starlady: Peggy in her hat with her back turned under the SSR logo (agent carter)
Electra ([personal profile] starlady) wrote2016-10-31 08:44 pm

Sayers: Gaudy Night

First things first: Happy Halloween.

What got me fired up to write about Gaudy Night was, ironically, the fact that the BBC adaptation of it is rather crap. It's a crying shame, because the cast is stellar, but the ways in which the adaptation not only cuts out significant chunks of the book but also misses the point of large parts of it is equally parts irritating and telling.

In making my way through the book I was struck first of all by how explicitly situated it is in 1935. Sayers herself makes a point of stating the year explicitly—for the first and last time—but it's fairly clear in text, too. In the tenth book in the series, the outside world and the world of the detective stories have finally crashed into one another, or perhaps it's more accurate to say that the latter is overwhelmed by the former. Hitler is mentioned explicitly, and the female dons of Shrewsbury are quite clear that their very lives and existences are political, not just in the sense that they have dedicated their lives to women's education but that they are now fighting on two fronts, both against conservative types who disagree with it because it just wasn't done and the fascists, both in Germany and at home, who believe it actively wrong because a woman's place is with her husband and children. The fact that the culprit's views are exactly in line with Nazi ideology—Nazi ideology that is explicitly mentioned in the text—is not coincidental. And the world politics that merely loured over East Anglia in T9T are now a force in the novel; Peter blows into Oxford on the wings of the storm, and the war he's fighting against is one that is so overdetermined that it cannot be prevented, only delayed.

It's fitting that the fact that the war is coming—that Peter and Bunter in fact wonder if it isn't about to go off now, before everyone is ready—is what finally renders Peter voluble about himself. He tells Harriet more in fifteen minutes, when he first comes to Oxford and tells her that his social class is done for and asks what damn good it does anybody, and that he's spent the last twenty years running from himself, than he has in the past five years of their friendship. It's the same honesty that finally allows Harriet to meet him halfway, as she does on the punt, and in the Botanic Garden; as he meets her halfway, through the sonnet in the notebook, and the apology scene.

I wasn't surprised to lose great chunks of subplot, but I was deeply disappointed not to see Peter's nephew St. George in the movie. I adore St. George, only partly because he and Peter remind me, more than a little, of Lirael and Sam, just as the non-useless Wimseys in general remind me more than a little of the Great Charter bloodlines in the Old Kingdom. I will give the TV adaptation full credit for making me say of Peter and Harriet, "They are Holmes and Watson!" but the fact that the adaptation feels compelled to show Peter and Bunter faffing about on the German border rather than Peter and Harriet on the roof, the week before the concert, is a very telling illustration of the way it prioritizes showing useless action over actually useful discussion.

The fact that the adaptation is set in 1932 but still wants to preserve Sayers' preferred 13-year age difference between Peter and Harriet is equally telling of incomprehension. There are some time periods when three years is a decade or more, and the 1930s were one of them; the fact that Peter and Bunter are going to the continent on behalf of the Foreign Office after Hitler's rise to power is significant, for reasons of connecting to the politics in the novel and the novel's arguments about women and work, but also because it's the apotheosis of Peter doing things. He's so much now a doer of things that Sayers doesn't even show us them—and significantly, we the reader and the Honorable Freddy, for god's sake, are more familiar with Peter as a doer of things than Harriet is, because she has been willfully ignorant, just as she is willfully ignorant of Peter's having taken a first at Oxford in his own right. (In the adaptation, she of course knows that already. Gah.)

The adaptation being unwilling to show the scholars in their gowns half as often as they should be is also quite telling, as is its total bungling of the initial Gaudy. The adaptation runs the reception and the dinner together by switching around some of Harriet's later discussions with the SCR to the reception and leaving her with her old school chums at the dinner, but the adaptation totally skips over the deeply significant conversations at said dinner, beginning with Harriet's archaeologist friend, who has made an equal and happy marriage and who also is quite luckily not the mother of morons. Cut to the tactless American, who is a proponent of eugenics, though the novel never says those words outloud. Eugenics here are linked to the Nazis too, but the question of marriage and children cuts multiple ways.

It doesn't surprise me that Tolkien didn't like Gaudy Night, but in some ways the novel is a stellar candidate for the short list of books that contain Tolkien-style eucatastrophes. Until Peter and Harriet go up onto the roof, and he apologizes to her for his utterly horrid behavior at their first few meetings (i.e. Strong Poison), I am convinced that she was intending to tell him, once and for all, to leave her alone. It's his apology for his conduct that finally allows her not just to acknowledge her love for him but at last to act on it. And I do think Sarah Monette is right that it's only in Oxford that their mutual understanding is possible; London and Wilvercombe are both wrong in their own ways, and neither of them can be themselves there. (Peter, significantly, is an avowed hater of London by the end of T9T.) Oxford, the still center, is where they can at last see each other clearly, and act on it.

