This Week in My Classes: Am I Making Excuses for Gaudy Night?

I’ve confessed here before that I can have trouble staying “objective and professorial” during discussions of Gaudy Night because I love the novel so much.  I have loved it pretty much since the first time I read it, which is a long time ago: my personal copy is from a 1978 edition, and though I can’t see any sign on it of when it was actually printed, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was close to that date, which would mean I’ve been rereading it since I was 12 or 13. (Here’s a possible clue: I have the matching edition of Busman’s Honeymoon, and it’s inscribed to me on my 13th birthday, in 1980.)

I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing for me to let on that I love a particular novel. I make no secret of my strong feelings about Middlemarch, after all, but I am also clear that it’s not my job or my purpose to get students to love it, or even like it: I’m trying to help them understand it, and teach them to appreciate it. I also teach novels I don’t particularly like, though I don’t typically make a big deal about that; again, my job (and theirs) is about something else.  What’s important is that I encourage, respect, and support students as they develop their own interpretations: my feelings about the novel should not come into this, only my knowledge of the novel and my experience thinking about how its different elements are related, and what they mean.

But are these aspects — my feelings, and what I’ll call my ‘expertise’ — really so unrelated? Don’t I love the novel because of how I interpret it, and don’t I interpret it as I do because of the time and thought I’ve put into reading and rereading it? Or is it that I read and reread it because I love it, and thus I interpret it as I do because of how I feel about it? What does it mean to “love” a novel anyway? And since this particular novel focuses on precisely the challenge of integrating head and heart, can’t I just stop worrying about which came first, the love or the understanding, and be happy that here I find the perfect fusion of the two?

I could, of course, and yet it wouldn’t be intellectually honest not to think carefully about the problems my students routinely raise on their first reading of the novel, and intellectual honesty is the fundamental principle of Gaudy Night. So here are some of them, and some preliminary responses. I think they are intellectual responses, responses based on my ‘objective and professorial’ understanding of the novel. But I worry that they are excuses, ways of getting around problems with the novel, that are motivated by my loving desire to protect it. Maybe — probably — they are some of both! What do you think?

1. The novel is elitist, and/or Harriet is elitist, about education.

I actually think that this is true, but for me it’s not a telling criticism of either Harriet or the novel. Both idealize a certain kind of education, and a set of values, according to which a university education is not for everyone the way we like to think (or talk as if) a university education is for everyone here and now. I thought this objection might be tempered in my Somerville seminar because we’ve already spent quite a bit of time thinking about Oxford as an idealized space as well as a place with very particular social and historical significance for women at this period. Up to this point the university had never been a democratic institution or even, really, a meritocratic one, but women’s access to it mattered and the dream of Oxford as a means for women to transform their lives was very powerful. Gaudy Night explores both this dream and its limits. I also think that it is self-conscious about this as a dream, including for both Harriet and Peter, neither of whom ever really imagines giving up the rest of their lives to embrace an academic vocation. And academic life is shown very much as a vocation, not a profession. It isn’t right for everyone. It isn’t even, as I’ve said, right for Harriet. Oxford itself, too, is shown to be much more (or is it much less?) than that ideal. But to Harriet, and, I think, in the novel overall, the life of the mind that Oxford symbolically represents is something special, something worth aspiring to and cherishing above other options. If that’s elitist, sign me up, I guess.

A key episode that always provokes intense reactions is Harriet’s conversation with her former classmate Catherine Freemantle, now Mrs Bendick, who has become a farmer’s wife. “What damned waste!” Harriet thinks; “All that brilliance, all that trained intelligence, harnessed to a load that any uneducated country girl could have drawn far better.” Is Harriet just being a snob? She asks Mrs Bendick about the “compensations” of her work and Mrs Bendick asserts that it is “a finer thing than spinning words on paper,” but she goes on to admit that she misses “things” and feels resentful of what she has given up. “It seems queer to me now,” she says, “to think that once I was a scholar.” If Sayers had wanted us to see working the land as a genuinely valuable alternative, couldn’t she have made Mrs Bendick happy and confident in her choice instead? Is she, therefore, dismissing farming as lowly labor, unworthy of a certain better class of woman, or is she regretting that a highly educated woman (still a rarity, in 1936) has lost, or given up, the opportunity to use her education?

