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Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Patricia Brent, Spinster by Hubert Jenkins

published 1918

[Patricia] recalled a remark of Miss Wangle's that no really nice-minded woman ever dressed in black and white unless she had some ulterior motive. Upon the subject of sex-attraction Miss Wangle posed as an authority…

With great deliberation Patricia selected a black charmeuse costume that Miss Wangle had already confided to the whole of Galvin House was at least two and a half inches too short; but as Patricia had explained to Mrs. Hamilton, if you possess exquisitely fitting patent boots that come high up the leg, it's a sin for the skirt to be too long. She selected a black velvet hat with a large white water-lily on the upper brim. "You look bad enough for a vicar's daughter," she said, surveying herself in the glass as she fastened a bunch of red carnations in her belt. "White at the wrists and on the hat, yes, it looks most improper.”

observations: In a low-key way, I am attempting the Books of the Century challenge this year. The rules, and bloggers’ takes on it, vary, but in my case I am hoping to read during 2014 a book first published in each of the years from 1900-2000.

This won’t get really exciting till the very end of the year, when I am trying to fill in some gaps, but it is obvious already where the difficulties will lie: 1900-1920, and the 1970s and 80s. (So far I have read 70 books for the challenge.) So this book helps in that respect, and it looked like a promising concept for a light romantic read. Patricia Brent lives in a boarding house, and overhears other residents bitching about her loneliness, lack of a husband and so on. Furious, she proclaims that the next night she will be dining with her fiancĂ© at a smart hotel restaurant. Sensation. Above, she is getting ready for her imaginary date – she has decided to go and eat alone that evening. But when she gets there, 3 of the boarding-house residents have turned up to stalk her. So she looks round for a man dining alone, sits herself down at his table and urgently whispers to him to play along. He does.

This is a good start, and takes up the first section of the book. The problem for Mr Jenkins is then to spin out the story for a lot more pages, and unfortunately he does it by making Patricia act in a ridiculous and tiresome way – her chance-met young soldier is obviously the man for her, but that’s not going to fill the book. So Patricia has to have weird qualms, and be incredibly rude and hurtful to many people who are very nice to her. I could have strangled her by the end. So I fear I am too hard-hearted for this book, but it was a cheerful quick read, and had some nice details about life at the end of WW1 in London – a detailed description of an air raid for example. One resident of the boarding-house puts down their escaping from the bomb to the prayers of her uncle the bishop, but another character is:
frankly sceptical. If the august prelate was out to save Galvin House, he suggested, it wasn't quite cricket to let them drop a bomb in the next street.
A very proper response.

The picture above is a 1917 fashion plate from the NY Public Library – I was going to just show the left-hand outfit, but it seemed a shame to lose the others (and particularly the hat on the right). If I hadn’t already used the picture for another entry I might have put Patricia in this excellent outfit:

--though it’s probably too racy. Later on Patricia goes on holiday, and makes this mysterious remark to a woman friend:
‘One thing I won't do, that is wear openwork frocks. The sun shall not print cheap insertion kisses upon Patricia Brent.’
That will make a valuable addition to my list of completely incomprehensible sentences.

Or will it?  In Little Lies by Liane Moriarty, on the blog a while back, there is this: ‘the woman’s dress had an intricately embroidered cutout pattern of flowers all along the neckline. Jane could see tanned freckly skin through the petals.’ Were these cheap insertion kisses?

Leaves and Pages also looked at this book, and had a similar reaction to mine (even choosing the same passage to quote…), while Simon at Stuck in a Book was very enthusiastic about it.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Golden Pavements by Pamela Brown

published 1947

[The Blue Door group has just saved the day in a college theatre production, and now they are going dancing]

Their friends plied them with lemonade, ices and strawberries, and they soon felt restored enough to go over to the Academy wardrobe and remove their Edwardian finery.

