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


Share this

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

Subscribe or sign in to read the full article

The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.

Subscribe now or

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.

Share this

Comments & Reviews

Leave a comment

Customise this page for easy reading

reading mode