Brown & Bunting. I hadn't read this since high school and I quickly remembered why I'd loved it so much.
First, the setting. 1930s Oxford would be just about top of my list for a visit in the TARDIS, and to make things even better, Gaudy Night is set in a (fictional) women's college, a community of dedicated female scholars. This is what I thought university life was going to be like; alas, it didn't exactly live up to my expectations. Gorgeous, gorgeous Oxford with its spires and punting and naughty students climbing walls after hours... well, maybe some aspects of college life are eternal, after all...
Second, the romance. I love the fact that this is really Harriet Vane's book; Peter Wimsey doesn't even appear until halfway through. She takes the lead in the detecting, and we see her gradually falling in love with Peter in his absence, until the lightning bolt of realisation in the boat on the river (sigh). Both Harriet and Peter become truly rounded characters in this novel, and while Peter has become too perfect to be true, his perfection includes some weaknesses -- he is so sensitive, don't you know. Maybe I was expecting to find my own tall, fair haired Peter at university, too... oh, God! A most sinister retrospective ray of light has just fallen on an otherwise inexplicable relationship!
Third, the philosophy. Central to the mystery, and the subject of many conversational and internal debates, is the question of how women are to reconcile the demands of work and family, career and caring, scholarly truth and personal needs. This book was written in 1935, and eighty-three years later, we are still wrestling with this dilemma. Lucky old Harriet, though tempted by academic seclusion, is able to have it all -- a loving and supportive partner who treats her as his intellectual and emotional equal, and who not only wants her to pursue her own work, but encourages her to a higher standard. Good on you, Wimsey.
I was stunned to discover that Gaudy Night is disparaged in some quarters as a 'women's book' (huh!) and because there is no murder at the heart of the story, a deficiency that I hadn't even noticed until it was pointed out. For me, it's a most satisfying combination of mystery and relationship story. I'll be coming back to this one.