"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.

Join the discussion

Join the discussion

Registering is free, easy, and means you can join in the discussion, get discounts, win prizes and lots more.

Register now