"The first feminist mystery novel" - do you agree?

(54 Posts)
meditrina Mon 30-May-11 17:40:01

I found that quotation in wiki (sourced from a master's thesis) about Gaudy Night (1935) by Dorothy L Sayers.

Has anyone here read it? And if so, to what extent would you agree with that description?

Goblinchild Mon 30-May-11 17:48:28

Harriet Vane has always been a strong female character, and Gaudy Night shows her struggling with her need to be fiercely independent with the logic of asking Wimsey for help in working out a mystery. The relationship is surprisingly modern considering its social and historical setting, he doesn't want her to put herself in danger whilst investigating, but accepts that he has no right to stop her or indeed that he should even try.
At heart though, it is a traditional love story with murders attached.
What criteria would you want a book to fulfil if it was to be 'a feminist mystery novel' let alone the first?

Goblinchild Mon 30-May-11 17:53:46

What an extrodinary and boring thesis, I'm rather shocked that it's a master's. She mainly seems to have given precis of the plots rather than any in-depth analysis of any of the themes. It reads more like an A level essay that could do better.

meditrina Mon 30-May-11 18:02:11

I don't know - that's why I'm soliciting views on the book.

The book also contains discussion of "womanly" women v academic women, and Harriet's internal struggle about whether to accept Peter's proposal seems to arise from the same dichotomy.

It must also have been coloured by Sayers' own academic experience (having herself graduated at a time when women could not be awarded degrees, though she was one of the first to receive one when the position changed. There is a good deal of advocacy of women's education (still controversial then) and an independent role in life within the book, and also allusions to polemic (Miss Barton's attack on the Nazi restriction of women to Kinder, Kirche, Küche).

edam Mon 30-May-11 18:07:48

I like Goblin's analysis. Murder Must Advertise (think that's the title but the one set in an ad agency) also has an interesting take on working women. (Well, middle class women, working class women always had to earn their own living).

Goblinchild Mon 30-May-11 18:11:41

There is a lot of contemporary discussion about women's education, and a variety of opinions from both women and men. One of the most traditional views comes from the murderess herself, and the scholars at the college have some interesting views on whether a woman can remain as fine an academic after marriage.
It's around a decade since I read the book, so I may have to read it again before I can offer any accurate observations unclouded by time and distance. smile
I thought it was feminist from the POV that she isn't constrained by her man or by pressure from society into actions she would have found against her nature. She stayed true to herself, even when it wasn't easy or happy to do so.

MooncupGoddess Mon 30-May-11 18:20:22

Yes - Gaudy Night is centred around the question of how to be a woman in 1935, and especially around whether to marry or not.

Sayers explicitly sets up opposites - the unhappy married woman with children (who used to be a top scholar, but now is a miserable isolated farmer's wife) versus the happy woman with children (an archaeologist married to another archaeologist - they leave their children with the grandparents and go off on digs).

Then there is the happy single woman academic, doing useful work and much loved by her students, and the unhappy woman academic who was dumped by her lover after she pointed out he had falsified his data.

Really it is not much of a detective novel at all, the detective plot is just a useful hook to hang discussion of all these issues on. Like most Sayers novels it is also v. well written and very funny at points.

SardineQueen Mon 30-May-11 18:21:17

Seems to me that in the 20s/30s things were a lot more advanced in a way than they are now. We read these books (not that I've read this one but YKWIM!) and they have strong female characters who are actual real people, going around and doing stuff, like it's completely normal shock

Can you tell I'm no expert on this? It's just a feeling from some of the stuff from then. Was the 20s/30s a bit of a liberal golden age? I know you could take lots of drugs back then as well.

SardineQueen Mon 30-May-11 18:22:06

Not that taking lots of drugs is in any way a positive thing, obv.

<straight face>

MooncupGoddess Mon 30-May-11 18:22:53

Also as someone else said Lord Peter is portrayed as v. sympathetic to women's independence. Really he is a bit of wish-fulfillment for Sayers - she was unlucky with men herself, so invented Lord Peter as the perfect husband (rich, cultured, sympathetic) for her alter ego Harriet Vane.

edam Mon 30-May-11 18:25:19

In the UK, I think it largely depended what class you were - life was pretty shit for the working classes. And obviously whatever class you were, there was still very little access to contraception, women who had jobs could still be sacked for getting married, the professions were largely closed to women (except for nursing and teaching).

Goblinchild Mon 30-May-11 18:26:41

One of the criticisms levelled at Sayers was that she had fallen in love with her own hero, to the point where she over-sentimentalised the plots and dialogues.

