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Somerville College - Michele Roberts, Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night

Hauntings

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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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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; except that she haunted the College with a sick persistence, never missing an Old Students meeting or a Gaudy’. If Mary has haunted the College, Harriet is haunted by it, trying to ignore ‘the whimpering ghost of her dead youth’. Returning to Oxford, she feels ‘a chill qualm . . . the iron hand of the past gripping one’s entrails’ because her old innocence – intellectual and moral – has been lost. She has had extra-marital sex and been punished for it. Had up for the murder of her lover Philip Boyes, she has been proved not guilty only thanks to the intervention of the aristocratic sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey. As a writer of detective fiction, Harriet invents plots that are coldly mechanical. In this way she tries to repel the phantoms lurking in the corners of her mind: ‘Philip Boyes was dead, and the nightmares that had haunted the ghastly midnight of his passing were gradually fading away.’ Wandering in the quad late at night, after the Gaudy dinner, Harriet sees something white ‘fluttering . . . across the trim turf’. This ‘ghost’ is a sheet of paper with an ugly, sadistic drawing on it. A second sheet of paper bears a message seemingly meant for her: ‘You dirty murderess. Aren’t you ashamed to show your face?’ Soon afterwards, the dons ask Harriet to return to the college to investigate this cross between a poltergeist and a poison-pen writer. Anonymous letters are being sent and obscene messages scrawled on walls. Books by female scholars are defaced. The college library is vandalized, the volumes removed and flung about, and the walls adorned with inscriptions in letters a foot high, ‘all of the most unseemly sort’. They are cleaned off by the college servants: whatever is being expressed must be denied. These nuisances occur at night, the time when ghosts classically walk. Harriet comments to the Dean that perhaps the perpetrator is somebody with a mania for creating disturbance in order to enjoy the fun and the Dean agrees: ‘like those tiresome children who throw furniture about and the servants who pretend to be ghosts’. This reference to Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw is just one of Gaudy Night’s literary allusions. Sayers’s prose is stalked by the ghosts of other texts. Each chapter is introduced by a quotation from the work of writers such as John Donne, Richard Burton, Francis Bacon and Shakespeare. And when Harriet consults Peter Wimsey about the case they talk to each other in a non-stop flow of esoteric literary quotations. Gaudy Night seems haunted by Sayers’s anxieties. Writing at a time when the genre of detective fiction was seen as lowbrow, the highly educated Sayers seems ambivalent about how her novels are classified by critics. While determined to prove her literary credentials she also, via her caricatures of the poseurs Harriet meets at literary cocktail parties, mocks fashionable modernism. (Harriet’s dead lover Philip Boyes, readers of Strong Poison will remember, was apparently a pretentious, sub-Lawrentian novelist: no wonder Sayers killed him off.) The undergraduates at Shrewsbury are fascinated by the talk Harriet delivers on her novels; she fantasizes that a School of Detective Fiction would produce ‘a goodly crop of Firsts’. The ghost theme dictates Harriet’s choice of disguise. To conceal the real reason for her return to the college, she dons her scholar’s persona and embarks on a study of Sheridan Le Fanu, the celebrated Victorian writer of ghost stories. By night she patrols the college corridors, wandering like a phantom. Her dreams are peopled by phantoms, her unacknowledged desire for Peter Wimsey among them. One evening, while she is writing in her room, in mid-paragraph comparing Le Fanu with Wilkie Collins and the latter’s ‘ghouls and ghaisties’, the uncanny erupts: all the lights fuse and the poltergeist, a dark shape, races across the quad. Harriet’s interrupted paragraph on ghosts remains unfinished as she jumps up and gives chase. The ghosts in Gaudy Night jump up in much the same way. They perform as images of language not yet spoken, stories that need to be concluded. Harriet fails to piece the story together, ignoring the clues dropped by one of the college servants, despite realizing that she ‘is . . . haunted by nervous terrors’. It is Peter