Translations of Latin in Dorothy Sayers' Gaudy Night

Magdalen Tower, Oxford

One of the Oxford traditions is climbing the Magdalen Tower on May Day. (I suspect that's the origin of my Bryn Mawr College's tradition of climbing Rockefeller Arch to sing the Magdalen Hymn to the Sun on May Day.)
One of the Oxford traditions is climbing the Magdalen Tower on May Day. (I suspect that's the origin of my Bryn Mawr College's tradition of climbing Rockefeller Arch to sing the Magdalen Hymn to the Sun on May Day.) | Source

by Ellen Brundige

Reading Dorothy Sayers is like opening an old bottle of rare and special vintage: one sips literary allusions, Latin, French, Dante, and slices of old British culture like change-ringing and early 20th century Oxford.

Alas, as with rare vintages, there are too few of Sayers' works. That is why, twenty years after graduating from a women's liberal arts college inspired by the same model as Sayers' fictional Shrewsbury, I finally cracked open the prized bottle of Gaudy Night which I have been saving as a rare treat.

Among its pleasures were a smattering of Latin phrases. Understanding these adds to enjoyment of the story, particularly of a few key exchanges between the protagonists Harriet Vane and Lord Peter. Therefore, while I'm enjoying a bit of academic nostalgia, let me dust off my classics training and translate a bit of Sayers for you.

Caveat lector [reader beware]: my commentary below will include spoilers.

Gaudy Night

In Oxford lingo, a gaudy is a college feast, often for alumni or alumnae. The name derives from gaudium, "joy, delight," or, more likely, gaudeamus, "let us rejoice," the first word of a traditional college song that is used in graduation ceremonies and and festive gatherings at old English-speaking universities such as Oxford.

For her title, Sayers takes the college gaudy and adds Shakespeare:

Anthony: Come,
Let's have one other gaudy night: call to me
All my sad captains; fill our bowls once more;
Let's mock the midnight bell. -- Anthony and Cleopatra, Act 3, xiii

Speaking of Shakespeare, we cannot pass over Shrewsbury College and The Taming of the Shrew. Sayers appropriates the name, but rejects the misogyny.

Introduction: In Aeternum Floreant

In Gaudy Night's introduction, Sayers begins with a gracious apology to the real Oxford for adapting, remodeling and repopulating it with a fictional college to serve as her story's setting.

"It would be idle to deny that the City and University of Oxford (in aeternum floreant) do actually exist..."

in aeternum floreant = subjunctive, "Forever may they thrive."

Chapter I: Statutum Est Quod

Returning to her illustrious alma mater with a slightly blemished reputation, protagonist Miss Vane fortifies herself against insecurity by remembering:

"Whatever I may have done since, this remains. Scholar; Master of Arts; Domina; Senior Member of this University (statutum est quod Juniories Senioribus debitam et congruam reverentiam tum in privato tum in publico exhibeant.)"

Translation of italics: "It is established that Junior Members should display, both in private and in public, the respect which is owed and appropriate to Senior Members." Imagine a time when the college handbook was in Latin!

Domina is "mistress," feminine of Dominus.

Chapter 2: Invitis Occurrit...

Chapter 2 (and several other chapters) begins with a quote from Oxford scholar Robert Burton's 1621 work, The Anatomy of Melancholy. This early treatise on human psychology (before the discipline was so named) entertained readers with literary quotes, observations on human culture, comments on the discoveries in the New World and parts east, and a Renaissance approach to scholarship which we nowadays might call "interdisciplinary." It was a popular book in educated British circles from the 17th through mid-20th century, when (I suspect) its bad anthropology and out-of-date science became too obvious to ignore. Sayers was attuned not to those problems but to Burton's lively insights into what we now call psychology, anxiety and depression.

By referencing Burton, Sayers is footnoting one source of her own writing style. Throughout Gaudy Night, both she and her academically-minded characters take pains to cite their sources openly and honestly, in contrast to the perpetrator's crude, anonymous messages.

Here's my translation of Chapter 2's Burton quote in square brackets:

"'Tis proper to all melancholy men, saith Mercurialis, what conceit they have once entertained to be most intent, violent and continually about it. Invitis occurrit [To them, unwilling as they are, it comes running],do what they may, they cannot be rid of it, against their wills they must think of it a thousand times over, perpetuo molestantur, nec oblivisci possunt [they are constantly harassed by it, nor can they forget it], they are continually troubled with it, in company, out of company; at meat, at exercise, at all times and places, non desinunt ea,quae minime volunt, cogitare [nor can they leave off pondering those things which they least wish [to ponder], if it be offensive especially, they cannot forget it."

