Harriet Vane, the first being Strong Poison (1930), a “woman of distinction, intelligence, and strong clear emotions, but without conventional beauty” [Brabazon, p.72], who was clearly modelled on the author herself.

What distinguishes Dorothy Sayers’ detective novels from for instance her contemporary Agatha Christie is that

she set out to bring the detective story up to the standards of serious literature, while at the same time making it appeal, as she said, not only to those with a ‘caviar’ taste in art, but also to ‘those in the back-kitchens’. [ODNB, quoting ‘The present status of the mystery story’, London Mercury, Nov 1930, 47]

However, a certain familiarity with literature to understand the quotes and allusions, as well as a basic understanding of Latin make the reading experience so much more rewarding. In addition to these stylistic means, her novels discuss issues and are of a much wider appeal than a straightforward detective story:

Sayers was not one of those writers who keep hold of their readers by producing new adventures ad infinitum. Her admirers go back to those few books time and again, because they offer more than simply a mystery which, once it is solved, leaves the reader’s interest exhausted. [Brabazon, p.128]

Gaudy Night

On 13 June 1934, Sayers was invited by her alma mater, Somerville College, to propose a toast to the University of Oxford at that summer’s gaudy night. Based on this experience she wrote Gaudy Night, the third novel featuring both Peter and Harriet. After years of a clean break, Harriet attends a reunion of her fictional alma mater, Shrewsbury College in Oxford. She had “long ago taken the step that put the grey-walled paradise of Oxford behind her. No one can bathe in the same river twice, not even in the Isis.” [GN, Ch.1] In the course of the novel, she will have to overcome several misconceptions, this is one of them.

Shrewsbury College experience problems with an unknown person causing disturbances and ask Harriet for help, and so the story plays virtually exclusively in Oxford. More than half deals with Harriet’s attempts to find the perpetrator; Peter only appears well into the second half. For a detective story the element of detection is secondary, some of the gathering of evidence is done off scene and only reported on and the culprit is unmasked some 20 pages before the conclusion of the novel. The main emphasis of Gaudy Night is on the discussion of social issues, i.e. the role of women, intellectual integrity and the developing relationship between the two protagonists. One reviewer describes it as a “mainstream novel of intellectual life with detective interruptions” [Miller, p.290]. However, the detective aspect forms a valuable vehicle to discuss social issues and to assess the pros and cons of marriage and all three are interrelated. “What Sayers wanted to do as a novelist was ‘to bring the love problem into line with the detective-problem so that the same key should unlock both at once.” [quoted in Strout, p.426, source for the quote not given]

History in Gaudy Night

Though not a novel dealing primarily with historical issues, it has relevance for readers interested in history. The motive for the mystery is ultimately based on historical research, when a historian who in spite of knowing the truth decides to suppress this as it does not suit his argument. Sayers portrays three very different historians in the book: Lord Peter Wimsey; Miss Hillyard, a boring tutor, who has been repeating the same lecture for decades, and is a bitter and unpleasant person; and Miss de Vine, an excellent historian with “a mind as hard and immovable as granite”, who “looked as though the word “compromise” had been omitted from her vocabulary”. [GN, Ch.1]

A reader interested in Richard III will find three passages of particular interest, which are clearly associated with this king, two by naming him and the third by context. The first of the two passages alluding to him by name is a straightforward Shakespearean reference:

So many young people had passed through [Miss Lydgate’s] hands, and she found so much good in all of them; it was impossible to think that they could be deliberately wicked, like Richard III or Iago. [GN, Ch.1]

Miss Lydgate is the English tutor, and mentioning Richard III and Iago in the same sentence makes it clear that here the deliberate wickedness of Shakespeare’s character is meant, rather than any evaluation of the historical figure.

I am not aware whether Sayers had any particular opinion on Richard III (this might be a question that warrants further research), though the pre-cursor of today’s Richard III Society, “The Fellowship of the White Boar”, had been in existence for more than 10 years by the time this novel was written and she might very well have heard about their activities. (Josephine Tey and Sayers were contemporaries, but The Daughter of Time was only published in 1951.) With this in mind, the second passage is rather tantalising: “Talking of uncles,” said the Dean, “is it true, Miss Hillyard, that Richard III—”. [GN, Ch.18] In the story other events intervene and the question is never completed nor answered.

