Monday, 31 December 2012

New Year's Eve: a horribly memorable party

the book:

High Rising by Angela Thirkell

published 1933  chapter 5


Long, long were Adrian and Laura to remember that New Year’s Eve as perhaps the most uncomfortable dinner-party either of them had ever been at. When they arrived, a little late, the Knoxes, Miss Grey and Dr Ford were already assembled… George Knox handed her to the seat next to him. She found Dr Ford on her other side, then Sibyl, then Adrian, and then Miss Grey, who was thus sitting next to George as well.

‘Well,’ said Laura, as they sat down, ‘I must say, George, your women do you credit tonight.’ And so they did. Laura’s rather noble, battered beauty stood apart, without competing. Miss Grey’s sleek golden hair shone in the lamplight, and in her pale green gown she looked like a water-maiden. The dark-haired, dark-eyed Sibyl, in red, was sparkling unconsciously for Adrian. Both looked extremely attractive.

‘It is you who honour us, dear Laura,’ said her host. ‘You are indeed a goddess tonight. You make me think of Mrs Siddons, in your sables.’

‘More likely Mrs Crummles, George…’


observations: Mrs Siddons (1755-1831) was a notable tragedienne of great renown, famed for her unmatched Lady Macbeth: Mrs Crummles (from Dickens’s Nicholas Nickelby) is an actress in an undistinguished travelling theatre troupe, in a tarnished cloak. Laura is both self-deprecating and learned, and she is a bit too much of a Mary Sue character - plucky but poor, beloved by all around her, witty and charming. But if Angela Thirkell seems to be her own heroine, at least that means you know where you are with her, and the story rattles along in a light-hearted manner, covering the full emotional range of upper-class life, unrequited love, and difficulties with the staff.

The New Year’s Eve party is problematic because of jealousies and affairs of the heart, and one rather unbalanced character (Miss Grey, above) getting upset. Adrian drinks too much and then crashes his car on the way home – not taken very seriously in 1933. The evening will end with an excruciating marriage proposal.

The book has been reprinted as a Virago Modern Classic – it would be interesting to know if they ever considered editing out sentences (horribly typical for the 1930s) like these: ‘If Adrian had a touch of Jewish blood, it was all to the good in his business capacity and in his dark handsomeness’ and ‘You are a Jew and a shark… who battens on widows.’

Links on the blog: There is in the book a (completely irrelevant) description, by the comic but faithful servant, of what would seem to be Morris dancing, which featured in a
blog entry on a very different book. New Year's Eve parties feature in How to be Lost, Little Women, and Adrian Mole.

The picture is by Delphin Enjolras and can be found on
The Athenaeum website.

Sunday, 30 December 2012

Dress Down Sunday: The right bra...

Dress Down Sunday -
looking at what goes on under the clothes

the book:

Travels with my Aunt by Graham Greene

Published 1969     Part 1 Chapter 11

[Narrator Henry Pulling, wants to visit the Louvre] … but my aunt would have none of it. ‘All those naked women with bits missing,’ she said. ‘It’s morbid. I once knew a girl who was chopped up that way between the Gare du Nord and Calais Maritime. She had met a man in the place where I worked who travelled in ladies’ underwear – or so he said, and he certainly had an attaché case with him full of rather fanciful brassieres which he persuaded her to try on. There was one shaped like two clutching black hands that greatly amused her. He invited her to go to England with him, and she broke her contract with our patronne and decamped. It was quite a cause celebre. He was called the Monster of the Chemins de Fer by the newspapers, and he was guillotined, after making his confession and receiving the sacrament, in an odour of sanctity. It was said by his counsel that he had a misplaced devotion to virginity owing to his education by the Jesuits, and he therefore tried to remove all girls who led loose lives…. The brassieres were a kind of test. You were condemned if you chose the wrong one like those poor men in the Merchant of Venice…’

observations: Another visit to this rather marvellous book: a typically shocking anecdote to broaden the horizons of the bank manager Henry, and a glimpse into the riotous past of Aunt Augusta – when in her 70s she looks ‘rather as the late Queen Mary of beloved memory might have dressed if she had still been with us and had adapted herself a little bit towards the present mode’, but we suspect she wasn’t as formal or as respectable in her past. And indeed we see her in a bathing suit, here.

