“The book I wanted to write”: Dorothy Sayers on Gaudy Night

I’ve been reading (and enjoying) Barbara Reynold’s biography of Dorothy L. Sayers. Much as I enjoy some of the other Peter Wimsey novels, it’s Gaudy Night that I love, so much that I’ve had trouble staying objective and professorial in seminar discussions with students who don’t get how completely fabulous it is (see? hardly dispassionate). I very much appreciated, then, this letter from Sayers to her publisher that shows she too felt the novel was something special:

It is the only book I’ve written embodying any kind of a ‘moral’ and I do feel rather passionately about this business of the integrity of the mind–but I realise that to make a ‘detective story’ the vehicle for that kind of thing is (as Miss de Vine says of the Peter-Harriet marriage) ‘reckless to the point of insanity’. But there it is–it’s the book I wanted to write and I’ve written it–and it is now my privilege to leave you with the baby! Whether you advertise it as a love-story or as educational propaganda, or as a lunatic freak, I leave it to you. It may be highly unpopular; but though I wouldn’t claim that it was in itself a work of great literary importance, it is important to me, and I only hope it won’t be a ghastly flop!

For the other Sayers fans out there, by the way, back in the early days of Open Letters Monthly (August 2007, to be precise), Joanna Scutts wrote a very nice feature essay on Dorothy Sayers that’s well worth reading.

5 thoughts on ““The book I wanted to write”: Dorothy Sayers on Gaudy Night

  1. Colleen June 13, 2011 / 12:07 am

    I have a pile of Sayers novels to read that I keep looking at longingly and then walking away from – because how could anything be as good as Gaudy Night? I don’t know if Sayers knowing it was special makes me more or less fearful of reading her other works…

  2. Rohan Maitzen June 13, 2011 / 9:04 am

    Colleen, if one of them is Murder Must Advertise, you’re probably OK. Or The Nine Tailors. Or Busman’s Honeymoon…though some find it a bit sentimental, I adore it. I don’t pay much attention to the other ones, really: in her essay on Gaudy Night Sayers emphasizes that her creation of Harriet as a complex character necessitated reinventing Peter as something more than the fairly 2-D figure he had been until then.

  3. Dorothea23 June 14, 2011 / 6:18 pm

    Rohan, do you think that Gaudy Night can be read as a stand-alone novel? I’ve heard so many wonderful things about it, including the manner in which Sayers supposedly treats the issue of balancing the “life of the mind” with “real life” (whatever that means), that I feel it will probably be highly relevant to me personally at this time in my life. Does one really have to read the earlier Vane-Wimsey novels to get the most out of this book? I’m not bothered by the prospect of starting with what is arguably Sayers’s best work; after all Middlemarch was the first George Eliot novel that I read and it got me to read four other major Eliot novels.

  4. Rohan Maitzen June 14, 2011 / 7:08 pm

    I think it can be read as a stand-alone (though I wouldn’t be surprised if it made you curious to read at least the other ones with Harriet in them). When I teach it in my ‘women and detective fiction’ seminar I set it up with a little minimal review of how Peter and Harriet met and what the underlying issues are between them, but I don’t know if that is strictly necessary or just me obsessing!

  5. Colleen June 14, 2011 / 11:18 pm

    I’ve got Busman’s Honeymoon and Strong Poison…I thought I also had Murder Must Advertise, but it’s nowhere to be found. I’ll be interested to see how Peter looks in these…

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