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Monday, 1 September 2014

The Nebuly Coat by J Meade Falkner

published 1903

[Afternoon service in the Minster at Cullerne]

The stranger lifted the cord from its hook, and sat down in the first reserved seat, as if the place belonged to him. Clerk Janaway was outraged, and bustled up the steps after him like an angry turkey-cock. “Come, come!” he said, touching the intruder on the shoulder; “you cannot sit here; these are the Fording seats, and kep’ for Lord Blandamer’s family.”

“I will make room if Lord Blandamer brings his family,” the stranger said; and, seeing that the old man was returning to the attack, added, “Hush! that is enough.” …

The choir, who had been interested spectators of this conflict of lawlessness as personified in the intruder, and authority as in the clerk, rose to their feet as the organ began the Magnificat. The singing-men exchanged glances of amusement, for they were not altogether averse to seeing the clerk worsted. He was an autocrat in his own church, and ruffled them now and again with what they called his bumptiousness. Perhaps he did assume a little as he led the procession, for he forgot at times that he was a peaceable servant of the sanctuary, and fancied, as he marched mace in hand to the music of the organ, that he was a daring officer leading a forlorn hope.

observations: I can’t remember where I first heard about this book, but I do remember my reaction: ‘Nebuly coat! I wonder what kind of coat that is? Never heard of it, should make a blog entry.’ As it turns out, the nebuly coat is a coat of arms, but this was happy ignorance on my part, because I am SO GLAD to have found the book. It is a 5-star read.

It is at once easy and hard to describe: a young-ish architect arrives in a small forgotten town around the middle of 19th century: he has been assigned to oversee repairs to the crumbling Minster – the town used to be a port, and much more important. He takes lodgings with an elderly lady and her beautiful niece – both come down in the world, and with a mystery or scandal in the background. His fellow lodger is the organist: drunk and disappointed, and busy with papers concerning the mystery.

There is a lot about ecclesiastical architecture, and church bells, and church music. Trollope and Hardy are often mentioned in reviews of the book, along with the Dickens of Edwin Drood – there are echoes of all of them, but there’s a lot more to it than that. It is very atmospheric, and mysterious, with a hint of the supernatural. It’s very very funny, and suspenseful too. At the end I had to read fast to find out what was going to happen (although not everything is tied up at the end of the book). And the characters are wonderful – he had a Chekhov-like ability to describe minor or apparently unsympathetic people in a paragraph and make them come alive, and like Chekhov you felt he could see everyone’s failings, but he looked on them in a kindly and forgiving manner.

I could quote from it endlessly. When the heroines of the book fall on hard times, the younger one – ‘every girl in her teens knows that there lie hidden in the recesses of her armoire, the robes and coronet and full insignia of a first-rate novelist’ – tells her aunt ‘I will earn some money. I will write.’

Her aunt replies
“How will you write? Who is there to write to?” Miss Joliffe said, and then the blank look on her face grew blanker, and she took out her handkerchief. “There is no one to help us. Anyone who ever cared for us is dead long ago; there is no one to write to now.”
I loved that combination of simplicity and sadness and comedy, which struck me as most unusual.

This is another book that’s going to need another entry to do it justice.

The picture, from the Athenaeum site, is Interior with an Organist and a Procession by Alphonse Legros. It is important to the plot that the organist is far removed from any such procession, tucked away in his tower, but the picture was ideal in other respects, so I decided to use i

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Dress Down Sunday: Parade's End by Ford Madox Ford

book 2 – No More Parades


At those words it came to Tietjens suddenly to think of Sylvia, with the merest film of clothing on her long, shining limbs . . . She was working a powder-puff under her armpits in a brilliant illumination from two electric lights, one on each side of her dressing-table. She was looking at him in the glass with the corners of her lips just moving. A little curled . . . He said to himself: ‘One is going to that fine and secret place . . . Why not have?’ She had emanated a perfume founded on sandalwood. As she worked her swansdown powder-puff over those intimate regions he could hear her humming. Maliciously! It was then that he had observed the handle of the door moving minutely. She had incredible arms, stretched out amongst a wilderness of besilvered cosmetics. Extraordinarily lascivious! Yet clean! Her gilded sheath gown was about her hips on the chair . . . 

observations: Another visit to this series of books: more of the plot in these entries, or click on the labels below.

