‘Much learning hath made thee mad’: Academic Communities, Women’s Education and Crime in Golden Age Detective Fiction
Taylor & Francis
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In the narrative of higher education, women and their communities have always posed as a threat to the male stronghold. Turning on the idea that women have historically been perceived as interlopers, and thus symbolically criminalised by their desire for admittance to scholarly and educational spaces, this article examines a cluster of Golden Age detective novels from the 1930s and 1940s (published at a time when it was still possible for women to study for but not receive a degree) in which educated women and criminality come into violent contact. Dorothy L. Sayers’s Gaudy Night (1935), Muriel Doris Hay’s Death on the Cherwell (1935), Gladys Mitchell’s Laurels are Poison (1942), and Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes (1946) are all set in women’s residential academic communities and place the question of women’s right to learning at the crux of their narratives. By invoking the concomitant history of women’s education, this article examines the way in which these authors use the genre’s tropes—guilt, criminality, and punishment as well as the generally stark dichotomy between ‘good’ and ‘bad’—to perform contemporary concerns about educated women and more specifically the fear that women are made monstrous, deviant, or corrupt by their contact with Higher Education. In the process they reveal the vulnerability of women’s institutions in the 1930s and 1940s and acknowledge the competing and incompatible demands of educated women’s personal and professional lives. Much of this is explored through a preoccupation with territory and the act of trespass: the communities, and the women in them, are perceived as dangerous and threatening and yet are themselves consistently under attack. By staging the educated woman as a criminal, or at least a suspected criminal, these texts make manifest her symbolic position in early twentieth century society: she is a woman made transgressive by her crossing of figurative and literal boundaries
Women : A Cultural Review;
Article accepted for publication in Women: A Cultural Review
Cardiff Metropolitan University (Grant ID: Cardiff Metropolian (Internal))
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