In the square the radiogram was playing dance tunes, and, soft-footed on the grass, the students danced. Most of the celebrities had departed, and the fairy lights were lit as dusk fell. All the windows in the square were alight, and dark figures leaned out, watching the dancers. The Blue Doors were the heroes of the hour, and were danced off their feet, until the square and the plane trees and the tall grey houses reeled round them, and the evening breeze blew through their hair.

At last the radiogram played Goodnight, Sweetheart. The fairy lights were extinguished, and it was time to wander home through the darkening streets, tired, yet unwilling to end a golden day.

observations: This is the sequel to the glorious Swish of the Curtain, and is in some ways better, though it will never win hearts the way the schoolchildren-putting-on-a-play plot does. Here the young people of the Blue Door Theatre Company have gone to a RADA-esque drama school in London, and the book follows them through their training: they live in digs & have no money, the girls borrow each other’s stockings (stocking theme week! See Sunday's Guardian entry), they all eat cheap food. It’s a lovely picture of life for a starving student in the late 1940s, and the description of the outdoor dance above struck me as being beautifully done, amid the rather slapdash prose. Of course Brown couldn’t resist the dramatic setup to this – their play wasn’t selected for the Public Show, but at the last minute the original winners got food poisoning, so the Blue Doors had to go on and do Importance of Being Earnest (scenes from) at a moment’s notice. A classic plot turn for this writer.

There are plenty of enjoyable details – I complained of the lack of these in the comparable Lark on the Wing by Elfrida Vipont. Golden Pavements is much less high-minded and more convincing.

I’m always interested in the rise of trouser-wearing by women, and in this book the two young teenage women ‘bought their first pairs of slacks’ to go on a theatrical tour, and face some teasing. Working as Assistant Stage Managers one summer, they wear trousers all the time, and notice as they go back to college that they are dressing ‘more soberly than they had for weeks. “Don’t skirts seem funny after slacks.”’ [It is while in seaside rep that there is a performance of The Constant Nymph - see the relevant entry from this book here, and from the actual Margaret Kennedy Constant Nymph here.]

When a younger sister starts as a student a year or two later, she gets red slacks as part of her going-away outfit, and ends up living ‘in a pair of shabby corduroys, sandals that were always coming to pieces... and shapeless jumpers that came down almost to her knees.’

The dancing students are from the Library of Congress. The second picture is a social sciences student at LSE from the right era, but I thought she looked just like Lynette studying a script in their poky digs.

Monday, 20 October 2014

1000th entry: A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor

published 1951

Section set in the mid-1920s

[A group of children and young people are out buying shoes]

All three of them were united in their praise of Vesey’s choice and as the shoes were only eighteen and elevenpence there would be two shillings left which Vesey said he could quite justifiably spend on ice-cream. Harriet admired the way in which he took his time, discussed his plans, and had shoes lying about all over the floor. The assistant, who had begun with tan Oxfords, now withdrew from the discussion, wearing the look of aloof distaste Vesey had grown so used to seeing on the faces of schoolmasters.

[Later, back at the house]

‘Vesey bought some nice shoes,’ Harriet interposed.

‘Yes, we must look at them after tea.’

‘They are grey,’ Deirdre said.

[Vesey's aunt] Caroline frowned. ‘How do you mean – grey?’

‘They are grey suede,’ Vesey said quietly. He looked down sideways at the tablecloth, leaning back in his chair as if fatigued.

‘Grey suede,’ said Caroline.


A little silence fell; or rather, was drawn down. Caroline picked up her cup and drank tea steadily. Her cheekbones were scarlet.

‘Aren’t grey shoes nice?’ Joseph asked. Caroline smiled as she replaced the cup very quietly in its saucer.

‘Nice?’ she repeated in her amused, indulgent voice. ‘I don’t think “nice” or “nasty” enter into it.’

observations: This is certainly the funniest description of shoe-buying I have ever read – the excruciating snobbery and fear of vulgarity (or gayness?) is wonderful – ‘grey suede shoes! What will his mother think?’ Caroline says later. Poor Vesey, doomed forever to rebel in the wrong way. He can’t seem either to conform, or be dashing when he doesn’t. 

