The Mitre

We went to the Mitre; the Mitre came to us. We fell upon it, actually. A salvation on a chilly day. Inside, we looked for Lord Peter, tuned to that small part of our brains that believes, still, somehow, that it must, they must, he must be real. Don't you sometimes believe it too?

"Have I been asleep?"

"Getting on for two hours," said Harriet, with a pleased chuckle.

"Good Lord, what disgusting behaviour! I am frightfully sorry. Why didn't you give me a shout? What time is it? My poor girl, you'll get no dinner to-night if we don't hurry up. Look here, I do apologise most abjectly."

"It doesn't matter a bit. You were awfully tired."

"That's no excuse." He was on his feet now, extricating the punt-poles from the mud. "We might make it by double-punting — if you'll forgive the infernal cheek of asking you to work to make up for my soul-destroying sloth."

"I'd love to punt. But, Peter!" She suddenly liked him enormously. "What's the hurry? I mean, is the Master expecting you, or anything?"

"No; I've removed myself to the Mitre. I can't use the Master's lodgings as a hotel; besides, they've got people coming in."

"Then couldn't we get something to eat somewhere along the river and make a day of it? I mean, if you feel like it. Or must you have a proper dinner?"

"My dear, I would gladly eat husks for having behaved like a dog. Or thistles. Preferably thistles. You are a most forgiving woman."

Magdalen Bridge

The traffic made it impossible to actually photograph the bridge, but again: I did what I could! Anyway, we learned that it's pronounced "Maudlin," which seemed pretty important.

"It's a beautiful night—far too good to waste. Don't go back yet. Come down to Magdalen Bridge and send your love to London River."

— Lord Peter to Harriet in Gaudy Night, Chapter XXIII

Gaudy Night at The Millions

Props from a writer at one of my favorite book sites:

Another book I loved was Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers. It’s a mystery set at Oxford University and follows Harriet Vane and the irrepressible Lord Peter Wimsey as they try to unravel the meaning behind a series of obscene and threatening notes someone has been leaving around Shrewsbury College. Harriet struggles with her attraction to Peter and her desire to remain independent, and actually there’s a lot of wry commentary about just that—the pressure to marry and make house and the desire to get an education and contribute to society. Also, it’s great to read about Oxford in the thirties because it just seems so different from here.

— A Year in Reading: Emma Rathbone

One ivory chess set

This is actually marble, I believe, but we did the best we could.

"I'm sorry, Peter. That was ungenerous and beastly of me. You shall give me something if you want to."

"May I? What shall I give you? Roc's eggs are cheap today."

For a moment her mind was a blank. Whatever she asked him for, it must be something adequate. The trivial, the commonplace or the merely expensive would all be equally insulting. And he would know in a moment if she was inventing a want to please him...

"Peter — give me the ivory chessmen."

Bitch Book Club reads Gaudy Night

There's something amazing about that, isn't there? Reading a 75-year-old book for a feminist book club.

Our book club was pretty impressed with this story. We were excited to find a crime novel written in 1935 whose main detective, victims, and suspects were all women. Sayers used this novel to earnestly explore the role of women in British society. Her characters debate often over whether one has to choose between being an intellectual and being married, between having children and devoting oneself to the books. She paints thoughtful portrayals of women who have lost themselves in their marriages, in addition to creating characters like Phoebe Tucker, a college friend of Harriet's whose marriage has been successful due to her ability to maintain and share her hobbies with her husband. Throughout the book, Harriet struggles with her own identity as a single woman. She looks to old friends and teachers to determine whether she might be able to maintain her autonomy and career as a writer if she were to get married. While she repeatedly turns down Peter's proposals of marriage, she struggles with her feelings for him and with her desire to be truly recognized as his equal.

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Our Ultimate Gaudy Night Field Trip is right out there on the horizon—so close, so close!—so stay tuned...

How did you first read Gaudy Night?

I misunderstood: is this a mystery novel? Is it a romance? I was one of those people, back in 2006, who went in with no idea what to expect and came out with no idea what had happened. What is this? Is this Latin? That's how this is ending? Five hundred pages and I don't even know what they're saying?

Well. Too early, I suppose, although even then I was no spring chicken. (I like that, spring chicken: just a hint of internal alliteration, those clacky consonants. I trust someone's using SPRING CHICKEN as a blog handle. Some urban farmer, probably.)

Three years later I tried again, having found a way in through a play I adored and an actress I trusted. (No spring chicken, she, which was entirely in her favor.) Aha! thought I, working my way through her back catalog, recognizing a title, maybe it'll finally make sense. If anyone could explain to me the charms of Gaudy Night, it would have to be Harriet Walter.

Well, baloney. The leads are perfect but it's a terrible film, isn't it? Poorly paced, badly directed, dark, weird, didactic, dodgy. Half of a mystery, half of a romance, unsatisfactory as either. Yet there are clearly moments when it wants to be more—say more—surely those 30 seconds on the river, when she watches him, when he glances up at her, when she quickly looks away and he smiles, confused, my god, there must be something there, something feeding the intensity of that, something the actors knew about the characters that the script omitted.

What it did was drive me back to the book.

There are those who maintain that you can’t demand anything of the reader. They say the reader knows nothing about art, and that if you are going to reach him, you have to be humble enough to descend to his level. This supposes either that the aim of art is to teach, which it is not, or that to create anything which is simply a good-in-itself is a waste of time. Art never responds to the wish to make it democratic; it is not for everybody; it is only for those who are willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it. We hear a great deal about humility being required to lower oneself, but it requires an equal humility and a real love of the truth to raise oneself and by hard labor to acquire higher standards.

— Flannery O'Connor, via Sympathy for the Art Gallery

So a year ago I sat, and I read and I read and I read, and when I finished, I went back and read again. So much to read! For a reader, such a gift. How did I miss this before? How was this the same story? It's a book of micro-climates, you know? Constant readjustments, temperature shifts, mood, point of view, hiding behind clouds. So much of what isn't said, so much suggested. "So, thought Harriet, it has happened." What? What's happened? Oh. That. Of course that, and it's tucked away in a fleeting thought. You have to stop for it, even as she pushes it aside. You have to see what she won't, the balance she doesn't consider. So much faith in the characters and in the reader, such respect for my patience and my intelligence and yes, my perseverance. "Placetne, magistra?" "Placet." A mystery novel and a romance and a character study, a question and an answer, and Dorothy L. Sayers, waiting for me to grow up. (Summer chicken? Does that work?)

And who do you thank for a gift like this, when the author herself is long gone? I thanked Harriet Walter, who owed me nothing but who signed a 1936 hardcover copy for me at the stagedoor one night anyway, signed it "Harriet Walter (Vane)," because she understood—and here I'm just guessing—what it means to stand in front of a person you admire and ask them to bless something you love.

David Foster Wallace, in his commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2005: "You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship."

(My thanks to Dillon for asking.)