A 1972
film of the book gave the part of the aunt to Maggie Smith, who was under 40 at the time, and although she is a wonderful actress, the film was a travesty, with Aunt Augusta played as a quirky eccentric aunt, a bit fussy, a bit Wodehouse – when the point surely is that she really did live a risqué life, close to the edge and full of drama and sexual freedom. As Nancy Mitford wrote to Evelyn Waugh, after reading The End of the Affair: “What a sexy man he must be, Mr Greene.”

The bra with the clasped hands sounds splendid, and should surely be created by some enterprising manufacturer.

Links up with: More Dress Down by clicking on the label below, more Travels, more
bras, more clothes to be murdered in. And you can see how Queen Mary dressed in 1937 in one of the pictures in this entry.

The picture is a French advert for early forms of bras, of approximately the right era, though you feel Graham Greene might actually have had something more modern in mind. 

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Xmas Hat - something rather startling

the book:

Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

published 2012  Part I chapter 3

[Christmas 1535]

Today the ambassador is wearing a startling hat. More like the sort that George Boleyn sports, than a hat for a grave councillor. ‘What do you think, Cremuel?’ He tilts it.

‘Very becoming. I must get one of those.

‘Allow me to present you …’ Chapuys removes it from his head with a flourish, then reconsiders. ‘No, it would not fit your big head. I shall have one made for you.’ He takes his arm. ‘Mon cher, your household is a delight as always. But may we talk apart?


‘Sir,’ Rafe says. ‘I have been wanting to ask. Is that your new hat?’

‘No,’ he says gravely. ‘It is the hat of the ambassador of Spain and the Empire. Would you like to try it on?’

[April 1536:  Thomas Cromwell talking to Chapuys:] "If you want to cheer me up, get out that Christmas hat of yours. It was a pity you had to put it away for mourning. Easter would be none too soon to see it again.’

‘I think you are making jokes, Thomas, at the expense of my hat. I have heard that while it was in your custody it was derided, not only by your clerks but by your stable boys and dog-keepers.’

‘The reverse is true. There were many applications to try it on. I wish that we may see it at all major feasts of the church.’

‘Once again,’ Chapuys says, ‘your piety does you credit.’

observations: The relationship between Thomas Cromwell and Eustache Chapuys, the Spanish Ambassador, is one of the joys of this book, and of its predecessor, Wolf Hall. In the first book, Cromwell notices that Chapuys is like an actor in his gestures:

When he thinks, he casts his eyes down, places two fingers to his forehead. When he sorrows, he sighs. When he is perplexed, he wags his chin, he half-smiles. 

This time around, the hat comes close to doing the acting for him: when upset, Chapuys 
slumps forward with his elbows on his knees. His hat sinks lower, till he removes it altogether and puts it on the table; not without a glance of regret.

Then later:
Chapuys himself keeps a firm hold on his hat. Its tassels are damp and drooping, and the ambassador himself looks as if he might cry.
It’s as we always say in Clothes in Books: what you wear on your head is very important. See Hats, Hats, Hats for more thoughts on this, and links to other hat entries.
Links up with: Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies have both featured before.
The picture is a German statue of a man throwing something, from roughly the right era, and certainly with the right kind of fanciful hat, which is never directly described in the book.

Friday, 28 December 2012

Xmas Show - panto time, and a fairy godmother

the book:

Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild

published 1936    chapter 17

That Christmas Pauline was engaged for the Fairy-Godmother in a pantomime of Cinderella, and Petrova was one of twenty-four jumping beans who were to do speciality dances in Jack and the Beanstalk in a theatre in the suburbs.

Pauline’s film was finished, and there was no suggestion of using her for another, so she was glad to get the Fairy Godmother, though she found the words she had to say terrible rubbish. Petrova and Posy thought her part an awful joke. They quoted it endlessly: ‘Oh Cinders Cinders do not fear. Your Fairy Godmother is here’ Posy said on bursting into the bathroom while Pauline was in the bath…. Pauline did not care how much they laughed, she had the most lovely fairy dress for the transformation scene, and rather a nice solo dance to do. Nana was entranced by her dress.

