Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers

Last week I pulled Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night off my shelves and began to reread it.  It’s been so long since I read it that I can’t remember whodunit.  Last time I read it for the mystery; I came back to it this time for the love story.  But what I am reading is neither mystery nor love story– I am reading instead the story of a woman who is trying to reconcile brains and heart  (her words).  This theme runs through the book overtly: in conversations between Harriet (the Oxford alumna cum novelist) and the females dons in her college– and in Harriet’s musings; and covertly, in the portrayals of all the women in the book. 

One passage that struck me particularly is a conversation between Harriet and a fellow alumna, a talented scholar, who had married a farmer and left the academic life.  She describes herself as a razor used as a plough, and now has found herself too dull to be a razor any more.  There is a striking passage as well about the farmer’s wife’s thoughts about the nobility of farming, and Harriet’s response: "I’m quite prepared to admit that… A ploughshare is a nobler object than a razor.  But if your natural talent is for barbering, wouldn’t it be better to be a barber, and a good barber– and use the profits (if you like) to speed the plough?  However grand the job may be , is it your job?"

It fits my melancholy mood regarding my work (not to mention my time on the CSA).  For many years, I have been torn between my work as a physician and my calling as a wife and mother.  They are both calls, both gifts, both noble duties.  I wonder sometimes if I am the razor, used as a plough– or a plough who tried to be a razor. 

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3 thoughts on “Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers

  1. The Welsh Farmer's Wife really stuck out in my memory too when I read it in college. I read that section to Dan to illustrate one of those endless "how I'm feeling" talks when I was un-employed and extremely confused in Illinois early in our marriage.

    He didn't get it. In fact, he thought the example a bit over-dramatic.
    Well, that was deflating.

    In the introduction to the Mystery! production of Gaudy Night from the '90's Vincent Price said that Sayer's considered Gaudy Night the biography she didn't need to write now, because it did explore Oxford women, the value of vocation, and what love between equals might look like. Her essay collection "The Mind of the Maker" goes into the idea of sub-creation quiet a bit too, sort of; what can we learn of God the Creator from what we know of ourselves as creative people. Only she used more elegant language than my paraphrase.

    I doubt now that she would mind Dan's idea that the example was overstated, she loved exhuberent drama, and knew that she overstated things, it was part of her joyful ogerishness.

    I'm feeling stale dull and unproffitable lately: I didnt' keep up with house work and the landlord complained about the state of my kitchen floor.

    Madeleine L'Engle called this age "the Tired 30's." and in one of Crosswicks journals wrote of the temptation to "pull a Gaugan" and run away from domesticity to pursue writing uninterrupted. She didn't though. The kids got older, and less needy. Her brain came back, her books got published again after a 10 year hiatis.

    Maybe the Welsh Farmwife got home, took a nap after her train ride, laughted at herself for melancholy over-statement, and began English translation of some Welsh Hymns. Maybe she re-organized her household work. Maybe she'd always been gloomy, but enjoyed getting to express her gloom memorably to her old aquaintanse.

    M has been waiting forever for his turn on the computer – I guess I got to go now,

    Christine

    Edited by Christinethecurious on Nov. 21, 2009 at 7:19 AM

  2. Annie, I've been mulling this since you posted it. What comes to mind first is that maybe you're a scalpel being sharpened?

    But that might be too facile.

    I think it must be different from woman to woman, especially because some professions are easier to keep your hand in than others. It's easier to write a couple of hours a day than to keep up your skills as a gymnast, say. (Not that writing a couple of hours a day is easy, when you've got four under five and you're homeschooling.)

    I don't know what the final answer for myself is, but so far I can see that motherhood has brought me a lot closer to becoming the writer I want to be, because it's helped me to mature and grow. (And become more disciplined; that's a big one.) Again, I'm not sure if that would be as true in another vocation, but it's been true for me. (Though I've still to find out if it'll pay off as a profession!)

    The other thing I always think of in these sorts of discussions is my mother, who I watched submit herself to some really hard work on the mission field, and to mothering, for the early part of my life. Then, when I was a teenager, I watched her get her doctorate, and now she's got about two and a half jobs, and they're amazing ones, using every skill and virtue that she grew in those earlier years. So my foremost example of femininity is of a woman who followed God, gave up her own desires to do his will, and ended up, in mid-life, being given back what she'd given up and even more besides. (Pressed down and spilling over, is the image that comes to mind.)

    I don't know if it's an example I can live up to, or if it's even the pattern God wants for my life, but it's certainly proven to me that such things are possible.

    Okay – there are my rambling thoughts! No conclusions yet. But thanks for posting this.

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