As I find to my surprise that I am up to my 1000th entry on this blog, the extract is perfect for several reasons. It is a great book, one I only heard of through blogging, and shows exactly why I like to record clothes (and, of course, accessories) in books - explaining character & social aspirations, and making us laugh, via how people look and what they wear and choose, and how we can or cannot imagine doing the same.

The book is quite fragmentary – the first section has Harriet and Vesey as teenagers visiting and staying in the same house in the country, making clumsy attempts to form a relationship. Vesey isn’t particularly nice to Harriet, and she seems doomed to hopeless passion. Her mother and his aunt are great friends, both were suffragettes years before – they reminded me of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, recently much on the blog, and Valentine Wannop grown up. 

After a hilarious section where she works in a gown shop (nicer than a dress shop), Harriet meets Charles, a kind, older man with a hilariously awful mother, Julia (the explanation for why she wants a male doctor: "‘A man is half the battle,’ she added mysteriously.")

They marry.

The next section is around 20 years later – some time after WW2, when Harriet is the mother of a teenage girl, living a satisfactory suburban life. Vesey turns up again – a not-particularly-successful actor. And now the book seems to combine the best bits of Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Bowen and Madame Bovary, as the pair realize what they should have known long ago: they love each other. Harriet does not want to hurt her husband, or desert her daughter. There seems no way out. 

The #bookadayuk meme on Twitter is a great way to hear about other people’s favourite books, and this recommendation came from Ali Hope Book Addict: she reviewed the book on her blog a while back – one of the nice things about the meme is that it doesn’t have to be this week’s book or blogpost, you get to hear about old favourites and past reviews. I had read a couple of other books by Taylor, but I am going to agree with Ali that this is the best one so far, and I am endlessly grateful to her for pointing it out.

FYI, in case anyone isn't sure, this is  not Elizabeth Taylor the filmstar, who has popped up on the blog a few times as an actress.

A Game of Hide and Seek is an absolute masterpiece, a really stunning piece of writing. There will  be another entry on this book.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Dress Down Sunday: Guardian Books Blog & Stockings in Books

Today’s post appears on the Guardian books blog and is about stockings, nylons and tights in literature – and my theory that the coming of nylon took out legwear as a class marker. The lovely Samantha Ellis - who is much admired on this blog for her book How to be a Heroine - described the piece as combining
 'impeccable research & epic frivolity', which is about the nicest compliment I could have. 

The article is here at the Guardian.

This is part of it:

In his final Narnia book, The Last Battle, published in 1956, CS Lewis betrayed every teenage girl with the line: “Oh Susan! She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations.” With those words, Susan was gone, a lost cause, condemned by her legwear.

This month marks the 75th anniversary of the first limited production by DuPont of nylon stockings, and though Lewis has his fuddy duddy disdain for them, I’m going to claim a bigger and better significance. Nylons (and later tights) meant the democratisation of women’s legs. Until they became widely available in the 1940s, there had always been a sharp division between silk stockings and cheaper, more hard-wearing ones, made from cotton and lisle (respectable) or fake silk (dubious).

In Ulysses (set in 1904, published 1922), either James Joyce or Leopold Bloom has a lot to say: there’s Gertie and her stockings, Zoe and her garters, the display of “rays of flat silk stockings” in the department store and Molly Bloom’s “silkette stockings”. This was a silk-effect material, which AA Milne noted as inferior in his 1922 crime story The Red House Mystery, when a shopping trip to buy silk stockings for his sister throws the jovial narrator into a fret: “Could I be sure I was getting silk and not silkette … ?”

In her memoir The Laughing Torso, Nina Hamnett has brightly coloured stockings in pre-first-world-war Paris, and some with chessboard squares. But she tells us that Gertrude Stein wears grey woollen stockings (she was a bohemian, you see). And Hamnett herself lamented to a market seller that she couldn’t afford silk. He said it would be “an investment”, and she was “flattered that he mistook me for a lady of loose morals”.

