Gaudy Night

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Gaudy Night (1935) is a mystery novel by Dorothy L. Sayers, the twelfth in her popular series about aristocratic sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey, and the third featuring crime writer Harriet Vane.

The dons of Harriet Vane's alma mater, Shrewsbury College (a thinly veiled take on Sayers' own Somerville College[1]), have invited her back to attend the much anticipated annual 'Gaudy' celebrations. However, the mood soon turns sour when a malicious lunatic begins defacing the all-female establishment with obscene graffiti, as well as destroying important manuscripts, sending dark messages to several people and crafting vile effigies. Desperate to avoid a possible murder on campus, Harriet asks her old friend Wimsey to investigate.


Explanation of the novel's title

"Gaudy" derives from the Latin gaudium and Old French gaudie, meaning "merry-making" or "enjoyment". A college gaudy is a dinner; in this case an annual reunion one. The phrase "gaudy night" is taken from Shakespeare's Antony & Cleopatra:

Plot summary

Harriet Vane returns reluctantly to Oxford to attend the Gaudy dinner. Expecting hostility because of her notoriety, she is surprised to be welcomed warmly by the dons, and rediscovers her old love of the academic life.

Some time later the Warden of Shrewsbury writes to ask for help. There has been an outbreak of anonymous letters, vandalism and threats, apparently from someone within the college, and a scandal is feared. Harriet, herself a victim of poison-pen letters ever since her trial, reluctantly agrees to help, and spends much of the next few months resident at the college, ostensibly to do research on Sheridan Le Fanu and assist a senior scholar with her book.

As she wrestles with the case, trying to narrow down the list of suspects and avert a major scandal, Harriet is forced to examine her ambivalent feelings about love and marriage, along with her attraction to academia as an intellectual (and emotional) refuge. Her personal dilemma becomes entangled with darkly hinted suspicions and prejudices raised by the crimes at the college, which appear to have been committed by a sexually frustrated female don. Harriet is forced to reexamine her relationship with Wimsey in the light of what she has discovered about herself. Wimsey eventually arrives in Oxford to help her, and she gains a new perspective on him from those who know him, including his nephew, a current Oxford undergraduate.

The attacks build to a crisis, and the college community of students, dons and servants is almost torn apart by suspicion and fear. There is an attempt to drive a vulnerable student to suicide, and a physical assault on Harriet that almost kills her. The perpetrator is finally unmasked by Wimsey as one of the college servants, revealed to be the widow of a disgraced academic at a northern university. Her husband's academic fraud had been previously exposed by one of his fellow dons there, destroying his career and driving him to suicide. The don has since moved to Shrewsbury College, and the campaign has been the widow's revenge against intellectual women who move outside their "proper" domestic sphere.

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