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Monday, 24 November 2014

The Gates of Bannerdale by Geoffrey Trease

published 1956

[At a girls’ grammar school in the Lake District in the 1950s]

Penny whispered to Sue:

“I’ve decided!”


“I’m going to have them.”

“The tangerine ones?”



Penny was referring to a particularly daring pair of slacks which had been brightening a shop window in Castle Gate for the past week. Most of Penny’s closest school-friends had been taken to inspect them. The general verdict had been that they were very gay and dashing. But… well… Penny was one of the very few girls who could possibly wear them. By that, they didn’t just mean that she had the right measurements...

On Monday she returned from the lunch-hour clutching a big parcel… she undid the string and the slacks dangled floorwards in all their lengthy glory. As Penny had foretold, “glory” was the word.

“I got this too,” she said, holding up a floppy black sweater in her other hand. “I just couldn’t resist it.”

[her schoolfriends persuade her to try them on in the 6th form common room]

The verdict was favourable. With Penny’s black hair and creamy-white skin, the slacks and sweater made her look like something on a magazine cover. After another minute or two of heated discussion on appropriate lipstick shades, her friends began reluctantly to open books and begin their studies. At that moment [headmistress] Miss Florey, having knocked twice without reply, opened the door and walked in.

“Oh dear!” laughed Mum when Sue reached this point of the story. “And was Penny still in her tangerine slacks?

“Well,” said Sue, smiling at the memory, “yes – and no.”

observations: Found it! I explained last week how the writer Lydia Syson told me of the awesome tangerine slacks in this series: I tremendously enjoyed reading through 3 of the series in order to find the reference, and would happily re-read the remaining two if they weren’t so difficult/expensive to get hold of.

This is a splendid final entry in the series: and what I love is that Miss Florey has come to find Penny to discuss the possibility of her making ambitious plans for university. For those younger than me: such a nice juxtaposition of scenes - Penny allowed to have a big interest in clothes as well as her studies and career - would be vanishingly rare in any YA fiction of the 1950s or 60s, let alone a book by a man.

And as I said last time – Trease just seems to be such a nice man, as well has having very proper views.

The narrator Bill has already applied to and (hardly a spoiler) got into Oxford. The process is described in some detail. Nice historical point – he goes off to do his National Service for the next 18 months, meaning he and Penny go up to University at the same time. The book then describes their first year: an adventure about lost treasure, as well as the usual May morning, student plays, studies and activities. It’s a joy to read, as well as being full of contemporary references, and a great picture of Oxford life. Lydia remembered the slacks: the detail that stuck with me for 30 years was that Penny used a hatbox as a kind of extra suitcase:
She said, in that curious voice girls use when trying to talk and to apply lipstick at the same time: “You don’t have to use hat-boxes for hats! What an old-fashioned idea!”
Penny becomes Pen, the two of them wonder whether they should be finding different friends, and there is a discussion about the integrity of historical research exactly paralleling the key plot point in Dorothy L Sayers Gaudy Night, 20 years before.

Great books, well worth reviving. I loved them as a teenager, and I love them now – they deserve to be read by a younger generation, even as historical fiction...

As Lydia Syson Tweeted to me: “Glory!”

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Dress Down Sunday: Death Wears a White Gardenia by Zelda Popkin

published 1938


Singularly, Mr. Swayzey's promenade came to an end in the silk underwear department, in, to be specific, that section of the department devoted to handmade lingerie designed in France, and executed by the sight-destroying labor of underpaid Chinese and Porto Ricans. The tables in the center of the section drew his discerning eye. One was heaped with nightgowns, pink, peach, orchid and white, looking like old fashioned valentines with blobs of lace and fine spun cobwebs of embroidery; another with panties; a third slips. He looked at a price tag, speculatively, saw "$19.75" in red ink, below the crossed-out typed figure of "$24.50."…

A dim night light burned in that corner of the main floor. Blue denim had been stretched over the tables. Mr. Swayzey lifted the shrouds. With lightning rapidity he picked out nightgowns, slips, chemises, and crammed them into his bag. Selection was easy. During his brief pause less than a half hour earlier, he had decided what he would take. A careless amateur might have grabbed at random and scattered, but not Joe Swayzey. He left the tables as neat as he had found them, piles of merchandise smaller, but otherwise not visibly disturbed. Swayzey had technique.

observations: Zelda Popkin – isn’t that a great name? I’m surprised she picked the mundane ‘Mary Carner’ for her detective. My attention was drawn to this book by Les Blatt, who reviewed it at his Classic Mysteries blog here. He didn’t like it all that much – and I tend to agree with his criticisms – but nothing was going to stop me reading a murder story set in the lingerie department of a large NY department store.