‘That’s more like it,’ she said, ‘white and silver tissue, and nice wings and a wand – nothing could be prettier. That’s better than those high-brow combinations.’

observations: This entry needs to be read in conjunction with
this one and this one, when Pauline previously played a fairy. Petrova’s jumping-bean is harder to imagine – the costume featured in the most recent BBC adaptation of Ballet Shoes, but didn’t look quite right to this reader, looked more of a mange-tout or a snowpea. The TV film was quite splendid though, with plenty of free adaptation from the book – but fair enough. Petrova was made a lot more feisty, no bad thing.

The pantomime is a British tradition at Christmas and still going strong – a complex, over-the-top entertainment with a huge cast and a bit of everything thrown in: dancing, singing, flying, magic tricks, audience participation, topical jokes, cross-dressing. The US tradition of the Nutcracker looks pretty tame and tasteful beside it.

Links up with: Special Xmas entries this week and next. The Alice-substitute in After Such Kindness dresses up as a fairy for photos
here, and Puck doesn’t dress much at all.

The fairy godmother in the picture looks a tad older than Pauline, but the outfit is certainly splendid  and gaudy enough to delight the children. The picture is from the
state library of New South Wales.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Xmas Nativity Play: schoolgirls dressed as angels

the book:

End of Term by Antonia Forest

published 1959  chapter 8


[The choir, dressed as angels, are waiting to go into the Cathedral to sing in a Nativity play, when they encounter some small children]

He was staring unblinkingly at Miranda.

With the gold cardboard circle on the back of her head, and her stern vivid face, she really did look, thought the surprised Nicola, rather like one of the carved angels in the reredos…. The little boy went on staring at Miranda, and continued to stare, gazing over his shoulder as he was marched off, and wrenching his hand away from his virtuous partner who wanted to yank him round and make him behave. Miranda was the first angel he’d ever seen, and he meant to make the most of her.

The curtain dropped back into place. And suddenly Nicola felt sober – sober and responsible. Did that infant really think of them, not as schoolgirls dressed up, but as angels who had arrived, naturally enough, to re-enact – or didn’t he even think that? Did he think, as perhaps one might if one were five, that this was the first Christmas being done over again?

observations: The Kingscote School Nativity Play gave us our Christmas Day entry too. The book is an account of life at a rather posh girls’ boarding school in the England of the early 1950s (time is a slippery concept in Antonia Forest’s books - the young characters remember ‘before the [second world] war’ in the first books, but are firmly in the early 1980s by the last one). This autumn term features netball, and quarrels, and lessons, and rehearsals for this play, and some unfairness all round – many of the girls’ parts in the play have been changed round at the last minute in a desperate attempt to make it all OK. So far, so routine, you might think.

Forest wrote 12 books, not particularly famous in her own time, over a period of 35 years, and died in 2003. The books should be forgettable and forgotten, but for a small number of determined fans, her world lives on. There is a website,
Trennels, devoted to her work, and the books are being reprinted by Girls Gone By Publishers – who have also produced a fan-written followup to the books, Spring Term. Forest, and the books, arouse a peculiar, intense devotion in her admirers, even if most people have never heard of her. Hard to describe, or explain, and it might sound crazy to suggest that the books – stories of Middle England teens - are better than many adult novels. But they are.

Links up with: Xmas entries all last week and this week. The Nativity Play featured on Christmas Day.
Jennings and Katy went to boarding schools. So did the Little Princess, and the notes on her entry mention Forest.

picture is of an angel sculpture from a nativity scene at the Cathedral of La Antigua Guatemala.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Xmas Presents - parents coming up trumps

the book:

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford

published 1945    chapter 3

Christmas Day was spent, as usual at Alconleigh, between alternate bursts of sunshine and showers…

I must admit that my wicked parents turned up trumps at Christmas, and my presents from them were always the envy of the entire household. This year my mother, who was in Paris, sent a gilded bird-cage full of stuffed humming-birds which, when wound up, twittered and hopped about and drank at a fountain. She also sent a fur hat and a gold and topaz bracelet,

whose glamour was enhanced by the fact that Aunt Sadie considered them unsuitable for a child, and said so. My father sent a pony and cart, a very smart and beautiful little outfit, which had arrived some days before, and been secreted by Josh in the stables…

