Reading My Mother’s Books

So I’m reading “Gaudy Night” by Dorothy Sayers. It’s a technically one of the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries but this one is really much more about his nay-saying paramour Harriet Vane, and about the early days of college education for women (written in the mid 1930’s) and feminism and lunacy.

I love it. I had to rewrite the first sentence of this because it came out as sounding like pre-war English literature.

It’s my mother’s book. My mother writes in her books. Little lines in the margin by passages she thinks are important. ┬áSometimes notes in the front material of partial quotes with page numbers. And when something is really important, I guess, exclamation points and underscoring.

The setting is Shrewsbury College, an early women’s college at Oxford, always on the edge of social scandal just for existing, but a place of spinsterly learning and devotion to intellect. Ms. Harriet Vane graduated from there some 10 years prior, Lord Peter Wimsey from a male Oxford college some 10 years before that.

Miss Edwards, the science tutor, is speaking to Lord Peter and the assembled dons of the college, as Miss Barton (who’s subject I don’t remember) has just “returned to her contention that her social principles were opposed to violence of every description”:

“Bosh!” said Miss Edwards, “You can’t carry through any principle without doing violence to somebody. Either directly or indirectly. Every time you disturb the balance of nature you let in violence. And if you leave nature alone you get violence in any case. I quite agree that murderers shouldn’t be hanged — it’s wasteful and unkind. But I don’t agree that they should be comfortably fed and housed while decent people go short. Economically speaking, they should be used for laboratory experiments.”

My mother put two exclamation points in bold blue pen next to this passage, but she’s not in favor of human experimentation, that I can tell. The only underlined words are ‘it’s wasteful and unkind.’

This is my mother. This is my upbringing. Capital punishment is wrong, pure and simple – because it’s wasteful and unkind.

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