MooncupGoddess Mon 30-May-11 18:27:00

Hi SQ,

Yes, I think the 1920s/1930s were a golden age in some ways - the first period it was possible for women to have proper jobs and even careers that weren't centred around teaching or nursing - and therefore independent lives, supporting themselves and making their own choices. Going to university suddenly became quite achievable for many women - but only of course those in sympathetic, mostly middle-class households.

(And it was also still pretty much impossible to combine marriage/children and a career. My granny went to London University and got a proper job afterwards, but gave it up as soon as she got married, as was the norm.)

MooncupGoddess Mon 30-May-11 18:28:39

Crosspost with edam.

Goblinchild - yes it's true, personally I love Gaudy Night but find Busman's Honeymoon deeply nauseating. (There is a bit about how good Peter is in bed! It's just WRONG.)

I love Gaudy night too and there is much that is inspiring and interesting in it. I suppose my only reservation is that the all the characters with a personal life at all are in some way damaged by it. Annie is the obvious one but Miss Chilperic practically disappears behind her dull boyfriend, Cattermole makes a total fool of herself because of her bloke, said bloke makes Miss Whatesername, who pinches him, a total bitch, Miss Newthingummy who tries to top herself - under pressure from parents who are heavily invested in her career. Whereas the dons are practically perfect and of course Harriet's relationship stands alone.

MooncupGoddess Mon 30-May-11 18:53:15

I guess you're right Northernlurker, apart from the aforementioned Phoebe Tucker the cheerful married archaeologist. The characters you mention are mostly undergraduates, though, and surely part of being an undergraduate is experimenting with one's love life, often disastrously?

meditrina Mon 30-May-11 19:04:51

Mooncupgoddess: SWYM - but references to "married love" were pretty rare in 1930s literature. And these did show mutual enthusiasm and enjoyment as the key (the previous lover, taking only his own pleasure, being an object to be scorned). And also the comments about the decision about whether and when to have children being up to Harriet hints at contraception. Weren't these both pretty advanced ideas to put into the mainstream in the 30s?

Grumpla Mon 30-May-11 19:13:37

Do you know, I have NEVER read any of Dorothy Sayer's books! And now I feel like I've definitely been missing out.

Is Gaudy Night a good one to start with do you think?

MooncupGoddess Mon 30-May-11 19:13:40

Hi meditrina, good points. I actually hadn't spotted/remembered the comment about deciding when/whether to have children. I should try to get over my childish ick factor!

(Now off to see if I can think of any other 1920s/30s novels which refer to sex within marriage.)

MooncupGoddess Mon 30-May-11 19:15:04

Grumpla - yes, do read them, they are fab, but don't start with Gaudy Night (it's the third of the Harriet Vane novels and makes more sense if you've read the other two first). Start with Strong Poison - The Nine Tailors and Murder Must Advertise are my other two favourites.

SardineQueen Mon 30-May-11 19:31:01

Thanks edam and mooncup smile

edam Mon 30-May-11 19:41:02

Agree with Mooncup about the order to read them in and about the favourites list. <doffs cap>>

meditrina Mon 30-May-11 19:41:20

Grumpla: the Harriet Vane ones are better read in order: Strong Poison, Have His Carcass, Gaudy Night and Busman's Honeymoon.

The others can be taken in any order. Murder Must Advertise is also one of my favourites.

I like Unnatural Death. In fact I like all of them. I am a bit hmm about the Jill Paton Walsh continuations though. They have some terribly good bits and some really dodgy bits. Just read the Attenbury Emeralds - very hmm

MooncupGoddess Mon 30-May-11 20:19:19

<doffs cap back to edam>

I have mixed feelings about Unnatural Death; very clever and sinister but the evil lesbian character makes me feel a bit uneasy. Maybe I am being too right-on.

Totally agree re the Jill Paton Walsh continuations, I read the first two and thought they were rubbish, Harriet is terribly simpering and doesn't have a single interesting thought. It's very odd as some of JPW's own novels - e.g. A Parcel of Patterns and Knowledge of Angels - are amazing.

I'm not sure there is actual lesbian contact going on is there? Clearly Miss F has a huge crush but the protagonist doesn't seem to actually engage in a realtionship with anyone being in fact totally sociopathic.

MooncupGoddess Mon 30-May-11 20:33:21

Hmm, I thought there was a hint that Mary W had seduced Miss F for her own evil ends. There's also a freaky scene where Mary tries to pull Lord Peter, but when he pretends to acquiesce she is overcome by horror.

I dunno - I just got an impression of lesbianism being portrayed as another 'unnatural' facet of Mary W's sociopathic nature. Could be reading too much into it or indeed faulting Sayers for not being up with 21st century opinion.

