As a Catholic teenager fascinated by sex but forbidden to practise it, I read about it instead, nourishing my hectic imagination on anything from John Donne’s poetry to Lolita to my father’s copies of Men Only. Simultaneously I devoured memoirs by nuns, just in case my religious vocation won out.
Looking back, I see that I was trapped by psychological splits I could not articulate. The nuns at my old-fashioned convent school passed on the Church’s message that the body was opposed to and inferior to the mind. Men, lined up with soul and mind, had higher status than women, in that they could become priests. Women, lined up with body, had a special, lower status as mothers, ideally fulltime. Sexual pleasure outside marriage was wicked. I was a swot, therefore not truly feminine. I thought I was a freak. Better perhaps to rise above gender, enter the cloister and divert passion to God. So when in the local public library I came across Dorothy L. Sayers’s 1935 detective novel Gaudy Night, it seemed to speak to me directly. Set in Shrewsbury, a fictional Oxford women’s college based on Somerville, Sayers’s alma mater, it features a young writer of detective fiction, Harriet Vane, struggling with contradictions around love and sex but finally able to resolve them. The book became my talisman.
Aged 14, I read Gaudy Night simply as a tantalizing romance masquerading as a thriller. Rereading it now I see it as a ghost story, its form demanded by its subject matter. The ghosts float across the text as metaphors that are not merely decorative, as elements of style, but fundamental to the plot, which has to do, crucially, with language, written and spoken: language stolen, repressed, destroyed.
The novel opens with Harriet being invited by Mary Stokes, a friend from undergraduate days, to accompany her to a Gaudy at Shrewsbury. After graduation, Sayers tells us, Mary ‘had married and scarcely been heard of; excep
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