Gaudy Night

An older but none the less gripping mystery novel with Oxford at its heart is Dorothy L Sayer’s ‘Gaudy Night.’ Published in 1935 as the tenth in the popular Sayers crime series and since adapted for both television and theatre, the story is intriguing now both for its gripping plot and its telling portrayal of 1930s society.

The setting is the fictional all-female Shrewbury College but is largely based on Sayer’s experiences at Somerville College on Woodstock Road (which has admitted men since 1994.) Central to the plot is the issue of women’s right to academic education, which experienced turbulent times in the sexist social climate of 1930’s scholarly Oxford,  then predominantly male. Despite the absence of murder, the story is nevertheless an exciting physiological thriller laced with passion, revenge and more than a little scandal. Shrewsbury itself is brilliantly portrayed, the prejudices and pettiness that take place within the historic walls revealed in Sayer’s direct and unmistakably sardonic tone.

A spiralling concoction of vandalism, poison pen letters and death threats almost bring the college to its knees before the culprit is finally revealed, herself an ironic twist in an effective parody of an all-girls school caught in the climax of women’s rise to independence and a new wave of feminism. If you want a great crime read with a strong social context and a battle at its heart which many believe continues even today, make sure to add ‘Gaudy Night’ to your reading list!

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