dorothy l sayers, emma kendall, feminism, fiction, gaudy night, gender, harriet vane, lord peter wimsey, midcentury, novels, women
For a little while it was Violet Baudelaire.
There were many, many years when it was Lyra Silvertongue.
There was the inevitable phase when it was Hermione Granger
I am speaking, of course, of my childhood literary heroines; the characters I desperately longed to become. It seemed that, as a bookish girl, female role models were in abundance through my youth and early teenage years. There was a well-meaning, strong-willed, good-hearted young woman at the centre of all my favourite books.
But who was to be my literary heroine as an adult? I wasn’t that enchanted by Elizabeth Bennet, and, to be honest, the fate of Cathy Earnshaw didn’t overly appeal. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the books, and nor did I dislike the characters. It was just that none of these women had captured my imagination in the same way as their younger counterparts; I didn’t want to be Jane Eyre, or Ophelia, or Daisy Buchanan.
And then I read ‘Gaudy Night.’
This wasn’t the first Dorothy L. Sayers book that I’d read, but it stuck out for me within the LPW series due to the focus on Harriet Vane rather than Sayers’ usual protagonist, Lord Peter Wimsey. I had always liked Harriet Vane as a supporting character – she’s modelled on Sayers herself, she’s achieved a First-class degree from Oxford just as the education of women is beginning to be accepted, and, orphaned at 23, she has made her fortune writing detective fiction. She’s the love interest of gentleman detective Lord Peter Wimsey, but she’s so much more than that, and this book really explores why.
At the heart of the character development of Harriet Vane is the conflict between the educated woman, the public figure and the private wife. How does one resolve this in a time when marriage and work are conflicting aspirations for a woman? Painfully aware of the dangers of being a successful and intelligent female, Harriet’s journey through ‘Gaudy Night’ allows her to put to rest the dispute between love and logic, and one feels that when she finally (spoiler alert) accept Wimsey’s proposal, it’s not just that she’s ‘given in’ to him, but rather that she’s reached the end of an important journey of self-discovery. Ultimately, the the thing that allows her to accept her love for Wimsey is the realisation that a marriage can exist between two equals. That she doesn’t have to be indebted to Wimsey for clearing her name, that she won’t be regarded as less educated, that she would not be giving into her fear of becoming a great woman “by merely being a wonderful wife and mother.” No, Harriet Vane has found a marriage where her partnership is equal and she is neither subordinate to Wimsey nor high on a pedestal. And these priorities are exactly why she’s my heroine.
Harriet Vane has made mistakes. She’s unashamed enough to have lived out of wedlock with a man simply because she loved him, and strong-willed enough to leave him when he offers her marriage. She’ll tell Wimsey she won’t marry him and not feel pressured or guilty. She can be right about things. More importantly, she can also be wrong about things. “Sherlock Holmes gets to be brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, a polymath genius. Female characters get to be Strong,” writes Sophia MacDowell in an article that brought Harriet Vane to mind. She’s strong, yes, but she’s also afraid of the judgement of her peers, and unsure of her relationship with Wimsey, and acutely perceptive when it comes to her role in society as a female, and stubborn enough that many a reader find her as irritating as I find her brilliant. This is important. This is who Lyra Silvertongue or Violet Baudelaire or Hermione Granger could’ve grown up to be; smart, perceptive, stubborn and flawed. Flawed. This is so important. These are characters who are great despite – or rather, BECAUSE – they’re slightly awkward, or a little too headstrong, or a bit too eager to ask for help, or prohibitively sensitive, or maybe a bit shy around some people, or rather selfish now and again – they have all of these imperfections that tend to make male characters romantic but female characters annoying. We’re far more likely to fall in love with the male bastard than the female bitch, unless she’s dressed in comic-book leather. Harriet Vane treads the line between flawed and ‘Strong’ and comes out likeable at the other side, and that is why I love her.
In conclusion, I meant to talk about Harriet Vane and instead talked quite a lot about feminism…. sorry, not sorry, I’m sort of okay with that. I just love the fact that Harriet’s romantic development as a character is one which she experiences independently, that it’s not as simple as the ‘seeing the good side of the bad boy’ chick flick, that she doesn’t just fall for him because he’s asked her more than once. I love that the relationship comes because she’s reconciled something she needed to sort emotionally. I love that she’s all sorts of smart but all sorts of fragile too. I love that she stays true to her morals. I love that she is my heroine.
 Rumours can neither be confirmed nor denied that I talked my poor long-suffering father into making an alethiometer with me as an ‘art project,’ so enamoured was I with the work of Philip Pullman.
 This is a discussion for another day.
What a wonderful analysis and discussion. I’ve never read this book but I’m going to rectify that error as soon as possible.
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I too am infatuated with miss Vane. I love the entire Wimsey canon but the novels featuring Harriet bring the most joy.