I’m sure I can’t be the only young woman whose expectations of romance were set unreachably high by reading Gaudy Night at an impressionable age. Let’s not detail exactly how many Lost Years I spent looking for Lord Peter Wimsey, and cut straight to my review.
My cousin Alison put this book into my hands, the summer I was 16. I had just finished high school and had been given a trip to Toronto by my parents as a graduation gift. I spent the first half of my trip staying with very energetic friends whose parents organized things like visits to a U-Pick strawberry farm while I was there, so I was relieved to get to my Aunt Vi and Alison’s house where nothing was expected of one except to sit in the sunshine on their back deck and read. A perfect vacation. I fell into Gaudy Night just as if I were falling in love — not only with Lord Peter, but with Harriet Vane and Oxford University and the whole world Sayers so vividly brings to life in this novel.
Not being a mystery reader I had not come across Sayers’ work before, so I didn’t know that Lord Peter was the hero of a whole string of novels, and that two previous books (Strong Poison and Have His Carcase) introduced his unrequited love for Harriet Vane. That lack of background didn’t matter: Gaudy Night tells you enough about its characters’ background that it works perfectly well as a stand-alone novel, though I later had the pleasure of reading the two prequels as well as the sequel, Busman’s Honeymoon.
Not being a mystery reader, I also didn’t care about the criticism some have levelled at this book — that it doesn’t really hold together as a mystery, and contains far too many digressions and diversions. Maybe that’s true; I wouldn’t know. I read it, then and now, as a love story, and I think it is probably one of the best and most evocative love stories in English literature. It is certainly the thinking woman’s romance novel, and no woman in her right mind would trade in Lord Peter for any romance hero, no matter how hunky or well-built. The punt scene is probably the most erotic thing I’ve ever read, even though the characters never touch, and Peter’s relentless wooing combined with Harriet’s determination to cling to her independence make a far more engrossing conflict than anything other love story I’ve ever read. The atmosphere, the characters, the tension … well, it’s all absolutely flawless. I can’t count how many times I’ve reread this book and it never fails to delight me.