He returned looking slightly older than when he left the day before. Thanks to Dorothy L. Sayers’s mystery Gaudy Night, I know these reunions for the college’s old members are called gaudies, from the Latin gaudium meaning merry-making. The contemporary definition is a college feast, usually black-tie, with graduates invited on a seven-to-10-year cycle, with spartan accommodation (in hastily prepared student rooms) but a sybaritic table.
As my husband goes in search of a curative spring breeze, I look at the menu from the night before: asparagus pâté with quails’ eggs, fillet of trout on crushed sweet potato, loin of venison, roast pears with rhubarb. I study the wines: the Champagne, Santenay, Chambolle Musigny 2004, Graham’s 1977 Port, Sauternes-and I begin reading the instructions for the traditional Loving Cup ceremony. I stop halfway because it looks a secret ritual. I don’t know if a gaudy observes Chatham House Rule, that this should not be revealed to a larger audience.
Contemplating the wines, I feel like a time traveller who’s entered the opening pages of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, when she describes a lavish dinner in the all-male college before, a few pages later, listing the meagre fare served in the women’s counterpart, a meal fit for high-minded spinsters. Magdalen College began admitting women 30 years ago this year, but this is an all-male gaudy. With touching modesty, my husband admits that ‘if we’d been competing against women for places at Oxford in 1960, at least half of us would not have got there. I certainly wouldn’t have’.
Oh, those brainy, educated women. And yet, now that they are overtaking men in the college rolls, few are emerging with the passion and intellect of Miss Sayers, who read Medieval Literature at Somerville College, Oxford, and graduated in 1915. She created a heroine I adore to this day: Harriet Vane, who, like her creator, is a mystery writer with a First in English at Shrewsbury, Oxford (the women’s college Miss Sayers created on the cricket-ground of Balliol).
Long before I arrived in this country, I was in love with Lord Peter Wimsey, second son of the 15th Duke of Denver, Eton, Balliol (a First in History); outstanding cricketer; served in the Rifle Brigade on the Western Front from 1914 to 1918; a lover of rare books, fine wine, great cars (his favourite is his 1927 Daimler) and Bach pieces for keyboard that he plays on his beloved piano.
Discerning and assured, he is the perfect man, and his creator gave him all the luxuries she lacked in her single, unfurnished room. When her cheap rug had a hole in it, she ordered him an Aubusson carpet. When she couldn’t afford the bus fare, she presented him with a Daimler. But she wisely makes one thing unattainable: Harriet Vane. Even after his genius gets her acquitted from a murder charge, she declines his offer of marriage on the grounds that gratitude is not a good basis for marriage. In Gaudy Night, she finally returns his love.
In reading as in life, so much is accident and chance. Harriet Vane and Peter Wimsey introduced me to England long before I got here. It began with Gaudy Night when I was supposed to be studying in the library at the (then) all-women’s Sarah Law-rence College, but succumbed to distraction. I was reading History and Economics, but when I think back, the greater influence on my life might have been Miss Sayers.
On that warm spring day, lulled by the sound of bees getting drunk on wisteria, I fell under the influence of Harriet, literary, bohemian, independent, who falls for an Englishman who is conscientious and reliable. True, I’ve never achieved Harriet’s heights, and I’m more appreciative of fine food and rare wine than my husband, but I’m tolerant of his post-gaudy sore head because I know in my heart of hearts that I owe everything to Gaudy Night.
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