Thursday, August 27, 2009

Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers

Amidst moving and traveling, I finished my third Lord Peter Wimsey Mystery about a week ago. I had about 50 pages to go when Captive Thoughts Book Club met to discuss it, so I got to play 20 questions to figure out whodunit (it only took me about 3 questions!).

I've been pleasantly surprised at the variety of plot and structure in the three Lord Peter mysteries that I have read so far. Gaudy Night seemed to have a slower start than either Strong Poison or Have His Carcase, and the cast of characters at Shrewsbury College of Oxford was long enough to rival the list of Dames in In This House of Brede. This complexity carried over into both the dilemma and the dialogue, as there were many facets to the mystery and much more serious and philosophical topics were discussed than in the other stories.

Most interesting, was the recurring debate over the role and place of women. Unlike today when it's taken for granted that most women will attempt to "have it all" - career, marriage, family - the female dons of Shrewsbury College were almost all single, having chosen the academic life over relationships (in some cases it might be argued that this was a detriment to their relationships with each other). Some even question whether their secretaries and servants should have families, since they were more distracted from their work. Harriet Vane ponders these attitudes and whether the heart and the mind can or should concurrently pursue separate interests as she considers her relationship to and with Lord Peter Wimsey. Needless to say, there is plenty of wit and humor interwoven between the incidents of the college poltergeist (the mystery to be solved) and the sociological and philosophical issues. The whole package simply demonstrates Sayers remarkable ability to craft a story with so many diverse elements.

It was interesting to reflect upon these early feminist ideas after recently reading G. K. Chesterton's chapter on "Feminism, or the Mistake about Woman" in What's Wrong With The World. Chesterton argues that a woman is designed to be jack-of-all-trades, balancing multiple responsibilities, and not necessarily perfecting any of them, i. e. specializing in none. Writing early in the 20th century, Chesterton seems to assume that the woman's place, or at least the place where she will flourish best and contribute most to the well-being of society, is in the home. Just a few decades later (mid-30's), the women dons of Shrewsbury express the exact opposite: "...if there's any subject in which you're content with the second-rate, then it isn't really your subject" (190). In other words, as women entered the academic world they became specialists and perfectionists and reveled in it.

I can certainly identify since I've been a perfectionist since elementary school and I would enjoy being a professional student if circumstances would allow (they most decidedly don't, and I'm content with that). At the same time, I can understand and identify with Chesterton's position as well. As a homemaker, I have very little time to perfect anything since my attention must necessarily be divided by so many things. In fact, I don't think I have the brain power to sort out these various arguments and inspect them by the light of Scripture right now (maybe someday). But my preliminary thoughts (based largely upon experience) are that perhaps the dons of Shrewsbury were more right, practically speaking, than Chesterton or today's cultural expectations: if a woman is intellectually or otherwise gifted, then it is probably best for her to remain single and develop those talents with a single focus without being pulled in many directions as necessarily comes with a husband and children. They accepted the fact that theirs was a generally lonely and isolated life, and that was the price they paid for pursuing academics. This seems to me a more well-reasoned and responsible choice to take the implications of an academic career upon oneself by denying oneself intimate relationships (assuming one lives morally) than to inflict the implications of one's career upon one's husband and children. This is not to say that only dumb women should marry and have children, but that all women should seriously consider that they cannot "have it all" and make a deliberate choice between two options. All right, I've opened a big can of worms here - any comments? ( :

I am very interested to read more of Dorothy Sayers' life and especially her theological works. She came to faith later in life, I believe, so she made many of the choices which directed the course of her life apart from the counsel of Scripture and a life of faith. I wonder how many of the views on women expressed in Gaudy Night are her own and if she held those same views throughout life. I hope to read a biography by David Coomes, Dorothy L. Sayers: A Careless Rage for Life, who describes her as "a champion of absolute standards, but ... no less a champion of those who fall short of the ideal...when she spoke out so vehemently on moral and doctrinal issues ... it was as someone who had fallen and suffered and was desperate to warn others of the self-inflicted punishment lying in wait for the unwary."