This question is remarkable on three counts: First, it is directed at Miss Hillyard, the history tutor, indicating an interest in the historical person, rather than the Shakespearean character. Second, the beginning of the question, “is it true that…”, could show that the Dean wants to ascertain a little-known fact which might contradict general perception. And third, the uncle, who reminds the Dean to ask about Richard III in the first place, is Lord Peter Wimsey, the author’s ideal of a man and a historian himself. Like Richard III, Peter is the uncle of his older brother’s children.

There is a third passage which can be read in a Ricardian context. This is when Peter advises a love sick student that “there were better ways of killing care than drowning it in a butt of malmsey.” [GN, Ch.20]. This is a clear associations with George, Duke of Clarence, who was executed in 1478, allegedly by being drowned “it in a butt of malmsey” by his younger brother Richard. For the historian Peter, Clarence’s death is obviously due to over-indulgence of malmsey, rather than being drowned in it by anyone else, let alone Richard, who is not even mentioned. If the author’s hero does not make a connection between Clarence’s death and Richard, then we can assume that the author does not either.

Peter’s understanding of the medieval period is shown in another passage, where gentlemen’s shirt fronts are discussed, and he informs us that the “inconvenience …was even greater in the case of plate armour, which had to be very well tailored to allow of movement at all.” [GN, Ch.17]

The Atmosphere of Oxford

In Gaudy Night, Sayers captures the atmosphere of Oxford, which survives to this day, as these examples about Christ Church show:

It was quiet and pleasant in Cathedral. She lingered in her seat for some little time after the nave had emptied and until the organist had finished the voluntary. Then she came slowly out, turning left along the plinth with a vague idea of once more admiring the great staircase and the Hall [GN, Ch.8]

And on a more humorous note:

He balanced himself on the edge of Mercury and peered into its tranquil waters. “Look! there’s the big old one. Been here since the foundation, by the looks of him—see him go? Cardinal Wolsey’s particular pet.” [GN, Ch.8]

I’m sure, “Cardinal Wolsey’s particular pet” is still swimming in the fountain in the middle of Tom Quad in Christ Church College.

Mercury, Tom Quad, Christ Church College, Oxford

Mercury, Tom Quad, Christ Church College, Oxford

Towards the end, when Lord Peter and Harriet are looking down from the Radcliffe Camera, we find this beautiful description of the city:

There, eastward, within a stone’s throw, stood the twin towers of All Souls, fantastic, unreal as a house of cards, clear-cut in the sunshine, the drenched oval in the quad beneath brilliant as an emerald in the bezel of a ring. Behind them, black and grey, New College frowning like a fortress, with dark wings wheeling about her belfry louvres; and Queen’s with her dome of green copper; and, as the eye turned southward, Magdalen, yellow and slender, the tall lily of towers; the Schools and the battlemented front of University; Merton, square-pinnacled, half-hidden behind the shadowed North side and mounting spire of St. Mary’s. Westward again, Christ Church, vast between Cathedral spire and Tom Tower; Brasenose close at hand; St. Aldate’s and Carfax beyond; spire and tower and quadrangle, all Oxford springing underfoot in living leaf and enduring stone, ringed far off by her bulwark of blue hills. [GN, Ch.23]

Oxford stands for timelessness; this was embodied by “Cardinal Wolsey’s particular pet” and is repeated later by ducks:

And ten and twenty years hence the same ducks and the same undergraduates will share the same ritual feast, and the ducks will bite the undergraduates’ fingers as they have just bitten mine. How fleeting are all human passions compared with the massive continuity of ducks. [GN, Ch.15]

For Harriet, Oxford offers a refuge from the uncertainties of London with nearly religious connotations. Oxford’s “foundations were set upon the holy hills and her spires touched heaven.” [GN, Ch.2] Oxford offers “the Pax Academica to a world terrified by unrest.” [GN, Ch.2] This image is reinforced by Peter, who asks her whether she has “retired from the world to pursue the contemplative life”. [GN, Ch.10] Oxford offers Harriet “the vision of an old desire, long obscured by a forest of irrelevant fancies, but now standing up unmistakable, like a tower set on a hill.” [GN, Ch.4]

In contrast to this vision is a London that is full “irrelevant fancies”, brilliantly described in the passage dealing with Harriet’s return to London during the vacation, including a humorous scene where Sayers makes fun of pretentious novels.

