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  • Writing Gender Identity through Musical Metaphor in Dorothy L. Sayers’s Gaudy Night
  • Stephen Armstrong (bio)

You [Donald Tovey] are one of the very few people with intelligent sympathy for Lord Peter and his Harriet. Most of them beg me not to let him marry “that horrid girl.” They don’t understand that there is a violent conflict underlying her obstinacy—I am glad you do. There’s stuff in Harriet, but it isn’t the conventional heroine stuff, you see. My only reason for holding her up is that the situation between her and Lord is so psychologically difficult that it really needs a whole book to examine and resolve. . . . But in the howl of execration that will go up when I marry Lord Peter off, I shall hope to hear your voice uplifted in defense of his happiness and of Harriet!

—Dorothy L. Sayers, letter of 18 January 19341

In her visionary and politically charged novel Gaudy Night (1935), Dorothy L. Sayers (1893–1957) infuses the intricate texture of the golden age detective story with the tempestuous conflicts of courtly romance and feminist politics, setting the action in a fictional women’s college in Oxford and constructing the plot around the theme of intellectual integrity.2 Yet literary critics argue over whether Sayers compromised her feminist and aesthetic positions by her treatment of the traditional comic ending: after solving the mystery together, the wealthy amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey proposes to heroine Harriet Vane, and in accepting his [End Page 146] advances, Vane gets to keep both her man and her career as a mystery writer.3 Sayers resolves this dissonance by closing Gaudy Night with an extended musical metaphor, creating a sophisticated and flexible platform from which to negotiate her first-wave feminist identity without disrupting the narrative integrity of the work.

Sayers occupies an intriguing and somewhat controversial place in English literature. One of the foremost writers and critics of detective fiction in her day, Sayers invested her Lord Peter mysteries with the stylish prose and wide-ranging allusions of the literary novel; the more sophisticated themes and characterizations of the later books stretched generic boundaries.4 Lavishing such care on an ostensibly middlebrow genre polarized critics, who found her ambitious approach either revelatory or insufferably pretentious. Carolyn Heilbrun—feminist scholar, detective novelist, and sometime president of the Modern Language Association—claims that Sayers “wrote superbly well. . . . Her command of the language was . . . dangerously near to deserving the epithet unique.”5 More fastidious critics such as Edmund Wilson and Q. D. Leavis beg to differ. In his 1945 essay “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” Wilson attacked detective fiction in general and Sayers in particular: “[Sayers] does not write very well: it is simply that she is more consciously literary than most of the other detective-story writers and that she thus attracts attention in a field which is mostly on a sub-literary level.”6 Leavis was particularly outraged by Sayers’s penchant for literary allusion; he objected to her displaying “knowingness about literature without any sensitiveness to it or any feeling for quality. . . . [S]he has an academic literary taste over and above having no general taste at all.”7 According to Catherine Kenney, Sayers became increasingly unfashionable in the United Kingdom toward the end of the twentieth century, [End Page 147] possibly because of the work of critic Julian Symons.8 Yet Sayers has undergone something of a revival since the turn of the millennium: the complex interplay of gender, class, power, and disability in Sayers’s fiction has attracted the attention of scholars such as Joel Armstrong, Crystal Downing, Martha Greene Eads, Ariela Freedman, Sean Latham, Ethan Lewis, Monica Lott, Marya McFadden, Robert Kuhn McGregor, and Laurel Young.9

Literary style and gender politics are not the only controversies within Sayers’s novels. Wilson particularly disliked the extended musical references in The Nine Tailors (1934), attacking the novel as “one of the dullest books I have ever encountered in any field” in part because it “contains a lot of information of the kind that you might expect to find in an encyclopedia article on campanology.”10 (Perhaps unsurprisingly, campanologists did not...


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