Identifying Gender(ed) Performances

  • Crystal Downing


In order to “identify” Dorothy L. Sayers, biographers often parallel her with Harriet Vane, the love interest she created for Peter in her sixth novel, Strong Poison, and whose character she developed most fully in Gaudy Night. After all, Vane, like Sayers, is a graduate of an Oxford college who writes detective novels, profoundly committed to the integrity of her work. Both have fathers named Henry, and both were deeply hurt by sexual relationships which left them responsible for the bodies of others: Vane for the lover she was accused of murdering, Sayers for the secret child she supported for the rest of her life. James Brabazon calls Vane “the figure based on Dorothy herself,” who “bestow[ed] her own attributes on Harriet.” David Coomes says Harriet, “a mirror image of Sayers,” is “a thinly-disguised autobiographical figure.” Barbara Reynolds states that “Harriet is a more credible character than Peter, being in many respects a projection of the author” and she outlines in some detail how the heroine of Gaudy Night parallels her creator. However, Reynolds also lists at least fourteen Peter Wimsey characteristics that she recognized in her friend, giving helpful examples throughout her biography of elements from Sayers’ s life that make their way into her detective fiction. Of twenty-two intriguing parallels Reynolds provides, seventeen are from the pre-Harriet Vane novels, leading us to question why Harriet Vane mirrors Sayers any more than does Peter Wimsey.1


Female Body Delicate Balance Cultural Construction Woman Writer Gender Performance 
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© Crystal Downing 2004

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  • Crystal Downing

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