I'm a bit of a Sayers novice, having only got around to reading Whose Body? last year. Gaudy Night fits in with the theme of my current PhD chapter, so I had an excuse to finally read it. This is one of those books that I've read a lot about, as it crops up frequently in critical works, so much so that I was well aware of whodunnit before I opened the book.
Gaudy Night starts with Harriet Vane's visit to her old Oxford college, the fictional Shrewsbury College, which is holding the titular Gaudy, a reunion dinner for former students. Harriet has, somewhat unwillingly, agreed to go to meet an old friend she hasn't seen for many years. Harriet's enjoyment of the Gaudy is mixed; the old friend proves bland and disappointing, but she is pleased to renew her acquaintance among some of the dons. Harriet has a certain notoriety about her; she is a writer of crime novels and she has been previously implicated in a murder case. Both of these matters bring some unwelcome attention and involve her more deeply in Shrewsbury affairs.
It emerges that unpleasant practical jokes are being played on the inhabitants of Shrewsbury. Harriet herself received an anonymous note during the Gaudy, and found an obscene drawing blowing about in the quad. Summoned by the Dean of the College, Harriet finds that the anonymous letter-writer has been busy at Shrewsbury and now proofs of a new book have been muddled and damaged beyond use. The Dean is unwilling to call in the police, but perhaps Harriet can help. She returns to Oxford on the pretext of doing some academic work, and begins to investigate. Off-stage for much of the novel, Lord Peter Wimsey nevertheless makes his presence felt; Harriet's thoughts are caught up by his reiterated proposals of marriage. He also appears occasionally to help Harriet and charm the women of Shrewsbury.
The theme of this book is really the question, what should women do with their lives? Should they marry, work or both? If they work, what work is suitable? Is being a wife really a job in itself? Harriet is caught between these choices, drawn to the academic life but pulled back again by the idea of marriage to Peter. It is this theme that both drives the plot and Harriet's emotional journey. Sayers has a good look round it, with voices raised in support of women's work in general and women's scholarship in particular, but also antagonism towards the working woman and especially the working mother clearly on display from some characters.
Compared to Whose Body?, this book is vastly more sophisticated in terms of structure and style; the characters are more developed and there is much less comedy, although I think Sayers must have been quite keen on the farcical crime scene; Peter's nephew Lord Saint-George also provides a touch of humour, as does the undergraduate who falls in love with Harriet. The plot evolves fairly slowly (a previous reader of my library copy has written "STILL NO CRIME" on page 39) but the book is very absorbing even when you do know how it turns out. Now I plan to read Strong Poison and get the first part of Harriet Vane's story ...