Week Woman

A Pox on the Patriarchy

‘I like my music polyphonic’: Dorothy L. Sayers’ ‘Gaudy Night’ is a Feminist Masterpiece

- Caroline Criado-Perez

Detective novels. What does the term conjure up? Sub-par pulp-fiction? Men in macs?  Female presence limited to something like this?

It did for me.

But then I discovered Dorothy L. Sayers – in fact I’ve just finished reading what was both my first Dorothy L. Sayers and my first detective novel. And now I have to embark on a gorge-fest of sunhats. Because this book is incredible.

It’s complex, it’s literary and what’s more, it’s ragingly, wonderfully, unapologetically feminist. The book is filled with so many amazing, and sadly, still relevant, quotations that I barely know where to begin.

The novel concerns a Miss Harriet Vane, a detective novelist. She visits her old Oxford college after having been tried, in a blaze of publicity, for a crime she did not commit. She was saved from the gallows by the amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey, who I understand is usually the main character in Sayers’ novels.

So far, perhaps so clichéd – we have a main character who is, in an overt way, a reflection of the author. And we have a dashing, rich aristocrat swooping in and saving her.

But fear not, my femmes fatale – he doesn’t save her. OK, by demonstrating the flaws in the original investigation he does save her life before the novel starts, but Harriet refuses to be saved in any other way – and refuses to be saved so far as the plot of this novel is concerned.

Saved how? I hear you ask, plaintively, confusedly, a little irritably.

Well Reader, by marrying him.

Soon after beginning the novel it becomes clear that Peter has been periodically asking Harriet to marry him for the past five years. And she keeps saying no. This is not because she doesn’t care for him, but for reasons that I won’t share in detail here for fear of ruining the novel; Sayers is a master-mistress of very slowly revealing the intricacies of her characters’ motives and it would do the spider-web quality of her writing a disservice to baldly state Harriet’s inner thoughts here. It would be akin to telling you the ‘plot’ of Paradise Lost. Yes, you’d know what it was ‘about’, but would you really know what it was about? (OK, comparing Sayers to Milton might be stretching it a bit, but you get my meaning).

Sayers dances around her readers’ sleuthing attempts with far more skill than her mystery poltergeist scampers around Shrewsbury College. We are led back and forth to potential suspects like participants in a particularly frustrating line-dance. And of course, Sayers regularly intersperses her merry (or not so merry at times) footwork with little dewy droplets of contact between Peter and Harriet, with the end result being that we are just gagging for them to get together.

But the problem is, how? How can it happen without sacrificing the unique relationship of equals that they have built up? How can they do it when the novel presents so many images of marriage being the ruin of a woman’s independence?

Harriet and Peter live in a society that, on the face of it, is very different to ours. But scratch the surface of our modernity, and it is clear that we really haven’t moved on that far.

Early on in the novel, in an extended musing on marriage, Harriet says to herself that ‘the rule seemed to be that a great woman must either die unwed…or find a still greater man to marry her…The great man, on the other hand, could marry where he liked, not being restricted to great women’, shortly followed by, ‘…a woman may achieve greatness, or at any rate great renown, by merely being a wonderful wife and mother…; whereas the men who have achieved great renown by being devoted husbands and fathers might be counted on the fingers of one hand.’

Have we really changed much? Are there yet many men who have achieved great renown by being devoted husbands and fathers? I can’t think of many. I can, however, think of many women who have achieved great renown by merely being a wife and mother. Let’s look at the ‘first ladies’ of the western world for a start – expected in general to be nothing but wives and mothers, a nice bit of supportive decoration for their important husbands. It is both shocking and depressing to think that Nick Clegg’s wife, Miriam Gonzáles Durántez, should be singled out as unusual for not dropping her entire life in order to sit around smiling sweetly and serving tea for visiting dignitaries.

And as for women marrying up and men marrying down…well, just look at the so-called ‘Cougar’ culture. Look at the reporting surround Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore. It is still culturally deviant for a woman to marry a younger, less powerful figure. There are still plenty of men in the Hugh Hefner mould – and the inescapable popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey suggests that this model is still deeply embedded in our mentality.

Along the same depressing lines is this later exchange, that takes place between two undergraduates: ‘”What’ll Geoffrey do when you pull off your First, my child?” demanded Miss Haydock. “Well, Eve – it will be awkward if I do that. Poor lamb! I shall have to make him believe I only did it by looking fragile and pathetic at the viva.”’ I hate to admit it, but this still goes on, doesn’t it? We know it does. We know that there are women in the western world, who still feel the need to hide their intelligence beneath a veneer of ‘ditzy blondeness’ in order to be considered valid as a woman. (Thanks media / Hollywood).

