Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers is set almost entirely at Oxford. Alma mater of Lord Peter Wimsey, the fictional version of Oxford University also houses Shrewsbury College--the educational home of Harriet Vane. The all-female college is experiencing a bout of particularly poison pen letters and malicious practical jokes. The warden of the college does not wish to bring in the police and produce unwanted publicity for the school, so she calls upon Harriet Vane to use the knowledge gained as a mystery writer to bear upon the problem. Using the annual Gaudy (a reunion of "old girls" of the college) and later a research project as cover, Harriet begins her investigations. But the mystery proves to be a deep one and Harriet finds it necessary to call upon Lord Peter for help. While wrestling with the problems of the nasty "ghost" of the college, she must also wrestle with her feelings for Peter. Oxford provides the perfect backdrop for the final stages of the romance between these two intelligent characters.
Rereading Sayers is always wonderful. She is the author of my comfort reads. I go to her for superb character development, lucid prose, literary quotes and allusions, and underlying humor. This one is also marvelous for its academic setting. I feel as though I've had the grand tour of Oxford; granted, it's Oxford of another era--but that makes it even more appealing. Gaudy Night stands out for me because of the setting and because, as a quote collector, there are so many tidbits that I've snatched for my collection...and I just have to share them with you. Five stars, by the way.
Detachment is a rare virtue, and very few people find it lovable, either in themselves or in others. If you ever find a person who likes you in spite of it—still more, because of it—that liking has very great value, because it is perfectly sincere, and because, with that person, you will never need to be anything but sincere yourself.
~Miss de Vine (pp. 34-5)
…they [men] want a bit to get used to the change. Why, it takes a man months and months to reconcile himself to a new hat. And just when you’re preparing to send it to the jumble sale, he says, “That’s a rather nice hat you’ve got on, where did you get it?” And you say, “My dear Henry, it’s the one I had last year and you said made me look like an organ-grinder’s monkey.”
~the Dean (p. 50)
I have the most ill-regulated memory. It does those things which it ought not to have done, and leaves undone the thing it ought to have done. But it has not yet gone on strike altogether.
~Lord Peter Wimsey (p. 56)
My subconscious has a most treacherous imagination. It’s disquieting to reflect that one’s dreams never symbolize one’s real wishes, but always something Much Worse.
If I really wanted to be passionately embraced by Peter, I should dream of something like dentists or gardening. I wonder what are the unthinkable depths of awfulness that can only be expressed by the polite symbol of Peter’s embraces.~Harriet Vane (p. 92)
HV: Then why do it?
RP: I don’t know. Why does one do idiotic things?
HV: Why?...I’ll tell you why, Mr. Pomfret. Because you haven’t the guts to say no when somebody asks you to be a sport. That tom-fool word has got more people in trouble than all the rest of the dictionary put together. If it’s sporting to encourage girls to break rules and drink more than they can carry and get themselves into a mess on your account, then I’d stop being a sport and try being a gentleman.
~Harriet Vane, Reggie Pomfret (p. 119)
HV: But suppose one doesn’t know [what] one wants to put first….
MdV: You usually can tell…by seeing what kind of mistakes you make. I’m quite sure that one never makes fundamental mistakes about the thing one really wants to do. Fundamental mistakes arise out of lack of genuine interest…the big proof is that the thing comes right without those fundamental errors. One always makes surface errors, of course. But a fundamental error is a sure sign of not caring.~Harriet Vane, Miss de Vine (pp. 149-50)
HV: I suppose one oughtn’t to marry anybody, unless one’s prepared to make him a full-time job.
MdV: I suppose not; though there are a few rare people, I believe, who don’t look on themselves as jobs but as fellow-creatures.~Harriet Vane, Miss de Vine (p. 151)
MD: …I had particular orders to hunt out Saint-George’s Niersteiner ’23 [wine] and mention Uncle Peter in connection with it. Is that right? I don’t know whether Uncle Peter bought it or recommended it or merely enjoyed it, or what he had to do with it, but that’s what I was supposed to say.
HV: [laughing] If he did any of those things, it’ll be all right.
~Mr. Danvers, Harriet Vane (p. 153)
SG: Perhaps I’d better accustom myself to saying “Aunt Harriet”…what’s wrong with that? You simply can’t refuse to be an adopted aunt to me. My Aunt Mary has gone all domestic and hasn’t time for me and my mother’s sisters are the original gorgons. I’m dreadfully unappreciated and auntless for all practical purposes.
HV: You deserve neither aunts nor uncles, considering how you treat them.~Saint-George, Harriet Vane (p. 172)
However loudly we may assert our own unworthiness, few of us are really offended by hearing the assertion contradicted by a disinterested party. (p. 209)
It was quite true that the spontaneous affections of Reggie Pomfret had, somehow, made it easier to believe that Peter’s own feelings might be something more than an artist’s tenderness for his own achievement. But it was indecent of Peter to reach that conclusion so rapidly. She resented the way in which he walked in and out of her mind as if it were his own flat. (p. 244)
She was taken aback, not by what he said, but by his saying it. She had never imagined that he regarded her work very seriously, and she had certainly not expected him to take this attitude about it. The protective male? He was about as protective as a can opener. (p. 256)
Lord, teach us to take our hearts and look them in the face, however difficult it may be. (p. 257)
The great advantage about telling the truth is that nobody ever believes it.
~Lord Peter Wimsey (p. 276)
For some reason, this affair of a mop and a bucket seemed to have made Padgett Peter’s slave for life. Men were very odd. (p. 297)
If people will bring dynamite into a powder factory, they must expect explosions.
~Miss Edwards (p.313)
For about five minutes, Harriet was the prey of that kind of speechless rage which is beyond expression or control. If she had thought of it, she was at that moment in a mood to sympathize with the Poltergeist and all her works. If she could have beaten or strangled anybody, she would have done it and felt better for it. (p. 336)
You have had the luck to come up against a very unselfish and very honest man. He has done what you asked him without caring what it cost him and without shirking the issue.~Miss de Vine (p. 376)
But when you have come to a conclusion about all this, will you remember that it was I who asked you to take a dispassionate view, and I who told you that of all the devils let loose in the world there was no devil like devoted love….I don’t mean passion. Passion is a good stupid brute that will pull the plough six days a week if you give him the run of his heels on Sundays. But love’s a nervous, over-mastering brute, if you can’t rein him, it’s best to have no truck with him.
~Lord Peter Wimsey to Harriet Vane (p. 332)
I had found you…beyond all hope or expectation at a time when I thought that no woman could ever mean more to me beyond a little easy sale and exchange of pleasure. And I was so terrified of losing you before I could grasp you that I babbled out all my greed and fear as though, God help me, you had nothing to think of but me and my windy self-importance. As though it mattered. As though the very word of love had not been the most crashing insolence a man could offer you.
~Lord Peter Wimsey (p. 379)
I do know that the worst sin—perhaps the only sin—passion can commit is to be joyless. It must lie down with laughter or make its bed in hell—there is no middle way. Don’t, for God’s sake, ever think you owe me anything. If I can’t have the real thing, I can make do with imitation. But I will not have surrenders or crucifixions….If you have come to feel any kindness for me at all, tell me you would never make me that offer again.
~Lord Peter Wimsey (pp. 379-80)
P: Harriet, you know that I love you: will you marry me?
H: Tell me one thing, Peter, will it make you desperately unhappy if I say no?
P: Desperately?…My dear, I will not insult either you or myself with a word like that. I can only tell you that if you will marry me it will give me very great happiness.
~Lord Peter, Harriet (p. 383)