There’s also Miss Cattermole, the current student who’s getting in all sorts of scrapes and hates that her parents have insisted she go to Oxford when what she wants is to be a nurse or a cook. “We haven’t got room for women who aren’t and never will be scholars,” rages Harriet after their conversation. Cattermole’s mother is of the generation that fought “to get things open to women,” and now Cattermole feels herself a victim of her mother’s feminist ideology. When Harriet demands, “Why do they send these people here?” is she, once again, being elitist, asserting that not everyone is fit to go to university? Or is she upset that a rare space at a women’s college is being wasted on someone who would be perfectly happy without this particular kind of specialized education? Who’s at fault here, anyway? Oxford, for not being right for Cattermole, or Cattermole’s mother, for mistaking her daughter’s opportunity for her daughter’s obligation?

2. The charge of elitism extends also to a more general complaint about class prejudice, and the identity of the perpetrator adds to the sense that the novel overall is kind of snooty.

I think this is partly true, but that it oversimplifies. Harriet herself is not upper class or aristocratic, and the difference in class and wealth between her and Peter is a major stumbling block in their relationship. Her education has changed her social position in some respects, and Oxford itself is a symbolically leveling environment for their relationship (their academic gowns are the same size, even). The privilege represented by the university is not exactly a matter of class, though, and the prejudices most on display in the novel are against the uneducated, or the enemies of (women’s) education. Annie’s own position at the college is a bit of a red herring, as far as class goes: yes, she’s working as a servant, but if things had gone differently she’d be a faculty wife. She’s dangerous and vilified because of her Nazi-affiliated views on women’s proper place, not because the novel (despite being set in a hierarchical, class-conscious world and full of people who take that structure for granted, Harriet included) is anti-working-class. I usually suggest that the central crime in a mystery novel can be read symptomatically. In Gaudy Night, the most dangerous force is a regressive sexism directed against women who have gone, or seek to go beyond, their historically limited roles through education. Such reactionary misogyny is, tragically, not a fiction in today’s world, where as we’ve just seen, it can take a tragically violent turn. Early Oxford women obviously did not face the same literal level of threat, but Annie embodies a version of the kinds of hostilities they really did incite.

3. Peter swoops in and solves the case, reducing Harriet to the status of a sidekick.

BalliolIt’s true that Peter is the ‘closer’ on this case. It’s also true that he withholds information and delays identifying his chief suspect, nominally on the grounds that he does not have sufficient proof and does not want to drive the suspect into hiding. But he also does so explicitly on the grounds that he thinks Harriet can figure things out for herself. He plays very nearly the ‘Great Detective’ role, including a classic reveal scene in which he lays out the facts of the case as he has sorted them out. Harriet’s role in the dénouement is closer to that of victim than that of heroine or detective: in classic Gothic style, she goes wandering down a dark hallway and nearly gets herself killed. But Peter makes clear that he solved the case only with the help of Harriet’s dossier, and Harriet  is taking risks in dark hallways because Peter has joined her on the case but not excluded her from it. Worried for her safety, he nonetheless accepts her right to take risks and encounter danger. Early in the novel he is injured because of a close encounter with a bad guy; now it’s her turn. It might be neater, if equality is the standard, for them to have worked literally together at each stage of the investigation, but their work until this point has been complementary yet not without conflict, and it’s not until after the case has been resolved that their relationship finally achieves mutuality (and they can finally kiss!). Disappointment that Harriet doesn’t triumphantly solve the case on her own ignores the novel’s dual purpose: it’s both a detective novel and a novel about the complicated relationship between Harriet and Peter. It is set up from the beginning so that both of these aspects need resolution. Harriet needs to figure out how she can retain her autonomy and love Peter. Feminism doesn’t have to mean doing everything without anyone else’s help. And love doesn’t have to mean capitulation. Harriet herself at one point imagines how much easier it would be to be “ridden over roughshod,” because hammering out an equitable alternative is exhausting in a world that sets up obstacles rather than providing models. Peter is not the man for that job, however–and a good thing, too, or she’d have to do a full-out Jane Eyre on him before they could marry with no threat to her self-respect.