I can see myself getting carried away with combing this book for quotations that still have just too much relevance to today, so I’ll content myself with just one more, and it’s a stunner: ‘when women put their public lives before their private lives, it causes less outcry than when a woman does the same thing’. That this is still relevant today is an outrage, but it is.

Neither Ann-Marie Slaughter’s article on whether or not women can have it all, nor the media flurry surrounding it, tended to question the presumption that women will be the primary care-givers. The ‘heart of the home’. We still tend to feel uncomfortable about a woman who chooses career over children – to the extent of asking her why she did it. When men do it, it’s considered fairly natural – not that they tend to have to make that choice. For a telling example of this in action, consider the number of female athletes in the current Olympics who have children; now consider the number of male athletes who have children.

Yes my children, we still have a long way to go.

But back to the novel.

With all this in mind, it becomes increasingly hard to see how our lead characters will, or can, ever make it together. And Sayers makes us question why we want this – and if we should want it. It makes for uncomfortable reading sometimes, as we are repeatedly forced to question our desires and assumptions.

I leave you with the penultimate exchange between Peter an Harriet; it is a metaphorical construction that is rendered all the more powerful by its relentless presentation of two strong wills that refuse to speak plainly – and yet could hardly speak plainer.

Peter says to Harriet, ‘I like my music polyphonic.’ Harriet replies, ‘Polyphonic music takes a lot of playing’, and later asserts, ‘I’m not much of a musician Peter’.

In the context of the earlier quotations that question the power structures and accepted roles in male and female relationships, it should be clear what Sayers is working towards here. And although Harriet demurs with her disclaiming of her ‘musical’ ability, Sayers nevertheless leaves us with a glimmer of at once feminist and romantic hope, delivered through a masterly juxtaposition:

‘As they used to say in my youth: “All girls should learn a little music – enough to play a simple accompaniment.” I admit that Bach isn’t a matter of an autocratic virtuoso and a meek accompanist. But do you want to be either?’

8 comments on “‘I like my music polyphonic’: Dorothy L. Sayers’ ‘Gaudy Night’ is a Feminist Masterpiece

  1. westwoodrich
    July 27, 2012

    Thanks for an interesting review. I’ve just this week finished Strong Poison, in which Wimsey and Vane first meet. It’s a far less complex book than Gaudy Night – Sayers got more ambitious as time went on – and begins the will-they-won’t-they thing right from their first interview. Marriage, and life outside of traditional marriage, is a major theme. Vane has ‘lived in sin’ previously, and the book also portrays other independent women very sympathetically (despite the terminology used to describe them).

    There are plenty of strong female protagonists in detective fiction – I hope you explore further.

    • Week Woman
      July 27, 2012

      Thanks for your comment – am really looking forward to exploring more as have seriously caught the Sayers bug!

  2. Vaguetastic
    July 26, 2012

    What a great review. This book has now shot to the top of my must-read pile. Can’t wait : )

    • Week Woman
      July 26, 2012

      Merci ‘Vaguetastic’! – if that is your real name. [and yes, it really should. I'm more than a little in love with Sayers now. Massive, raging girl-crush in fact.]

  3. Thanks for writing this. I really enjoyed reading it.

    Gaudy Night is my absolute favourite detective novel ever. You are right, it id feminist to the core. You have to read Busman’s Honeymoon and see how she reverses traditional roles with her ending (and I am not going to say how!) The only issue -for me- with both GN and BM is that Sayers is not as kind to her lower class characters and uses misogynist tropes to define them (the poison pen writer for example, a spinster in BN). I suppose it is just the classism of the age coming out, but it does out a downer on what are absolutely fantastic novels.

    I treasured my copies of both novels but they have recently been lost in a move. I am distraught as I have read them once a year since I was about 18 :-(

    • Week Woman
      July 26, 2012

      Thanks for your comment – glad you enjoyed it! Will def give Busman’s honeymoon a go – exciting! I know what you mean re the lower-class characters. It was a bit disappointing. But as you say, of its time. I remember listening to a radio recording of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was word for word except for one line, ‘thou Ethiop’, which really irritated me, because if we start censoring old literature according to contemporary mores, we’d barely have anything left – it’s nearly all outrageously sexist for a start, including most of A Midsummer Night’s Dream!

  4. Emily January
    July 25, 2012

    I am intrigued. I want to read this now.

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This entry was posted on July 25, 2012 by in Features, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , .
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