Wimsey, less troubled than Harriet by personal conflicts around sex and work, who is able to use simple reasoning to get at the truth. The malevolence that has been unleashed turns on a question of loyalty to one’s sexual partner versus loyalty to the ideals of scholarship. A certain recent event seems to have triggered the outrages: the arrival of a new Fellow in college. From her Peter elicits details of some fraudulent work she encountered some years back, before taking up her new post at Shrewsbury, when examining an MA history thesis. Its author, she discovered, falsified his findings, and even stole and destroyed the texts that proved otherwise. Failed and disgraced, he finally killed himself or, as the furiously loyal poison-pen writer saw it, was driven to his death by words written on a worthless, ‘dirty bit of paper’. The return of the repressed accordingly sees the return of dirty bits of paper flung about Shrewsbury, texts whose obscene wording glosses unbearable sorrow and anger. The poison-pen writer’s confession, when finally it comes, is a monologue allowing for no response; very unlike the swift, elegant wordplay Harriet and Peter enjoy. The novel’s cultural landscape resonated powerfully for me, reading in the 1960s. A commitment to writing seemed incompatible with a commitment to marriage and children. The Shrewsbury dons are all celibate: like nuns, they have made their choice of fulfilment. I identified with Harriet, who until the end of the novel remains torn between the calm life of the mind and the turbulent joys of the body. She ponders: ‘could there ever be any alliance between the intellect and the flesh?’ Feminism offers her little help and remains a spectre prowling the novel’s margins. It makes Harriet uncomfortable, since it appears linked to intolerance and humourlessness. Miss Hillyard, the History Tutor, who voices openly feminist opinions about injustice, is presented as harsh, bitter and sexually disappointed. Unable to admit her passionate attraction to Peter Wimsey, indeed mortified by it, Harriet takes herself late at night to the Fellows Garden, her sanctuary, the hortus conclusus, the enclosed garden symbolizing virginity in medieval poetry, and becomes a kind of ghost: ‘the figure walking swiftly up and down, up and down . . . the rustle of its long skirt upon the grass’. Once what everyone has agreed to call the College Ghost has been identified, challenged and heard out, Harriet is able to resolve her dilemmas. The ghost has been laid by having its tragic story told, and so now Harriet decides to write detective novels that will have more real life, more real feeling in them, even if writing in this way will ‘hurt like hell’. She and Peter begin to imagine creating a new story together. They will rewrite the marriage plot. They will pursue a marriage of equals. Harriet will continue writing. It will help, of course, that marrying a wealthy man she will have servants and no money worries. Another spectre haunting the plot is that of class and class divisions. The university is presented by Sayers as an ideal community, as is Shrewsbury College before the disturbances begin. However, the college is an institution structured by hierarchies of class and money that separate the highly educated dons from the less well-educated servants as though they are different species. The latter may wear smart uniforms and be kindly treated, but they are locked into their wing at night like ‘caged animals’, as the Bursar tartly observes. Various undergraduates are described as speaking with ‘a common accent’ or as ‘having unrefined antecedents’. Are they and the scouts more likely to commit crimes than those educated in private schools? Aged 14, snobbish and priggish as well as ardent and rebellious, I didn’t see any of this. Dorothy Sayers’s work simply offered a possible solution to my own mystery. Using a kind of reasoning that Peter Wimsey would surely have deprecated, I decided that since Shrewsbury College was in fact Somerville, and since Sayers had gone to Somerville, if I too went to Somerville I too could become a writer. I passed the Entrance exam and got in. Sitting in the college library, I realized I could stay up all night reading if I so wished. Boyfriends would come and go, but I would become a feminist, a socialist. This was my desired nuit blanche. I had found my true love.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 63 © Michèle Roberts 2019


About the contributor

Michèle Roberts has written novels, short stories, poetry, memoir and artist’s books. She is half-English and half-French and lives in London.

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