I recently finished re-reading Gaudy Night, by Dorothy L. Sayers. It is the second to last of her Lord Peter Wimsey novels and, in fiction at any rate, may reasonably be considered her magnum opus. (As a warning, this is not a review but just the jotting down of some thoughts. It is meant for those who have read the book or who don’t mind spoilers. If you’re neither person, you would be best advised to put his post down and go read Gaudy Night. As the standard joke runs: go do it now. I’ll wait.)
Reading Gaudy Night is always a mixed experience for me. On the one hand, it’s a a triumph of a book. It’s got some of the most vivid, living characters I’ve ever encountered in fiction. It’s got an excellent plot which is excellent both as a mystery and as a story of the characters who are caught up in the mystery. It has an excellent setting. It is very well told. It has fascinating and important themes. It handles the long-running romance between Lord Peter and Harriet Vane with great skill and brings it to a very satisfying conclusion.
So, what’s the problem?
The problem is related to why the atheistic children of atheists can’t tell good stories. This might sound strange to the people who know that Dorothy L. Sayers was a very well educated and intelligent Christian woman. There are better examples of it, but her book The Mind of the Maker, for example, is none the less a good example of the fact.
The problem is that there are limits to how good a story even a Christian can tell with atheistic characters. The atheistic child of atheists is far more limited because he simply has no good stories to tell. Atheism is the supposition that life is not, in fact, a narrative, but merely a meaningless set of coincidences. Such a person can suspend his disbelief, but he will simply have nothing to suspend it for. His parents will not have told him any really human stories, and being an atheist himself he will not have encountered them, either.
A different, but related, problem faces the Christian who is writing a story entirely about atheists. It is that all good stories must flow out of the characters in them. Characters who do not generate the story but to whom the story simply happens are not characters but mere props, possibly of the seen characters and possibly of unseen characters. And the most you can get out of atheistic characters is seeing the problems of life.
Atheists cannot have answers to any of the problems of life for the very simple reason that atheism does not allow for the possibility of meaning in life. (They will whine to you about “the meaning they give their life”. It is nothing but awkward when an adult tells you about the games of pretend they like to play. I mean that literally, by the way. The meaning an atheist chooses to give to life exists only in his mind and goes away as soon as he stops creating it. This is no different than pretending to ride a giant seagull named Harry.)
All themes raised in a book with only atheistic characters—or where the only non-atheists are fools—can thus never say anything about the themes it brings up except to point out that some false answer or other is not true. This can be valuable but it cannot be satisfying. It’s going to dinner and being told that the ham is poisoned. It’s good to know. One leaves just as hungry as one came, though.
One of the great themes of Gaudy Night is that principles hurt people. But it leaves unexplored—or only implicitly explored—that a lack of principles hurt people even more. And, more to the point, that it is only principles that make living worthwhile in the first place.
For example, when Annie was complaining that the lie her historian husband had told never hurt anyone, no one pointed out to her that the only reason he had even had his job in the first place was because he was trusted to tell the truth. If they were to abandon the principle that the truth mattered, he’d have lost his job, instead of by being the wrong man for the job, but by there being no job at all.
Instead they talked of how the truth is more important than personal attachments. And so it is; anyone who loves father and mother more than Christ is not worthy of him. But this is a Christian idea—as is, really, the university. I don’t mean that students coming to wise men to learn is Christian—one obviously finds that throughout time and place. Rather, the idea that all of the truth is sacred is a uniquely Christian attitude. You simply don’t find it outside of Christianity; everyone else takes the far more reasonable position that there are big truths and little truths and the latter are inconsequential compared to the former. Most people hold that here’s one truth of overriding importance and everything else should give way beside it. It is not the love of some truth that Christianity elevated. To love some truth is simply to be human. It is the elevation of little truths that is uniquely Christian. Christianity is unique among the religions and philosophies of the world for raising up the lowly. All sane men agree that life is a hierarchy; the unique contribution of Christianity is not the obvious fact that the lower should serve the higher, but rather that the higher should stoop down to serve the lower. The very strange thing about Christianity is that the Son of man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
And this is what is uniquely Christian about a university. It is the attitude that facts which don’t matter, do matter. Which is why in our own time the universities are disintegrating before our eyes. Some take refuge in engineering; others take refuge in pretending that their incredibly minor disciplines are central to life. Most are simply taking advantage of the shade while the building is still standing. But anyone with eyes can see that the thing won’t be standing for many more decades.
In Dorothy L. Sayers’ time the conclusion was not yet so obvious, but the problem was certainly visible. The thing which prevents Gaudy Night from being a complete triumph is that, in the end, no one answered Annie. They didn’t answer Annie because no one had an answer. They didn’t have an answer for her because they didn’t have an answer for anyone. Atheists have no answers. It’s why they always feel so daring when they ask questions. They know, on some level, that merely asking questions will take a sledgehammer to the foundations and it will be discovered that the whole edifice is painted cardboard.
In the end, I think it’s very symbolic that the problem was dealt with “medically”. They had no arguments, they had only force. But they didn’t even have the courage of their convictions to use the force; they had to pay someone else who would soothingly pretend that they weren’t using force.
In a sense this conclusion was merely true to life. The events of the story take place in its year of publication: 1935. World War II was four short years off, but you could hear it coming in Gaudy Night. The project of living a Christian life without being Christian was coming to a close. Which ultimately makes Gaudy Night a book about failure. It’s a very good book, and a very important book. But this limits it. Failure is, in this world, only a prelude. The true story of life is, ultimately, about victory.
If you like Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, consider checking out my own murder mystery, The Dean Died Over Winter Break.