A couple of years ago I thought (as a gesture to God saying something like, “Hey, we don’t disagree about everything and anyway what do I know about life?”) that I would start going to a certain church where the pastor was an ex-football star. When I say it now it doesn’t sound like a very good idea, but I did a lot of things at that time that sound stupid now. Sometimes it’s better to go with what you know, even if it’s very little. I say all of this because the ultimate falling-out I had with the pastor of that church reflects the central conflict of the great and wonderful mystery story, Gaudy Night, so I’m going to use this review as a venue to air my grievances, which will hopefully be entertaining enough that you can bear with me. In fact, this book brings up a couple of stories I have about churches, so I should probably say as a disclaimer that Gaudy Night is not religious at all in its topic, but deals mostly with the role of women in society. That just happens to be something about which I tend to get pissed off at churches.
Rather than preaching topically, this football pastor had decided that the entire church (which may not be fully of mega-church size, but is by no means small) would read through the Bible together in a year, like you do, and he would pull the sermons from our reading assignments. On Mother’s Day, we had just finished the book of Esther, so I was hopeful. There are a lot of troubling things about Esther, but also some really fascinating things. Also, it’s about a woman, so there are many good ways you can go with that. Nope. I should have known he would skip Esther entirely only to pick a random section from Judges to illustrate his spiritual message, which, as far as I could tell, was that he really liked when his mom would scratch his back before bedtime when he was in high school, so women shouldn’t work because they’re silly and it takes away time they could devote to scratching their family’s backs. As the sermon went on, I felt sure there would be some kind of uprising in the congregation. I was ready to get out my stash of pitchforks and torches and burn something down, but I didn’t want to leave because I might miss the end of his message where I hoped he would reveal that he was faking us all out to prove some point or another. His passion about the message culminated when he pulled out a quote from Some Woman, who is reputed to have said, “If all women CEOs quit their jobs, men could feed their families.” I looked around, hoping to see the scores of other women in the audience who would be equally shocked and appalled rushing for the door, when suddenly there was cheering and a woman in the back of the church yelled, “AMEN!” I don’t think I’ve ever felt so betrayed in my life.
The redemptive “Psych!” never came, so I drove home in a rage, pulled my copy of Backlash off its shelf, wrote a letter of complaint to the pastor in its inside cover, drove back to the church, and slammed it on the desk in his empty office. He never acknowledged the incident.
I wish, at this point, I had read the book The Madwoman in the Attic, so that I could give more scholarly opinions about Gaudy Night. From what I know of that line of analysis, Dorothy Sayers’s villain in this novel, the “poisen-pen” haunting the women of Oxford, is along the lines of the 19th century Madwoman (think Jane Eyre). She characterizes female sexuality, but also a loathing of female sexuality as castrating and destructive, so she is this horrifying repressed monster (Grendel’s Mother, maybe?). In Gaudy Night this character terrorizes the cloistered professors in the women’s college at Oxford. It really makes for a delightful read! Sayers presents the varied personalities of the dons and students of the university with a lot of color and flair. The fun and thoughtful discussion Dorothy Sayers presents in Gaudy Night on the topic of women being intelligent humans in their own right was vindicating and cathartic for me to read. She illustrates both the freedom and the shame that successful women feel, and does it in this funny, charming, British way that I adore. Harriet Vane is wonderful! Sayers doesn’t pretend that all women are in favor of having rights, nor does she pretend that we are all a bunch of catty bitches. Some characters do become savage in their hatred of independent women, and those independent women become shrill in their suspicion of one another’s virginity or sexuality. Sayers shows these aspects as momentary weaknesses, however, which are secondary to the overall trust and regard that the women show each other. They are not caricatures, but have their own flaws and charms. I’m making this sound like the whole story is purposeful critical analysis, which it may be, but it definitely comes off as natural within the overall mystery story. I don't even usually like mysteries, and I don't have a sense of suspense, so it is surprising how much I love this book, but that's probably why the social aspect was more striking to me.
I’m not fully with her in her use of classical quotations, which I take as an Oxford thing. Lord Peter Whimsey makes his appearance to be useful, charming, and supplicating. He doesn’t appear to be an overly realistic character (maybe too determinedly glad that Harriet is as smart as she is?), but I am in favor of wonderful authors writing people as they wish them to be, if not as they are – especially in the area of gender relations. Also, I love the way Sayers explores how women think of themselves. It would have been an unnecessary distraction to go into what men think of us. It was much more devastating to hear the woman shout “Amen!” at the back of that church, than to hear the male pastor go on about how women are good at scratching backs - and only that. Anyway, I think I’ve decided that maybe the use of classical quotations has to do with the battle of wits between Whimsey and Harriet, showing the equality of their intelligence and education. I like that, even though it was frustrating for my more pedestrian brain. I think I needed the Norton edition.
I was given this book at a “housewarming shower”, held for me by a really wonderful woman, who is the pastor of a subsequent church I attended. “Shower” because I am over 25 and unmarried, and it is presumed that I would be sad that I haven’t had any wedding/baby showers. Men were uninvited to the event, and the (humorous?) theme of the “shower” was to give me books I would hate. This made my friends who came a little stressed out because they know how much I love books, so they felt all this pressure (contrary to the theme) to get me books I would love that I hadn’t read yet. Also, to me, shower=bad. Other than stuff on my cat, I think this was the most successful book from that evening, and it actually makes all of the uncomfortable female judgment worth it. I kind of love that this book was given to me in this really awkward event that only women were allowed to come to. Even though the evening was pretty fun, and I really do love most of the women who came, the concept of the shower said so much about my “failure” in being an independent, educated woman. This book has so much to say to the contrary. I love irony.