Christopher Tietjens is in the trenches during the First Wold War, but remembering a recent moment when his estranged wife, the deeply wicked Sylvia, came to France (with no papers) to visit him and to make his life as difficult as possible – something which seems to be her only aim in life.

The night is going to end up in a drunken brawl in the hotel corridor. The door handle he can see moving is someone who thinks he might just visit the lovely Mrs Tietjens.

There is a lot in the series about gentlemen having regular mistresses, and we are twice informed that the correct way to pay off these women is to set her up in a tobacco shop. They don’t exist much any more, but now I’m thinking again of the respectable women who ran them in my youth… surely not….?

The relationship between Christopher and Sylvia has elements that resemble the marriage of George Smiley and Lady Ann in John le Carre’s books. Christopher is even more annoying than Sylvia: at one point he says ‘I have not got a friend in the world’ and you can’t help thinking that it’s hardly surprising. Just for starters, he has attractive views like this:
A heavy dislike that this member of the lower middle classes should have opinions on public affairs overcame Tietjens.
Another character says to him:
Yet you’re a disaster; you are a disaster to every one who has to do with you. You are as conceited as a hog; you are as obstinate as a bullock . . . You drive me mad.
… and that seems about right.

A key element of his memories of her – ‘three months ago they parted’, above – has her going to Paddington station so as to travel to Birkenhead and a convent where she will go on retreat. Nowadays you would certainly be going to Euston, not Paddington.

The description of life in the trenches has a ring of total authenticity, and there are interesting points about the differences between enlisted men and conscripts, and the importance that quite small sums of pay might mean. And there is a nice bit of character-drawing for Christopher’s brother Mark, who has
his copy of The Times airing on a chair-back before the fire – for he was just the man to retain the eighteen-forty idea that you catch cold by reading a damp newspaper.
The picture is a saucy French postcard of the era, something that both Christopher and Sylvia would both consider to be very low class.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

The Love of Stones by Tobias Hill

published 2001

There is a painting of Queen Elizabeth in Hatfield House Hertfordshire. It is called the Ermine Portrait, after the stoat which sits on the Queen’s arm. It is a political portrait in the old style, the Queen surrounded by her treasures. A show of potency to the powers across the water. In this picture the Bretheren is the brooched centrepiece of the Queen’s black jewelled skeleton

The Virgin Queen(‘s) eyes are small and quite hard, like those of the ermine poised on her sleeve. It is nearly three decades since she gained the throne, the assassins sent for her from Europe finding themselves, inexplicably, assassinated…

When Elizabeth gained it, the Three Bretheren was 150 years old. It took this time, five generations, before a woman owned the jewel.

observations: In this recent Ayelet Waldman entry, the protagonists of the book were looking for the owners and history of a precious piece of jewellery: in this one they’re looking for the jewellery.

The whole of Love of Stones is about the jewel above, clearly visible in the picture as described (though not sure about ‘skeleton’). The story starts with the commissioning of the brooch by Duke John the Fearless of Burgundy, and then mostly concentrates in two particular periods in its history: the lives of two Jewish men from Baghdad, who end up in Victorian London, and a modern-day search for the jewels by a partial narrator, Katharine Sterne.

The details – of jewellery, precious stones, goldsmithing, the creation of a crown – are fascinating, and Hill convincingly describes a kind of mania that overtakes some people who become obsessed with collecting (in the case of one character, just pearls, nothing else.)

Does the jewelled brooch really exist? Hard to tell – it doesn’t seem to exist under the name Hill gives it, though there it is in the picture.

With the two main strands of the plot, you have inklings of what is going on, and they seem to be carefully structured to echo each other. The Levy brothers sections is real historical fiction – including lots of research, a look at mudlarking and a meeting with Queen Victoria. Katherine Sterne’s part is a contemporary thriller: she is following clues, moving on, staying one step ahead of others. The main criticism of the book would be that it is hard to understand her obsession with the brooch: it is just a given that she is spending her life trying to find it, sacrificing everything to it. But we are not given any glimpse as to why.