Chapter 3: ὂν καὶ μὴ ὂν

On the penultimate page of this chapter, Miss Vane thinks nostalgically of Shrewsbury's denizens:

"Bless their hearts, how refreshing and soothing and good they all were, walking beneath their ancient beeches and meditating on ὂν καὶ μὴ ὂν and the finance of Queen Elizabeth."

Actually, my copy of Gaudy Night has: ὂν χαὶ μὴ υὂ, but the underlined words are typos. ὂν καὶ μὴ ὂν means, literally, "isness and not isness" or "being and not being." For those who remember grammar, ὂν is the gerund (noun form) of the verb "is."

ὂν καὶ μὴ ὂν is from Marlowe's Faustus, Act I, scene I, line 12, when Faust is "bidding farewell" to the Greek philosopher Aristotle (who discusses "being and not being," riffing on Parmenides' philosophical poem On Nature.) Even in Faustus, the phrase gets mangled in some editions, since so few printers know Greek.

Chapter 4: Vade in pacem

Wait, hold on, don't run away just because I used the words "ontology" and "existentialism"! Let's get back onto steadier ground.

Second page of Chapter 4: Vade in pacem — "Go in peace." Hm, that's the usual translation, but I notice the grammar really implies "go into peace."

Chapter 4: Num? Benigne.

Wimsey's April 1st marriage proposal is unimposing, sad, and to the point:

One First of April, the question had arrived from Paris in a single Latin sentence, starting off dispiritedly, "Num...?"—a particle which notoriously "expects the answer No." Harriet, rummaging the Grammar book for "polite negatives," replied, still more briefly, "Benigne."

I envy the days when Latin grammars still had lists of "polite negatives," when people still studied Latin to compose and write in it, not just to translate dead texts.

I've therefore never seen benigne used as any sort of "polite negative," but the word is a vocative (?) form of benignus, "affable, kind-hearted." So I take it to mean, "[No], kind sir." (It could also be adverbial: "Kindly, [no].") Harriet doesn't nail the door shut with an explicit non.

This brief exchange sets up the final couplet of Gaudy Night on its last page— stay tuned.

Chapter 4: Post Occasio Calva

Final page of Chapter 4: per impossibile — "by means of an impossibility," a logical fallacy resting on a "contrary to fact" premise which would give Parmenides fits. ("If wishes were horses...")

Final page of Chapter 4: Post occasio calva. "Opportunity is bald after[wards]."

Eh? Ah, it's half a quote. Supposedly said by that bullish statesman of the Roman republic, Cato the Elder: Fronte capillata, post Occasio calva."Opportunity [is] hairy in front, bald after."

Or, to put it another way, when an opportunity trots towards you, you had better grab it by the forelock, because it has no tail.

Chapter 8: The Poison Pen Calls Shrewsbury a Nest of Harpies

The Poison Pen of Gaudy Night sticks to English invectives, except for one Latin quote stuck to a hung effigy of a woman in scholar's robes. The passage comes from Vergil's Aeneid (Book III):

tristius haud illis monstrum nec saevior ulla
pestis et ira deum Stygiis sese extulit undis.
Virginei volucrum vultus foedissima ventris
proluvies uncaeque manus et pallida semper
ora fame.


No more dismal apparition than these, nor any more savage
pestilence nor [sign of] gods' wrath heaves itself from Stygian waves.*
The birds' faces are those of maidens, [but] the foulest excrement
[flows] from their wombs, their hands [are] taloned, and their mouths
are ever pale with hunger.

*Styx is a mythical river in the underworld.

These monsters are the Harpies, vulture-like monsters with women's faces who nearly starved to death King Phineas by constantly snatching the meat from his table. (He was only saved by the timely intervention of the Argonauts, a squad of male heroes.) The quote is a metaphor for the vicious prankster's grudge against the learned women of Shrewsbury.

Chapter 9: Les Beaux Yeux

After a literal run-in with Miss Vane, Viscount Saint-George sends her a pathetic and self-deprecating invitation to lunch. Harriet is not fooled:

"My dear young man, thought Harriet... if you think I can't see though that, you're mightily mistaken. This is not for me, but for les beaux yeux del la casette de l'oncle Pierre."

My very little French suggests it means "the beautiful eyes of the treasure of Uncle Peter." That is, Saint-George is buttering her up for the purpose of keeping in his uncle's good graces.

Chapter 12: Admirandus Flos

Chapter 12 begins with a couple more quotes from Robert Burton, including:

As a Tulipant to the Sun (which our herbalists call Narcissus) when it shines, is admirandus flos ad radios solis se pandens, a glorious Flower exposing itself; but when the Sun sets, or a tempest comes, it hides itself, pines away, and hath no pleasure all Enamoratoes to their Mistress.