4. Peter buys Harriet a dog collar to wear. He even wants to put his name on it! Clearly that’s a sign that their relationship is about her submission and his control.

 When I brought this up on Twitter, other readers promptly chimed in to say that, like me, they had never been perturbed by this–one noted that the dog collar is a handy solution to a pragmatic problem (what else could she wear as protection against strangulation?), while another remarked that her sense of the Harriet-Peter relationship was already strong enough at that point that there didn’t seem to be a problem. All three of us are resisting reading the dog collar symbolically, or at least as a symbol of ownership or control. In any other book, I don’t think I would resist this reading. Am I being disingenuous in arguing that I think it’s crucial to put the incident and the gift in context? Peter spends most of the novel explicitly not controlling Harriet: that’s not what he wants from their relationship, and the dog collar is proposed, in fact, as a means to her ends — with its protection, she can continue to take whatever risks she wants and live to fight (or write) another day. He doesn’t force it on her: she accepts it and later chooses to wear it. I’ve always felt that its symbolic role lies in that acceptance, which ties back to the problem of balancing independence with love. She has held Peter at bay because she believes she’s only safe (only retains her dignity and autonomy) if she takes nothing from anybody, or at any rate takes nothing from him. Gaudy Night is about her evolution away from that premise. What she finds at Oxford, and through her work on this case, is enough confidence in herself not to fear his generosity. The admittedly weird but fundamentally pragmatic gift of the dog collar opens the way to the gift of the chess set, which is an apt marker of the changing balance in their relationship. (There was another interpretation bandied about on Twitter, something to do with dog collars and their, er, erotic potential. Can we just rule out of order any attempt to turn this into 50 Shades of Sayers? As your whimsy takes you, indeed…)

5. In Busman’s Honeymoon Harriet is marginalized even further from the detective plot; this just completes the downward trajectory of Gaudy Night.

It is definitely true that in Busman’s Honeymoon Harriet is no longer on the case, and if the true measure of equality in their marriage was co-detecting happily ever after, then I concede the failure. But Harriet is a writer, not a detective! In Gaudy Night, that’s the strength she brings to the case and also the real quest she’s on (transforming the two-dimensional plot of her own detective novel into something more layered and complex)–well, that and learning to love again. I love Busman’s Honeymoon too, but the murder case in it always annoys me because I’m reading it for the romance. Gaudy Night is special because all of these aspects converge so splendidly.

Oh dear. Although I believe everything I’ve said here with all my head and my heart, and also believe these interpretations are entirely, dispassionately, defensible, there is an air of special pleading, isn’t there? And a disconcerting tendency to talk about Harriet and Peter as if they are really truly real … Please feel free to pitch in with your thoughts on the novel, and particularly on Objections 1-5. Clearly, I can use all the help I can get. Luckily for me, and perhaps also for them, tomorrow we begin discussions of South Riding, which I don’t know nearly well enough to love.

15 thoughts on “This Week in My Classes: Am I Making Excuses for Gaudy Night?

  1. Dennine October 11, 2012 / 10:10 pm

    Obviously I’m one of the converted, I love this book! – and I think this is a great discussion about some of the main issues in the book that can read so differently in the current context.