Well she definately isn't in to men at all. I don't think there's anything sexual as such going on though. She has a very intense friendship thing going on with Miss F (totally fake of course) - that's the point though - she is unnatural because she has no genuine relationships at all.

meditrina Mon 30-May-11 20:50:38

MooncupGoddess: I don't think that Mary W's (implied) lesbianism should be interpreted as unnatural because:
a) what is criticised is her undue influence over the younger and very much more naive Miss F (who might have been more able to make up her mind properly about what she was doing had she had a mother who was as straight talking as Miss C), not the idea of women setting up house together in itself; and
b) lesbian characters elsewhere in the novels are not portrayed in any way as sociopathic (eg Eiluned Price).

MooncupGoddess Mon 30-May-11 20:54:38

Good point about Eiluned Price, whom I'd totally forgotten (is she in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club?).

OK, you have both convinced me - I'd much prefer not to think of Sayers as being prejudiced against lesbians!

Yes exactly it's the degree of influence which Miss Climpson is unhappy about.

It's Marjorie whatsit in the Bellona club. Then she pops up again in Strong POison. Eiluned is in Strong Poison as one of Harriet's friends and then JPW bought her in to ThronesDominations as well.

MooncupGoddess Mon 30-May-11 21:10:32

Ah yes. Must reread them all again!

LadyPeterWimsey Tue 31-May-11 14:27:26

Ahem. grin

I love the idea in Gaudy Night that it is possible to be complete as a woman (or indeed a man) without being married or in some kind of relationship. It's fine for Harriet not to marry Peter as long as she commits herself to something that will fulfill her and be useful, even in some minor way - in her case, the life of the mind.

I also love the way they wrestle with what a marriage of equals might look like, and the seriousness with which Peter takes her work, and the way in which she is not 'damaged goods' to him, despite her previous lover.

I think all those things are pretty radical for the age, actually - and some of them seem pretty radical today.

LadyPeterWimsey Tue 31-May-11 14:28:53

PS Funnily enough, I was sure that this thread was going to be about Gaudy Night, even before I opened it.

The point all along for Peter is that he's had lovers too so where's the problem in Harriet having had one? I agree that is quite a daring position for the time and it is the absence of hypocrisy - not only from Peter but also from his mother and Bunter - that is so attractive.

StewieGriffinsMom Tue 31-May-11 20:33:35

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

edam Fri 03-Jun-11 23:11:56

To an extent, Northernlurker. But then if you look at class it's not so enlightened. Peter and Bunter both served in WW1 but Bunter has to look after Peter when he suffers from what I suppose today we'd call post-traumatic stress disorder. There's no recognition that Bunter might have been through the mill too. Peter is an aristocratic who suffers from nerves while Bunter is just too common to have any ill-effects from his experiences at all, apparently.

And there was me thinking it was the upper classes who were supposed to have stiff upper lips...

I don't think that's quite the case. It's made very clear that it is Peter's experiences as an officer - giving orders to men who then died - that inflicts that damage. Bunter didn't have the same role.

DilysPrice Fri 03-Jun-11 23:22:58

I like the plot in Strong Poison a lot. Harriet is prepared to live with her awful lover when she believes that he's taking a strong moral stance against marriage as a borgeois institution, but when he changes his mind and decides that she is good enough for him to marry after all then she sees right through him and tells him where he can stick his proposal.

It has all the makings of a classic AIBU thread - except that Harriet does it all herself without needing us lot to dissect the bastard for her.

DilysPrice Fri 03-Jun-11 23:23:46

(or even bourgeois blush)

edam Fri 03-Jun-11 23:27:27

I think that's a bit of a stretch, tbh. The idea that only those posh enough to have finer feelings could possibly have been affected by the trauma of WW1 is, um, unrealistic. Yes of course the idea is Peter has the guilt of having given orders but Bunter would have seen horrendous death, injury and destruction every day for years - and known full well his time could have been up at any minute.

Anyway, weren't batmen usually NCOs rather than private soldiers? So did have a level of responsibility.

(Slightly different, but Michael Bentine's autobiography talks about the horrors of WW2, seeing aircrew taking off every night and knowing some would never come back. Quite moving. Bentine's take on this is that he believed he was psychic and could see who was going to die which is fairly gruesome.)

meditrina Sat 04-Jun-11 07:11:32

Bunter was, of course, Sgt Bunter. And how he came to be in Peter's service post-War is described by Peter's mother to Harriet in Busman's Honeymoon. That bit of back story is interesting. Bunter deliberately sought Peter out and stayed with him even though Peter was in such a state of total breakdown he did everything he could to send him away. Bunter is almost Peter's replacement father (dec'd) or elder brother (ineffectual), and also certainly is the person whose reaction to the marriage Harriet worries most about.

I do not think it follows that just because one character is damaged, then all must be in the interests of some abstract fairness. If you look in, eg The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, there are examples of those both damaged and undamaged and they do not follow class lines.