Harriet’s vision of Oxford in the beginning does not include Peter and instead offers a respite from her ambivalent feelings for him. In the first half of the book, he only appears in scenes set in London and his earlier proposal arrives by post, while she is back in London:

And he, at any rate, had no niche in the grey stones of Oxford. He stood for London, for the swift, rattling, chattering, excitable and devilishly upsetting world of strain and uproar. Here … he had no place. [GN, Ch.11]

But the peacefulness of Oxford is an illusion only and reality intervenes, be it in the form of some mischief by the perpetrator or indeed Peter himself:

Peter … planted placidly in the High as though he had grown there from the beginning. Peter, wearing cap and gown like any orthodox Mater of Arts … “And why not?” thought Harriet … “ He is a Master of Arts. He was at Balliol.” [GN, Ch.14]

Men and Women

Harriet’s feelings for Peter evolve into a wider discussion of marriage and the relationship between men and women. The question which needs to be answered in the end is whether Harriet will accept Lord Peter’s proposal, which he has been making again and again since Strong Poison. The novel offers various scenarios of marriage. The lecturers show that to stay single can be a desirable choice, while possible types of marriage are portrayed by various alumni attending the reunion. Another type of marriage forms the basis for the detective part of the novel. The woman, who plays the tricks on the college, blames all educated women and the education of women in general for her husband’s death, because one of its – female – dons (Miss de Vine) had uncovered that the woman’s husband had built his thesis on an untruth.

What had he done to you? What harm had he done to anybody? … He told a lie about somebody else who was dead and dust hundreds of years ago. … You broke him and killed him – all for nothing. Do you think that’s a woman’s job? … A woman’s job is to look after a husband and children. [GN, Ch.22]

In Gaudy Night this view is differentiated by social class, the scout Annie and the porter Padgett see women’s education as detracting them from their real purpose in life, while the middle class academics (male and female) support education for women. For Annie, her daughters’ life should be defined by being “good girls … and good wives and mothers” [GN, Ch.11], although one of the daughters herself wants to ride a motorbike and own a garage (incidentally Sayers herself was a keen motorbike rider and would surely approve of this ambition).

To Annie, women’s education is superfluous and wrong. She expresses her views early, but Harriet is still so stuck in her rose-tinted vision of Oxford that she doesn’t realise their significance: “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.” [GN, Ch.6]

Annie thinks that her love for her husband frees her from any responsibility for her own actions and any independent view of her husband’s wrongdoing:

If he’d been a thief or a murderer, I’d have loved him and stuck to him. [GN, Ch.22]

You don’t know what love means. It means sticking to your man through thick and thin and putting up with everything. [GN, Ch.22]

Mothers and Daughters

Based on her ideas, Annie thinks she knows what is best for her daughters. This theme of mothers trying to determine their daughters’ lives according to their pre-conceived ideas is recurring. In chapter 8, the reader is introduced to a girl, who is studying history to fulfil her mother’s dream of a university education for every woman, although the girl would rather be a cook. For Sayers the importance is not which job a woman does, whether it is one that was traditionally for men like a mechanic, or one that was traditionally done by women like a cook, but that she does the job that is right for her and that she is doing it well. As Harriet asks another woman at the reunion, who used to be a brilliant scholar, but married a farmer and gave up on her dreams: “However grand the job may be, is it your job?” [GN, Ch.3] Sayers expresses the same view in Are Women Human?, a lecture given in 1938:

The stereotype, “Woman’s place is in the home,” was for a long time applied so indiscriminately that the inevitable reaction, while liberating many women from totally unsuitable employment in homes, has robbed many whose natural place is there of the dignity and joy they should have in doing the job that is right for them. [Are Women Human?]