Linda cried with envy. "It is unfair," she kept saying, "that you should have wicked parents and not me." We persuaded Josh to take us for a drive after luncheon…Linda wore my hat and drove the pony. We got back late for the Tree - the house was already full of tenants and their children; Uncle Matthew, who was struggling into his Father Christmas clothes, roared at us so violently that Linda had to go and cry upstairs, and was not there to collect her own present from him.
Uncle Matthew had taken some trouble to get her a longed-for dormouse and was greatly put out by this; he roared at everybody in turn, and ground his dentures. There was a legend in the family that he had already ground away four pairs in his rages.

observations: This couldn’t be more different from most of our lives, and yet the sunshine and showers of Christmas transcend boundaries: the incident where present-giving goes wrong and everyone is upset; the envy of children for the one with the wicked parents. And the significant detail: why is Linda wearing Fanny’s fur hat and driving the pony and cart? Linda is highly entertaining, and in the book much-loved and a general favourite, but she is one of those heroines whose charms are more apparent to the characters around her than to the reader. Spoilt and selfish, she seems to us.

Links up with: Christmas entries all this week and last. Nancy Mitford has featured on the blog many times before - click on the label below. Nancy’s sister Diana wrote the description of the Duchess of Windsor in the
Abdication entry earlier this month.

The young woman is a picture of Lady Duveen by Halmi, the Christmas tree is by Lovis Corinth. The gold bracelet is in the British Museum, and the pony and cart came from Flickr.

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Nativity Scene - Happy Xmas

the book:

End of Term by Antonia Forest

published 1959  chapter 9


[a performance of the school Nativity play in a Cathedral in the south of England]

The Cherubs came from the north aisle carrying straw and manger, and climbed the steps to furnish the stable in a grave careful ritual which entailed much handing one from another and respectful bowings as they did so… the Cherubs knelt in groups of three about the stable, Mary and Joseph began their slow walk down the centre aisle.

Mary and Joseph crossed the stage to the stable. Two Cherubs sprang up to open the doors, and, when they had passed through, closed them again and stood stiffly before them as sentries.

The lights came up on the stable again, and there were Mary and Joseph, and the Shepherds climbing the steps towards them.

Two Cherubs, carrying the Star, rose, climbed to the topmost step, attached the Star to the hook on the end of the thin black thread which hung directly above the stable, and scrambled down again to their places, looking distinctly relieved. They hadn’t dropped it, and sucks to all their friends…

A Happy Christmas to all readers of the blog.

picture is a sand sculpture made in Australia by John Suchomlin sometime before 1940. More about the book later in the week.

Monday, 24 December 2012

Xmas Eve Party - headed for trouble

the book:

Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

published 1874   chapter 51


Bathsheba was at this time in her room, dressing for the event. She had called for candles, and Liddy entered and placed one on each side of her mistress's glass.

"Don't go away, Liddy," said Bathsheba, almost timidly. "I am foolishly agitated -- I cannot tell why. I wish I had not been obliged to go to this dance; but there's no escaping now. I have not spoken to Mr Boldwood since the autumn, when I promised to see him at Christmas on business, but I had no idea there was to be anything of this kind… I am the reason of the party -- I. If it had not been for me, there would never have been one. I can't explain any more -- there's no more to be explained. I wish I had never seen Weatherbury."

"That's wicked of you -- to wish to be worse off than you are."

"No, Liddy. I have never been free from trouble since I have lived here, and this party is likely to bring me more. Now, fetch my black silk dress, and see how it sits upon me."

"But you will leave off that, surely, ma'am? You have been a widow-lady fourteen months, and ought to brighten up a little on such a night as this."

"Is it necessary? No; I will appear as usual, for if I were to wear any light dress people would say things about me, and I should seem to be rejoicing when I am solemn all the time. The party doesn't suit me a bit; but never mind, stay and help to finish me off."


observations: She’s not wrong about the party bringing more trouble – this book has a driving, melodramatic and rather satisfying plot. Bathsheba makes several men fall in love with her, and she is a convincing femme fatale, a great example of character drawing by Hardy. As Christmas parties go this is going to be a cracker.

One odd thing about the book is the chapter headings – they resemble the author’s notes, summarizing the chapter contents more than is usual – you can see a list
here – so in a rather modern manner they end up looking like a cinema shooting script – night, interior, interior, scene.

Links up with: Bathsheba has featured
before. Black dresses for Chekhov heroines discussed here. More heroines in black silk dresses here and here, and Anna Karenina is briefly happy in black velvet. The Marchioness-to-be wore a black dress in this entry last week.