Popkin wrote several books featuring her store detective – if I’d got there sooner I could have added her to this week's list of young female detectives: Mary’s a great heroine, smart and appealing. A body is found in the store: management fear bad publicity; the police allow themselves to be pushed around (this is, Les and I agree, unconvincing); and Mary keeps her ears and eyes open and solves the crime. I read the book on Kindle, and regret very much I didn’t have the Mapback edition with a plan of the store – it looks exceptionally pleasing in a photograph, as well as helping with the mystery. (I must say that I didn’t quite get the layout of the area where the body was found.) 

There’s an excellent description of a big sale at the store:

A mob of women fought for sheer silk stockings at fifty-two cents a pair; they pounded one another's ribs, lacerated each other's skin, knocked off hats to get to house dresses at sixty-seven cents, to gloves at two pairs for a dollar.
- that could have gone into my recent stockings piece for the Guardian, and matches up with the guest blogger’s piece on Elizabeth Smart earlier this year: “I see her often, battling for bargain stockings in Macy’s basement…. Sheers, O you mad frivolous sisters, sheers.”

There’s a nice contemporary reference to a character – a kept woman or professional mistress – having ‘more negligees right now than Wallis Simpson.’

Irene, another single woman working at the store, is shown to be having a male friend stay over, even though she has no intention of marrying him. The police inspector says: “You’re a pretty unmoral person, aren’t you?” but isn’t allowed to get away with that – Irene defends her position very thoroughly. And Popkin adds in a tiny scene in which a penniless unemployed man shoplifts clothes for his new baby: he is treated with sympathy and understanding. And, isn’t that interesting above about the underpaid sweatshop workers making all those lovely clothes? – not just a modern phenomenon.

This is not a cozy mystery, despite the setting, and Popkin tries quite hard to be hard-boiled about it. It’s a bit of a strange mixture, but I enjoyed it, and am grateful to Les for the tipoff. As I say, I agree totally with his criticisms of the mystery, but I liked the setting and period details so much that I didn't mind.

The pictures are of the lingerie department at Burdine’s store in Miami, and are from the Library of Congress.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Henrietta Sees It Through by Joyce Dennys

published 1986, written 1942-45

Lady B and I entered for the Bowling Tournament. She drew the Admiral as her partner, and I drew Colonel Simpkins. Neither Colonel Simpkins nor the Admiral was pleased, but they generously decided to make the best of it. Lady B and I were, of course, delighted when we found we had drawn each other in the first round as opponents.

[The women play, then leave the men to get on with it]

‘Now they’ve got the whole rink to themselves,’ said Lady B, settling herself comfortably on a seat. ‘I like your shirt, Henrietta. Where did you get it?’

‘I made it out of some of Charles’s old pyjamas. I used the legs for the sleeves.’

‘My dear, how brilliant of you! I often wonder why men wear out the seats of their pyjamas the way they do. The collar’s good.’

‘I lined it.’

‘Just pull up your jersey and let me see the back. Yes, it’s definitely a success. And the colour is delightful. Charles must have looked sweet in it.’

‘He did rather.’

A shadow fell across our knees, and we looked up to see the Admiral standing before us. ‘Would it be too much to ask you ladies to pay a little attention to the game?’ he said in a shaking voice.

observations: This entry explains how I first came across Henrietta, via my friend Chrissie Poulson, and Henrietta is also one of my Older Women Winning Through, list here

When I finished Henrietta’s War, I instantly downloaded this one, the second volume, and read it straightaway. It is just as good as the first one, and takes us right through to victory. Again, there are fascinating contemporary issues as well as the excellent jokes: A burning question of the day seems to have been how much compensation was paid to those who lost relations in air raids, with the insult that women are valued less than men. This leads to one of the group speculating on potential widowhood for her husband’s benefit:
‘Well, if I were left a widow I know what I’d do,’ said little Mrs Simpkins, clearly and unexpectedly. ‘I’d move into a much smaller house, and I’d sell your roll-top desk.’ After that there was an awkward silence.

In the section above, the two women were looking forward to the game as a chance to chat, but Lady B suddenly & disappointingly gets good at bowls – ‘Halfway through the game she had a brandy and soda brought out to her from the bar’. Luckily, eventually ‘inspiration left her and she began playing in her old and, to me, more attractive style’ – as Lady B says ‘Being good at games takes all the fun out of them.'

