Friday, 24 April 2015

The Brandons by Angela Thirkell: Part 2


published 1939



Brandons mourning white dress




[The newly-widowed Mrs Brandon meets her husband’s aunt for the first time]

‘A posthumous child?’ [Miss Brandon] said with sudden interest, looking piercingly at her niece’s white dress.

‘Oh no,’ said Mrs Brandon. ‘Mamma and Papa are still alive.’

‘Tut, tut, not you,’ said Miss Brandon. ‘What is your name?’

Mrs Brandon said apologetically that it was Lavinia.

‘A pretty name,’ said Miss Brandon. ‘When last I saw your husband Henry Brandon, he mentioned you to me as Pet. It was before his marriage and he was spending a weekend with me. I had to say to him, “Henry Brandon, a man who can call his future wife Pet and speak of the Government as you have spoken can hardly make a good husband and is certainly not a good nephew.”’


[the conversation continues] ‘I see you are determined not to give Henry away,’ said Miss Brandon, not disapprovingly. ‘But when is it? I see no other reason for wearing white so soon.

Her gaze was again so meaningly fixed upon her niece’s white dress that Mrs Brandon began to blush violently.

‘I don’t think I understand,’ she faltered, ‘but if that is what you mean of course it isn’t. I just thought white was less depressing for the children.’

‘I am glad to hear it. That I could not have forgiven Henry,’ said the disconcerting Miss Brandon… ‘Now you can ring for my second chauffeur, Lavinia.’

 
observations: In an entry earlier this week we embarked on this story of the clashing mourning styles, and I explained how I came to read the book. (Thank you again to Amy Towle.) The passage above is typical of the book, which I found hilarious. Even the fact of Miss Brandon bringing two chauffeurs around with her made me laugh.

This is another of the horrible-aunt descriptions that Amy meant:
When in bed she preferred to discard the wig, and wore white bonnets, exquisitely hand-sewn by Sparks, frilled, plaited and goffered, in which she looked like an elderly Caligula disguised as Elizabeth Fry. Round her shoulders she had a white cashmere shawl, fine enough to draw through a wedding ring, and about her throat swathes of rich, yellowing lace, pinned with hideous and valuable diamond brooches. Diamonds, rubies, sapphires, emeralds sparkled in the creases of her swollen fingers, and in the watch pocket above her head was the cheap steel-framed watch that her father had bought as a young man with his first earnings.
Like this perhaps?:

 
Brandons bonnet 3



I had never heard of the custom of white being worn by a pregnant mourning widow: what an interesting detail!

There is a lot more about mourning later in the book: three women keep swapping round their frocks for daywear and the funeral. Is the black-and-white foulard quite right? What about the black georgette with the pleats (cost 20 guineas when new)? Nurse – who was nanny to the children, and now lives on doing sewing and mending for the family - is in her element making alterations, and all the staff enjoy a good gloomy death as much as the Brandons do.

By the time the Village Fete comes along – the climax of the book, and wonderfully well-described – there is time for a last swap: ‘Mrs Brandon gave in and with considerable heroism said she would wear the foulard, so that Delia would be free to wear her green frock.’ – which Nurse thinks isn’t quite suitable.

There is an excellent character called Sir Edmund – very useful and practical, a man to lean on. Thirkell draws him very cleverly, as he is very good and kind, and good fun, but she resists the temptation to make him hero material (as seems at first to be the case), and shows him as a flawed and slightly difficult man.

The top picture, Woman in a White Dress by Henri Lebasque, is from the Athenaeum website.


















Thursday, 23 April 2015

Thursday List: Hanging Out The Washing



Washing


I love pictures of washing hanging out to dry – copies of the images above and below have been hanging in my house for years. There is something very satisfying about them, and it’s nice to think of drying washing as something that has been going on for thousands of years, mentions dropped into some unlikely books.