At the same time, as I said before, Oxford is anything but untouched by the encroaching war, and that was another thing that bothered me about the adaptation. It felt claustrophobic, in a way that doesn't entirely accord with the mood of the novel. Indeed, even when Sayers is trying to write the closest she comes to locked-room mysteries, such as CoW, things intrude. And the JCR and St. George and the other undergraduates, and what they're bearing up under, are significant to the story. Oxford itself is a community, no less than Shrewsbury is; I could have done with a few more location shots and fewer shots of Harriet wandering around badly lit corridors doing inane things that undercut her not-insignificant skills as an investigator in her own right.

In the end, along with the loss of the rooftop apology, the thing that I was most angry about was the sequence in the first episode of the adaptation where Harriet runs back down to London and to Peter the day after the Gaudy and he makes a remark about cloistered communities and repressed appetites. It's exactly the sort of thing he doesn't say in the novel; significantly, it's what Harriet thinks, out of her lingering Victorian sensibilities and, perhaps, her own fears about women and work and marriage, to say nothing of her class guilt. As Peter tells her, the evidence was staring her in the face; she just didn't want to see it.

The adaptation's bizarre choice to make Annie known to Harriet previously is incomprehensible. The script says explicitly that Harriet is nine years down, meaning that Annie would have to have been employed at least 11 years there for her to have had a way with the buttery doors, as Harriet says in the adaptation. This is completely irreconcilable with her history as given in the third episode, where her husband's downfall took place only six years ago. Given the fact that Peter in the final episode also directly contradicts his earlier views as expressed in the dancing scene, I have to wonder if there was some kind of script continuity error that didn't get caught. It's the only explanation that makes sense. Ditto Padget the Hitlerite Porter being old rather than new in the adaptation, though it causes far fewer prima facie problems with the story.

Obviously Gaudy Night is a deeply feminist novel, and I wasn't surprised to see the adaptation undercut that at just about every turn, but it was still disappointing to see Peter play such a large role in a book where he is mostly out of sight, though hardly out of mind. Given that the adaptation can't handle GN as a book in its own right, it's hardly sensible to complain that it doesn't do justice to GN's place in the sequence either, but it doesn't (except for his ditching the walking stick). I keep coming back to Peter's comments when he first arrives, all of which are hair-raising in various ways, but the most hair-raising of which from the series perspective is his comment that he spent the past 20 years running from himself, which explains, ultimately, the previous nine novels. He put on the monocle and ordered the ridiculous walking stick and started playing detective to avoid who he was, but the stick and the mannerisms have been discarded and he is who he is, honestly and completely. On the series level, it makes perfect sense, in that he is now at last suitable to be Harriet's husband.

There is a level on which I suspect that I am a very idiosyncratic reader of these novels in that I read them in sequence, I don't care about mysteries per se, and I read them as a sequence. Many other people evidently only read the Vane novels, or start there, or read the books out of order generally. I particularly have to wince at only reading the Vane novels because Peter comes off so badly in the first of them, particularly Strong Poison, for reasons that I'm sure we can all enumerate. But I equally feel about people pumping up Gaudy Night by putting down the other Wimsey books like I felt when people were expressing their love for BB-8 by dumping on R2-D2. GN is an amazing novel, not without detection, but it is not an exception to the rule that proves the series, as an otherwise thoughtful essay on the book that I liked until that point declared flatly towards the end. GN is excellent, but MMA and T9T are excellent too; I would rate all three about equally in terms of craft, and they are each doing very different (though, in the series, complementary) things. I am very convinced that reading the books in order is a profoundly different experience than otherwise, and I'm very glad I've done it this way; Peter, Harriet, and the books themselves have been the richer for it.
princessofgeeks: (Default)

[personal profile] princessofgeeks 2016-11-01 01:02 am (UTC)(link)
I think the whole scope of the books is such the way to go -- even people who mostly love Harriet would find much to love in the other books.

I agree that in GN Oxford is not presented as claustrophobic but as a refuge, as a safe place, despite the oncoming storm.

The thing about this entire series that it so amazing is that it works as so many things -- as purely a detective series, as literary novels, as social commentary, as feminism. I never get tired of them all. I've read the whole thing many times.

Nine Tailors in particular offers more every time I read it; the plotting and choice of scenes alone is astonishing in its effective rule breaking.

And one of the overlooked talents of Sayers is her masterful command of POV.

Thanks for the post.
wild_irises: (reading)

[personal profile] wild_irises 2016-11-01 02:02 pm (UTC)(link)
I cannot tell you how much I appreciate the thought and care you put into the Sayers discussions! I haven't seen the adaptation, and now I certainly won't, but your thoughts on the book track with mine.

It's been decades since I read T9T, so I can't comment there, but I completely agree that MMA is of a quality with GN, to the extent that such different books can be compared. I'll have to find a copy of T9T soon.
swan_tower: (Default)

[personal profile] swan_tower 2016-11-01 06:17 pm (UTC)(link)
I read Whose Body? first, because I thought I should start at the beginning and go through in order; then I read Strong Poison, because I couldn't get my hands on Clouds of Witness but stumbled across that one in a used bookstore. Then I went on, haphazardly and out of order, reading everything except Gaudy Night and Busman's Honeymoon, before this year going back to the beginning and doing them all in order, including the last two.