The two women stare at a beautiful new hat in a shop window, but they can’t justify buying it.
‘If you were to wire the brim of the hat you wore at the Thomson wedding, you could make it very like that one.’

‘But I’d never get a quill that colour. I like the quill.’

‘There are seagulls on the beach,’ I said, ‘and I have some coloured inks.’
- the result, apparently, is splendid.

Henrietta’s daughter is called Linnet: the only other instance of this name I have come across is in Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile – Linnet Doyle, the richest girl in the world.

The picture from the Imperial War Museum shows a young woman making her own blouse – probably a lot smarter than Henrietta’s, and not made from old pyjamas, but illustrating the make-do-and-mend attitude of the war.

Friday, 21 November 2014

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice

published 2005, set in the mid-1950s

[Penelope is attending a ball in a large private house in London]

She was dressed in an unflattering off-white crinoline, a heat rash creeping over her plump shoulders… ‘Penelope! What are you doing here?’ she yelled, speaking aloud what I had been wondering about her. ‘You look different . It’s your hair, isn’t it?’ I nodded, my heart sinking with shame. Why should the only person I knew at this gathering be Hope Allen? She glanced around and her eyes lit upon Charlotte, deep in chatter with the Wentworth twins.

‘Heavens! Don’t look now , but that’s Charlotte Ferris and the Wentworth girls over there,’ she hissed, swinging her back to them, ‘I read something about Charlotte in the Standard last month. They said she was the only girl in London who can wear Dior, identify a great claret and talk to the Teds,’ she added in one of those whispers that comes out louder than a normal voice. I wanted the polished floors of the saloon to swallow me whole. And I had my doubts about the Standard. The only thing I had ever heard Charlotte say when consuming wine was ‘Yum’.

observations: I recently did a list of ‘Books like I Capture the Castle’ – I defined them as books about ‘Young women growing up in amusing circumstances, and how they achieve what they want in life’ – ICTC being the very best of these. The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets was recommended by Sam Eades, publicist at Pan Macmillan and the person who triggered my list, so of course I had to read it.

It’s a fun read, and very much falls within my category (it mentions Constant Nymph, one of my list): Penelope lives in a crumbling mansion with her family, she makes friends with the Charlotte mentioned above, they have adventures together while looking for love and a purpose in life. The 1950s setting is nicely done: there are Teddy boys, and the girls are big fans of pop singer Johnny Ray, and are slowly becoming aware of Elvis Presley.

I liked the simplicity of the book: there is no real jeopardy, it’s obvious there’s going to be a happy ending, and it’s obvious who with, and almost everyone in it is good-hearted. The first meeting between Charlotte and Penelope is unconvincingly contrived, but in that regard prepares you for the completely hopeless secret connection between their families which is (un-tensely) kept till near the end.

There was a problem with the derelict mansion where Penelope and her family live: it had been in her family for hundreds of years, and her father had died leaving behind her mother, herself and her brother. It would seem obvious (given the time and situation) that her brother would inherit the estate, not her mother, but this is never mentioned, never arises: that whole section of the plot didn’t really make sense, and didn’t seem realistic.

Also, After Eights did not exist at the time, so Penelope could not have been eating them. And a couple of times Ms Rice seems to have changed something in the plot and not followed through – times and clothes aren’t always right.

But that’s just me being picky. This is a nice book, a good Sunday afternoon comfort read if that is what you are after, and certainly should be on my list of books like ICTC.

The big picture shows a debutante ball in 1959.

The two young debs in the other picture are – wait for it – Vanessa Redgrave and Lady Antonia Fraser. Those were the days. [Antonia Fraser's creation, Jemima Shore, was one of our top female detectives in yesterday's list, and her book Oxford Blood is on the blog here.]

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Thursday List: Young Women Detectives

Ruth Galloway - doing a little light archaeology between murders 

Last week’s list featured books about Older Women Winning Through. There were some great suggestions from readers, and quite a few of them were female detectives - some of whom didn’t quite make it onto my list.

So female detectives need their own list – and I’m going to divide them into two groups by age. It’s a pretty arbitrary division – in the end I decided that the women should be self-selecting. So if they consider themselves to be an older lady, they are on next week’s list. This week we have the young and wonderful. No sidekicks (sorry Amanda and Harriet), and (with one exception) they have to be part of a series. All of these were created by women, though that wasn’t a deliberate decision.

