This afternoon I finished reading Dorothy Sayers' novel Gaudy Night. My excuse for lots of extra reading time today (after school with the sweet girl this morning and early afternoon) was the miserably cold and rainy weather outside and my returning congestion, sore throat and cough. But all physical misery and the need to be pulling together primary readings sources for my spring course aside, I really just couldn't make myself put the book down.
What an amazing novel this is. I've read Gaudy Night before -- in fact, I read all of Sayers' Wimsey novels about a decade ago, not just the Wimsey/Vane ones -- but I don't remember being so deeply moved by this one last time. It's a mystery, yes, but much more concerned with the mystery of human relationships than with any external kind of "who-dunit" (though of course there's still a puzzle to solve). It's also one of the most beautiful, authentic and unusual romances ever written. I found myself emotionally moved but also impressed by its craftmanship. I think sometimes you're just in the right, receptive place to read a certain book. For me, this was the absolute right time to re-read Gaudy Night.
What struck me with such great force this time, having just read in chronological order Strong Poison and Have His Carcase, was the progressive deepening of Harriet Vane's character as you moved from book to book. It's remarkable how the character changes and grows and how Sayers reveals more of the inner character to us as we go along.
In Strong Poison, Harriet is the center of the plot, meaning everything swirls around her. But that's pretty much all she is. She's almost, though not quite, a token character: you could almost label her "love interest" and see her primarily as a plot device. The case turns on her guilt or innocence -- or rather on Peter's ability to prove the latter, as her innocence is never really in doubt. What's interesting about Harriet is SP is her affect on Wimsey. We never expected the aristocratic old boy to fall so hard for any woman. And we don't entirely understand why he does here, though it's clear he's legitimately lost his heart to Harriet. It's not so much his dogged pursuit of justice -- Lord Peter Wimsey would be dedicated to that pursuit no matter what innocent person had been injustly imprisoned -- but the fact that he loses his emotional equilibrium and seems to flounder in this case. His usual humor and efficiency almost fail him at points, though of course he triumphs in the end.
Harriet is a difficult character to make out in Strong Poison, not only because so much happens around her, but because we see little interior or exterior movement. She's in jail the entire time; we only see her interact with Lord Peter during his visits or as a silent, suffering woman being tried before the judges' bench and the inquisitive eyes of curious spectators in the courtroom. We're also meeting her at a very difficult time and place in her life: she has moments of despair when (despite Wimsey's encouragement and continued show of bravado) she clearly thinks no one can save her from the gallows.
Harriet's also been deeply wounded in love and is practically drowning in bitterness over her own foolishness in having gotten involved with Philip Boyes (her late lover, whom she's accused of poisoning) in the first place. She feels like "damaged goods" and it's difficult for her to imagine that anyone will ever be interested in her again as a human being and not merely a news headline. It occurs to me that the "strong poison" of the title has a double meaning: not just the arsenic in Philip's soup, but the slow-acting poison of bitterness in the soul of the wrongly accused Harriet. Small wonder she's a bit put-off by Peter's honest declarations of devotion. Even here, however, we see glimmers of the much more complex relationship to come. One gets the sense that Harriet would love to put Lord Peter off as a glory-seeker or an eccentric whose passions have been aroused by pity and a sense of magnanimity toward a damsel in distress, but Peter really doesn't fit either of those profiles. Even from the depths of her deepest despair, one gets the sense that Harriet can't help but like Peter and take his declarations at face value, though she's in no position to respond to his overtures.
When we see her next in Have His Carcase, she's still a wounded soul, but at least she's a free woman, completely exonerated of all charges. Sayers first presents her on a solitary walking tour of the south-west coast of England. Basically she's running away: from her past mistakes, from the notorious reputation of the case, and from her own inability to cope with relationships. She's sure she's given up on love -- she's not going to let herself be open and vulnerable again, because where did it get her last time? She's thrown herself with a vengeance into her work: she's a detective novelist whose sales have ironically gone up since she's been tried for murder (another reason for cynicism and bitterness). In his ultra-gentlemanly way, Lord Peter has been persistent in his attentions, but she doesn't want to have anything to do with him if she can help it, partly because he reminds her of the time spent on trial for her life. She knows she should be grateful to him for saving her life, and deep down somewhere she is, but the need for such gratitude galls her and makes her feel awkward around him, as though there's some sort of debt she can't pay. I'll admit I found this characteristic odd at first, and slightly unbelievable, but as time and the books wore on, I came to understand it. Harriet has lost her joy, and with that loss genuine gratitude morphs into a mere feeling of servitude or inadequacy. At this point she doesn't seem able to accept anything gracefully.
She and Peter do work together on that case, and though many of their conversations are uncomfortable because of the very different places of their emotions, at least we do see that they can work together well. The best times they have together are the times when they forget their feelings toward one another and throw themselves unselfconsciously into the work of detecting, an interest they share. Harriet still feels like a half-developed character to me here, standing in Peter's shadow, unsure of herself and her abilities, and I find the ending of the novel far too abrupt.
But then comes Gaudy Night: and with it, the return of joy. This is the book where Harriet comes into her own. She ceases to be a plot device, a mere "love interest," someone whose main purpose is to affect the main character. She's not just a fictional extension of Dorothy Sayers' own autobiography (which based on what I read, one could argue is where she starts). She becomes a full-fledged protagonist, a woman who still has some unraveled edges but has at last begun to knit together her soul, or allow it be knit. She's still confused, still wary, still unsure, but she's become again a woman of decisive action, one who can let herself begin to consider how she will -- and should -- live the rest of her life. Part of her dilemma is that Peter still hovers in the background. He comes to represent "heart," and the academic life of Oxford, newly reopened to her, represents "mind." It's a false dichotomy, of course, but for much of the book, it's how the dilemma presents itself to Harriet. If she chooses to love Peter...to let Peter love her...to let someone in again...then she chooses danger. If she chooses the simple, quiet life of academic research, she chooses safety.
Of course the irony is that all the mess and mayhem of this particular case (no murder this time out, though it's a near thing a few times) comes in the hallowed halls and quads of her former college at Oxford. The very place and life that Harriet imbues with the characteristics of safety and peace is now under threat. It's a threat Harriet is asked to help overcome. She tries her best, but begins to realize she's in need of help. And the one person she realizes she can trust, not only for his expertise as a detective, but as the thoroughly decent and consistently loving human being he is, is Peter.
Well. I've waxed long enough. There's so much more I could say, but this will suffice: Harriet Vane is one of the more astonishing fictional characters I know, and it's her authentically real and gradual growth as a person that makes her so. I not only came to understand and like her, but to care deeply about what happened to her, with or without Peter -- that lovable, eccentric and utterly fallible hero. Though in the end, it's so incredibly clear that she needs to be with him, I don't see how Sayers could have taken the narrative any other way. I love it when a book feels so true to itself and to its characters and the story it needs to tell. What a rare gift.