I recently had the pleasure of rereading Dorothy L. Sayers’ GAUDY NIGHT after about a gap of ten years, and was struck by how much hidden fun I discovered in it the second time around now that I have some writing experience behind me. It was my favorite book by Sayers when I first read her entire Lord Peter Wimsey series ten years ago, and now I love it even more for her wry commentary about the writing life.
It was comforting to find that the same issues that plague writers today also plagued Sayer’s mystery writer character Harriet Vane in 1930s Great Britain. Worries over advances and contracts, struggles to grow as a writer while still writing a novel that fit one’s genre, and the infernal nagging question from others of “Where do you get your ideas?” Here’s a short excerpt from Chapter 1:
…Here was that awful woman, Muriel Campshott, coming up to claim acquaintance. Campshott had always simpered. She still simpered. And she was dressed in a shocking shade of green. She was going to say, “How do you think of all your plots!” She did say it. Curse the woman….
And then there’s the fun of reading about Harriet having to deal with the headaches of having a key character (Wilfrid) in a mystery she is writing completely messing the story up.
“Well,” said Harriet, recovering her poise, “academically speaking, I admit Wilfrid is the world’s worst goop….”
[Harriet] : “Yes–he’d be interesting. But if I give Wilfrid all those violent and lifelike feelings, he’ll throw the whole book out of balance.”
[Peter]: “You would have to abandon the jigsaw kind of story and write a book about human beings for a change.”
“I’m afraid to try that, Peter. It might go too near the bone.”
“It might be the wisest thing you could do.”
“Write it out and get rid of it?”
“I’ll think about that. It would hurt like hell.”
“What would that matter, if it made a good book?”
I strongly recommend reading STRONG POISON and HAVE HIS CARCASE before reading GAUDY NIGHT for the first time. The relationship between Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey goes through a character arc that runs through all four of Sayers’ novels that include Harriet.