    I’ve always just accepted the dog collar as a practical choice (something that could be bought in a local shop on the spur of the moment) and I like how you make it clear that the dog collar is not something he forces on her but her choice. One of the things that strikes me too, is that students coming at the text cold are missing so much of the relationship context by not having the earlier books/full backstory concerning the Wimsey/Vane relationship. Since, considering that Harriet had come very close to being killed, and was certainly ostracized from a large segment of society, because she would not submit to masculine prerogative, her acceptance of the collar helps to defuse the potential power connotations.

    I also really liked how you put the Cattermole quandary “mistaking her daughter’s opportunity for her daughter’s obligation”.

    Such a resonant book!


  2. Liz Mc2 October 12, 2012 / 12:37 am

    I enjoyed this so much, partly because I love the book but also because for years I resisted teaching absolute favorite books of this kind (for me, it was Austen). I do think my love enriches my teaching in some ways, and teaching enriched my reading, but I suspect I approach a book I love pretty uncritically differently when teaching, too.

    I am still laughing about “as my whimsy takes me;” I didn’t expect you to one-up my dirty joke. Buuuuut, having made the dog-collar joke I can’t help finding it useful (need I remind you that Harriet also calls Peter “My Lord” in their wedding bed?). I am certainly not going to argue that they “really” have a D/s relationship, but it’s a basic tenet of BDSM that the submissive is the one with the real power, and that submission is not weakness. And since this is, as you say, in part a novel about figuring out how to be in love but not dependent, or how to lean on and need someone sometimes without losing yourself, well, I guess I see the sexual/possessive symbolism of a collar as not completely irrelevant, either. Even though I was just kidding when I said it.

    I’d agree that reading this novel with the whole backstory of their relationship (and the frontstory of Busman’s Honeymoon) makes a difference. At the end of Honeymoon, Peter’s ability to turn to Harriet when he needs her is a key sign their marriage will succeed.


  3. KarenB October 12, 2012 / 1:06 am

    “1. The novel is elitist, and/or Harriet is elitist, about education”: I found the novel elitist only at the end, with the proposal and acceptance in Latin, How many readers over the years have understood the words and that Sayers’s use of them (lifted from the degree-granting ceremony) was highly appropriate for Peter and Harriet’s situation?


  4. litlove October 12, 2012 / 5:29 am

    But all of these objections are based on a reading of the novel that is anachronistically modern. At the time it was written, ‘elite’ was not a dirty word and compared to the ordinary gender relations of the time, Harriet was miles ahead in her studious independence, which Peter respects far more than a man of his class and breeding would ordinarily have done. Why should anyone have to apologise for a book that’s getting on for a hundred years old if it doesn’t exactly replicate the ideealised social conditions of the moment? (When it’s questionable that those conditions even exist as a matter of course in the contemporary world.) Plus they are marginal to the main thrust of the novel. Surely that final speech by the culprit is a ringing indictment of all that is wrong with the class system and the way that society treats women? Surely the highly sexualised nature of the crimes indicates violence born of repression that causes only harm? Anyway, you know my thoughts about this – I’ve banged on about them enough over the years! 😉 I think it’s important for students to understand that the world is always changing, and that the situation we are in now will probably be viewed with contempt and horror by generations to come.


  5. Rohan October 12, 2012 / 4:21 pm

    Such thought-provoking comments: thank you, everyone!

    Denine, I agree that their not having more of the back story is an issue — it is any time you try to pick up a series in the middle (the same thing happens with Barchester Towers). Sometimes a couple of them have already read some or all of the other novels, but I always give a little precis of the relationship up to this point so that at least everyone understands about Harriet’s murder trial and why she finds it so difficult to believe in Peter’s feelings for her or accept anything (else) from him after he has saved her from hanging. That’s not necessarily enough, but at the same time, I think Peter is not quite the same character in Strong Poison or Have His Carcase that he is in Gaudy Night, so in a way the earlier books are not entirely helpful!