It is an intriguing read, though I suspect a forgettable one. It’s well-written – ‘his feet were full of anger. They walked by themselves’ – and has odd moments of humour. But it is quite repetitive, the same things keep happening to the characters (they are knocked out and knocked down quite a lot), and it’s hard to care much what is happening to them, there are too many plot devices, too many roads to take. It’s 450+ pages long, and could have done with losing a third of that.

Two of the Amazon reviews give strange reasons for reading it: one is from author Sally Vickers, who says Hill gave her own Miss Garnet’s Angel a nice review, so she thought she’d return the compliment. The other is from someone who was entering a writing contest of which Hill was a judge, and who thought it might be helpful to suss him out. 

The picture is the Elizabeth I portrait from Hatfield House – the photo came from Wikimedia Commons.

More about Elizabeth I (and more pictures of her) in the entries on Lytton Strachey's book on her - click here, or on the labels below.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Murder in Style by Emma Lou Fetta

published 1939

Susan Yates, passing through the lobby accompanied by a client from Chicago, glanced at the blue-gloved young woman with amused approval of the inventiveness of her costume.

As if the force of gravity ended at the top of her skull, Miss Holt had managed to place a halo-like hat exactly at that point. There it remained magically…. She decorated an otherwise skimpy but docile little suit with a cheap bunch of artificial, blue cornflowers. Amazingly, Susan thought, the tout ensemble of the young woman’s toilet possessed that tenuous quality known to her business as chic. She murmured as much to her woman companion, who sniffed audibly, after one glance at the redhead, and said: ‘Darling if I didn’t know all about your
impeccable taste, I should say you’d lost your mind. Why the child looks like a floosie. Probably is.’

Susan shook her head. ‘She has, my lamb, that thing you can improve upon but not endow – natural taste. One could make a knockout of her with a little time and trouble.’

observations: Curtis Evans, of the excellent Passing Tramp crime fiction blog, brought this one to my attention: he wrote about author and books here and here, and has had a hand in the reprint, by Coachwhip Publications, of 3 of Emma Lou Fetta’s mysteries. Nothing could be more up the Clothes in Book street than a 1930s murder story set in the fashion industry, so naturally I ordered it, and was delighted to find that Curt had written a fascinating and comprehensive introduction (which should definitely be read after the book in fact…)

World of Fashion Luncheon, New York 1940

A group of women representing branches of the fashion industry are meeting for a business luncheon in New York – they are organizing a special show. One dies after taking a vitamin pill. Naturally, she was an out-and-out trouble-maker, and everyone in a 50-metre radius might have a motive to kill her. Investigations follow, and anonymous notes, and sinister meetings in the park at midnight, and a lot of discussion of clothes, the fashion world, and career women.

It is not the greatest murder story ever written, but it is great fun, and full of fascinating sociological detail: the woman have huge handbags, rather like the It bags of today; one woman puts on a marabou jacket to sit up in bed and eat her breakfast; a successful radio personality is hoping that she might be able to take a role in the new industry of television. One character wears ‘a hat like a flashlight camera’ – I’m guessing that might be this kind of shape:

-- like those cameras press photographers have in films of the era.

More on the blog from the obvious suspects – Margery Allingham’s Fashion in Shrouds, and Christianna Brand’s Death in High Heels, are both similar detective stories set in the fashion world, as is Patricia Moyes’ Murder a la Mode – and, there is another book of that name, which I am hoping to read soon. The other (earlier) Murder a la Mode is by Eleanor Kelly Sellars – writer and blogger Helen Szamuely found it and recommended it to me. Watch out for it…

All the photos are from the NY Public Library collection, and from the 1939/40 New York’s World Fair. The World of Fashion luncheon looks like it might be the kind of event the ladies in the book were organizing….

