The Bad Quarto by Jill Paton Walsh, with a digression on Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers

August 2, 2007 at 7:21 pm (Mystery fiction)

jill-paton-walsh.jpg bad-quarto.jpg Paton Walsh packs a lot into this terrific little gem of a novel. There’s the lore of the “night climbers” of Cambridge University, the art and science of boating on Britain’s canals and inland waterways (some lovely descriptive passages here), and delicious gossipy glimpses of life at one of the world’s premier universities. But best of all, there’s Hamlet. The plot of The Bad Quarto begins to thicken when a drama society decides to stage the “Bad Quarto” version of Hamlet. In truth, the Kyd Society has been railroaded into offering this performance by one Martin Mottle. Mottle, a wealthy student at the university, has offered to pay the Society a whopping – and desperately needed – one hundred thousand pounds in exchange for playing the starring role in Hamlet on opening night. Mottle obviously has his own agenda, but no one knows what it is until the production is actually under way.

Paton Walsh’s spirited protagonist in these doings is Imogen Quy, a nurse at St. Agatha’s College, Cambridge. (This novel is the fourth in a series; the first is The Wyndham Case.) As the college’s infirmarian, Imogen offers wise counsel to the troubled, primarily, but not exclusively, students. Students, of course, are by no means the only ones hiding secrets in these hallowed halls. Although Imogen is a fellow of the college, she is not part of the community of scholars. This somewhat unique situation affords her a distant and therefore valuable vantage point from which to view whatever mystery is confronting her.

sayers_sidebar.jpeg gaudy.jpg The Bad Quarto is steeped in university life. It exudes the very spirit of a book that I and many others cherish: Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers. Like Harriet Vane, Imogen Quy discovers that spite, jealousy and resentment are at the heart of the investigation in which she has been called to assist. Some writers – as well as others – would have us believe that these qualities are endemic to life in academia. While acknowledging the presence of these baser emotions, both authors also pay loving tribute to the life of the mind – and to the illustrious institutions that foster and nurture that life. [Note that the above image is of the cover of the audio version of Gaudy Night. The reader is Ian Carmichael. It is published by Audio Partners, and I cannot recommend it highly enough!]

Like her alter ego Harriet Vane, Dorothy Sayers attended Somerville College, Oxford, where she studied modern languages. Although she completed her course work in 1916, she was not granted a full degree in that year. Women could not be officially considered Oxford graduates until 1920. In that year, Sayers was awarded both a B.A. and an M.A. She was numbered among the first group of women to accomplish this in the long history of that famous place.

One of my favorite passages in Gaudy Night occurs near the beginning of the novel when Harriet first returns to Shrewsbury College (her fictional stand-in for Somerville) for the Gaudy Night celebrations. She is taking stock of her life, a life marked by turbulence. Some years prior, she had stood accused of murdering her former lover Phillip Boyce (see the novel Strong Poison). Only the intrepid sleuthing of the renowned Lord Peter Wimsey had saved her from the gallows. Lord Peter, of course, has been entreating her to marry him ever since, but she, for her part, has been unable to answer him in the affirmative. Her love for him is not in question; the shape to be taken by the rest of her life as a woman and as a writer is. At length, she laughs at her confused longings and thinks to herself: “They can’t take this away, at any rate. Whatever I may have done since, this remains. Scholar; Master of Arts; Domina; Senior Member of this University;… a place achieved, inalienable, worthy of reverence.” By gosh, I just wanted to stand up and cheer when I read that – You go, Harriet!

thrones.jpg In 1998, Jill Paton Walsh completed Thrones, Dominations from a manuscript left unfinished by Sayers at the time of her death. In an author’s note at the back of the book, she (Paton Walsh) tells how reading Gaudy Night in her early teens fired her with a desire to attend Oxford University, a desire which she ultimately fulfilled. Thus, she declares, she is “life-long in debt to Dorothy L. Sayers.” As are, probably, other women of high intellectual and artistic achievement, from her own generation and those following.

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