"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?

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.

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