The phrase immediately after the Latin is a rough translation, but leaves words out. More literally: "a flower that must be admired, spreading itself to the sun's rays."

Narcissus, of course, is a mythical Greek youth cursed by the gods to fall in love with his own reflection, so that he perished of self-contemplation; thus this passage has a hidden irony.

Enamoratoes is one of the odder terms I've ever seen for "lovers" (or, perhaps, "the infatuated").

Chapter 12: Mulier Vel Meretrix

Reggie Pomfret's unfortunate marriage proposal to Harriet (with its amusing mental image of Harriet deflecting him with, "Drop it, Caesar," to a large dog) is interrupted by the arrival of a Proctor and minions. We get another snippet of university regulations (I assume) written in Latin, with an ambiguity at the beginning serving as a cipher for Miss Vane's uncomfortable life choices:

mulier vel meretrix, cujus consortio Christianis prorsus interdictum est.

"...[whether] wife or mistress, association with her is utterly forbidden to Christian men."

By the way, while it's used here as a euphemistic pejorative, the term consortio usually implies fellowship, partnership, an association of equals or comrades (consortes). This is exactly what Harriet wants with Peter, but believes she can never have due to the appalling debt of gratitude she owes him for saving her life. One of the plot threads of Gaudy Night is a courtship in which Peter ties himself in knots trying not to protect Harriet from mortal danger in order to cancel that debt.

Young Pomfret immediately eliminates himself from contention by promising to defend Miss Vane against the world, only to have her rescue him from the Proctor's clutches a moment later.

Chapter 12: Climbing Trees in the Hesperides

Harriet protects her ridiculous would-be suitor from the Proctor:

"I can assure you that we haven't been climbing trees." A wicked facility in quotation tempted her to add "except in the Hesperides," but she respected Mr. Pomfret's feelings and restrained herself.

The Hesperides were mythical trees on the edge of the world where grew the Golden Apples that Hercules was sent to collect. In particular, this is an allusion to one of Shakespeare's earliest comedies, Love's Labours Lost:

"For valour, is not Love a Hercules,
Still climbing trees in the Hesperides?" (IV.iii)

The entire scene with Pomfret is a farce, if not a comedy. The passage in Shakespeare expounds upon how poets may abandon learned studies for the sake of love. To quote that aloud would have reminded Pomfret that his love's labor was a lost cause.

Chapter 14 - Religio Medici

Religio Medici is not the religion of the Medicii family (an odd book for Lord Peter to be reading, I thought, completely bungling both spelling and grammar). Rather, it is the Religion of a Doctor, that is, a scientist or learned man. Written by another 17th century Oxford scholar, Sir Thomas Browne, this controversial and once-popular text was an intelligent man's exercise in reconciling science and religion.

Chapter 20: Mandragorae Dederunt Odorem

Lord Peter couches feelings in Latin rather often to take the sting out of them. About five pages into chapter 20 he mutters mandragorae dederunt odorem ["the mandragoras give off a scent"]. It's quote from the Vulgate Bible's translation of "Song of Songs" about love, courtship and marriage. Mandragora roots, like so many herbs, are supposedly aphrodisiac.

Chapter 23: More Robert Burton Latin

Robert Burton, that doctor of the soul, prescribes various cures for lovesickness in The Anatomy of Melancholy, and in the end stops beating around the bush (as does Sayers, quoting this passage at the start of chapter 23):

The last refuge and surest remedy, to be put in practice in the utmost place, when no other means will take effect, is to let them go together, and enjoy one another: potissima cura est ut heroes amasia sua potiatur, saith Guianerius, cap. 15. tract. 15. Aesculapius himself, to this malady, cannot invent a better remedy, quam ut amanti cedat amatum,[5829](Jason Pratensis) than that a lover have his desire.

The translation is embedded in the passage, as was the Latin quote at the beginning of Chapter 20 which I have omitted, however, Thomas' translation loses the active/passive nuances of the Latin grammar:

potissima cura est ut heroes amasia sua potiatur — "the most powerful cure is that the hero take possession of his beloved" (potiatur is a curious word, passive in form, active in meaning, so that it also can be translated "be possessed by"),

quam ut amanti cedat amatum — "than that the beloved object yield to its lover." The active/passive relationship is very strongly marked here, using amatum, "the thing loved," for "beloved." cedo means "yield," but its sense of "receive" sometimes stretches enough to mean "take," so like potiatur its active/passive sense is slightly ambiguous.

