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Andrea K Höst

Australian writer of science fiction and fantasy.

Gaudy Night (Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries)

Gaudy Night - Dorothy L. Sayers I hereby dub this review: "In need of a good stupping".This is the second mystery that Harriet and Peter investigate 'together' – and by together I mean that Harriet spends quite a time collecting facts, and Peter does all the analysis and deduction. Indeed, he spots the culprit almost immediate on reading the evidence, quickly takes steps to verify it, and does what he can to obtain what little proof is possible.The primary question of the book is women – intellectual women particularly – and their need, or not, for sex and marriage. Something at the forefront of Harriet's mind because the wounds of her disastrous first love have more or less healed over, and she now is beginning to face up to the question of an extremely suitable man who for the last five years has been asking her to marry him. She likes Peter, but has not quite connected to him as an attractive male, and considers herself weighed down and burdened by her debt to him – while also strongly and powerfully believing that she herself is "spoiled" – publicly known to not be a virgin and thus not suitable marriage material.Gaudy Night opens with Harriet Vane returning to Oxford, giving us the equivalent of a high school reunion, as Harriet looks back with rose coloured eyes on happy student days, and offers up a romanticised picture of Oxford scholars as unworldly and devoted to nothing but the highest of intellectual ideals. Most of the female scholars are representative of types – the woman who has married and let her mind decay while she devotes herself to children. The virgin spinster who hates men. The woman passionately devoted to a cause. The pure intellectual. The rare successful marriage where intellectual pursuit and family devotion have been melded in a complementary match.Harriet's opinions of the other female scholars are a trifle off-putting, particularly her immediate cringing away from the friend she has gone there to meet, who has allowed her intellect to stagnate in the favour of children, and of another who is "not smart enough" on two levels. Female scholars without fine minds and who are not fine clothes horses are definitely depicted as lesser in this book. Harriet is also of the opinion (commonly held at the time) that lady-bits denied a thorough stupping are prone to spoil, and the vinegar of their decay is liable to rise up to sour and distort their owner's thought processes.This particular thesis is played out in the character of Miss Hillyard, the "man-hating" character. Frankly, I have little issue with ladies living in the 1930s who think men receive great privileges that women do not, and so are inclined to be resentful and sarcastic about it. Harriet, however, thinks Miss Hillyard is 'potty', that there's definitely something gone wrong with her, and puts it down to a lack of stupping. [Note: Harriet doesn't use quite the same terms.] I was amused when Peter told Harriet she's suffering from a bias because of her own preoccupations about sex. I was less amused at the inevitable fate of man-hating spinsters who meet god-like beings such as Peter Wimsey.Although Peter and Harriet are clearly well-suited to each other, and it's obvious to the reader that they'll be happy if they manage to get together, it's only in the final pages of the book that I can manage to bring myself to fully enjoy the romance – because Peter apologises for the rush of his pursuit, so tactlessly commenced while she's still on trial for the murder of her lover. In these final speeches it's clear that Peter has had to face up to the wrongness – indeed, the cruelty – of that action, just as Harriet has had to both heal, and regain her courage. And during the book Peter has proved that he is capable of not "annexing" her – that theirs is to be a marriage of love and mutual support, with space given for their different interests and no expectation that Harriet become merely an obedient extension of him.It is most certainly not a marriage of equals. Peter is superior to Harriet in every single way. Socially, financially, physically, intellectually, emotionally, morally. He unravels in a day the problem she has worked on for months. He tells her how to fix the novel she's writing. He completes the poem she's writing – but does it better. He faces his emotions and deliberately changes himself to better himself. The setting of Oxford, where they can both be just two scholars together, making it possible for them to be on equal footing and reach an accord, is somewhat undercut for me because Wimsey has just proved himself utterly superior to every single female scholar present – again both intellectually and morally, as well as on the social level of an extremely eligible bachelor in the spinster house.All of this sounds like I hate the book, which is not quite correct. It's an engrossing mystery, and as much as any reader I want Harriet to work through her issues and find a way to be happy. And it is a writer in the 1930s trying to wrestle with the major question of being an intellectual woman.I just prefer a little more equality in my romances, and hope for female scholar-mystery writers to occasionally be the one who makes the deductions.