Desert Island Books – Gaudy Night

There’s a programme on Radio 4 which I have listened to, on and off, for my entire life. When I was a child I used to hear it in its weekend slot, and these days I either seek it out online when I know somebody I’m interested in has been on, or occasionally fall down the wormhole of all the past programmes to listen to blasts from the past. Most people, I think (hope?!) have heard of Desert Island Discs, but in case anybody hasn’t it’s a simple concept where the guest for the week picks eight records they’d take with them to a desert island.

Lots of people have their own desert island list of discs planned in their head all the time, in case they suddenly achieve something noteworthy enough to be asked on the show. I’ve always struggled. Sit me down on a particular day and ask me to choose eight tracks that sum up my life, and  that I’d be happy to listen to exclusively for the rest of it, and I could probably come up with a list of 2 or a list of 50, but not a list of 8. But books? That I could do. A list of desert island books would be much, much easier.

With my new ‘not going to blog about politics for a bit, it’s all too effing much’ hat forced firmly onto my head; I thought I’d set off down this route of looking at the handful of books that at the top of my ‘very favourites’ list, those that I would be quite happy if I had to read again and again on rotation for the rest of time; breaking off only occasionally to scrawl ‘HELP’ in the sand and forage for coconuts.

It makes sense to start with the book I would immediately name if somebody asked me my favourite, Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers. I have touched on this book in one of my other blogs, ‘A rant about reading’. In the ideal world I’d like to take a Complete Works to my island, with all the Lord Peter Wimsey series of books in it – if such a thing exists. They’re good detective stories, but more than that as they read like books about people that happen to have a detective angle; rather than lots of the other books of the genre from that period where the characters are two dimensional necessities to hang the whodunnit plot on. If you are interested in the series as a whole and how it gets to its end point in the book Busman’s Honeymoon, Gaudy Night is essential. But I feel very strongly that you can read Gaudy Night without having a clue about the rest of the series, or even much of an interest in detective fiction. At one point in the book, Peter says “you’ll have to abandon the jigsaw sort of story and write a book about human beings for a change”, and that’s exactly what this book is.

There’s a fairly popular meme I’ve seen go past on social media in various forms and variations, along the lines of ‘I blame Mr Darcy/Jane Austen for my unrealistic expectations of men/relationships’. I blame Dorothy L Sayers and Lord Peter Wimsey for mine. It’s hard to explain why. It’s not because he’s a dashing hero (though she couldn’t help but make him a decent cricketer with a few quid in his pocket), but because of the way he treats Harriet throughout this book, and in the others where they feature together in the stories. Everything else aside, the key thing for me is that he always respects her for the contents of her skull; and having read these books for the first time when I was pretty young I assumed that was standard. I’ve since learnt, inevitably, that it isn’t always the case.

I found an article, which I’ll link to in full at the bottom, about Gaudy Night a few months ago. There’s a paragraph in it that sums up everything I feel about this book so much better than I ever could:

“The book feels so fundamental to me, now, that I find it hard to cast my mind back to a time when I hadn’t read it, and harder still to explain what it’s about, because it seems to be about everything. It’s a novel about work and the moral value of work; the importance – indeed the necessity – of finding the job you’re fitted for and doing it to the very best of your abilities. It’s about truth, and the need, in a slippery, shifting world, to find the one true thing you’re willing to defend, no matter what the personal cost. It’s about friendship, and how it ebbs and flows as you yourself grow – or stop growing. It’s about writing: what it means to write well and how to do it. It’s about love and integrity, and the thought and work and consideration that must go into establishing and maintaining a relationship of equality and mutual respect. It’s about class and sex and society between the wars. And above all, it’s about the age-old question (which at the time of writing was a fresh, new one) of whether it’s possible for a woman to have it all: to have a life of the mind and of the heart, and to do equal honour to them both.”

It does all of those things. And it does it without being even slightly heavy. It wears its subjects incredibly easily, never allowing the story of two people and a whodunnit stop rattling along. Depending what’s going on in your world at the time, different bits shout out to you the most. I couldn’t tell somebody else why I think they should read it, except that they should; but I could strongly advise somebody who wanted to know me better to read it. It’s not just my favourite book, it’s one of those things that becomes a cornerstone and reference point to your whole life – as those eight tracks you chose for your Desert Island Discs appearance should be. I could read it again and again, on top of all the times I already have, and not tire of it; even when it became clear that my new desert island home was a permanent situation.

Well, that made me much happier than writing about Trump, so this no politics blogging policy is a success so far. 1 out of 1 ain’t bad…

*Useful stuff below!*

The article I quoted above is here On the Guardian website

My copy of Gaudy Night is from 1949. But it’s in print currently too. Here it is on Amazon though of course you’ll actually buy it at an independent high street bookshop (like we all say we should do and then don’t). Or more likely do something technical which I don’t understand involving e-books.

If such thing float your boat, the BBC dramatised all the Lord Peter Wimsey books on the radio, which was my introduction to them. The follow up to Gaudy Night, Busman’s Honeymoon is here. However, they didn’t do Gaudy Night at the same time as all the others; so although it exists Ian Charmichael was unfortunately about 80 and sounds it. 


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