But class is an interesting theme. I think Sayers is successful in showing class status in itself not a particularly worthy attribute - especially given the time she was writing. It's not brushed under the carpet (eg Harriet's description of "noblesse oblige" where she compare's Peter to the village blacksmith). But the admirable characters are those who use their advantages to general advantage - detecting, building non-slum housing (presumably following the Shaftesbury example as a forerunner of social housing) with spacious pubs and with fair rents and good maintenance, working outside the home, establishing a business to employ thise who would otherwise struggle to find work, and generally using brains; and choosing friends for their merits (the East End villains are not the best drawn characters but at least they are there), and choosing spouses for love not suitability (both Peter and Mary in contrast to Gerald - whose wife's stuffy class-conscious approach is derided). Peter often drops his title and does not stand on ceremony except when to wield it for his own advantage (Have His Carcass being a good example).

Bright young things and upper class twits are most likely to be portrayed as villains (eg the drug abusers in Murder Must Advertise) and generally as a waste of space. Personal wealth meant not everyone needed to take a paid job, but those who did not have an occupation were shown as not admirable and shallow. There was a similar paradigm with younger working class girls between the diligent and one whose head had been turned by the talkies. Or perhaps Miss W, part of whose woes Miss C attitudes to absence of an occupation.

Harriet's overtly feminist friends like Peter - they see him as an example of a useful person, not typical of his class. They are, of course, part of the same works of fiction, but it is a viewpoint which invites the reader to look at attitude and achievement rather than position.

meditrina Sat 04-Jun-11 07:13:11

DilysPrice: I really like her attitude on that too!

edam Sat 04-Jun-11 23:51:27

Fair point, well made.

MooncupGoddess Sun 05-Jun-11 20:17:43

Yes, agree with meditrina. Mary's decision to marry Parker, a policeman from a grammar-school/lower middle class background, shocks her brother the Duke and his ghastly wife, but the marriage is very successful and Peter supports it from the start. This subplot is clearly a deliberate attack by Sayers on class prejudice.

Peter is also depicted as comradely towards people of all backgrounds, e.g. the ex-burglar in Strong Poison and the black Reverend Hallelujah Dawson in Unnatural Death. He's very sensitive to George Fentiman in the Bellona Club, who is living on the breadline, supported by his wife's job because he can't work as a result of shell shock.

I see edam's point about Bunter, but he's portrayed in a slightly tongue in cheek way as the perfect gentleman's gentleman, who can cope perfectly with any situation (very like Jeeves). It would be out of character for him to be overcome with trauma, whereas Peter is always shown as a bit 'nervy'.

I agree- the character's response to the war is in character not class.

I'd forgotten about poor cousin Hallelujah. Awful when he goes to cash the cheque and gets nabbed!

edam Sun 05-Jun-11 21:56:16

Did anyone read the short stories set in WW2? Bunter gets married, Peter does hush-hush war work, and he and Harriet have three boys. Think there might even be a novel as well as a short story - set in Chimneys IIRC?

I think you mean Talboys? Yes there is a novel - Jill Paton Walsh 'collaboration'. It's not bad actually. Better than the one she's done since The Attenbury Emeralds which wasn't all that brilliant imo.

MooncupGoddess Sun 05-Jun-11 22:15:34

Hi edam,

Yes - there's three in a book called Striding Folly. One when Harriet is in labour and Peter meets a policeman with an odd story, and another about their three boys and taking the piss out of their governess. I don't think they're very good, but I do like Sayers' pieces in the Spectator in 1939-40 about what Wimsey, his nephew etc are all up to in wartime.

edam Sun 05-Jun-11 22:15:38

Ah, that's right, Chimneys is Agatha Christie. JPW did a good job on the novel, but Sayer's short stories in WW2 are well worth reading.

MrsGuyOfGisbourne Thu 17-May-12 13:01:05

Dilys Price - love your commetn about how Harriet does not need MN advice to leave the bastard grin
The thing about Bunter that bugged me was when the Dowager Duchess was showing Harriet pics of LPW as a boy that Bunter took confused

SweetTheSting Fri 18-May-12 22:23:40

Yeah, I never got that bit about the photos either - I have post-rationalised it as the Dowager was talking about the baby photos but Harriet was looking at a set of adult photos and commenting on those and it was just a lack of clarity from the author.

That's my theory and I'm sticking to it grin

GetDownNesbitt Sun 10-Jun-12 20:44:10

These are my favourite books ever. Introduced to them at university as part of a module on detective fiction, where Gaudy Night was taught from a feminist angle - my copy still has my blinding obvious observations written in the margin.

The biographies of Sayers are fascinating - I recommend 'Such a Strange Lady' by Janet ????

One of my DC is named after the books...not a co-incidence at all!

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