 
Odyssey 2
 

1) Starting with The Odyssey  by Homer – probably composed around the end of the 8th century BCE. This translation (2004) is by AS Klein. Nausicca, a princess, is going for an expedition from the palace:

 
The girl brought the bright clothes from her room, and packed them into the gleaming wagon, while her mother put up a box of food, with everything to content the heart. There she packed delicacies, with wine in a goatskin bag: the girl climbed up, and her mother handed her a gold flask of olive oil, so that she and her maids could use it after bathing. Then Nausicaa took up the whip, and the smooth reins, and flicked the mules to start them. With a clatter of hooves they moved off smartly, carrying the girl and the clothing, and the maids too, to keep her company. 

When they came to the river, lovely with streams, and never-failing pools, with enough clear water bubbling up and brimming over to wash the dirtiest clothes, they un-harnessed the mules and drove them along the bank of the swirling river to graze on the honey-sweet grass of the water meadows. They lifted armfuls of clothes from the wagon, carried them down to the clear black water, and trod them thoroughly in the pools, vying with one another. When they had washed the load and rinsed away the dirt, they spread the garments in lines on the beach, where the breaking waves wash the shingle cleanest. After bathing and rubbing themselves with oil, they ate their meal on the riverbank, and waited for the clothes to dry in the sun. 

When they had enjoyed the food, Nausicaa and her maids threw off their headgear and played with a ball, white-armed Nausicaa leading the accompanying song.

Nausicaa is a princess, so good for her doing her own washing. In fact she has been inspired by Athene, who whispered to her: ‘Your lovely clothes are neglected, yet your marriage will soon be here, when you’ll not only need to be dressed in lovely clothes yourself, but provide for those who accompany you.’ Nausicaa is going to help Odysseus…

2) James Joyce’s Ulysses is inspired by the Odyssey, and Nausicaa is Gertie McDowell – we featured her doing her laundry in the parallel scene a long time ago on the blog. (And in this entry I translated a poem by Sappho from the Ancient Greek, though I haven’t ventured my own translation of Homer.)
 

3) Shakespeare has washing hanging out too, in the song of Autolycus from The Winter’s Tale:
When daffodils begin to peer, --
With hey! The doxy over the dale, --
Why, then comes in the sweet o’ the year;
For the red blood reigns in the winter’s pale.

The white sheet bleaching on the hedge, --
With hey! the sweet birds, O, how they sing!

4) Catriona McPherson's Dandy Gilver  goes sleuthing in the Scottish countryside, in Dandy Gilver and a Bothersome Number of Corpses:

[The farmer's wife] had been hanging out washing; a basket of linen sat in the middle of the patch of grass and a pair of underdrawers hung by one leg where she had abandoned them. Rather a splendid garment for a sheep farmer’s wife, I thought, studying the satin waist-tape and the lace trim. And next to them on the line . . . I blinked.

‘Never,’ I said out loud. ‘Preposterous.’ For next along the clothes line to the splendid underdrawers was a bandeau brassiere in the same white linen with straps of the same satin tape and no Scottish farmer’s wife from Gretna Green to John o’ Groats could possibly possess such a thing.


 

5) In Christianna Brand's marvellous wartime murder story, Green for Danger, the posh young nurses live in a cottage together - here the policeman has come to visit:

Cockie [stood] in the narrow doorway, politely averting his eyes from a line of solid-looking underwear hanging across the little kitchen…Woody dived under the line of washing, holding up a garment for the Inspector to follow her. ‘Excuse the Jaeger coms and things, but chiffon and crepe de chine don’t quite suit the life of a VAD…’
 


6) The poet Seamus Heaney wrote a wonderful poem about pegging out washing, dedicated to, and about, his mother:

The cool that came off sheets just off the line
Made me think the damp must still be in them
But when I took my corners of the linen
And pulled against her, first straight down the hem
And then diagonally, then flapped and shook
The fabric like a sail in a cross-wind,
They made a dried-out undulating thwack...




