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[personal profile] readingredhead
I mentioned in my last post that I've been reading Dorothy Sayers for the first time (and kicking myself throughout, because HOW have I never read Sayers before?). I started with Strong Poison about two weeks ago at the recommendation of [personal profile] ladyvivien and was smitten with Harriet Vane almost as instantly as Lord Peter was, but as much as I enjoyed that novel and Have His Carcase, my feelings for those two novels combined don't even come close to my feelings for Gaudy Night, which I just finished yesterday and which I can't stop thinking about. The following discussion will probably only be interesting to those who have already read the novel, and will contain spoilers up to it, so don't read it if you haven't read the novels! (Also, I still haven't gotten hold of Busman's Honeymoon, so if the two people who have actually read Sayers start commenting, don't spoil anything past Gaudy Night for me!)

Honestly, Gaudy Night was one of those novels that came into my life at the exact right place and time. Perhaps it's just the narcissistic tendency to read ourselves into everything, but I honestly felt a ridiculous degree of resonance with Harriet's own personal struggles in the novel, especially her struggle with questions of female education and female vocation, and how these things fit (or more often don't) with the desire to have some kind of romantic relationship.

I love Harriet because she is a scholar. She might not be a full-time academic but she has the mind of one, and she's experienced enough of academic life to thoroughly understand the appeal. Moreover her discomforts with the academy stem primarily from the fact that it doesn't necessarily approve of what she does -- writing genre fiction, god forbid! And it's so obvious that she knows that what she does for a living and what she did as a student at Oxford are two parts of the same whole, perhaps even two contingent or overlapping parts, but the rest of the world sees a woman who's fallen from her place, who's gone from a Masters at Oxford to writing detective novels. It hurts, being the only one who takes her work seriously, and she's getting so tired of it, especially because she's obviously internalized some of the prejudice that she's had to put up with for so long; she's starting to think, at times, that the work she does isn't actually good enough. And all of this rings so true to me because god, how many times have I wanted to tear my hair out because no one else could see the connections between the apparently divergent pieces of my soul? How many times have I attempted to patiently explain -- typically to deaf ears -- the myriad connections I see between the novel in the eighteenth century and sci-fi/fantasy in the twentieth and twenty-first? And how often have I fallen into self-deprecation, because I don't know of a serious way to say in an academic setting that the perpetual novel project of my heart is founded in the kind of magic that far too many academics disavow? (Not to mention how difficult it is for people to take you seriously when you say you write, if you haven't actually gotten anything published!)

And yet -- Harriet is also another woman who understands what it means to have a vocation, that buzzword of my life and writing (both fictional and non-fictional, because when I say that my dissertation will end up being about authorship and originality in the eighteenth century novel, what I really mean is that I want to write about how "novelist" comes to be a thinkable vocation and what this does to the novel as a genre). She feels about her career the way I have come to feel about mine: 

"We can only know what things are of overmastering importance when they have overmastered us." Was there anything at all that had stood firm in the midst of her indecisions? Well, yes; she had stuck to her work -- and that in the face of what might have seemed overwhelming reasons for abandoning it and doing something different. Indeed, though she had shown cause that evening for this particular loyalty, she had never felt it necessary to show cause to herself. She had written what she felt herself called upon to write; and, though she was beginning to feel that she might perhaps do this thing better, she had no doubt that the thing itself was the right thing for her. It had overmastered her without her knowledge or notice, and that was the proof of its mastery. (Ch. II)

The entire passage is beautiful and true, but the part that grabs my heart and twists at it a bit is the sensation of "beginning to feel that she might perhaps do this thing better," because that's exactly where I feel like I am right now, in grad school and in fiction. Yes, I'm focusing more on academia now (and I do ultimately care more about being a professor than about being a novelist, though I still do plan for a future in which I get to be both), but the result of this focus doesn't (yet?) feel primarily like improvement: it feels like the continual realization of the vast distances I have yet to cover, the new realization of old faux pas which didn't seem like such at the time. It feels like being continually forced into confrontation with my own former ignorance. But coupled with the knowledge that it could be done better is the determination that one day I will do it better, and that cuts the pain of it, at least a little.