The painting of a Russian princess can be found here. It is by Winterhalter, who specialized in beautiful women in beautiful dresses.


Sunday, 23 December 2012

The importance of clothes at Christmas

the theme:

Christmas and New Year


Last week and next week we are doing special Christmas-themed entries – including an office party, a Xmas house party (and murder), festivities in hospital, a Christmas panto, and that memorable scene  of wholly unsuitable presents from the beginning of Pursuit of Love: ‘my wicked parents turned up trumps.’

Christmas has featured in other entries already. There’s a party in
this entry by a guest blogger, from the aptly-named A Week in December, and oh look, here’s one of the guests:


Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley goes to the Christmas dance at a teacher training college, and has her wardrobe severely 
criticized, while Meg and Jo are invited to a New Year’s Eve party in Little Women, and are panicking about gloves.

Adrian Mole goes to a
fancy dress party for New Year’s Eve 2002, and is horrified by his partner’s choice of costume:


And there is a hilarious scene of cocktail waitresses having a disastrous New Year’s Eve from the book
How to be Lost – ‘why is that stripper crying?’ indeed.

Gifts of clothes can go either way: Charlie in The Perks of being a Wallflower participates in a Secret Santa, with mixed results, and dresses unsuitably for High School.

Meanwhile Anne Shirley – Anne of Green Gables – gets the dress she has always dreamed of from Matthew, in a scene to make a stone cry.


The main picture at the top is from
George Eastman House. Follow the links to the entries to find the other credits.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Xmas Murder - en route to the house-party of death

the book:

Hercule Poirot's Christmas by Agatha Christie

published 1938   Part I - December 22nd


And then, suddenly, he caught his breath, looking into a [railway] carriage. This girl was different. Black hair, rich creamy pallor — eyes with the depth and darkness of night in them. The sad proud eyes of the South… It was all wrong that this girl should be sitting in this train among these dull, drab-looking people — all wrong that she should be going into the dreary midlands of England. She should have been on a balcony, a rose between her lips, a piece of black lace draping her proud head, and there should have been dust and heat and the smell of blood — the smell of the bull-ring — in the air. She should be somewhere splendid, not squeezed into the corner of a third-class carriage.

He was an observant man. He did not fail to note the shabbiness of her little black coat and skirt, the cheap quality of her fabric gloves, the flimsy shoes and the defiant note of a flame-red handbag. Nevertheless splendour was the quality he associated with her. She was splendid, fine, exotic…

What the hell was she doing in this country of fogs and chills and hurrying industrious ants?

observations: This passage is listed on a website called Thought Catalog* as one of Agatha Christie’s top 10 racist moments, so we bring it to you proudly. (Really, THIS is your best shot? Dude, you’re not trying).

The cover of a recent paperback shows a grinning skull wearing a Santa hat. It’s a very well-done picture but it is wholly inappropriate for the book - as we pointed out with Christie’s
Halloween Party, she gives us the occasion, a bit of seasonal description, then we bring our own thoughts to the setup, while she gets on with planting clues and trailing red herrings. Fictional murder at Christmas is usually about the awful destruction of a family atmosphere – in this case you think the party wouldn’t have been much better without the murder. It’s great stuff though, one of her very best, with a victim you don’t much care about, some of those weird long-married couples AC likes dissecting, and young Pilar, above, being very Spanish.

A ‘coat and skirt’ isn’t what it sounds like – it is what we would call a suit. It was also sometimes called ‘a costume’ back in the day.

We said, talking about PG Wodehouse last week, that only Christie could match him for percentage of impostors in a plot, and HPC would be Exhibit A in that field.

Links up with: Agatha Christie has featured many times – click on the label below – and there are Xmas entries all last week and next.

picture – don’t you just want to stare and stare – was taken outside an American railway station in 1940.