Odyssey 37) I recently came across a lovely book of poems called Washing Lines, which could have been designed for me: a collection of poems about laundry, washing and ironing, illustrated with beautiful woodcuts. It seems to be out of print now, but you can still pick up copies. (Watch out if you search on Amazon: you have to specify a search in books, or else you get offered a lot of cheap and nicely made washing lines in many different colours.) It features poets down the ages talking about doing the washing. It was put together by Janie Hextall and Barbara McNaught, and is a lovely read.
 
 




8) There is currently an exhibition of Impressionist paintings at the National Gallery in London - this one, Hanging the Laundry Out by Berthe Morisot, is there, on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington:





The top picture is a photograph by Crispin Eurich of washing drying in the streets of Huddersfield. The second picture is Southwold Beach by Stanley Spencer.











Tuesday, 21 April 2015

The Brandons by Angela Thirkell


published 1937



Brandons bonnet


[Mrs Brandon is newly-widowed]

As it was a cold spring Mrs Brandon was able to go into black, and the ensuing summer being a particularly hot one gave her an excuse for mourning in white, though she always wore a heavy necklace of old jet to show goodwill.

[She meets her dead husband’s aunt for the first time]

It was here that for the first and only time she felt a faint doubt as to the propriety of mourning in white, for her aunt by marriage was wearing such a panoply of black silk dress, black cashmere mantle, black ostrich feather boa and unbelievably a black bonnet trimmed with black velvet and black cherries, that Mrs Brandon wondered giddily whether spinsters could be honorary widows…

‘How do you do, Miss Brandon. Henry will be so sorry to miss you – I mean he was always talking about you and saying we must take the children to see you.’

‘I had practically forbidden him the house for some years,’ said Miss Brandon. To this there appeared to be no answer except Why? A question Mrs Brandon had not the courage to ask. ‘But I would certainly have come to the funeral,’ Miss Brandon continued, ‘had it not been my Day in Bed. I take one day a week in bed, an excellent plan at my age. Later I shall take two days, and probably spend the last years of my life entirely in bed.’


 
 
brandons bonnet 2
 
 
observations: Twitter friend Amy Towle said this recently:
I'm reading The Brandons by Angela Thirkell which has some pretty gothic costume description esp. maiden aunts attire
So obviously I had to follow this up straightaway, and truly Amy was understating the case if anything: this book is full of wonderful clothes opportunities. I like Thirkell in moderation, and this is by far the best of hers I have read so far: full of very very funny scenes, smart social observation, clever character drawing. The occasional mean-spiritedness and snobbery I have objected to in other books is at a minimum.

This single scene is going to need two posts – the unexpected result of the clash in mourning styles will be seen later in the week.

The plot – such as it is – revolves round how the elderly Miss Brandon is going to leave her money, but nobody takes this very seriously. It’s 1939 and the world is about to change forever, but you wouldn’t know it. Daughter Delia has no (pre-marriage) life in mind other than staying at home with her mother, doing the flowers, playing endless tennis and dancing to gramophone records - although she does take a great interest in any medical disaster in the area. Mrs Brandon does absolutely nothing, but requires constant rests and lying downs – this is a joke, but it is still faintly shocking when the maid and the nanny fight over who is to remove her stockings for her.

The nearest there comes to any politics is when Mrs Grant – an Englishwoman Abroad, who has lived in Italy for some time - says this:
‘After St Francis, Mussolini is the greatest animal lover the world has known. I put them together, don’t you?’
‘I don’t quite know. I never actually met Mussolini,’ said Mrs Brandon cautiously, and somehow implying that she had at some period been introduced to St Francis.
-- and there is a passing mention of the Spanish Civil War.

But this is just for interest – you can’t blame Thirkell for doing a light-hearted novel so well: it must have given a lot of pleasure at a difficult time for the world.

Look out for the follow-up entry shortly…

The top picture – Elderly Lady in a Black Bonnet – is by Mary Cassatt and is from the Athenaeum. The mourning bonnets line drawing is from the NYPL.


















