Gaudy Night Summary

Dorothy L. Sayers

Gaudy Night

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Gaudy Night Summary

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English crime novelist Dorothy Sayers published Gaudy Night in 1935. The novel features a fiercely independent and mentally agile crime writer, Harriet Vane, investigating a crime spree on her old college campus. Halfway through the novel, she is joined by the charming if lazy Lord Peter Wimsey. Gaudy Night is the tenth in a series of eleven books featuring Lord Wimsey; it is the third that features Harriet Vane.

The novel’s major themes include female independence, intellectual freedom, and the negotiation between independence and obligation in romantic relationships. It is told in close third person, where the thoughts and feelings of Vane are easy for the reader to discern. Sayers was one of the first women to graduate from Oxford, and Vane is clearly modeled off of her personal experience.

In the first scene, 32-year-old Harriet Vane writing at her desk. She is unsure whether to return to Oxford for a party and reunion called Gaudy. She was a top student who received highest honors with her degree in English literature, but since graduation, she has written for various papers covering famous murders, in addition to slightly unsavory novels.

She also gained notoriety as the defendant in a murder trial. She was accused of became poisoning her lover, Philip Boyles, but with the help of Lord Wimsey, was exonerated. They remain friends, though Vane is slightly annoyed by his repeated marriage proposals during the past five years. She resolves not to attend the Gaudy because she is sure that a crime novelist will be unwelcome at such a prestigious college.

Eventually, Vane acquiesces only because one of her friends, Mary Stokes Attwood, has a severe illness, and will be in attendance at the Gaudy before traveling overseas for a vital surgery.

To her surprise, she is welcomed at Shrewsbury College, a fictional women’s sub-college at Oxford University. Students, staff, and her old teachers are thrilled to see a now- famous crime writer. Though many of the older deans are still reluctant to grant degrees to women—until the 1970s, Oxford’s rules stated that no more than 25 percent of the graduating class could be female—the deans do respect Vane’s evident intellect.

Vane enjoys herself as the Gaudy reunion. The only thing that sours the event is an anonymous, insulting letter. It read, in all capital letters, “You dirty murderess. Aren’t you ashamed to show your face?”Still, she promises everyone at Shrewsbury that she will return for future events. In fact, she’s enjoyed herself to much that she wonders if she should give up her life writing “tawdry” crime novels and become an academic in the peaceful, secluded college town.

Months pass. One day, Dean Letitia Martin sends word to Vane that someone is delivering insulting letters to everyone on campus; they call them“poison pen” letters. Later, graffiti begins to appear all over campus, someone burns dressing gowns in the center quad, and hundreds of books in the library are defaced and torn so as to be unreadable.

The college asks Vane to figure out who is causing this vandalism. They don’t want a public scandal, so they ask her to keep the investigation private. If a scandal does transpire, it will only prove to conservative forces that women aren’t fit to be educated in a college setting. The administrators agree to send all evidence to Vane’s room on campus.

The incidents worsen and yet, Vane comes no closer to discovering the perpetrator. The fake letters become so embarrassing for some students that one nearly commits suicide. After that frightening event, Vane compels the university administrators to bring in outside forces. She asks Lord Wimsey to help with her investigation.

Vane and Wimsey work together to catch the perpetrator. During this collaboration, Vane learns more about Wimsey, as well as his family. She is sympathetic toward problems with his nephew, Viscount Gerald Saint-George, who keeps causing problems at another college within Oxford. Vane starts to think that Wimsey is the kind of man who would respect her independence and contribute to her professional and personal goals. He would not be an old-school husband who expects her to be at his beck and call.

As they get closer to solving the crime, the attacker seems to sense their approach, and the attacks escalate, culminating in an attempt on Vane’s life.

Fortunately, Wimsey has enough evidence to confront the attacker soon after the most vicious attempt. Caught in a corner, the attacker confesses to her crimes. Her name is Annie Wilson, and she is a maid on campus. As Wimsey’s line of questioning reveals, Wilson is driven by emotion, rather than reason. She’s incredibly prideful and willing to commit murder in order to disrupt and denigrate those who threaten her, even when the threat is illogical.

Wilson does have some understandable grievances against Vane. Years ago, Vane had publicly revealed that Mrs. Wilson’s husband had purposefully omitted key research to bolster his own research thesis. The case of intellectual dishonesty ended his academic career. Ever since Vane appeared at the Gaudy, Wilson sought to extract revenge.

Wilson is apprehended, and the poison pen letters cease.

Having learned more about herself and the requirements of marriage, Vane finally accepts Wimsey’s marriage proposal. Their wedding, as well as the murder the inevitably disrupts it, is detailed in Sayers’ final novel in the series, Busman’s Honeymoon (1937).