Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Gaudy Night, Dorothy L Sayers / Something Wicked, David Roberts

Apols for the radio silence, I've been off on my holibobs (to Segovia in Spain, in case you were wondering – not much of a place for vintage, but aces for Romanesque architecture and free tapas). I did take a little bit of my own vintage and repro with me, in the shapes of a couple of crime novels.

It's a tad unfair to compare these two books, I admit: Sayers was writing in the 1930s and so has the advantage of knowing intimately all the things that were current, whereas Roberts is a modern writer and has to recreate the era, which means he is sometimes heavy-handed with brands and famous names. Yet it is their differences that I found really interesting. In both cases, an aristocratic man with a bent for sleuthing is in love with an intelligent, unconventional young woman. Despite both books being mystery novels, there's an awful lot about attitudes towards genders and politics in them.

Sayers barely touches on 1930s international politics; an American character, Miss Schuster-Slatt, who has an interest in 'breeding', pops up, but she's mainly as a figure of fun. What is dug into, and in depth, in Gaudy Night, is what is proper for women. The first Oxford colleges for women weren't founded until the 1870s, and women were only admitted as full undergraduates in 1920. Sayers is writing at a time, about a time, when the fight for women to be educated (and get the vote) was still easily within living memory, and when women were expected to give up everything on marriage to have babies and be a wife and mother only – a fantastic opportunity for a woman who wants it, but a dreadful prison for one who doesn't. Needless to say, as a working-class female who received a university education and has the option of contraception, this book made me consider once again how grateful I am to the women and men who worked so hard for equality in the past!

Roberts' concern is politics. Over the course of his Corinth/Browne stories everything has been building up to war. Having just finished Gaudy Night, I did wince a bit when Edward makes some throwaway remark to Verity about her not wanting babies; even if they both agreed on this (and it would take some planning with a calendar or, erm, bedroom activities, to be sure) it's not something that would have been seen lightly at the time, and that's really what differentiates the book written after the war from the one written before it. We know how the 1930s ended, and can't ignore it.

Of the two, I vastly preferred Gaudy Night. The grammar is better. The characterisation is infinitely better, and the plot is plausible. Something Wicked really did descend into Midsomer Murders-type silliness, with corpses all over the place, ridiculously contrived murders and the world's most obvious villain. Sometimes you need a bit of fluff, and I don't regret buying it (it's on Kindle, so isn't taking up scarce shelf space). I just wish I hadn't read it after the vastly superior Sayers!

3 comments :

  1. Ooh! Shall certainly check out Gaudy Night :)

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  2. My best friend loves Dorothy L Sayers but I'm ashamed to say I have only read one of her books and this despite loving the TV series they did in the late 80's!

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  3. Charly, I think you will really like it - Sayers was very much the thinker, as well as writing decent thrillers, and Harriet Vane is a wonderful character. She's difficult, but you understand why she is difficult, how much she feels she could lose if she married.

    Gisela, they're fab books - I am envious that you can discover them for the first time!

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