“Art silk” stockings are much mentioned in books of the era, and I can’t be the only reader who initially thought they were particularly fancy ones – perhaps with a nice design on them. But actually it was short for “artificial silk”…


Naturally Agatha Christie features in the piece – she’s always my go-to author for sociological distinctions – in particular the stockings in this entry on The Moving Finger. Also there’s blog favourite Noel Streatfeild, and Viv Albertine coming right up to date.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

My Friend the Swallow by Jane Duncan

published 1970

[Percy is a young woman staying with narrator Janet and her husband Twice on the Caribbean island where they live]

On the morning of the regatta, Percy came down in navy slacks, white shirt and navy canvas shoes, her pony tail tied back with a fluttering bow of navy blue ribbon.

‘Pretty, isn’t she?’ Twice said to me on the veranda steps.

‘Very pretty,’ I agreed and added: ‘That hair ribbon is what Monica would call a Suivez-moi-jeune-homme and some young man is going to obey it one of these days.’…

He and Percy watched the sailing from the Peak Cliff in the grounds of the hotel, but the sailing was a secondary consideration for the regatta… was first of all a break in the routine, an opportunity to talk to people… Percy herself resembled a butterfly, swooping and loitering over a flowerbed, as she moved from one group of people to the next.

observations: This marathon series of books is lumbering towards a conclusion: I read them as a teenager and have been re-reading them all over the past 15 months. They drive me mad, but I also enjoy them greatly – though now I can’t imagine what I saw in them as a young person, they seem designed much more to appeal to someone of my current age.

The last one – The Hungry Generation – was a weaker entry and marked time somewhat. This one I remember very well from first time around, because something very dramatic happens in it, and the final pages of the book are startling (even on a second read). Given a storyline where a beautiful young woman has made friends with an older, childless couple, there are many directions in which the plot might predictably go. And as the book bumbles along with the usual picture of life on the island of St Jago, Twice and Janet benignly watching the goings-on of the young people, you do wonder what will happen. There is some love and romance and every so often a fill-in of someone’s backstory. But the final pages I found unexpectedly moving and unsentimental, with a haunting note of unvarnished truth about them.

Percy herself - you only find out late in the book why she has such an odd name, what it’s short for, (though you can guess) and it has been carefully planned - is an excellent character, very far from the stock figures Duncan sometimes creates. She reminds me of the figure of Northey in Nancy Mitford’s Don’t Tell Alfred.

It’s a great shame that no-one else seems to read Jane Duncan any more – she was a huge bestseller in her day. I would love to find someone else who had read the series recently, so I could discuss the books, but no-one seems to…. Click on the label below to read about the rest of the series.

The picture, from the Library of Congress, shows the crowd watching a regatta off Hains Point, which is in Washington DC.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Letter From Home by Carolyn Hart

published 2003, set in the 1940s

[A neighbour is describing exciting events in her quiet suburban street]

“…That’s when I ran to the phone and called the police. Before Sergeant Petty came – and I don’t think it’s right to have a woman in pants like that, I don’t care if that’s what war workers wear –“ She lifted her hand, pressed it to her lips, then cried, “Oh, I’m sorry, Gretchen, I know your mother works at the plant in Tulsa and it’s real important to have people working to make the airplanes and I know she has to dress that way, but Sergeant Petty looks almost like a man and she walks like one too.

[Later, Gretchen's mother is visiting from the Douglas Aircraft plant in Tulsa]

Gretchen ran to the front door. The dark blue Buick was dusty… the passenger door swung out. Wiry blond curls poked from beneath a saucer of a hat with a bright pink feather.

