Friday, March 30, 2018

Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers

Wow, where to start. OK, how about this: sometimes you read a book, and it meets you exactly where you are. It enunciates everything you've been thinking about and expresses everything you've been feeling. Gaudy Night 2018 was that for me.

Gaudy Night 2008, however, was not. I'm not actually entirely sure it was in 2008 that I read this book first, but it can't have been any later. I didn't appreciate or sympathise with the book at all that first time, with the result that I spent a lot of time giving Dorothy Sayers the sidelong squint-eye. Well, better late than never, right?

This is a Lord Peter Wimsey mystery, but it focuses on, and tells the story from the perspective of, Harriet Vane, the woman Peter has (at this point in the novels' continuity) been pursuing stubbornly for five years. A successful mystery writer and sometime assistant to Peter in his investigations, Harriet is an alumnus of Shrewsbury, an Oxford women's college (fictional, of course). When someone starts sending threatening letters to the staff and students of Shrewsbury and vandalising the grounds, the professors worry that any scandal might injure Shrewsbury's reputation and women's education in general. So they ask former student Harriet to investigate.

With Peter on a Foreign Office mission to Europe, Harriet has only her own wits and resources to call on. As the situation in Shrewsbury threatens to become fatal, Harriet senses that the time has come to make a final decision regarding Peter Wimsey. But nagging questions persist. Should a professional woman take on personal responsibilities? Can the life of the heart coexist with the life of the intellect? Is vocation and calling more important than marriage and family? Will marriage to Peter destroy her as an individual, or can it truly be a union of equals?

A lot of this went over my head when I first read the book. In 2018, though, I'm reminded what a different person I am now. These days, I'm roughly the same age as Harriet Vane. Like Harriet, I'm somewhat of an intellectual. Like Harriet, I'm an author (though not as successful!). And like Harriet, I've come to realise that for a woman--and perhaps for everyone--being single means being single-minded in the pursuit of a calling. (Yes, this identification with Harriet is very new to me. She gave me the irrits as a teen).

The whole book is very tightly-knitted in terms of theme, and the theme has to do with women and calling. Gaudy Night is a book populated with professional women in a way that very few books are, especially those written in the 1930s. There's something, by the way, that feels fresh and faintly subversive (or perhaps I should say superversive) about how Sayers depicts these women. They may spend hours discussing philosophy and ethics, but are equally at home debating a dress or a hat.

But all of them are busy trying to find that elusive "work/life balance". Early in the book, Harriet meets an old fellow-student who has married a farmer and spends her life helping him farm.
What damned waste! was all Harriet could say to herself. All that brilliance, all that trained intelligence, harnessed to a load that any uneducated country girl could have drawn far better. The thing had its compensations, she supposed. She asked the question bluntly. 
Worth it? said Mrs Bendick. Oh yes, it was certainly worth it. The job was worth doing. One was serving the land. And that, she managed to convey, was a service harsh and austere indeed, but a finer thing than spinning words on paper. 
"I'm quite prepared to admit that," said Harriet. "A plough-share is a nobler object than a razor. But if your natural talent is for barbering, wouldn't it be better to be a barber, and a good barber--and use the profits (if you like) to speed the plough? However grand the job may be, is it your job?"
In Gaudy Night, Dorothy Sayers insists that women, as much as men, may have specific callings. I know why I might have found this hard to swallow as a teen. Genesis 2:18 describes the first woman as designed to be "a helper fit" or "suitable" or "meet" for the first man. From this, Christians have accurately deducted that wives are intended by God to assist their husbands in their callings. But in doing so, many have erroneously concluded that calling is not important for women as it is for men. A man may be called to anything, but a woman is only called to help whatever man is most important in her life at the moment. The result may be a refusal to treat women as individual members of the kingdom of God.

There are a couple of problems with this, and Sayers pinpoints them unerringly in this book.

First, and most powerfully, men can be wrong or even wicked. Ethics must always trump personal loyalty. One does not stand by one's man, right or wrong. A woman must have a strong sense of personal principle, which means that she cannot be defined by her relationships to other sinners.

Second, women are quite as capable as men of important cultural work, whether as intellectuals or as farmers or mechanics or as family women. As a Christian, Sayers would of course have been aware that the dominion/cultural mandate of Genesis 1:28 was given to mankind as a whole, not specifically to men. Dominion work--the work of cultivating and tending the resources of the earth and its inhabitants--is something which each individual in the kingdom of God is called to. It's an ethical question as well as a practical one, and I think Sayers shows keen insight in linking professional integrity with basic ethics.

This dominion work, while it obviously includes family, is not limited to family. Indeed, the two may in certain cases come into conflict. Jesus specifically told us to be ready to give up family for his sake in Matthew 19:29. And if we have a robust view of individual calling in the kingdom of God, then we'll see that it has to extend to women as well as to men. Bojidar Marinov's comments on Proverbs 31 are excellent:
The woman described here has a purpose for her life, an individual purpose that is only hers and no one else’s. She is not described as a passive participant in a collective; not even her family is described as a collective where she participates in some collective actions. Under some well-meaning but misplaced views of the family and the relationships within the family, some modern commentators are trying to present her as acting under the constant direction and supervision of her husband, as his errand boy or servant. But the text describes an independently-minded, self-motivated woman on a mission, an individual, personal, actively and aggressively pursued mission within a covenantal framework, not just simple obedience to someone else’s commands.