On a historical note, I found it very interesting that this book was written in 1936, and hence there was a favorable reference to Hitler by a minor character (p. 126). It's amazing what a little perspective on history can do!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Teaser Tuesday - Gaudy Night

is hosted by Should be Reading.

TEASER TUESDAYS asks you to:
  1. Grab your current read. Let the book fall open to a random page.
  2. Share with us two (2) “teaser” sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12.
  3. Also share the title of the book that the “teaser” comes from … that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given! Please avoid spoilers!
Miss Hillyard stated that she had received them on a Saturday morning and taken them to her own rooms (which were on Miss Lydgate's staircase and on the floor immediately above). She had subsequently taken them into the Library (that is to say, the Library in Tudor, now about to be superseded by the New Library), and had there worked upon them for some time with the aid of some reference books.

~ p. 86, Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers. (I have a weak spot for any author that uses subsequently and superseded so effectively in one sentence!)

Read my reviews of the preceding Lord Peter and Harriet Vane mysteries here: Strong Poison and Have His Carcase.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Have His Carcase by Dorothy Sayers

Have His Carcase is the second Lord Peter Wimsey mystery that I have read, and I am hooked. I'll be happily reading all the Lord Peter books that I can acquire as I have time!

Have His Carcase is a bit slower paced than Strong Poison, but I loved the structure of revealing the evidence piece by piece. The descriptive chapter headings were very helpful when I needed to go back and look for some detail that I might have missed. Overall, the mystery element was fascinating and the characters and suspects unique. The details were intriguing, although at times I had to restrain myself from skipping ahead to find the latest development more quickly! It was a complex mystery, one where some things seemed obvious, but the pieces just didn't seem to fit, as Lord Peter observed: "What I like about your reduces it to the complete quintessence of incomprehensible nonsense. Therefore, by the second law of thermodynamics, which lays down that we are hourly and momently progressing to a state of more and more randomness, we receive positive assurance that we are moving happily and securely in the right direction" (292). Exactly - and I didn't guess the fact that tied all the disparate parts together until just before it was revealed in the last chapter. I guess I'm a little out of practice in figuring out who-dunnit.

The growing relationship between Harriet and Lord Peter is both sweet and funny in this novel. Lord Peter is dashingly gallant and persistent: "I could kiss you for it. You need not shrink and tremble. I am not going to do it. When I kiss you, it will be an important event - one of those things which stand out among their surroundings like the first time you tasted li-chee. It will not be an unimportant sideshow attached to a detective investigation" (203).

In spite of his charm, Harriet stubbornly tries to maintain an aloof distance, but she softens just a bit, eventually realizing (if only subconsciously) that Lord Peter's attentions and off-hand proposals aren't so offensive after all, as we see here:
"Time passes when one is pleasantly occupied," said Harriet, sententiously.
Wimsey put his hat and papers down on the table, opened his mouth to speak, changed his mind, took up his belongings again and marched to the door.
"Cheerio!" he said, amiably.
"Cheerio!" replied Harriet.
He went out. Harriet sat looking at the closed door.
"Well," she said, "thank goodness he's given up asking me to marry him. It's much better he should put it out of his mind."
She must have felt strongly about it, for she repeated the remark several times (377).

I'm sorry this is such a superficial review for such a complex and witty book. But I don't have time to write more - I'm already reading Gaudy Night and looking forward to another intriguing tale of evil intent and galant chivalry. So be forewarned: these novels are addicting.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Teaser Tuesday - Have His Carcase by Dorothy Sayers

is hosted by Should be Reading.

TEASER TUESDAYS asks you to:

  1. Grab your current read. Let the book fall open to a random page.

  2. Share with us two (2) “teaser” sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12.

  3. Also share the title of the book that the “teaser” comes from … that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given! Please avoid spoilers!

