Critics of Dorothy L. Sayers's novel Gaudy Night have mostly read the text's idiosyncrasies positively in terms of both literary quality and feminist politics, often regarding it as heralding the partial breakthrough of its author into the ranks of more serious literary fiction. This article argues that Gaudy Night's departures from detective story convention represent more than a successful leap into the “highbrow” or a pioneering defense of women's education. Instead, they reflect a complex and problematic engagement with the early twentieth-century middlebrow phenomenon of the “Oxford novel” and, in particular, the relation between this literary form and the sexualized construction of the women's college in popular culture. The article starts by recontextualizing Sayers's work within the “Battle of the Brows” of the 1930s and then examines the specific case of Gaudy Night against this background, arguing that the novel explicitly teases its readership through a canny awareness of the exploitative sexual possibilities represented by the Oxford novel tradition and the popular press. Finally, it argues that these characteristics mean that we should resituate Gaudy Night at the center of 1930s debates over the term middlebrow, suggesting that the novel is valuable not just because it aspires to raise the status of detective fiction but because it highlights the complexity of the connections between representation, reception, and perceived literary quality.

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