Monday, 20 April 2015

Kiss Me First by Lottie Moggach


published 2013



Kiss me First


[Narrator Leila is finding out everything she can about another young woman, Tess, for an elaborate reason]

I also decided that we should take photos of Tess for me to later superimpose on scenes of wherever it was she was going, to post on Facebook. One evening I asked her to show me the clothes in her wardrobe, and she positioned the laptop on the side of the bed and pulled them out, one by one, holding them up against her. Once we had agreed on certain outfits, suitable for different seasons and weather conditions, she put them on…

Once dressed, I directed her how to use the self-timer on her camera to take photos of herself wearing various outfits against a blank wall in her room, in a variety of poses. She then emailed them over for me to check. Tess seemed to enjoy the session, happily rummaging through her stuff, holding things up for my opinion, exclaiming with delight as she chanced upon a favourite jacket she thought she’d lost. I don’t have any interest in clothes and didn’t know what she was talking about most of the time – vintage Ossie, my old Dries top – but I quite enjoyed it, too. It pleased me to see her happy.


 
observations: This is a book I was happy to be proved wrong about. The author is the daughter of Deborah Moggach, a very successful author and screenwriter – perhaps best-known for the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (book and now two films) – and this book was described as a new kind of thriller, tackling life online, and ‘a much-anticipated debut.’

That all leaves me very straight-faced indeed, and I was in no hurry to read Kiss Me First. But actually it’s tremendous stuff, and if I could I would have read it in one sitting.

The concept has been widely described and discussed: Leila, a lonely young woman without much of a life, but with some computer expertise, gets involved in a strange online forum. As a result of this she is asked – by the very sinister Adrian - if she will help another woman: one who wants to commit suicide, but would like to do so without her family and friends knowing. So: Leila is to take over all Tess’s online activities, particularly Facebook and email, and pretend to be her, talking to her friends and describing a new life abroad. This is ludicrous (and there is a question of computers identifying locations, which is never addressed) but that didn’t matter, it was such a flat-out great concept that I was quite happy to go along with it.

I found the description of Leila taking over absolutely fascinating. She is something of an unreliable narrator, or perhaps one who slowly reveals herself, and I thought this was very cleverly done. (There was one clue just for UK readers when she describes herself buying clothes at Evans in Brent Cross). There’s a double time frame: we know something has gone wrong and that Leila is trying to save the situation, trying to find out exactly what happened to Tess. In one of her finer moments, Leila explains this:
It also felt wrong to abandon her just because things had got complicated. I thought of a sticker that our next-door-neighbour had on their car: A dog is for life, not just for Christmas. Of course, Tess was not a pet, but the sentiment struck a chord.
Leila’s perceptions of the world around her are very funny, and the entire book would have been worth reading just for the list of questions she prepares for Tess early on, after scouring Tess’s computer usage and emails:
1. In an email dated 27/ 12/ 08, Nicholas wrote, ‘Thank you for ruining lunch’. What did you do to ruin lunch? And why is he thanking you?... 

3. Was the nickname ‘Sugartits’ widely used, or just by Steven Gateman?...

5. In one email regarding a date with a man called Jamie in May 2009 you wrote, ‘he was intellectually beneath me.’ Yet you only got one A-level yourself, in art. What kind of qualifications did he get?... 

10. You registered once at the site adultfriendfinder.com in February 2005. What was the nature and frequency of your usage of the site?
11. On 16/ 05/ 08, you wrote to Mira Stollbach that you ‘couldn’t wait’ to attend her wedding that summer, but then in an email to Justine on June 2nd of that same year, wrote that you ‘hate fucking weddings’. Can you explain?



There should be an app to create such a question-list from all our email caches.

