I’m re-reading Gaudy Night

(which is one of the Lord Peter Wimsey mystery novels by Dorothy Sayers.)

It’s been long enough since I last read it that I’ve been completely blindsided by several important plot points, which was fun. But I apparently also forgot just how gross and scary some of it is.

The mystery in this book, at least as it appears at the beginning, is that someone at a women’s college is sending rude, threatening anonymous notes to both teachers and students, and committing minor acts of vandalism, too. And everyone goes all “Well, obviously anyone who would use such DISGUSTING LANGUAGE must be MENTALLY UNBALANCED. What specific type of TWISTED, INSANE PERSON are we looking for, do you think?”

But they all know it must be someone who lives at the college (and most of the students are ruled out), so underneath this sort of Freudian idea about crime and mental illness is the fear that maybe patriarchy is right? Maybe being an educated and/or unmarried woman is inherently unnatural and psychologically unhealthy? Maybe we should have expected this?

All these dignified older women with Ph.D’s, and none of them can really shake this fear. It is all kinds of gross and scary to read.

And as weird as it seems to me for these characters to be so affected by this… I can’t really talk??? Because it’s 70+ years later and I still know exactly what they mean when they talk about this archetype of the unnatural, repressed single woman, and it still has the power to scare me, too.

At the time this was written, these things— “Can women have careers?” “Can women have careers and happy marriages at the same time?” etc. were much more uncertain questions than they are now (even though they are still questions people struggle with) and all this stuff is the backdrop for Harriet’s personal issues about her career and her feelings about Peter, and I don’t know where to begin to analyze all that. There is a lot of stuff in this book.


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