A Question of Integrity

For Sayers, not doing the job that is right for you means sacrificing your integrity and this is not what love means. Personal integrity is the absolute and something to be achieved in all aspects of life. She wrote to her publisher about Gaudy Night: “I do feel rather passionately about this business of the integrity of the mind”. [quoted in Reynolds, p.261]

Her ideal is “a society of educated people, fitted to preserve their intellectual freedom amid the complex pressures of our modern society” [The Lost Tools of Learning]. Intellectual integrity is the product of education. Peter establishes “there was not a woman in this Common Room, married or single, who would be ready to place personal loyalties above professional honour”. [GN, Ch.22] Intellectual integrity is “the guiding light both of Harriet and the college; and also, as it turns out, of Wimsey.” [Brabazon, p.152]

Anyone interested in history expects intellectual integrity from historians, but finds too often that many writers do what Annie’s husband did and play fast and furious with historical truth to suit their own ends. Historical novelists might change facts to suit their story, excusing it as a work of fiction, but are only giving the whole genre a bad name. However, also writers of non-fiction, historians, both professional and amateur, frequently do not let an inconvenient fact stand in the way of their argument. They might not wish to consider anything which would contradict their once made up – and well publicised – mind; or it is simply that they want to publish a book to make money without bothering to do the necessary research (and don’t get me started on so-called historians giving Wikipedia as a reference!). Nothing much has changed since the 1930s, when all these possibilities were discussed in Gaudy Night. Very early on we find the English tutor denouncing this kind of work completely;

“No research at all,” had been Miss Lydgate’s verdict, “and no effort at critical judgment. She has reproduced all the old gossip without troubling to verify anything. Slipshod, showy, and catchpenny. I am really ashamed of her.” And even then she had added: “But I believe, poor thing, she is very hard up.” [GN, Ch.1]

However, that the “poor thing [is] very hard up” is no excuse for the lack of research. To excuse falsehoods by personal feelings would be treason of the truth.

Integrity is not limited to those working in an academic environment, but rather is something that should be applied in all spheres of life. Harriet’s advice to the girl who would rather be a cook is to stick with college because “If you learn how to tackle your subject – any subject –you’ve learnt how to tackle all subjects”. [GN, Ch.8] A university education will give her the tools for learning, which

are the same, in any and every subject; and the person who knows how to use them will, at any age, get the mastery of a new subject in half the time and with a quarter of the effort expended by the person who has not the tools at his command. [The Lost Tools of Learning]

Intellectual integrity should also be the guiding light of one’s love life. The happy ending of the story is based by Harriet and Peter’s discovery that “the same intellectual honesty that is essential to scholarship is essential also to the conduct of life.” [Strout, p.427]

Intellectual integrity is based on academic learning and here Harriet and Peter are equals: both hold a Master’s degree from Oxford. Their academic equality is what eventually convinces Harriet, who had always felt indebted to Peter for saving her life in Strong Poison, to accept him. In her academic position Harriet is “equal to Peter despite his wealth and station … When she learns to balance mind and passion rather than set them in opposition, she can accept Lord Peter’s proposal.” [Miller, p.290] She realises that it was a mistake, when she earlier thought of “the conflicting claims of heart and brain” [GN, Ch.4], while Peter has to realise that Harriet’s intellectual integrity is her own and not his gift:

I find that all I have to give you is Oxford—which was yours already. Look! Go round about her and tell the towers thereof. It has been my humble privilege to clean and polish your property and present her for your inspection upon a silver salver. Enter into your heritage and do not, as is said in another connection, be afraid with any amazement. [GN, Ch.23]

So it is entirely fitting that his final proposal is not a classical quotation, but taken from an Oxford degree ceremony:

With a gesture of submission he bared his head and stood gravely, the square cap dangling in his hand.
“Placetne, magistra?”
“Placet.” [GN, Ch.23]

Their relationship is the very opposite of Annie’s view and an ideal to be aspired to:

He’ll never make up your mind for you. You’ll have to make your own decisions. You needn’t be afraid of losing your independence; he will always force it back on you. If you ever find any kind of repose with him, it can only be the repose of very delicate balance. [GN, Ch.22]


Balance is what it is all about, balance between male and female, balance between the magic of Oxford and the world outside, balance between heart and brain. This balance is missing in the two extremes portrayed in the novel: Annie, for whom the claims of her heart override all other considerations, and at the opposite end Miss de Vine, who is all reason.

This concept of balance was foreshadowed in the sonnet which Harriet starts to write:

Here, then. At home, by no more storms distrest,
Folding laborious hands as we sit, wings furled;
Here in close perfume lies the rose-leaf curled,
Here the sun stands and knows not east nor west,
Here no tide runs; we have come, last and best.
From the wide zone through dizzying circles hurled,
To that still centre, where the spinning world
Sleeps on its axis, to the heart of rest. [GN, Ch.11]

She can only think of the octave, but not of the sestet. On her own she “had reached the full close, and had nothing more to say” [GN, Ch.11], it needs Peter’s contribution to complete the sonnet.