1) Ruth Galloway from Elly Griffiths' archeological mysteries. I love these books, and I love Ruth. And in any list of my favourite male detectives, the wonderful Harry Nelson would be there too – the thinking woman’s policeman. (And a list of favourite druids would include Cathbad). Two of the books, here and here, have featured on the blog, along with a short story.

2) Dandy Gilver in Catriona McPherson’s
wonderful series. She’s a wealthy married lady living in 1920s Scotland, who solves crimes together with her detective partner Alex, along with occasional help from her maid, Grant, and her dog, Bunty. Her husband puts in the occasional appearance, her children feature even less frequently. She is quite splendid, and wears wonderful clothes. Three Dandy books have appeared on the blog, and one of McPherson’s standalones.

3) Christine Poulson’s Cassandra James. Academic sleuth, mysteries set in Cambridge in colleges and museums and bookshops - what’s not to like? Wonderful stuff - click on the link to see more. And not only that, but I have got to know Chrissie online via blogging and a shared love of crime fiction and many other books – our tastes coincide so much, it’s unsurprising that I like the ones she writes so much.

4)  Antonia Fraser wrote about Jemima Shore - TV journalist and detective, and I loved these books, which are SOO redolent of the 1980s. Jemima was an excellent heroine – I wish Fraser would write us an update. Oxford Blood is on the blog here – the Sloanes, the Ball, the dresses. You could re-create the Thatcher era from this book.

5) Sarah Caudwell and the women of the New Square Chambers at Lincoln’s Inn: Julia Larwood is my favourite lawyer in literature, and Selina is pretty good too. Julia is an expert on tax (though not her own), and she is messy, joyful, and likes young men. Her adventures in Venice are outlined in Thus was Adonis Murdered, one of my top 10 mysteries of all time. (There’s the question of whether Hilary should be on this list…)

6) Marion Keyes’ The Mystery of Mercy Close was a book I wasn’t expecting to love, but actually I adored it. It IS part of a series - she has written many books about one Dublin family, the Walshes – but so far as I know this is the only one where Helen Walsh is a private detective. I sincerely hope she will write more about Helen.

7) Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn No murderer will go uncaught in Regina Saskatchewan, where our favourite academic, TV personality and family woman goes about her business. She tells us what she eats and what her children are up to, and she has unashamed feminist and left wing views. Love her.

8) Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone. Another star of the 1980s – still sitting there, as Grafton moves towards the end of the alphabet, with only a few years, at most, having passed in Kinsey-land. You know where you are with Kinsey and her polyester black dress for special events.

9) Laura Lipmann’s Tess Monaghan – Baltimore beautifully realized, Tess doing her rowing, leading her complicatrd family and personal life, and investigating crimes.

10) Laurie R King Some might argue that her

heroine Mary Russell in her historical novels is a sidekick to one of the most famous detectives of all, but I would say she’s an equal partner. And this author has another series featuring modern-day detective Kate Martinelli solving crimes in San Francisco.


This list just about wrote itself, I didn’t have to search around, nor make difficult decisions on whom to omit. But I’m sure readers would have quite different lists, and I hope you might put them below, or just tell me where I went wrong. Or, put in your suggestions for next week’s older lady detectives.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

False Step by Veronica Heley

published 2008

[Bea Abbot has been employed to clear the house of a dead actor]

Bea opened the first wardrobe to inspect the dresses within. Each costume had been carefully put on a padded hanger, and fitted into a zipped plastic cover. Full-length dresses, sequinned, cut high across the neckline, three-quarter sleeves. Shimmery sheaths. The grey satin outfit he’d worn for the portrait. Not much black. No red. Nothing to hint at a pantomime dame.

She pulled a full-length dusky pink sheath out at random and held it out to Oliver. ‘How tall are you? You’ve grown a bit recently. Five nine? About that. Do me a favour, and try this on.’

Oliver gaped. ‘No way!’

‘Don’t be absurd, Oliver. I need to test a theory, a suspicion of … just do it, will you? I promise not to take photographs.’

‘I couldn’t.’

‘The colour’s too bright? Let’s try this blue outfit, then.’ The blue outfit had a feather boa to go with it. A fine silk jersey, with a draped bodice, slender over the hips.

observations: I am embarrassed to say that I cannot remember who recommended this book to me – one of my lovely fellow-bloggers, maybe Bernadette? Please accept my apologies, and if you tell me in the comments I will add your shoutout.

Whoever it was knew that the clothes conundrums in this cozy mystery would be right up my street. The body of an older male actor is found, covered in a fancy gown and with a pair of red shoes. It seems he has committed suicide, but Bea Abot, who gets involved via her domestic agency, has her suspicions. He is a renowned drag artist, and she doesn’t think the dress he is found with is quite right, and there is a shoe that doesn’t fit.