    Liz, this is so unexpectedly not ridiculous, isn’t it? I didn’t know that about how power dynamics are understood in BDSM but it does actually add a helpful analog for thinking about what it might mean to give in (and it’s true that Harriet talks about her fear of “giving in” to Peter).

    Karen: that, too, has never bothered me, even though I had never known what the terms meant until I looked them up a few years back in preparation for teaching the novel for the first time! Egad, I am willing to take a lot for granted sometimes. But I’m not sure that “elitist” is the right word, except for the implication that readers would understand them (and then all kinds of 19thC novels are elitist because they don’t translate passages of French, or they include, as Middlemarch does, epigraphs in Italian, or Greek tags, or whatever). In context, the Latin is so perfectly appropriate for who they are, where they are, and what the novel is about that I just wish the novel was available in an annotated version to make sure every modern reader had a chance to make sense of it. (There is a website with a lot of annotations, though I haven’t really gone through it to see how complete or accurate they are.)

    Litlove, the issue of anachronistic reactions is a really interesting and challenging one for all the novels I teach. Many of my responses here really turn on being aware of the moment of the novel. But at the same time, we are reading it here and now, and to some extent our modern values are bound to affect our judgment of whether the novel is (here and now) one we can wholeheartedly admire. So pointing out, as you do, that the novel itself is very self-conscious about issues of class privilege and, especially, sexism and misogyny, is a helpful counter-move to the knee-jerk response that it displays these things in action. I thought a lot about this kind of thing when I was working on my essay on Gone with the Wind. I think it’s not about apologizing for ways an older book doesn’t measure up, but it’s about the degree to which we can shrug off outdated mores and appreciate the book for other things–like a slightly embarrassing relative you still adore. I find it interesting that the class issues in Gaudy Night do seem to provoke more hostility in class discussion than the reductive gender roles in so many ‘canonical’ Victorian novels: perhaps the latter just strike students as quaint archaisms.

    Further to litlove’s point, as I was writing up this post I was increasingly aware that none of these objections are exactly ‘literary’ ones: they aren’t about literary form, for instance. But objections to (perceived) political or ideological shortcomings are a real part of people’s responses to books and they affect further attempts to understand or appreciate them. (They have also, of course, been a huge driver of many literary critical trends in the past 30+ years. Jane Eyre and imperialism, anyone?) My basic tactic is to move from the objection (the book has values I don’t share and don’t like!) to a better understanding of the novel’s own thematic structure, as well as to a more careful appreciation of the novel in its historical context. We especially need to hash out a reasonably accurate view of how the issues being raised are in fact handled by the novel–so, for instance, separating characters’ views from the attitude of the novel overall, or identifying counter-narratives within the novel’s own arguments.


  6. Ros October 13, 2012 / 8:59 pm

    I don’t think you are aiming for a fusion of head and heart; at best a balance of two opposing forces.

    I do think the dog collar is a symbol of submission and ownership, I’m afraid. But that’s why I think Peter is so upset that it’s the only thing Harriet has allowed him to give her. He knows as well as she does that it would be easier if he could just ride roughshod over her. So it is a wildly inappropriate symbol for their relationship, at one level, and yet there it is. And she accepts it. Just as she accepts that if ever she gives into Peter, she will go up like straw.

    On your first point, there is an elitism about education in the book. Not that it is only for those who can afford it, but that it should be only for those who are academically deserving and primarily for those who will be true academics. The scholarly life is admired and desired in the Oxford Sayers describes. Sadly, not so much any more. Education has largely become a means to an end – at the individual level, a means to a better job and at a societal level, a means to a wealthier society. Learning for its own sake, scholarship which revels merely in the increase of knowledge and understanding, is not worth anything much at all these days. I do think that is a sad, and shortsighted loss. The Miss Cattermoles ought not to be pressured into university, if what they really want is to work. But the Miss Lydgates and Miss Vines need their place too, and the university should be it.


