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!


Calon Lan said...

I agree on the issue of a woman with a particular gift: she should probably pursue it and not try to balance everything. The jack of all trades is a master of none, and the woman who is called into one field might not necessarily be qualified as the best homemaker.

Sherry said...

I love Dorothy Sayers's Lord Peter Wimsey books, and I think Gaudy Night is my favorite, not because of the mystery but because of the romance. And I'm not usulally a fan of romance novels. Not that Gaudy Night is a typical romance novel.

As for your "can of worms", what about a man with a gift or genius? Can he balance fatherhood, marriage and career? Not arguing that men and women are the same, but in this instance wouldn't the quandary be nearly the same? I think there are many ways to live life, and we are doing balancing acts nearly all the time. Sometimes we do better than others. If you are called/gifted to be married, have children, and write books or paint pictures, that is probably more possible in this day and age when we have quite a lot of "electronic and mechanical servants" than it was even in the 1930's. Harriet Vane does manage to "have it all", although WImsey's money and the fact that she is a fictional character are helps in that regard.