And don't get me started on how this is a novel all about negotiating the problem of being a woman with a fierce dedication to some vocation, career, or lifework in a society that expects a woman's primary dedication to be to a relationship. Because things have changed since the 1930s, yes, but ponder for a second the fact that "career woman" is a phrase in the vernacular but no one has to say "career man" (because OBVIOUSLY men have careers which define them). And as attractive as Lord Peter may be, and as perfect a match for an intelligent woman as he obviously is, I fully comprehend Harriet's fears about marrying him; they are fears I understand deep in the pit of my stomach. Because Harriet is fierce and smart and has a vocation, but she also has a history. She knows herself better, now, but that means knowing the things about herself that disgust her but that she's too forthright to ignore. She knows what loving Philip Boyes did to her -- she knows that she is capable of sacrificing herself for a relationship and enjoying it -- and she knows that as much as she's learned since then, it would be all too easy to fall back into the same tender trap, even with a man like Peter.

Which is why I am even more in love with Gaudy Night, because it turns Oxford into a setting where Harriet and Peter can be on curiously equal footing, and where they can start to negotiate some kind of trust that is not about dependence or gratitude but about mutual understanding. Let's start with the fact that Sayers manages to turn OXFORD, that retreat of the middle-aged upper-class educated male, into a place where Harriet and aforesaid male type are EQUALS. Because yes, more people know Peter, and he's more comfortable in some of the Oxford milieu, but the fact is that he and Harriet are both Oxford grads, both firsts in their respective subjects, both meeting each other in the caps and gowns that distinguish their scholarship. I mean, dear god, that scene where Harriet realizes that Peter has actually taken her robe instead of his, but they're of a height and so it doesn't really matter whose robes they wear! In terms of class relations, Sayers is obviously keen to show the darker side of Oxford, but things like the interchangeable gowns -- and the moment where Peter reassures Harriet by addressing her as Domina! -- represent a different side of Oxford as the quintessential intellectual utopia, where, if you are smart and respectful enough, you can bridge the gap between the sexes by USING YOUR BRAINS. (Is it possible, by the way, to have an academic regalia kink? Because after watching Harriet and Peter eye-courting [it is much too tentative and hopeful to be eye-fucking] in academic dress in the film version, I do believe that this is a thing that exists.)

And god. Peter's proposal. At first I thought, "Wow, really, you are proposing in Latin? Could you possible be any more upper-class middle-aged over-educated white man displaying your privilege?" BUT THEN, shortly on the heels of this thought, I realized: of course it's the only phrasing of the proposal which Harriet would be able to accept. It's the one that references, via the use of a language of scholars, their intellectual parity and his promise to always treat her as his equal. 

Let's just take a moment and think that through again: Peter proposes in a way that both exposes and negates his privilege, and in so doing honors Harriet, who -- without privilege -- has attained the same level as he has.


And this started out organized and is devolving rapidly but I have to also say something about the strangling defense practice/dog collar scenes because wait a minute that is a thing that you are allowed to do in novels in the 1930s?! I have legitimately no idea how I feel about this sequence of scenes because on the one hand the collar is about ownership, which implies power imbalance, but the fact that it comes after a scene in which she's allowed to play-strangle him and in which he reacts to her attack no differently and no more gently because she is a woman makes the collar read so much differently. Not to mention the fact that Peter's comment about it being the only gift she's ever accepted from him turns it into a token of his devotion -- of her mastery of him, rather than his mastery of her. I could just go on for ages and ages about how this entire novel is about subverting expected power dynamics but it would probably all wind up sounding like some variation of "GAH CONSENSUAL INTELLECTUAL (and also physical but mostly I am interested in their brains) POWERPLAY!"

AND ALSO, I am in love with the fact that Peter takes Harriet's writing seriously and forces her to take it more seriously in the process. The fact that he respects her career enough to be honest in telling her how he thinks she could do it better. THE FACT THAT HE COURTS HER BY COMPLETING A SONNET SHE STARTED. Help, my unrealistic expectations are becoming more unrealistic every damn day, where do I find this?!

Well. I suppose I start by being Harriet Vane. Which is a rather good place to start.


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March 2013

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