“Mother! Mother!” Gretchen jumped down the steps, ran. Her mother ran, too, despite her high heels and short skirt.

observations: When I featured a different Carolyn Hart book on the blog (Brave Hearts, see entry here) my blogging friend TracyK mentioned that she had this book, and had heard good things about it. As Brave Hearts had come via Col and his Criminal Library, there was a certain symmetry in obtaining the second one. (Making online friends can lead to an augmented TBR pile…)

Anyway I started reading it, thinking it was an interesting but routine story about a teenage girl growing up in small-town America during the Second World War – but slowly it pulled me in, and manipulated my emotions. Gretchen’s mother is away at an aircraft plant, as above, she lives with her grandmother, helps out at the family cafĂ©, and really wants to be a journalist. Her friend Barb lives nearby, and so when there is trouble over there, Gretchen wants to help her friend, and also wants to get the story. This is a crime/murder story, but more than that.

The atmosphere of a small town in Oklahoma is very well done, and so is the feel for wartime, and of course the clothes they all wear. Hart was born in 1936 so must have been younger than Gretchen, but you would guess that the background is her own and truly authentic. One thing I liked about the book was that she clearly had points to make – about tolerance, about gossip, about the effects of war, and about prejudice – and she most certainly makes them in the book: you wouldn’t have any doubt about where she stands on these issues. But still they are a genuine part of the story, and the plot is very well done and holds your interest. I found parts of the book highly affecting, and even had to brush away the odd tear. One thing Gretchen tries to do is to show the truth about someone who has died, and whose Bohemian and unconventional ways have been blamed for her death – ‘bringing it on herself.’ She collects memories from friends, and from those whose lives were touched by the dead woman, to try to put things right. The whole section is beautifully done, and is a legitimate part of the plot.

This is an odd little book, and one I might easily have missed – but it’s a very good one, so thanks to both Col and Tracy for leading me to it.

The women working in the aircraft fuselage in the top picture are at a Douglas Aircraft Factory (although they are in California, and the mother mentioned above works in Tulsa) working on a Flying Fortress in 1942. The picture is from the Library of Congress. The fashion sketch, for spring 1941, is from the New York Public Library digital collection.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Thursday List: Top 5 Book-to-TV adaptations

They don't all have weddings in - just most of them

Last week I looked at my favourite great books that made good films, or vice versa - and that made me think about books that made great TV programmes. So I made a top 5 list for that too:

1) The Godfather by Mario Puzo   This could easily have been on the best books-to-films list, but there is an intriguing TV connection too. Director Francis Ford Coppola authorized a new edit of the first two films, re-arranged so the whole thing is in chronological order, and with some restored footage. Apparently Coppola did it to try to make money for Apocalypse Now. There is a version that’s more than seven hours long, shown on US TV in 1977. A six-hour-plus version was released to video in 1981. When the much-reviled Godfather III came out, yet another (nine-hour) TV version was produced.

There is a view that Godfather 2 is the only sequel ever made that was better than the first film, and I have heard critics add ‘and Godfather is the only franchise where the TV version is better than the films’. I go back and forth on this one: one of the stunning things about Godfather 2 is the parallel stories of young Vito and Michael, in alternating POVs - Coppola says that every single scene about one of them is matched by a scene about the other. Chronological rearrangement loses that. But on the other hand, to watch the whole saga straight through is one that every Godfather fan should do at least once. The one to go for, in my important view, is the 1981 version, which has not been censored for TV, but still contains a lot of extra material.

The book – a masterpiece in the rough - is here on the blog, and Mario Puzo writes about his relations with Frank Sinatra here.

2) Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh Like everyone my age, I watched this 11-episode series when it went out in 1981 (most people hadn’t even a VCR then…) and it is regularly listed in any poll of the best TV programmes ever. It is lavish and beautifully-acted (the castlist is amazing) and very very faithful to the book. When I read the book now I hear Jeremy Irons intoning in my head - he seems to have read half Waugh’s words out in voiceover. Contrary to what many Americans believe, it was not a BBC production but was made by the Northern company Granada for ITV, the commercial channel.

