Reading Gaudy Night (a.k.a. Doing My Proper Job)

I have worn many hats in my time.

When I was very young, and people would ask me, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I would always answer without hesitation: I wanted to be a writer. I wrote stories all the time. I kept lists of names that I liked in a little notebook (back then, my preference was for rhyming names, like “Trixie” and “Dixie”).

Over the years, though, my certainty wavered. When it came time to decide my post-secondary path, I took my acceptance letter to U of T, with its acclaimed creative writing program that I had read all about, and I pitched it into the back of my closet. I was scared. I was unsure.

Fast forward twenty or so years, and I’ve been many things—aimless student, food service drudge, salesperson, yoga teacher, administrator, expressive arts facilitator, production worker. And now, having just turned 40, I have come full circle back to my first love: writing, and all things literary.

Aside from this blog, another of my bookish projects is a podcast, Story Girls, that I created and co-host with my good friend Elisha. Two nights ago we recorded an episode on one of my all-time favourite books–Gaudy Night, by Dorothy L. Sayers.

My well-worn copy of Gaudy Night, complete with podcasting notes.

There is a lot going on in this fabulous, funny, deep, wise, clever, entertaining novel. In the podcast, we do a deep dive into the crafting of the mystery, the building of the romance, and the fact that this is widely regarded as the first feminist mystery novel. We joked that our whole podcast up to this point was just so that we could record this episode, because there is so much to say, and we love this book so much.

But there is one aspect that—although it does come up briefly—we didn’t really dig into. And that is the theme running through this book about “doing your proper job.”

Several characters have conversations about this. Harriet Vane, the protagonist, is adamant about it. She believes that everyone is suited to a particular kind of work, and therefore that particular kind of work is “their job.” One should do one’s own job, she asserts, no matter what it is. If there are obstacles in your way, too bad. You have a duty to your vocation.

Another character, Miss de Vine, claims that you can tell what your job is by the kind of mistakes that you make. She says that although there will always be surface mistakes, you never make fundamental mistakes about the thing that matters most to you.

It’s a fascinating idea, and especially right now, as I navigate a career change and a whole boatload of uncertainty, I am thinking about it a lot. I wonder if my life would have gone differently if I had read this book in my teens or early twenties instead of my late thirties. Would I have resisted throwing that U of T letter into the depths of my closet? Would I have stuck with my education instead of dropping out? Would I not now be staring back at the past 20 years and trying not to feel like I wasted a couple of decades, when my 8-year old self could have set me straight about wanting to be a writer?

Dorothy L. Sayers was a remarkable woman in many ways. This theme in Gaudy Night makes me wonder about her musings on this topic, and about how she came to have such certainty and confidence.

Part of it, at least, must have been growing up in the era that she did. One of the things that makes Gaudy Night a feminist story is that a main conflict in the novel is the choice between living the “life of the heart” or the “life of the mind.” Back then, women were not allowed to work after they married. So one had a very distinct choice between marriage and career. Of course, today this is certainly not a simple issue, and the myth of “having it all” is something else entirely. But for Dorothy L. Sayers, and countless other educated women, they very likely thought about this a lot, because it was a cut-and-dried choice that they were required to make. To be a scholar, or a wife; to have a career, or a family? How did one choose? I’m sure it led to more than one conversation among the women students about what their “proper job” was.

Oxford First Women Graduates, Somerville College, 1920, Drawing by Illustrated London News

Dorothy L. Sayers took a shot at having it all. As an independent author, she was not subject to the restrictions of a workplace that outlawed marriage. She did eventually marry, although her marriage was ultimately unhappy. She also had a child with a man she was not married to (high scandal back in 1924), and that was a source of pain as well, as her cousin adopted the baby, and he grew up ignorant of his true parentage.

So if we take a look at the belief espoused by the character Miss de Vine in Gaudy Night, that “if there’s any subject in which you’re content with the second-rate, then it isn’t really your subject”, we might be tempted to argue that Dorothy L. Sayers was taking more trouble with the life of the mind than with the life of the heart. After all, her creative output was an unqualified success.

For myself, I don’t know. It’s certainly true that I have made some “fundamental mistakes” in my life. It’s also true that none of them have been book-related (unless you count that time I tried to read The Blind Assassin).

At this point in my life, I’m inclined to agree with DLS, Harriet, and Miss de Vine. Every person may not have a strong calling to something, but if you do, I believe it is your responsibility to follow it. If you don’t, it will only chase after you anyway. It may never be your career, your main source of income, or your ticket to a life of luxury. But it will probably fulfill you in a way that nothing else will.

“But one has to make some sort of choice,” said Harriet. “And between one desire and another, how is one to know which things are really of overmastering importance?”

“We can only know that,” said Miss de Vine, “when they have overmastered us.”

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