Sunday, June 15, 2008

gaudy night

I read most (possibly all?) of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels back in high school and loved them. I just finished rereading Gaudy Night.

This is one of the last Wimsey novels, so there are already five years of history between Harriet Vane, a writer of mystery novels once accused of murdering her lover, and Lord Peter Wimsey, the "perfect British gentleman" and sleuth who saved her from the gallows. Harriet returns to Oxford for a reunion, or "gaudy night," to find that all is not well there.

There is, of course, mystery, and a little romance, but what grabs me the most about this book are the ideas. Sayers had lots of ideas about women and their choices. She looks very closely at women who choose academic careers in pre-WWII England, what their thought processes are, what makes them tick.

My hand was itching for the red pen. Here's what I would have crossed out without a second thought: yards and yards of obscure classical references. How do I know they are "obscure?" I don't have a classical education. I know because the entire bulk of classical poetry does not contain as many lines as there are quoted in this book.

What I would have given a second thought to crossing out, and in many cases the red pen would win: conversations that in no way further the plot. The thing is, some of them contain the interesting ideas I referred to above. So I'd have to keep some in just because I enjoyed them. It wouldn't be for the good of the book.

There are some paragraphs or pieces of paragraph that stand out like gleaming, outrageously-tinted beetles on the murky floor of a rain forest. (That wasn't so great, right? I haven't Sayers's gift for appropriate metaphor.) Turns out Sayers worked for years in advertising, likely where she learned to come up with these attention-grabbing turns of phrase.

Peter Wimsey is delightful. Harriet Vane? Didn't thrill me. A little ho-hum for a protagonist if you ask me. Also, though the mystery was interesting, the solution as well as the confrontation with the perpetrator at the end are a bit silly.

It's an interesting look at Oxford and the British upper classes between the wars.

I don't know if I should give it 4 stars out of 5. Maybe 3.5. I did like it, but I would probably only recommend it to a few people, and even then not without qualifiers.


Anonymous said...

Hmm, I have never tried one of hers, I think I might. I just finished that 5 people you meet in heaven. The book started out great, but only had a so so ending.

Reed said...

You might enjoy PG Woodhouse - Jeeves and Wooster books - he uses a lot of funny inside/obscure references from that same era - 20s/30s England - one way to look at it is, an unfamiliar reference might just lead you down an interesting path if you take the time to look into what the character was referring to --

Calandria said...

Reed, I've always meant to try those Jeeves and Wooster books.

I do enjoy some classical references and I like to look them up when I don't know them. But this was extreme. It was like, "Look how formidably intelligent I am. I can quote masses of obscure poetry!" And nearly every character in the book was doing it. It was not at all believable.

I kept thinking I would have enjoyed this book more if I had an annotated copy, but even then I think all the references would have been overwhelming and still would still detract from the story.

Anonymous said...

JW LOVES Jeeves and Wooster, and I do too.