The book is not perfect, but I got very caught up in the story of Tess and Leila, who were both superb, real characters. The structure had been carefully worked out, and you just really wanted to know what was going on, as well as wanting to shout at Leila ‘Do not go and meet Connor’ – she has been communicating (like Cyrano de Bergerac) with one of Tess’s old boyfriends. Any book that makes me want to shout advice gets high marks.

The book worked for me on three completely different levels: both Tess and Leila were compelling and strangely convincing, the story was a tense page-turner, and the online/social media aspect was fascinating and original. An absolute cracker.

The picture comes from Wikimedia Commons. ‘Vintage Ossie’ is Ossie Clark – his picture turned up recently on the blog, one of his dresses a while back.











Sunday, 19 April 2015

Dress Down Sunday: The Clue in the Castle by Joyce Bevins Webb



LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES


published around 1961 (uncertain)

set around 1954/55



Clue in the Castle 4

Caroline changed. Unbuttoning her brown skirt, she turned it inside out and slipped it on again – and in a twinkling she was wearing a blue one, for she had had it specially made and it was reversible. Off came her brown tie and a bright brooch was fixed in its place. Then the wig, navy beret and the nylons. At last she was ready. Tucking her school clothes [away] and covering them with bracken, she set out for the village. She shivered as she went, then laughed at herself.


clue in the castle 2Clue in the castle 3

‘I never thought the day would come when I should regret wearing nylons,’ she exclaimed to herself. ‘But after those school uniform lisle stockings these lovely fifteen denier creations are just plain cold!’
 
 
observations: I’m always ready to mock JD Salinger/Buddy Glass for the line ‘The Great Gatsby… was my Tom Sawyer.’ Probably because The Clue in the Castle was my Middlemarch when I was a young thing. Someone gave me the book when I was maybe 8 or 9, and I read and re-read it over and over, and can remember every detail of the plot. (Well inasmuch as anyone can, it is very complex.)

I was reminded of it last week, when guest blogger Colm got into a discussion with keen blog friend Lucy Fisher on the subject of lisle stockings – ‘the colour of strong tea’ as Lucy memorably described them in the comments.

Proust-like, I was taken back to this book and the lines above. And so I re-read it, enjoying every minute. And understanding finally that although it is a school story (my favourite genre as a child) it is also a crime story (favourite genre for many years since).

Joyce Bevins Webb seems to have written nothing else, and I have realized why: she must have used up every single plotline from her head in this one book. The story – which is only just over 200 pages long - involves all the following features:
 
  • Castle Monastery School – a girls’ boarding school which was formerly a castle AND a monastery (this is the school I want to go to, narrowly beating out Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers, which has dormitories in the towers and a rock swimming pool filled by the tide)
  • A secret passage inside a hollow pillar, leading to a hidden room.
  • Threat from the sea, which is eroding the cliffs and threatening to wash away the ruins, and perhaps the odd bounds-breaking schoolgirl.
  • Three characters who are impersonating others, or are not who they seem to be.
  • The young woman above who is 29, but who is at the school pretending to be a Sixth former.
  • [SPOILER, but cannot miss this out:] the 29-year-old discovers to their mutual shock and surprise that one of the other pupils at the school is her daughter.
  • A good selection of wigs, disguises, haircuts, and dying skin brown - any of which change anyone’s appearance so much that they can easily avoid recognition.
  • A heroine, Nita, who has ‘well-brushed hair tied back with a brown bow like a highwayman’s’ (oh how I longed for such a look back then…)
  • A games mistress with black hair and red lips, who wears ‘a rich red twin set, and a pleated skirt of grey and white diagonal checks which swung with an arrogant air’ … which is how I would like to look now – see below (an illo from the book) for glimpses of both these:

Clue in the Castle 5








  • Pyjama trousers adapted to be worn as hiking shorts.
  • A girl pretending to be a boy, wearing said shorts.
  • Flashback to an air raid that caused a train crash: ‘at that moment the second bomb dropped… and we looked again and there was no train to return to. It had vanished.’
  • Fully three different babies who get lost, mixed up or wrongly assigned – even Shakespeare would have made do with two.
  • A runaway bride of 16, and a possible murder.
  • A wicked and dishonest old man who is hoping to get a reward for nabbing a murderer.
  • Romance for a lonely old doctor

