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Pickle Me This

December 4, 2009

Laying down among the tea cups

“At which point the much-tried Wimsey lay down among the tea cups and became hysterical.”

I am adoring Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers, which I’m reading because I’m interested in literary Harriets (Harriet Vane, in this case) and because of Maureen Corrigan’s recommendation. At first, I supposed Corrigan having given away the ending might have ruined the experience, but it hasn’t actually– the thing about detective fiction is that even if you know the final piece of the puzzle, it doesn’t matter until the rest of it is put together.

I do find it remarkable how difficult the book is, however. I thought there would be something of a breeze about it, and maybe it’s just that I’m incredibly tired, but there are entire passages I don’t understand no matter how I try. Part of it is that the book is bursting with allusion, the characters make a game of literary quotation, but I don’t pick up the allusion at all or know where it came from. Who knew that detective fiction could make one feel wholly ignorant? Also, the novel takes place at Oxford University, which seems to be a foreign country for all its customs, rituals and own peculiar language. None of this is detracting from my enjoyment of the book though, but I must admit there has been some skimmage.

And also remarkable is how Sayers treats the “work” of writing. Maureen Corrigan wrote considerably of her own search for “work” in The Novel (whose characters are usually writers who never write and banks who work off-page, etc.). But here we find it– Harriet Vane is a crime writer, though various circumstances have led her to be sleuthing on the side. And throughout the book as she seeks to get to the bottom of goings-on at her old Oxford College, she is plotting her latest novel. We see her actually working– as well as being distracted by all the parts of being a writer that keep one from actually writing. For Harriet Vane, plotting is an actual occupation, sort of akin to moving furniture around a room, and it’s so rarely that we see this kind of intellectual activity enactioned. It has been fascinating to encounter.

Oh, and yes. Like all the English novels I’ll ever love, there are obligatory tea references. Delight.

One thought on “Laying down among the tea cups”

  1. Melanie says:

    I must read this one, finally — you've convinced me. How could I neglect a book in which the main character becomes hysterical among teacups? 😉

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