Obviously, Sayers was trying to stress a relationship of equals, so Thomas' glossing over the active/passive nuances helps; at the same time, the only way Wimsey and Vane can overcome their impasse is if they can each accept active (taking, potiatur) or passive (accepting, cedat) roles on occasion.

End of Gaudy Night: Placetne?

Gaudy Night concludes with a suitably touching Latin proposal whose translation is what induced me to write this page. It looks so simple, those deceptively plain, impersonal verb forms:

"Placetne, magistra?" "Does it please [thee], Mistress?"
"Placet." "It pleases."

But of course, it is not simple, and this is what simple Latin is for.

Whereas we use impersonal verb forms like "It's raining" or "it's hot" for boring things like the weather (while Germans, more correctly, say "it's hot to me,") Latin has a maddening habit of expressing opinions and even feelings with impersonal verbs like placet, "it pleases," a verb which is always impersonal in form while talking about personal feelings. Peter and Harriet, who have been carrying on an extended conversation about the reconciliation of heart and mind through this entire book, find a Latin word to do the job for them.

Magistra is "Mistress" in the sense of Master of Arts, respecting Harriet as a scholar and writer; it is also an honorific for "Lady," subtly emphasizing her choice and agency in the matter.

The -ne at the end of Peter's question is the sweet part, and the most significant part, and the part that just cannot be translated. Remember that odd Latin word num used to prefix questions when you expect a "no" answer? -ne is its opposite number, a question which confidently expects the answer will be "yes." That tiny shift from num to -ne sums up a five-year courtship in five letters.

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Comments 25 comments

Marisa Wright profile image

Marisa Wright 4 years ago from Sydney

I used to love Dorothy L Sayers! It's such a pity she didn't write more. It's a long time since I read any of them, because I've read them all at least twice over - and I'm one of those people who never usually reads the same book twice. Maybe I should open them again...

Greekgeek profile image

Greekgeek 4 years ago from California Author

A new writer, Jill Patton Walsh, has gotten permission to write new Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane books, the first one based on the notes and drafts of an unpublished work by Sayers. I should write reviews of them, shouldn't I? I enjoyed them, but of course, they're not as well-written as the originals.

Pavlovafowl 4 years ago

A most interesting page!. Raymond Chandler wrote a scathing critique on Dorothy L. Sayers' 'drawing room' detective fiction, including a sideswipe at what he termed her use of schoolbook French. I think there's room for several sub genres of detective fiction, including her approach and that of Chandler's mean and dirty streets. I enjoy them both, the streetwise, wisecracking jargon and the Latin and Greek just add a little pepper and salt to the richness of their respective prose. Thanks for posting this, I enjoyed reading your commentary. Best Wishes from France, Sue P.S. Have read Jill Patton Walsh's 'Sayers' tales too and agree with you.

jt 4 years ago

thanks for sharing... very helpful!

Greekgeek profile image

Greekgeek 4 years ago from California Author

Pavlova: I'm afraid all my schoolbook French has dribbled out my ears, so I'm completely tone deaf to Sayers' use of it. Sometimes, ignorance is bliss, I suppose! Cheers from across the pond.

PaulGinWA 4 years ago

Thank you! Taproot Theater in Seattle is about to conclude a run of a stage version and I was quite stymied by the ending lines, deducing that it was Latin, but lacking subtitles and translation. Ego sum in debitum tuum.

Greekgeek profile image

Greekgeek 4 years ago from California Author


(How odd. I just hit my books trying to find an idiom for "you're welcome," and it seems that my memory is not leaky: there are several formulas for "thanks" but nothing that means, precisely, "you're welcome!")

Best of luck to you all! I wish I lived a little closer to Portland; Gaudy Night on stage would be superb. If you'd like, feel free to drop a note here pointing to your website, with the dates of the show, when you've got them pinned down. I've a few friends up north who might want to go.

Nancy Bea Miller 3 years ago

Amazing to find this post, which so beautifully and clearly explains much that was only guessed at by me when I first read this novel over twenty years ago. I am simply in awe of the internet. And also in awe of you, Madame Greek Geek! Many many thanks! You've added such a delicious new flavor to my delectation of this wonderful novel.

Greekgeek profile image

Greekgeek 3 years ago from California Author

It is difficult to add even a molecule to one of the finest books of the 20th century, but... gratias tibi (thank you)!

Nancy Bea Miller 3 years ago

I am new to Hub Pages and wondering if there is any way to contact you via email or private message? I have a few further questions.

Valeria11 3 years ago

I'd like to add my praise to the accolades above. Your piece has greatly added to my enjoyment of the novel, which I've just finished.