From this perspective, Harriet's question becomes increasingly urgent: "However grand the job may be, is it your job?" Sayers isn't, of course, denigrating either marriage or Genesis 2:18, which is one of the truly refreshing things about this book. While Mrs Bendick is an example of a woman whose individuality has been "devoured" by her husband's calling, Harriet refers to her friend Phoebe's marriage as something else: a "collaboration". More examples abound. An overworked student, Miss Newland, is warned to get away from her work and find rest and companionship. A don, Miss de Vine, explains how she once broke her engagement after realising that she was more invested in her academic career than in her fiance. Another faculty member, Miss Hillyard, bitterly reproaches a married secretary for being unable to keep her mind on her job, and the secretary, Mrs Goodwin, ultimately agrees with her, giving up her job so that she can focus on the needs of her sickly young son. And obviously, this book is the book in which Harriet finally realises that she can find an equal match with Peter Wimsey--which becomes evident when despite his worry for her personal safety, he assists rather than hinders her investigations.

There's a very good reason why Harriet finally accepts Peter's proposal while they're walking home from a concert. They have been listening to counterpoint music, and Wimsey makes the metaphor explicit. Marriage should be counterpoint, not harmony. It should be two individuals with different, but complementary callings, who find that they are more productive together than they are apart. And if you can't find someone who you will be more productive with, then perhaps you're called to be alone. It isn't wrong to be someone's helper, but it is wrong to ignore questions of fitness and suitability.

Another of the refreshing things about Gaudy Night is the fact that Sayers steadfastly resists to limit this question, of intellect/principle/profession versus heart/loyalty/family, to women. In one of the most important scenes in the book, Harriet and Peter have a long conversation with the Shrewsbury College faculty about exactly these questions. Their discussion revolves around a hypothetical man. The fact is, men also have family responsibilities that may interfere with their callings. They may feel called to do something which doesn't provide enough income to feed a family or which interferes with private life in some other way. The question, then, is so much bigger than feminism. It's the question of calling versus relationship, work versus life.

Of course, the two shouldn't be disentangled and pitted against each other. The dominion mandate makes no wide difference between working the earth and populating the earth. Somehow, most of us are supposed to do both. Both work and relationships are to be ruled by ethics. But the dominion mandate was given in a perfect world, a world without death, a world of limitless time.

As I was thinking it over after staying up late to finish Gaudy Night, I couldn't help thinking of JRR Tolkien's wonderful, heartbreaking Leaf by Niggle, which attacks the very same questions, only without the question of gender, and with more attention to the question of time and mortality. The reason why the question of calling versus family has any urgency at all is because of death. We aren't just cursed with pain in labour (of both kinds)--we're cursed with a very limited time in which to get anything done. But that should also remind us of our hope. Ultimately, those who submit themselves to the grace and ethics of God know they can look forward to an eternity of uncursed work and uncursed relationships. We can't get it all done in this life. But we can try, and we can wait eagerly for the life to come.

Needless to say, I couldn't possibly recommend Gaudy Night enough. I'm afraid that this has been less a review of the novel itself than an extended discussion of the thoughts I had while reading it, but I hope that whether you're reading it for the first or the manyeth time, you'll be inspired to push this one to the top of your reading list.

You can find Gaudy Night on Amazon or the Book Depository.

6 comments:

Abby said...

I really liked this. I personally am going through the question of what I am being called to in my life, so it's a timely review. I think everyone has to ask themselves this question at some points or some several points in their lives(though perhaps it's an easier call for some because of their natural talent/inclination). Thanks for the review! Perhaps I shall read it, though I've tried Dorothy Sayers before and was a bit turned off by the description of a murder. I've a weak stomach apparently. :)

Maggie said...

Gaudy Night is one of my three desert island books, so I am so glad to read such a great and thoughtful review! I think somewhere earlier on your blog I read that you didn't like the book, and I remember being sad that a great book and a great reviewer hadn't hit it off - so glad you've come to your senses!!

To Abby above - no need for caution, Gaudy Night is not actually a murder mystery! It is a mystery, but the crimes are less serious.

Nawelle said...

This is a wonderful piece, Suzannah. I look forward to giving Gaudy Nights a read for myself!

Hamlette said...

WOW.

Excellent post, and even though you say it's not a review per se, I'm totally bumping this book up on my TBR list.

terzocamollia@gmail.com said...

I am so happy that you found your way back to Gaudy Night. It is a mine full of gems, really.

Suzannah said...

Abby, I hope you do read the book! No murders in this one :)

Maggie, I have indeed come to my senses. Don't know what was wrong with me!

Nawelle and Hamlette, I hope you do read this book! I would love to hear your thoughts when you're done!

Terzo, it is. I feel sure it's going to take me many more reads to appreciate its depths - I sensed a lot more going on under the surface than I was able to grasp in this reading.

(Sorry for tardiness of responses to comments!)

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