Thursday, 28 August 2014

My Friends the Hungry Generation by Jane Duncan

published 1968

In 1951, when I had last seen my niece, she had been an entrancing three-year-old who was just beginning to read and when the door opened now I was quite unprepared for the leggy coltish eight-year-old dressed in very short shorts and a very dirty white shirt. The first things I noticed about her were the long, beautifully-shaped bare legs, the long, light brown pigtails and the large eyes, shaped and darkly-lashed like the eyes of her mother, but in colour, the brilliant blue of her father’s. The two boys, who stood on either side of her in the doorway, I had never seen before, of course.

[Some time later] George, Tom, Sandy Tom and I followed. On the driveway there was a Land Rover, hitched to it was a small horse-box and looking over the tailboard of this was the hairy face of a little Shetland pony… Miss Forth, George and Tom were leading the pony down the little ramp on to the gravel…. Liz clasped her arms round the pony’s neck and laid her cheek against the wiry mane.

observations: And on we go with Jane Duncan and her alter ego Janet -  it is 1956 now, and she is visiting her brother and his family. Her sister-in-law is having another baby, and Janet ends up looking after the other children, who are the Hungry Generation. Janet is child-free herself, and makes heavy weather of the mysteries of childcare. She is also very soppy and bursts into tears the whole time. Normally these books have a mixture of a current thread and a historical one, but this one is unusually linear, with some reminiscences of Janet’s youth, but otherwise a straight story about the summer looking after the children.

The book is a curiosity in terms of childcare, showing us how much has changed since those days – the children sound positively hysterical and are endlessly badly-behaved, and Janet doesn’t hesitate to spank them. The general level of violence in the house (which is definitely meant to be a happy, loving, normal household) is quite surprising to modern readers I would suggest. In addition the new-born baby (two weeks old, max) is given diluted cow’s milk to drink, and when that doesn’t work, goat’s milk. The Christening happens almost immediately, with no special preparations. When an aunt dies (in the same town) the parents of the new baby both disappear to the bereaved house completely for several days – possibly just a plot device to give Janet more responsibility.

Janet in the book claims that one character loves her son-in-law ‘more, even, than her own daughters or the [grand]children.’ This trope comes up occasionally in books, and always seems to be wholly unconvincing – and in normal circumstances (ie there is nothing wrong or strange about her relationship with her own children) unimaginable. It sounds sniping to say that the author had no children of her own.

I think I enjoyed this one less that others in the series, because of the single setting. More on the series by clicking on the Jane Duncan label below. I have missed out My Friends the Macleans, a rather uninspired entry that ends on the day that this one begins. 

In a serious adult book in the 1960s, it seems very strange that one character will casually give a pony as a thank you gift to a family: in fairytales and old-fashioned children's books, yes, lovely. In real life: worst gift ever.

Girl in shorts, a 1958 photo from the Florida archives via Flickr. The picture of the children on a pony comes from the National Library of Wales.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick

published 2009

set in 2007

With the letter she had sent a photograph of herself, and he could feel the tattered edge of it with his thumb as he raised his hat to one more person, saw, from the corner of his eyes, one more person gauge the unusual sobriety and richness of his black suit and strong boots and fur-collared overcoat. His thumb caressed her face. His eyes could see her features, neither pretty nor homely. Her large clear eyes stared into the photographer’s flash without guile. She wore a simple dress with a plain cloth collar, an ordinary woman who needed a husband enough to marry a stranger twenty years her senior.

He had sent her no photograph in return, nor had she asked for one. He had sent instead a ticket, sent it to the Christian boarding-house in which she stayed in filthy, howling Chicago, and now he stood, a rich man in a tiny town in a cold climate, at the start of a Wisconsin winter in the year 1907. Ralph Truitt waited for the train that would bring Catherine Land to him

observations: Reading this book was part of a project to clear a TBR pile, and that worked out well because  I bought it a while ago, and remembered nothing about it except what you would know from the excerpt above: that a man living in a remote mid-Western town in 1907 advertises for a wife, and she arrives by train. So something like Patricia MacLachlan’s YA classic Sarah, Plain and Tall? No, as it turns out, not one little bit.