I’ve read books from Veronica Heley’s other series, with cleric Ellie Quicke, and enjoyed them, but this is my first from her Abbot Agency series. It’s not going to rock the world or win any awards, but I enjoyed it for what it was: a good mystery. There is something unusual about the structure: it is obvious to the reader from the beginning who one of the two murderers must be. Halfway through, the second one seems to emerge. But Heley still managed to surprise me at the end. The book is obviously part of a series with several continuing characters, but there was no problem with coming in late, and the details of contemporary London life were interesting. I was surprised that Bea thought that ‘properly trained nannies knew how to deal with’ being ‘pawed by the client’s husband’. It seemed out of character for a woman of unashamed Christian principles. There seemed an almost miraculous plotline regarding pregnancy near the end (Christian principles again?). And I was delighted by a reference to a ‘curling iron staircase’ – I thought it might be something to do with the drag artist’s hair arrangements, but I think it was merely descriptive, piling on adjectives.

The butler dressed up in this recent entry on Barbara Neil’s The Possession of Delia Sutherland, and Carol Anshaw’s Lucky in the Corner has some ‘vamps from another era’ dressing up to play cards.

The picture, from Wikimedia Commons, is a New Zealand drag artist of the 1960s, Kiwi Carmen.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Women Fashion Power: Exhibition at the Design Museum

Exhibition continues until April 2015

For today’s entry: no book! Last week I visited an exhibition called Women Fashion Power at London’s Design Museum, and for anyone interested in any of those three topics it is absolutely riveting.

The show looks at the history of clothes, including underwear: corsets are always a great interest here on the blog, including last Sunday's entry, and there are plenty of them on show here. There is more detail as the timeline heads into the 20th century, and the Museum uses magazines and photographs as well, and looks at the influence of film and TV on fashion.

There is another timeline looking at women in power from the earliest times – Boudicca - to modern times, and considering what they wore.

The third section of the exhibition is perhaps the most fascinating: the Museum asked 25 modern women to contribute an outfit each, and to write a piece ‘sharing their personal style philosophy’ - that's the display in the picture above.

Those taking part include Anne Hidalgo, the Mayor of Paris, fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, journalist Kirsty Wark and many other businesswomen, entertainers, and activists.

Among the other items on display there are suits worn by the former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who died last year. She was a great one for formal suits:

There were two blog entries on her appearances in fiction  last year – in Alan Hollinghurst’s Line of Beauty here, and Hilary Mantel’s An Experiment in Love here.

Other blog entries of relevance:

 - Louisa M Alcott argued strongly for Rational Dress in her book Eight Cousins – she wanted to put corsets on the fire.

- Fans of Margery Allingham’s Fashion in Shrouds – set in a fashion design studio – can be conflicted: key character Val is a hugely successful designer and businesswomen, but at the end accepts a proposal of marriage that some of us who love the book find difficult to swallow:
'Will you marry me and give up to me your independence, the enthusiasm which you give to your career, your time and your thought?'

- Virginia Woolf has some fascinating thoughts about women and clothes in Orlando:
Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us…. Had [men and women] both worn the same clothes, it is possible that their outlook might have been the same...

- Dorothy L Sayers' alter ego Harriet D Vane has this to say in Have his carcase:
Were men really stupid enough to believe that the good old days of submissive womanhood could be brought back by milliners’ fashions? ‘Hardly’ thought Harriet ‘when they know perfectly well that one has only to remove the train and the bustle, get into a short skirt and walk off, with a job to do and money in one’s pockets. Oh well, it’s a game, and presumably they all know the rules.’

- Samantha Ellis’s terrific book How to be a Heroine, a look at our female role models (?) in literature would also make great reading for anyone interested in this area. 

- Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes takes clothes very seriously – but that is so her young heroines can get jobs (dancing and acting). They are going to use clothes to get economic independence, freedom, the ability to do what they want. And, of course to get the name Fossil into the history books.


Women Fashion Power is a fabulous exhibition, very thought-provoking, but fun and informative at the same time. Highly recommended. The Design Museum is opposite the Tower of London on the other side of the Thames, and the exhibition is on till the 26th April.

PS I was lucky enough to go with my daughter: there were plenty of other mother/daughter pairs there, and it is the ideal way to see the exhibits – when it gets to the 60s/70s/80s sections you can lecture your daughter about which outfits you once had resembling those on show…. and she can laugh at you.