[MASS SPOILERS BUT CAN’T RESIST]


The climax of the book comes at a school event which is going to combine a performance of Midsummer’s Night Dream (sadly under-featured) and a confirmation ceremony for the girls. During this, the police turn up to arrest the fake schoolgirl for murder – but luckily, by chance, the bishop who performs the confirmation is able to suddenly remember that he met her thirteen years before for about two minutes, and is thus able to give her an alibi. At this point the ‘very beautiful and dreadfully bad-tempered’ Games mistress breaks down and turns herself in because, again by chance, she happens to be responsible for the original death (manslaughter rather than murder.)

All that’s left after that is the recovery of a runaway, a confrontation in a cottage, a decisive romance and another lost-child-reunion.

Inexplicably, I have never met anyone else who has read this book. I hope this blogpost might uncover someone, and perhaps also reach out to a publisher, who can give it a new life. Think of the TV series – there would be actresses queuing up to play these parts…

Fabulous book, fabulous picture. From the Library of Congress, that top photo has this unbelievably fabulous caption ‘Shopping for cotton hose in a Hollywood store, Rita Hayworth finds that the shop-girl, too, is wearing hose much the same type she plans to buy. Miss Hayworth is inspecting a diamond pattern lisle stocking, personally selected for her by Hollywood's famed designer, Howard Greer, to accompany her afternoon ensemble.’



Saturday, 18 April 2015

The Mystic Masseur by VS Naipaul



published 1957



Mystic Masseur


[Ganesh, a Trinidad Indian, wants to be a pundit or mystic and is being advised by his friends on how to get customers]

‘Ganesh. Me and Suruj Poopa been thinking a lot about you. We thinking that you must stop wearing trousers and a shirt.’

‘It don’t suit a mystic,’ Beharry said.

‘You must wear proper dhoti and koortah. I was talking only last night to Leela about it when she come here to buy cooking-oil. She think is a good idea too.’

Ganesh’s annoyance began to melt. ‘Yes, is a idea. You feel it go bring me luck?’

‘Is what Suruj Mooma say.’

Next morning Ganesh involved his legs in a dhoti and called Leela to help him tie the turban.

‘Is a nice one,’ she said.

‘One of my father old ones. Make me feel funny wearing it.’

‘Something telling me it go bring you luck.’

‘You really think so?’ Ganesh cried, and almost kissed her.

She pulled away. ‘Look what you doing, man.’

Then Ganesh, a strange and striking figure in white, went to the shop.

‘You look like a real maharaj,’ Suruj Mooma said.

‘Yes he look nice,’ said Beharry. ‘It make me wonder why more Indians don’t keep on wearing their own dress.’

Mystic Masseur 2

Suruj Mooma warned, ‘You better not start, you hear. Your legs thin enough already and they look funny even in trousers.’

‘It looks good, eh?’ Ganesh smiled.

Beharry said, ‘nobody would believe now that you did go to the Christian college in Port of Spain. Man, you look like a pukka Brahmin.’

‘Well, I have a feeling. I feel my luck change as from today.’


 
observations: The Mystic Masseur was VS Naipaul’s first published book: nearly 60 years later he is weighed down with awards and titles and accomplishments – including a Nobel Prize - and recently appeared at the Jaipur literary festival. I think if you knew him only by reputation you would expect him to be an intimidating, difficult writer. Some of his work is complex, but always worth the effort: The Enigma of Arrival (1987) is wonderful, but close to indescribable – it’s hard even to say what kind of book it is.

So it is nice to go to this one, which is a hoot, very funny and readable and entertaining. The book tracks the progress of Ganesh, who wants to be important, and wants to be cultured, and wants to be an intellectual. It’s a long path, but he eventually does become someone. He is set on the way when he eventually finds success as a mystic masseur – a kind of faith healer.