I knew it had been described as a gothic creepy tale, but still every surprise and twist came to me fresh, and I enjoyed that – I am a good guesser, and there are only so many ways this plot could go, but still I could lose myself in the overblown prose, even if there were rather too many descriptions of sex.

There was one point where I found the plot unconvincing, but as it turns out, Robert Goolrick had thought of that too, right at the end, so that was satisfying. (I felt the whole business with the original photograph wasn’t really explained, either.)

We find out about Ralph Truitt’s past, and what he wants from the future: we find out some of Catherine Land’s past. He says to her ‘I know. I know what you are doing.’ But does he?

Some of the very lush prose became repetitive, and the endless misery got a bit much, with the sad stories of the people of the town, and the tagline ‘it was just a story about despair.’ But I found it involving, and a little bit unexpected, and I really did want to know what was going to happen to the people.

In Sunday’s entry on John Dickson Carr, another book set in 1907, I featured a picture of a young woman in a bathing-suit. It was captioned in a museum archive as 1907, although it did look much more recent than that, and one valued reader, Daniel Milford-Cottam, helpfully came into the comments to explain why he thought it had been wrongly dated. He was very convincing…. But whatever the truth, the world of bathing suits and exposed legs is very far from the 1907 portrayed in this book.

This photograph here is of Harriet E Giles, a pioneer and advocate of women’s education in the early years of the 20th century, and one of the founders of Spelman College.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

aka Big Little Lies

published 2014

The parents at Pirriwee Public [school] had a baffling fondness for fancy-dress. It wasn’t enough that they should have an ordinary trivia night. She knew from the invitation that some bright spark had decided to make it an ‘Audrey and Elvis’ Trivia Night, which meant that the women all had to dress up as Audrey Hepburn and the men had to dress up as Elvis Presley…

Jane wandered into the crowd, past groups of animated Elvises and giggling Audreys, all of them tossing back the pink cocktails...

[Jane thinks about her new friend Madeleine] A glittery girl. All her life Jane had watched girls like that with scientific interest. Maybe a little awe, mayble a little envy. They weren’t necessarily the prettiest, but they decorated themselves so affectionately, like Christmas Trees, with dangling earrings, jangling bangles and delicate pointless scarves. They touched your arm a lot when they spoke. Jane’s best friend at school had been a Glittery Girl. Jane had a weakness for them.

observations: This book specializes in telling and funny observations, such as the identifying of the Glitter girls above: surely we all recognize the type?

I loved The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty (here on the blog) so was more than happy to read this one, courtesy of the publishers & NetGalley. The book starts with the reader being told that something terrible happens at the Trivia Night above – someone is dead. Moriarty does a great job of teasing the reader throughout, so you really don’t know who is for the chop (I guessed half of it), or what exactly happens at the event, though there is a very pleasing image of physical fighting amongst the Elvis-es and Audreys. The trouble starts among the kindergarten mothers as their children play together: is there bullying, is there violence, is there class-based resentment? I loved the woman who assumed the much younger mother must be a nanny; the parents of the gifted children, and Madeleine assigning ‘their gift was shouting’ to some young twins; the involved husbands who still aren’t quite sure who everyone else is; and Madeleine’s feeling that there was no need to do King Lear at the local theatre: ‘They had enough Shakespearean drama in their own lives in the school playground and on the soccer field.’

My favourite moment in the whole book is probably where Madeleine is thinking through the various infuriating situations in her life and picks up her son’s light sabre, ‘conveniently left on the floor for someone to trip over’, and starts swinging it around in her crossness and almost breaks a light fitting, and imagines trying to explain that away. It has the feeling of pure truth for some mother somewhere.

In fact the book as well as being funny and a good puzzle has a very serious central core about domestic violence which, amid the laughs, is dealt with in a sensitive manner. So it’s a very easy read, and the observational comedy is perfect, but Moriarty is also a very good writer, with some thought-provoking things to say.

Pictures of Audrey Hepburn come from my favourite source, Perry Photography, and used with her kind permission. You can see more of her pictures at Flickr, or at her website weddingsinitalytuscany. Her wonderful photos have featured on the blog many times before.