From the Seattle Times: Taproot woos fans of Dorothy L. Sayers in upcoming 'Gaudy Night'
It all transpired in "Strong Poison," a 1930 mystery novel in the popular Lord Peter cycle written by Dorothy L. Sayers.
It wasn't until five years later, when another book in the series,
titled "Gaudy Night," came out, that Sayers turned Harriet Vane, the
woman whose life he had saved, into a protagonist — a character well
ahead of her time, and in key respects similar to the remarkable author
who created her.
Vane is, in effect, a heroine in "Gaudy Night," which has been
successfully dramatized for British television and radio. A stage
adaptation of the novel, by Frances Limoncelli, was well-received in its
Chicago debut and opens this week at Seattle's Taproot Theatre.
The crux of the plot: Harriet, a brainy British mystery writer, gets
embroiled in a sinister disturbance when she attends a "gaudy night" (an
expression borrowed from Shakespeare, to connote an all-out party) at
her alma mater, fictional Shrewsbury College, Oxford. Though no murder
takes place during the reunion, the proceedings are marred by an ominous
succession of physical and verbal attacks on female teachers and alums.
With her friend, the expert crime-solver Lord Peter, off on a
diplomatic mission to Italy, it is largely up to Vane to sort through
the suspects and arcane clues, and identify the crafty perpetrator.
That's the mystery part. And what was groundbreaking about both
"Strong Poison" and "Gaudy Night"? The brilliance and fierce
independence of a witty, learned female character viewed by some
scholars as the first openly feminist sleuth in mystery literature.
The Vane File: Orphaned young, Harriet earned her living by the pen
from her early 20s on. She defied social mores by hanging out with the
free-loving artistic rebels of London's Bloomsbury set. Determined to
maintain her autonomy, suspicious of extreme wealth and wary of a
conventional, male-dominated marriage, she turned down the dashing Lord
Peter's hasty proposal of marriage in "Strong Poison" — with second
Sayers' own eventful, accomplished life did not include sleuthing.
But Dorothy Leigh Sayers, the daughter of an Oxford school
headmaster, was also a scholarly woman intrigued by mystery. She studied
Latin from the age of 6, and was among the first wave of women to be
educated at the vaunted Oxford University, graduating with honors in
Sayers probably had the goods to be an Oxford don herself. But after
receiving her degree, she preferred working for publishers and an ad
agency rather than in the "ivory tower" of academia. Writing was her
passion, and after introducing Lord Peter Wimsey in the 1923 novel
"Whose Body?" she penned 10 more Wimsey mysteries (several featuring his
beloved Harriet Vane), and made her living writing.
However, Sayers had one hand in classic literature, the other in
modern lit. In addition to best-selling mysteries she wrote poetry,
translated medieval French and Italian works, turned out thoughtful
essays on religion and philosophy, lectured frequently. She was part of a
heady literary circle that included her friends and fellow scribes T.S.
Eliot and C.S. Lewis.
The Wimsey-Vane saga ended with the book "Busman's Honeymoon." (Upon
her death in 1957, Sayers left an unfinished Wimsey-Vane mystery,
"Thrones, Dominations" which was later "completed" by author Jill Paton
Eventually Sayers turned to another passion: the theater. She adapted
"Busman's Honeymoon" for the stage and wrote several other plays —
including a controversial radio drama for children about the life of
Jesus. A champion of humanistic Christianity, Sayers had Christ speaking
in modern rather than biblical parlance, thereby triggering a fierce
For her time, Sayers' private life was as unconventional as Vane's.
After an intense affair, she bore a son out of wedlock. (He was raised
by relatives, as her nephew). In her early 30s, she married a
journalist, yet continued her demanding literary career unabated.
She apparently rejected the term "feminism" and did not want to be
allied with any liberation movement. Yet she championed higher education
for women in "Gaudy Night," and gave Harriet Vane a keen sense of
autonomy (as well as a lacerating wit). And in a pair of intriguing
think pieces collected in her book "Are Women Human? Penetrating,
Sensible, and Witty Essays on the Role of Women in Society," Sayers made
a strong case for equal opportunity, and the right to reach one's
highest potential in any chosen calling — regardless of gender or social
"What is repugnant to every human being," Sayers wrote, "is to be
reckoned always as a member of a class and not as an individual person."
Harriet Vane could not have said it better.