  7. Rohan October 14, 2012 / 10:31 am

    That’s a great point, Ros: in the novel itself it’s all about balance, isn’t it? And that’s explicitly Peter’s model. I think your reading of the dog collar scene is really smart: the symbolism is inescapable, but you show how the gift itself contains that ambivalence about power and submission — and that’s a good point that Peter isn’t happy about it as his only ‘successful’ offering. I agree with your comments on how education is treated and valued in the book: the elitism is intellectual and aspirational. I think one reason this is uncomfortable for students today is probably that many of them do not approach their own education in that way — and that’s because contexts and expectations have changed, as has the whole nature of the university as an institution. But I have certainly taught Cattermoles, though often ones who haven’t really articulated why they aren’t in the right place for them and their skills and goals.


  8. Ros October 14, 2012 / 1:11 pm

    I wonder if any of your students have realised that they are Cattermoles as they read the book. And whether any have been motivated to go and do what they really want to instead.


  9. Colleen October 19, 2012 / 4:40 pm

    I always worry about the anachronism question when dealing with older books, and not because we can’t simply shed our modern sensibilities for older ones when we read. My concern with it is the implicit assumption that the sensibilities or prejudices or opinions expressed in one book, or even over one author’s ouevre, directly and cleanly reflect the sensibilities or prejudices or opinions of an author’s culture as a whole–or, that unusual characters like Peter and Harriet stand in direct contradistinction to their culture as a whole. I believe most people would imagine that we live in a world full of wildly complex and almost infinite diversity when it comes to values, desires, etc–even if we don’t agree with or understand others’ differences. So why is it so common to assume that the past, and the people who populated, wrote about, etc the past (no matter how far back!) weren’t just as complicated?

    We can talk, for example, about women’s legal position, access to education, etc in any given period but it’s trickier to talk about “what people thought”. “What people thought” changes and is often too private for others to know or isn’t recorded or is recorded and is lost. There can never be either 1) a large enough critical mass of evidence to determine with total accuracy “what people thought” about anything in any period, and/or 2) if you did, what chance would there really be of consensus? I wrote my doctoral thesis against the notion that women’s authorship was a hilarious and grotesque contradiction in terms during the Renaissance–I found lots of evidence to complicate this view, evidence available to all the scholars I was arguing with! I don’t understand not affording our ancestors the same frustrating complexity and capacity for cognitive dissonance that we enjoy every day!

    When I taught Shakespeare, my students never questioned the weak woman/strong woman dichotomy when it came to discussing his female characters until I asked them why those were the terms that decided value. They assumed they were seeing or had been told that women in Renaissance England had these options only–resistance or acquiescence to patriarchal control, but the plays themselves suggest something much more complicated about how people relate to each other. It could simply have been a function of their age–some were still in their teens! But it could also be a function of pop culture feminism which rarely complicates beyond a weak/strong binary (think of that song, “Stupid Girls”, by Pink–and she’s one of the more thoughtful pop singers out there!).

    The question is: does this mean we shouldn’t address issues of anachronism at all, given that having identified rather alien points of view we must then immediately qualify what they mean historically? Of course not; I think, rather, it’s useful to see these things as signposts not of the age in which a novel is written so much as signposts about the world of the novel itself. As Rohan points out, Gaudy Night is a literary rather than a historical work, which doesn’t mean it doesn’t or can’t have historical concerns, but that the historical is a function of the literary more than vice versa. Or, at least, it has to be if we’re to talk about the book rather than “What people thought back then” which will just not get us very far.