Five years seems a longish time to premeditate a crime. You might, perhaps, keep an eye on that bank - only don't make a row about it, or you may frighten the bird away.

~ p. 119, Have His Carcase, by Dorothy L. Sayers

Read my review of the preceding novel Strong Poison, here.

Strong Poison by Dorothy Sayers

As a child, I read every Nancy Drew book I could get my hands on (too bad I didn't know about inter-library loan then!), but for various reasons, I haven't looked very far for good mysteries as an adult. I'm not interested in scary thrillers or gory tales of horror, much less in stories riddled with sexual innuendos or more. But now I have found Lord Peter Wimsey, and I am enthralled!

I usually like to start at the beginning of a series and read through to the end, but because of book club selections I met Lord Peter Wimsey in Strong Poison which is also where Sayers introduces Harriet Vane. I'm not too concerned about mixing up chronology, for in this case it simply means that I have many more novels to enjoy! I'm afraid they could be addicting.

Sayers is a remarkable writer, as these snippets will reveal:

"There were crimson roses on the bench; they looked like splashes of blood." (p. 1 - first line of Chapter 1)

"Such a Victorian attitude, too, for a man with advanced ideas. He for God only, she for God in him, and so on. Well, I'm glad you feel like that about it."
"Are you? It's not going to be exactly helpful in the present crisis."
"No; I was looking beyond that. What I mean to say is, when all this is over, I want to marry you, if you can put up with me and all that." (44 - What a pick-up line!!!)

"What a clear mind you have," said Miss Climpson.
"When I die you will find 'Efficiency' written on my heart." (53)

"The next day dawned bright and fair, and Wimsey felt a certain exhilaration as he purred down to Tweedling Parva. 'Mrs. Merdle' the car...was sparking merrily on all twelve cylinders, and there was a touch of frost in the air. These things conduce to high spirits." (59)

"If anybody ever marries you, it will be for the pleasure of hearing you talk piffle," said Harriet, severely.
"A humiliating reason, but better than no reason at all." (128)

"Oh, come," said Wimsey, "you can't think that, Helen. Damn it, she writes detective stories and in detective stories virtue is always triumphant. They're the purest literature we have." (132 - don't just love Sayers self-implicating wit, there?)

And finally, such nice structure, the final chapter opens with, "There were golden chrysanthemums on the judge's bench; they looked like burning banners." (259)

Some books simply would not translate well to the screen. I don't think A Prayer for Owen Meany would (and the author John Irving agreed with that, though it was attempted in the film Simon Birch, which I haven't seen), but Strong Poison practically begs to be acted - the wit, the humor, the settings and descriptions, not mention Lord Wimsey's proposals to Harriet Vane - it would be perfect. So I was delighted to find that the BBC did do a adaptation in the late 80's that comes in a 3 volume DVD set:
Now I'll just have to finish the books that much faster so that I can watch the series!

If you've read Lord Wimsey (or even if you haven't) please comment and leave your suggestions for other good, clean mystery novels.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale

The Goose Girl is a delightful fairy tale that has just the right balance of friendship, loyalty, adventure, intrigue, danger, and (of course) true love. It is a greatly expanded retelling of the Grimm Brothers' fairy tale by the same name, but Shannon Hale has worked a wondrous improvement upon the classic tale, fleshing out the story with a cast of supporting characters, well-apportioned dialogue, and a touch of fantasy.

Though it doesn't have as strong moral overtones as George MacDonald's Princess fairy tales (reviewed here and here), it does show an admirable development in the character of Princess Ani/Isi, as she learns to stand for the truth no matter the cost, as well as the value of true friends no matter their class.

I look forward to reading the other novels in the Books of Bayern series - in fact, two of them are reserved at the library for me already! I also would not hesitate to recommend The Goose Girl to younger readers, for it is an engaging story of good triumphing over evil that is untarnished by inappropriate suggestions or descriptions. Highly recommended!