Lay on thy whips, O Love, that me upright,
Poised on the perilous point, in no lax bed
May sleep, as tension at the verberant core
Of music sleeps; for, if thou spare to smite,
Staggering, we stoop, stooping, fall dumb and dead,
And, dying so, sleep our sweet sleep no more. [GN, Ch.18]

His concluding sestet convinces Harriet that he “did not want to forget, or to be quiet, or to be spared things, or to stay put. All he wanted was some kind of central stability … That, then, was what he wanted her for. For some reason, obscure to herself and probably also to him, she had the power to force him outside his defences.” [GN, Ch.18] In their relationship repose “can only be the repose of very delicate balance”. [GN, Ch.22]

Oxford – a new beginning

It could be said that Harriet had to return to Oxford, to a point in her life before she messed it up (as she sees it), to start out again. Oxford sets Harriet free from the hurt of her past to embark on her life with Peter. This is made clear in the next novel featuring Peter and Harriet, Busman’s Honeymoon. They get married at St Cross Church in Oxford and the Warden of Shrewsbury College gives the bride away, with the Dean, Miss Lydgate, Miss de Vine and Miss Chilperic as bridesmaids.

Gaudy Night is dated in some aspects, for instance I found the rather condescending way in the interactions with Annie and Padgett, the porter, fairly irritating when re-reading the book now. Obviously, the view that education is only for men and not necessary for women, who would marry and be good housewives, was much more of an issue in the 1930s than it is today. Unfortunately even today we can hear such sexist attitudes in western countries. With the same inflexibility as Annie, some very conservative Christians of whichever persuasion might insist that a woman’s job is to care for her husband and children, that she has to “submit” to her husband on all levels and may only speak “under a man’s authority”. Needless to say that this is not a view to which the committed Christian Sayers would agree.

In spite of these issues, the central message of integrity and balance in Gaudy Night holds true today as much as it did in the 1930s.


Primary Texts

Sayers, D.L., Gaudy Night. New English Library, 1975 (originally published 1935). This is my edition, but many editions of this book are available, therefore chapters are given here for references.

Sayers, D.L., The Lost Tools of Learning, online at URL: [last accessed 4 Aug. 2015]

Sayers, D.L., Are Women Human? William B. Erdmans Publishing Company, 2005 (Kindle edition)

Secondary Sources

Brabazon, J., Dorothy L. Sayers: The Life of a Courageous Woman. Victor Gollancz Ltd, London, 1981. ISBN 0 575 02728 2

British History Online: ‘Christ Church’, A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 3: The University of Oxford (1954), pp. 228-238. URL: [last accessed 3 Aug. 2015]

Hurst, I., ‘Maenads Dancing before the Martyrs’ Memorial: Oxford Women Writers and the Classical Tradition’, International Journal of the Classical Tradition, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Fall 2005), pp. 163-182

Kenney, C., ‘Sayers, Dorothy Leigh (1893–1957)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [last accessed online 14 April 2011]

Kenney, C., The Remarkable Case of Dorothy L. Sayers. The Kent State University Press, 1991

Miller, E., ‘Dorothy L. Sayers 1893-1957’, in: Vicki K. Janik & Del Ivan Janik (eds), Modern British women writers: an A-to-Z guide. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002. ISBN-13: 978-0313310300

Reynolds, B., Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul. St Martin’s Griffin, New York, 1993

Sjöholm, V., ‘Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night from a Class and Gender Perspective’, Lund University (Autumn 2006). URL: [last accessed 10 Aug. 2015]

Strout, C., ‘Romance and the Literary Detective: The Legacy of Dorothy Sayers’, The Sewanee Review, Vol. 109, No. 3 (Summer, 2001), pp. 423-436

One thought on “Gaudy Night

  1. Yes, a lovely book; and Harriet Vane is a most interesting character. Although she wrote some turkeys (The Five Red Herrings is totally unreadable, and makes absolutely no sense) Dorothy Sayers was an exceptional woman, who brought crime fiction right up to date.


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