  10. Rohan October 20, 2012 / 6:51 pm

    Great comment, Colleen: you put the issues very clearly. You are absolutely right that the idea of ‘anachronism’ almost inevitably oversimplifies the past. Again, I’m reminded of my Gone with the Wind essay: many comments, as I recall, took the angle that it was inappropriate to criticize the novel’s racism because “people back then” were racist and accepted slavery. For both the time the book is set and the time the book was written, this is simply not true. One thing Gaudy Night does well is show dissenting voices within the community: the arguments about women’s education, about work and family, about gender roles and power and hierarchy and class privilege are in the novel itself. We bring a modern perspective to them as well, but the novel provokes our reactions because it brings these things up–more so than some other novels, too, because Gaudy Night is such a self-consciously intellectual novel that it doesn’t just dramatize the problems and the consequences for its characters but has its characters openly debate them.


  11. Deborah October 22, 2012 / 12:35 pm

    I disagree that there is a “place” for the Cattermoles and a “place” for the Miss Vines. I grew up working-class, where work is physically harsh (farm labor, waitressing, janitor work, etc) — people are literally shaking with fatigue at the end of the day. I later spent some years in academia, where I was disgusted by the “thinkers” who pay others to clean their offices and houses, to tend their children and their gardens, etc. One class does all the physical labor, while the other class sits on their behinds. Surely the solution is for everyone to spend half the day “thinking,” reading, etc, and the other half day weeding the garden or scrubbing the toilets? That would be fair, and people would not be so insular and lopsided. I know plenty of working-class people who would love to spend half the day reading or learning new skills. I don’t know any academics who would be willing to work at Burger King 4 hours a day, but it would do them a world of good….


    • Jeffry A. House October 5, 2013 / 1:44 pm

      I believe they tried this in the Chinese Cultural Revolution, with mixed results.


  12. The Critical Critic October 22, 2012 / 3:13 pm

    “He is a hunter, a fisherman, a shepherd, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.”

    I beg you, Commissar, do not make me go fishing. Oh, fishing is so so boring.


  13. Deborah October 22, 2012 / 7:16 pm

    Fishing is not boring, unless you think survival is boring. Marx is not talking about “sport” fishing; he’s talking about fishing to feed hungry people. If you’re hungry, if your kids are hungry, fishing is not “boring.”


  14. Katy March 6, 2017 / 1:24 am

    Why, oh why, am I five years late to this fascinating discussion? I keep going back and forth on the dog collar. I do think it’s more than just a practical solution to a problem. After all, Sayers chose to make strangling the main thing that Harriet has to worry about; she could just as easily have made it poison or a stab in the back. On the other hand, I didn’t even notice it as a child, and it was only when I learned – from sources external to Gaudy Night – about the other connotations of dog collars that I started side-eyeing that particular detail. And you’d better believe I noticed the river scene and the bit where Harriet dreams about Peter. Those were explicitly sexy in a way that my twelve-year-old self could recognize; the dog collar was not.

    But there’s no getting around the fact that Peter does buy Harriet a dog collar and put it on her, and that he jokes about getting his name put on it, and that he also, around the same point in the book, teaches Harriet self-defense by spending an afternoon strangling her in a field. Yes, it is made clear several times, by Harriet’s internal monologue and by her actual dialogue with Peter, that this is just a self-defense lesson and nothing else – but the repeated insistence that there’s nothing going on here is a bit over-emphatic.

    I think it’s pretty clear that there is something going on here. But what? I think it’s all part of the really complicated dance that Harriet and Peter are doing in the last third or so of the book. She knows he’s in love with her; he knows, at the very least, that she’s strongly attracted to him; now the question is whether they can bring some kind of permanent trust and stability to their wildly uneven relationship. Harriet has been so resistant to her feelings for Peter in part because he screwed up and asked too much of her at a time when he had power and she did not. They both have to know that won’t happen again. At this point they can’t afford to take anything for granted, so every single interaction becomes a kind of trust exercise: look at how carefully they share out the punting when they’re on the river, so that first he punts, then she punts, then they both paddle. So I think what they’re doing here, not quite consciously, is playing with those symbols of power precisely to reassure themselves that they don’t have a power imbalance, that they’re not going to enact some cheesy/problematic romance novel scene where he locks her in an unbreakable grip and she goes all limp.


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