Emilia 3 years ago

I enjoy Sayer's Peter Wimsey, more than Harriet. I read one of of Mrs. Walshe's books about them and didn't like it at all. I don't think she gets even close to Sayer's talent.

lincolnhyde 3 years ago

I have enjoyed the Peter Wimsey books all of my life, but not having had the English classical education, had not appreciated them as much as I might have - I really appreciate your efforts in adding that little soupcon of enjoyment.

Annys 3 years ago

I'm delighted to find an article such as this, particularly by a woman! I've often wondered about the quotations, and felt that the final proposal was rather more than it seemed - so much so that I felt very disappointed by the inept treatment given it by the TV version. Many thanks indeed.

Greekgeek profile image

Greekgeek 3 years ago from California Author

Oh, that TV version was so frustrating: the right actors with an abysmally-crafted script. The other episodes in the series were fine, but that one was a choppy, incoherent mishmash that drained away much of the joy of the book and piled on a greasy dollop of gender stereotyping that ran absolutely counter to what Sayers wrote.

I'm glad my scribbles helped decipher some of Sayers' shrewd wit.

Carol Rez 2 years ago

Thoroughly enjoyed your insights and the book. Science majors can go back and find these treasures on retirement. I have a better understanding of the Bryn Mawr experience of my daughter and her friends. In fact,it was a Facebook discussion of the book among them and a decision to assign it to a new generation of college students that prompted me to read it. It is now my book club choice and I am using your notes to prepare for the discussion. thanks!

Mary Romine 2 years ago

Thank you so much for this. I developed a literary crush on Lord Peter after reading Clouds of Witness while attending women's liberal arts college 20-plus years ago. Finally reading Gaudy Night. I was sorely vexed that I was not able to translate LP's final - successful - marriage proposal. Raptures...

Bill Whipple 2 years ago

Thanks for this lovely essay. I have read all of the Sayers books to the point where I could probably recite them from memory, and I was able to dredge from my mental attic enough of the Latin I studied long ago to make rough translations. But the subtle implications were lost on me, and I never learned any Greek at all -- so I bless you for these explanations.

But what is the meaning of the passage from Aristotle in chap. 17, by which Lord Peter zaps the Warden with her own cattle prod?

Bookbimbo 20 months ago

Thank you for this tremendously helpful and insightful page. So sensitively explained.

DebboK 15 months ago

Thank you very much for the translations. I just finished reading Gaudy Nights for the first time and your post has illuminated several key moments in the plot that were pivotal to understanding the complex relationship between Harriet and Peter. The sweetness of the final "Placetne, Magistra?" followed by "Placet" has me a little choked up. Most of us have struggled with one or more relationships along the way and balancing the "yielding" and the "taking" is critical for the bonding of equals.

Jo 13 months ago

Thank you so much for translating the Latin passages in this wonderful book. I didn't study Latin as it just wasn't taught when I went to school, so I came up with very odd translations from Google translate. Thank you especially for the final Placetne, magistra? translation, which now takes on a far lovelier and sweeter nuance, than before. I love this fictional couple and their long and difficult courtship.

ManipledMutineer profile image

ManipledMutineer 12 months ago

Many thanks for this. This is a book I have come back to over and over again over a twenty year period, most recently when tidying my study prompted my wife and me to watch the Edward Petherbridge/Harriet Walter dramatisation of the Wimsey/Vane story arc. This time I determined on a slow, meditative reading and your page was a most enjoyable companion. Thank you once again.

Christine Reuther profile image

Christine Reuther 5 months ago

My mother handed me Gaudy Night when I was recovering from having my wisdom teeth out (about 40 years ago). Actually, she threw an old paperback at me and said "Read this. You'll like it." I did. And I did. I have re-read it many times since. Your translation and explanation of the proposal really added something this last read through. I shared a link to your translation on the Lord Peter Wimsey Appreciation Society FB page. The members of the group greatly appreciate your insight.

Anon 4 months ago

Lovely look at the Latin of Gaudy Night. Wonderful to read.

However I'm a little confused at the passage about 'Placetne Magistra'. I could have sworn that while -num does indeed indicate the expectation of a negative, it was -nonne that shows expectation of a positive. The sweetest part of that all important question suffix for me was that -ne expects no answer at all, he leaves it entirely up to her, not assuming she'll take him or that she'll reject him. Please let me know what you think.

Denise 2 months ago

Anon, I think you're right. Nonne is for when you expect a yes, and -ne is neutral. It's certainly more in keeping with Wimsey's MO with regard to Harriet to not ask that question in expectation of a yes. (It makes me wonder--could Harriet's pride have withstood a -nonne? I suspect not.)

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