Monday, April 3, 2023

Gaudy Night - Dorothy L. Sayers

I'm not quite sure how another week has gone by, except that I've not been very well in the last few days and they're a bit of a blur. I've also been working hard on a jumper which I want to finish whilst the weather might still be cool enough to wear it before it needs to be put away for the summer. To this end I've been listening to audiobooks rather than reading. Oh, how the reading is stacking up.

I've also been falling asleep to audiobooks fairly regularly because of the not being very well, so it's made sense to listen to something familiar where I can go back or not as I can be bothered. Gaudy Night seemed like an obvious choice for this; long enough to get through the main part of the body of the jumper, and a book I've read so many times it really doesn't matter if I pay a lot of attention or not.

I still have a mixed relationship with audiobooks. They're excellent company for making things, but I feel I miss a lot and far too often do fall asleep listening if I'm not doing something else. The interesting thing about listening to a book that's been familiar to me for 35 years is that the narrator will alert me to things that I've possibly got in the habit of skipping over. 

For this listening I've been struck again by the casual snobbery at play, especially where servants are being talked about, the equally casual and pervasive antisemitic tropes in Sayers (which seem to pass under the radar compared to writers like Heyer, but which I honestly find worse), and in this book how much the rise of the Nazi's in Germany is discussed - I don't think I'd entirely picked up how many references there where before, although the references to eugenics I had remembered.

Less obvious in some ways when I'm not reading myself is the love story. Or maybe I was more sensitive to Nazis than romance this time - who can say? Written in 1935 it's fair to say the attitudes are interesting. Harriet Vane has been traveling in Germany, Lord Peter spends a lot of time off stage in Rome helping avert war, there is much talk from visiting Americans and biology professors about selective human breeding to promote intelligence and physical fitness. And even more talk towards the end about medical solutions to dealing with criminals - both to rehabilitate and for scientific experimentation (frankly chilling knowing what would come next). 

I fell in love with this book when I was 13, it made me long to go to university and learn things (not solve murders), it's hard to say what a contemporary 13 year old would make of it. Would they be as oblivious to the discussion of eugenics as I was back then? I hope not, and whilst on the one hand it's interesting to see a certain amount of what almost feels like approval for what's happening in 1930's Germany here - it must after all have been a fairly widespread attitude I'm also uncomfortable with it. Sayers characters feel less sympathetic with each reading. 


  1. I still love Lord Peter after many years of reading (and listening to the audio books) about his adventures. DLS's feelings about Jews are complex, although her English publisher was Jewish, I believe, and seemed to feel her works were worth publishing. Lord Peter, as a character, has Jewish friends (as well as friends from all walks of life and backgrounds) and for a very wealthy and privileged man seems to be very broadminded and thoughtful. Also, as has been pointed out to me elsewhere recently, books written in the past, complete with flaws and attitudes/language that make us uncomfortable today help us remember the past and learn from it. If these works are discarded or edited to remove the unpleasant bits then we loose the ability to learn from the past.

    1. I absolutely don't advocate for editing out the objectionable bits. If I want to read the books at all I need to be robust enough to face up to the things I don't like about them. For reasons I can't quite fathom though Sayers is the one who leaves me feeling most let down by her attitudes. I definitely expect better from her. It might also be that I'm bothered by how uncritical I was as a teen - perhaps I expected better of myself too!