starlady: Peggy in her hat with her back turned under the SSR logo (agent carter)
[personal profile] starlady
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.

(no subject)

Date: 2016-11-01 01:02 (UTC)
princessofgeeks: (Default)
From: [personal profile] princessofgeeks
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.


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