It is a pleasure to watch, though it does seem to say a lot about the era it was made rather than when it was written: the Thatcher years had begun in Britain. Re-watching it a few years ago I was thinking ‘they would never do that now – it’s all mini-series now, they wouldn’t do 11 episodes with those production values and location shooting and costumes and period details'. But what with Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey, perhaps I was wrong.

But the real reason this makes it onto the list is because of the contrast with the 2008 film of Brideshead Revisited.

This is the official trailer:

My pedantic contention is that there are at least three things just in this 2.5 minute trailer which are completely wrong for anyone who has read the book properly, or understood the first thing about it, or about Waugh. (Young people in Venice at Carnival; endless scenes of Sebastian, Julia and Charles; it’s all about Charles). It’s a pity because Ben Whishaw is magnificent as Sebastian, and Emma Thompson excellent as Lady Marchmain (I did see the film, I'm not basing this on the trailer): but the script is a travesty. As a completely different story maybe it works, but it is NOT Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead. So it makes the respectful TV series look very good indeed in comparison.

There are two entries on the book on the blog: here and here.

3) My Family and other Animals by Gerald Durrell This was a BBC production of 2005: they like to do something for the whole family to watch at Christmas, and it must have made perfect viewing on a cold December day, being the story of a very English family who decamp to Corfu for a couple of years in the 1930s. I came to it later, and think it’s an enchanting video: startlingly beautiful, with lovely wildlife photography, and a hilarious picture of family life. The acting is topnotch – Imelda Staunton, Matthew Goode, Russell Tovey – and Eugene Simon as the little boy Gerald is perfect. 

It is always hard to remember that his annoying and unconventional big brother Larry is actually the august author Lawrence Durrell of Alexandria Quartet fame. This is one of the cases where I am going to say that I like the adaptation better than the original book. The film ends with the outbreak of the Second World War, and so has a hint of melancholy and nostalgia to round it off perfectly. Whatever will happen to these people in the next six years….?

Anne Boleyn - which one is the other?

4) The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory is a book I like very much. Although people may be snooty about it, comparing it unfavourably with Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies (which I also love), I think that it was Gregory who changed the face of historical fiction forever, and all 3 books are part of a continuum. I love the personal tone, the abrasive competitive women, the picture of sisters as rivals, families as political businesses, sex as a means to get on. There is a Hollywood film starring Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson, and it isn’t bad at all, but the 2003 TV version – Natasha McEllhone and Jodhi May – is much better. It’s a BBC production, and the makers decided to be innovative and quite daring, taking the risk of being dismissed as gimmicky and anachronistic. But I thought it worked exceptionally well: though hard to describe without being off-putting. It is in some ways a traditional costume drama, but interspersed with pieces to camera like video diaries by the main characters. This makes it more intimate and real, makes you think of it as the story of young woman caught in a complicated situation not of their own making. Loved it. The book is on the blog a fair bit.

5) Wives and Daughters by Mrs Gaskell One of my top 10 books of all time, and one of the first books ever to feature on the blog. I was very cautious about watching a TV adapation of it, fearing that Andrew Davies (prone to sexing up and adding his own flourishes) would mess it up. But – there is a great interview with him online here which would give you faith that he knew exactly what he was doing, and Mrs G died without finishing the book, so his tidying up the ending is justifiable. The interview is a great introduction to the book, and its themes of broken families, social climbing, the search for love. He says somewhere else that this is a book that teaches us how to live, and I’m never too sure what that means, but it sounds about right. It is a beautifully done production – when I watched it on DVD I was intending to spread the 4 episodes out over a month, but ended up completely box-setting it. Rosamund Pike, now so prominent in Gone Girl, has a nice role in it, and if you don't blink you can just spot the marvellously versatile and charismatic Sheridan Smith playing a housemaid whose one line is dubbed….

So there's my Top 5. Please comment below to add your own favourite TV adaptations.