I’m sure there are many areas where the book is a satire on life in Trinidad, and perhaps there are recognizable figures in it, none of which I could comment on. But even for the most overseas reader, it would seem to be a very convincing portrait of life on the island at the time. The dialogue, like that above, is amazing: it sounds so authentic, the rhythm is wonderful, but it has total clarity, there is never any problem understanding it.

The question of whether to wear traditional Indian dress (saris for women) or more Western dress comes up frequently throughout the book. The dhoti is a leg covering, the koorta a long loose shirt.

The picture is of an Indian man in Trinidad, and comes from the Southern Methodist University collection.























Friday, 17 April 2015

A Deputy Was King by GB Stern


published 1926



Deputy Chinese Coat


For the first moment they were all startled by the flare and whirl of colour which beat out on their eyes. The jade and blue and anemone pink were like three distinct shocks; then Loraine, with a cry of joy, plunged her hands into the brocade and embroidery, and shook it out before all of them, so that they could see that it was a Chinese coat – even before they heard the clank of the little gold Mandarin buttons, three at the throat and three at the hem.
 


Deputy Chinese Coat 4


Gazing at it, you might think that you had never seen embroidery before, for it was the very climax of all that was brilliant and exotic. The flower-petals were worked in a flaming pattern around the broad bands of kingfisher blue embroidery; and again round each oval plaque that was woven of a silvery heron with a long green beak, and behind his outstretched wings a rainbow. All among the silken arabesques, butterflies were delicately poised, golden butterflies and black butterflies, and butterflies that were gold and black. The closer you looked, the more there was to see; intricate markings on the butterfly wings, purple and grass-green and apricot…

And when you had looked closely, you looked again, from a distance, to exult in the perfection of the whole coat, stiff and gleaming folds of anemone pink, lining that was a flash of green lightning, bands of blue so intense that for very depth of colour it appeared to stir and shift and shudder, as the depths of the sea will stir while you look down into it.


Deputy Chinese Coat 2


observations: When this book, the second of the Rakonitz Chronicles, gave the blog a Mother’s Day entry, I promised or threatened the Chinese Coat entry. This is a central section of the book, and the coat has huge importance in the family life of the Rakonitz family. Two of the cousins, Val and Loraine, are together in Italy. A man who has recently been visiting them sends out this beautiful coat. Everyone assumes it is for Val. But he hasn’t actually specified – might it be for Loraine? Loraine thinks it is for Loraine, and she is in agonies over it. Stern gives equal importance to the subsequent events as she does to other life-changers – businesses collapsing, marriages breaking up. And she keeps the reader in curious suspense as to the facts of the matter. Loraine is a true horror of a person, but Stern makes it wholly convincing that many people adore her. The tension mounts. Loraine confides individually in the varied household that the coat is really hers, but she doesn’t want to upset Val. Each person thinks he or she alone has been trusted with this secret.

The ultimate fate of the coat (once the truth has been ascertained) is surprising, and sad, but satisfying.

This is such an enjoyable book (and thanks yet again to Hilary McKay for the recommendation). Stern is a clever writer, and her characters are real and complex and not black and white, and the same is true of their relationships. She makes you realize how simplistic many novels are in that respect.

And now, what an excuse to show wonderful pictures of Chinese coats. It’s not clear to me what the base colour of the coat is, or if it is multi-coloured. At another point, cyclamen, blue and emerald are mentioned. I don’t know if anemone pink is the same as cyclamen…

Deputy Chinese Coat 3

The top picture, from The Athenaeum website, is Lady in Chinese Silk Jacket by Bernhard Gutmann.

The other pictures have been used for past entries on the blog, sometimes more than once – I do like a Chinese coat, and they were obviously very popular in the first half of the 20th century. The authors mentioning them include Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford Monica Dickens and Daphne du Maurier.