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Modern Fiction Studies 46.2 (2000) 355-378

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Queerness at Shrewsbury: Homoerotic Desire in Gaudy Night

Marya McFadden

Best known as the author of the popular Lord Peter Wimsey mystery series of the 1920s and 1930s, Dorothy L. Sayers is not usually included among the ranks of British novelists whose innovations and insights contributed to the creation of a distinct "modernist" sensibility that challenged traditional structures of reasoning and hierarchy in the early part of the twentieth century. However, feminist criticism of recent years has wisely cautioned against the valorization of modernism's intellectual and artistic avant-garde as the most subversive or resistant aspect of modern culture, for to do so problematically privileges an elite cadre of predominantly male or upper-class writers. While modern criticism has tended to acclaim the progressive politics of the experimental texts that now comprise the modernist canon, it has done so at the expense of other popular aspects of modern culture which present different types of interventions into dominant social practices. 1 Sayers, while among the intellectually elite members of modern British culture by virtue of her Oxford education, chose to write popular detective fiction [End Page 355] (at least early in her career), and as a consequence, her unique contributions to the radical politics and artistic innovations frequently associated with the modern era have often been overlooked. In the following analysis, I suggest that the most provocative of those contributions may be found in the 1936 novel Gaudy Night, a text deserving closer scrutiny for the ways in which it utilizes a genre with mass cultural appeal in order to enact a potent critique of patriarchal culture and its attendant policing of gender and sexual identity.

Similar to the more canonical "high modernist" novels, Gaudy Night attempts to experiment with generic form. In this text, however, it is the popular genre of detective fiction that serves as the vehicle for Sayers's experimentations with the use of violence to deconstruct gender and sexual norms. Violence, of course, is an inherently integral element of detective fiction, with murder being the most popular plot premise. Yet Sayers uses violence in Gaudy Night as a pretense for exploring the homoerotic desires and fears that surface at a women's college when an anonymous aggressor is presumed to be a woman driven mad with sexual repression. The text becomes effectively "queer," a work in which gender and sexuality are deconstructed to unleash a play of polymorphously perverse possibilities. In addition to exploring Sayers's thematic use of violence, my analysis of the novel will explore how her experimentation within the detective fiction genre may be read as an act of aggression that strategically parallels the text's subversive content on the level of form. Ultimately, both the thematic and the formal violence of the text work together to challenge yet a different type of cultural violence: systemic gender and sexual domination.

Shrewsbury, the fictitious name Sayers chooses for the Oxford women's college in which the novel is set, serves as a locus for modern anxieties about changing gender relations. The dawn of the twentieth century in Britain brought voting and property rights for women, who were increasingly moving out of Victorian domesticity and into the public sphere of cultural and economic life. Sayers, for instance, was among the first women to receive an Oxford education. These changes in the social structure of gender hierarchy posed a threat to the dominant sexual order as well, for increased sexual liberation accompanied women's unprecedented social freedom and thus jeopardized traditional sexual standards. 2 At Shrewsbury College, home to those women who reject [End Page 356] traditional marriage and motherhood in favor of what was formerly the exclusively male privilege of pursuing an academic career, the anxiety over these changes manifests itself in representations of erotic aggression that serve to unsettle not only conventional categories of gender identity, but of sexuality as well. Gender analysis that asks what it means to be constructed as a "man" or as a "woman" in society implicitly problematizes what it means to be...


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