I'm sort of not sorry for that approach, because Whose Body? didn't do very much for me, and gave me no sense of why people love this series so much; Strong Poison, for all of the problems with how Peter behaves toward Harriet, did a much better job of making me say "yes, I understand now, and will keep reading." I think the third one I read was The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, and if I were to try and hook a new reader on the series, I might start there, letting the first two slide until later. I feel like that one offers the best balance, in terms of demonstrating depth of character and narrative without having too deep of a foundation the reader's missing out on.

. . . and I might just tell them to skip The Five Red Herrings, which I didn't actually re-read on this pass because I got rid of my copy. Possibly it would come off better if I told myself/the hypothetical new reader to just straight-up ignore every last thing about train schedules and pay attention to the rest of the story.

As for Gaudy Night, yes, it's astonishing how much Peter isn't in it, while simultaneously being very important to it. I feel almost like that serves another narrative/aesthetic purpose . . . I've noted with Dorothy Dunnett (who obviously imprinted on Sayers, hard) that she can get away with Lymond being as much of a Gary Stu as he is in part because we're almost never in his point of view, and the story spends a fair bit of time telling us what the people around him are doing instead. So then I look at Gaudy Night and think, Sayers leaving Peter offstage has the effect of making us miss him, making us admire the good qualities we might have been taking for granted and want him back. His absence creates a sort of gravitational force that helps drive Harriet's own changing perspective, in a way that I think wouldn't work as effectively if he were around more. (Or if we were in his pov at all, which I don't think we ever are in Gaudy Night. In fact, with the exception of Strong Poison, I think the Harriet/Peter scenes are almost exclusively from Harriet's perspective, or else from a more distant omniscient.)
swan_tower: (*writing)

[personal profile] swan_tower 2016-11-02 06:47 am (UTC)(link)
Sorry, yes; I misremembered Bellona Club as #3, when it's actually #4. I still stand by the idea that it might be a good entry point into the series: by all means backtrack later for the first three books, but maybe don't start there. I feel like their merits are more apparent in hindsight, and I tend to be deaf to arguments that one ought to start with less congenial beginnings just because they'll look awesome later -- this tendency brought to you by the first season of Babylon 5, which I really ought to have skipped because it's discouraged me from ever watching the rest of the show. But everybody told me it was Super Important for all the details and resonances that would come up later on, so I slogged through and was so bored that I haven't yet convinced myself to try again.

T5RH probably goes much better if you ignore the mystery. Me, I was trying to actually follow it, and the book is really a grind if you do that.

I believe you're right about Peter's pov scene in GH. And it reinforces my feeling that we almost always see Peter through Harriet's eyes in their joint scenes, and almost never see her through his. Given that I seem to recall Harriet being called Sayers' self-insert, it's a telling approach, I think.
thistleingrey: (Default)

[personal profile] thistleingrey 2016-11-02 03:35 am (UTC)(link)

I've read Sayers quite out of order because I began with Gaudy Night on the recommendation of my employer (a librarian) while in college. :P I did go through each of them and the shorts within a year or two total, but it was as I could find copies. Anyway, I agree that they're worth having in toto.

Mileage always varies, but I found Lymond both fascinating and kind of repulsively modern at the same time (despite being hard to squick generally), such that I skipped stonily through #5 and needed some effort to finish #6. The books and the whole endeavor are brilliant, no question, but they are oddly selective in their emphases, in kind of the way that Wordsworth was at times a Romantic medievalist, or at least a romanticizing one, to the material's detriment. Though I read them during the trough between undergrad and grad (without benefit of quals prep--because subsequently I read a fair amount of Middle Scots), I could never quite get past the selectiveness. I dunno. I've bounced twice off the Niccolò books and not looked back, and fumbled my way through King Hereafter, which doesn't try to monumentalize its male hero in nearly the way the Lymond books do and thus didn't cause me the same trouble.
Edited (typo) 2016-11-02 03:35 (UTC)
mrkinch: vampire Viggo (Default)

[personal profile] mrkinch 2016-11-02 04:37 am (UTC)(link)
I enjoy your commentary so much! And all the commentary that accrues. I've a low tolerance for distorting what I love and bailed on Strong Poison at once, despite the really excellent casting, because of the appalling things foisted upon Harriet by conventional script writing.

I probably read the books initially in order, but it was so long ago I don't recall, nor do I recall how they came to my attention. I adore Whose Body! I don't own Unnatural Death of Five Red Herrings but after your thoughts I may read UD again; it upset me a great deal at the time, though my memories are hazy.

It's so much fun watching someone enjoy this!
sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey)

[personal profile] sovay 2016-12-04 01:27 am (UTC)(link)
It's a crying shame, because the cast is stellar, but the ways in which the adaptation not only cuts out significant chunks of the book but also misses the point of large parts of it is equally parts irritating and telling.

The cast were incredibly frustrated about it, too.

There is a level on which I suspect that I am a very idiosyncratic reader of these novels in that I read them in sequence, I don't care about mysteries per se, and I read them as a sequence.

I read all of the non-Harriet books in whatever order I discovered them in my parents' house, but was then given the Harriet Vane quartet in sequence as birthday or holiday presents by my parents, which I think worked out fine.