As a writer, I’m frequently asked to pen a few words about the most influential book I’ve ever read. There’s no question which book it would be: Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers. I’ve been a lifelong fan of murder mysteries, particularly the British cozy, in which the body is discovered in the library and the protagonists sit around and discuss this development with wit and erudition. I still regularly re-read the classics of the Golden Age of Mystery: Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allinghmam, Josephine Tey, Patricia Wentworth, you name it.
Gaudy Night remains my favorite book of all time, the one novel I’d want with me if marooned on a deserted island.
I’ve given a lot of thought as to why.
By the time you get to Gaudy Night in the series, Lord Peter Wimsey, the dapper aristocratic peer with detective tendencies, has been seeing Harriet Vane for several years. Harriet, the somewhat cynical mystery writer, is looking to piece together the remains of her life after having been acquitted of murdering her former lover in a time when murder was a capital offense in Great Britain. Harriet is intelligent and strong-willed, determined to make her way in an unforgiving world without compromising her beliefs—the tenant of which caused the break between her and her deceased lover. Peter Boyle had first refused to marry Harriet on principle; when ‘living in sin’ was almost as much a crime as committing murder. Boyle does a turnaround and decides to ‘make an honest woman’ out of Vane, condescending to make things right with society and her family after first forcing a split with both. Harriet refuses to marry, and instead breaks up with Boyle.
When Lord Peter first meets Harriet in Strong Poison, she is a prisoner in the dock for Boyle’s murder, and Lord Peter has very little time to prove that Harriet is innocent. He also falls in love with her at first sight, and subsequent meetings shows the two of them are mentally and emotionally compatible—for Lord Peter is not a slave to his emotions. Though he would have done everything in his power to prove Harriet’s innocence, he would not have proposed marriage to someone he didn’t think he could make happy.
But Harriet, bruised by life’s circumstances and emerging out of prison bloody, but unbowed, will have none of men offering marriage. The next few books in the series continue in the usual Sayers vein: an interesting and clever murder with Lord Peter being witty and brilliant in the course of deduction and solution. Harriet is not always a presence in every story. I confess, I prefer the novels in which she is there. The interaction between her and Lord Peter take the stories beyond the simple murder mystery formula. At one point in Have His Carcass, Lord Peter and Harriet have a very telling conversation about the fictional characters in Harriet’s latest novel. Lord Peter suggests a fix for the story that would require Harriet to rewrite her story in order to make the characters three-dimensional, more real. Harriet protests that this would be a painful process, whereupon Lord Peter gets to the heart of the matter, asking her what difference would that make if doing so gave her a better story in the end?
This is a critical turning point in many ways. My hero, Lord Peter, sets a precedent for doing whatever is best for the story, no matter the personal cost to the author. I frequently say, “Everything is grist for the mill” and it is true: no matter what the trauma I might be experiencing, at the same time there is this Critical Observer taking notes. I know at some point that experience will be transmuted and used in a story. I like to think that Lord Peter guided me to this choice.
In Gaudy Night, Dorothy Sayers takes this concept further. For most of the series, the Lord Peter we see in the stories is the same face he presents to society: fatuous, superficially shallow, yet clever enough to solve ‘little difficulties’. He solves mysteries while never failing to produce the most appropriate quote. He’s entertaining at parties. He collects rare books, loves music, and is a peer of the realm. It’s easy to see why he is frequently underestimated by his adversaries. However when we meet him in Gaudy Night, it is a Peter who has come back from a series of harrowing adventures—and Dorothy Sayers lets this show. This Peter Wimsey is older than the one we met at the beginning. He loves Harriet, but he’s also tired of the song and dance. He tells Harriet that the next time he asks her to marry him will be the last. Sayers makes good on that earlier suggestion that an author should do whatever is best for the story.
Gaudy Night isn’t just a story about Harriet deciding whether or not she’ll marry Wimsey. She’s deciding what path to take for the rest of her life. She’s having to choose between the life of academia and quiet study, where everything seems clean, ordered, and black and white—and the messy disorder of a life more passionate, with the man who loves her, writing stories to entertain instead of enlighten. Yes, there is a mystery, but it is the catalyst within the crucible rather than the main story. In Gaudy Night, for the first time in their relationship, Harriet views Peter as a man rather than as an appendage, and that scene in which she becomes conscious of him as a sexual being is one of the hottest scenes I’ve ever read. No, seriously. One of the steamiest, most sensual scenes I have ever read. Even though there is no sex involved.
There comes a point in Gaudy Night in which Harriet’s life is threatened—and Peter does her the honor of letting her take the risk. He doesn’t swoop in and forbid her to risk her life. He warns her of the risks of kicking over the ant hill—he acknowledges she can choose to say nothing and walk the cloistered halls of her university for the rest of her life—without him. He is also prepared to be there to pick up the pieces afterward if things go badly. It is one of the most perfect examples of an adult relationship that I’ve ever seen. When at the end of Gaudy Night, Peter proposes and Harriet says ‘yes’, your heart is singing with hers because you know this is the right answer for both of them. Sayers makes Peter an honest, three-dimensional human being in Gaudy Night, putting her money where her mouth is as an author. Not only has this book influenced me in my own personal relationships, but it has definitely influenced me as a writer, too.
I fell in love with Lord Peter when I was thirteen. I named a horse after him. I feel badly for all those young girls who are looking at Edward Cullen and thinking that’s what the perfect man is like. Because Lord Peter is a gentleman who will treat me as a lady—and an equal.
It’s what I strive for as an author, even though I write in a completely different genre. Someday, I want someone pointing to one of my heroes and saying, “This. This is what I want from a relationship. To be treated with honor and dignity. To be treated as an equal and an adult.”
Because let me tell you, baby. There’s nothing hotter than that.