Thanks to Hanna who pointed me toward this lovely review of Dorothy Sayer’s Gaudy Night, posted by Jo Walton @ Tor.com. If you haven’t ready Gaudy Night and don’t wish to know certain key plot points, don’t click through. However, I encourage all those who have read and loved the Lord Peter/Harriet Vane novels to check out Walton’s astute analysis. I offer these two paragraphs up as a sampling.
This is a book about women — culprit, victims and the primary detective are women. Annie’s closest mirror is Mrs Goodwin, also a widow with a child away at school, who has trained as a secretary. We also see two old students, one whose marriage has ruined her mind, and one who has made a team with her husband and works with him. Then there’s the young don Miss Chilperic, who is engaged to be married, and will therefore leave the college. It was actually illegal for married women to teach in Britain before WWII. Sayers doesn’t say this because she assumes her readers will be utterly aware of it and can’t imagine things being any different, but if ever there was anything that should be footnoted for a modern audience, this is it.
The other academics might as well be nuns, they are devoted not just to scholarship but to virginity. This is said explicitly—and really in 1936 those were the choices. Marriage meant giving up the work, and not marrying, for women, meant maintaining virginity. This leads me to Harriet. Harriet lived with a man in Bloomsbury without marrying him, somebody else murdered him, and she was tried for the murder and acquitted because of Lord Peter (Strong Poison). Because of the notoriety of the trial, Harriet’s sexual status is known to everyone—and some people consider her utterly immoral because she had sex without marriage. This attitude—that people would care—is completely dated, gone like the dodo, and I have to work at understanding it. Harriet, in her thirties and unmarried would be presumed to be a virgin were it not that her cohabitation had been gossip in the newspapers after her lover’s death. Now the fact that she has had sexual experience is public knowledge, and affects people’s behaviour towards her.
As I said, you can check out the entire review on Tor.com.