*No link. This is deliberate. When I looked at some of their other items, the Christie/racism list was one of the better ones. ‘Supporting the future of journalism’ it says on the site. We’re all doomed then.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Xmas Dickens - a spooky tale

the book:

The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens

Published in incomplete serial form in 1870 chapers 7 & 10


What is prettier than an old lady--except a young lady--when her eyes are bright, when her figure is trim and compact, when her face is cheerful and calm, when her dress is as the dress of a china shepherdess: so dainty in its colours, so individually assorted to herself, so neatly moulded on her? Nothing is prettier, thought the good Minor Canon frequently, when taking his seat at table opposite his long-widowed mother. Her thought at such times may be condensed into the two words that oftenest did duty together in all her conversations: 'My Sept!'…

Mrs. Crisparkle's sister [was] another piece of Dresden china, and matching her so neatly that they would have made a delightful pair of ornaments for the two ends of any capacious old-fashioned chimneypiece, and by right should never have been seen apart…

There was no impatience in the pleasant look with which Mr. Crisparkle contemplated the pretty old piece of china as it knitted; but there was, certainly, a humorous sense of its not being a piece of china to argue with very closely.

observations: Charles Dickens (the bicentary of whose birth fell this year) is the man for Christmas – usually associated with a mind’s eye picture of a happy Victorian family (like Victoria and Albert without the strictness), or the ultimate cheerfulness of A Christmas Carol as Scrooge gets happy.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood has a creepy and unsettling climax (in the existing part) over Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, far from the brightness and warmth just mentioned. There is a lovely description of a girls’ school breaking up for Christmas, and various social events – but then, at midnight, two men walk the dark empty streets of Cloisterham in a wind storm, going down to look at the river. The next day, one has left town and the other has disappeared.

Dickens was working on the book when he died in 1870, and had completed only about half of it. It wasn’t an age of detective fiction, so providing a major twist wasn’t really expected: one character seems an obvious villain, and that seems to be that.

Mrs Crisparkle is one of Dickens’s dear old ladies (they vary – his own mother was no angel of light), and he quite annoyingly refers to her as the china shepherdess every time she appears. She and her son the Rev Sept are representing the forces of good, though there is a lot of stress on the fact that her son is only a minor Canon.

Links up with:
David Copperfield and Nicholas Nickelby have both appeared on the blog. Dickens is important in the true ending of Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, and you can find out how Tom and Jerry preceded the Pickwick Papers here.  Special Xmas entries this week and next.

The china shepherdess pictured is from the
Indianapolis Museum of Art.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Xmas Money - raising a little extra

the book:

The Group by Mary McCarthy

published 1963   chapter 12

[Polly, who works in a hospital as a lab technician, is selling her blood]

The next time, though, she was in a hurry, for it was the week before Christmas and she had used her lunch hour to buy candy canes and paper to make chains for Christmas-tree decorations… So she went to her own laboratory as usual, saying that this would be the last time. That day, as luck would have it, she was discovered by Dr Ridgeley, who had come in to look at a patient’s blood sample. ‘What are you doing?’ he wanted to know, though he could see quite clearly from the apparatus, which still hung beside the couch where she was resting, as you were made to do after giving blood.

‘Christmas money,’ said Polly, smiling nervously and letting her clenched fist relax. His eyes got quite big and he turned and went out of the room. In a minute, he came back. He had been consulting the records.

‘This is your fourth donation, Polly,’ he said sharply. ‘What’s the trouble?’

‘Christmas,’ she repeated…

‘Look here, Polly. Allow me to put two and two together. If I see a manic patient and meet a member of his family selling her blood in a laboratory, I conclude that he’s been on a spending spree.’

observations: And of course the doctor is absolutely right. Polly’s father, who lives with her, has mental health issues, and an irresponsible attitude to money. Poor Polly – she looks so old, one of the others says ‘seeing her in her white coat and low-heeled shoes and those matronly braids’. She’ll go through the mill in the course of the book, but she is the only one of the women allowed a textbook happy ending, and she is shown as having kindness and integrity. She featured in her party clothes in an earlier blog visit to the book.

The book follows the stories of a group of female graduates from Vassar College from 1933 to the early 1940s, and feels very much of its time but never old-fashioned – and the issues raised for the women are still relevant. It’s also hilarious and compelling.

Links up with: Dress Down Sunday looked at black lace underwear in
The Group. Special Christmas entries all this week and next week - yesterday's entry showed a more cheerful side of Xmas in hospitals. Blood being investigated for a quite different reason here. Another woman in a white coat here – a pharmacist this time.

The photo is of Mary Van Rensselaer Buell (1893-1969), the first woman to earn Ph.D. in biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin, and is from the

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Xmas Children's Party - fun in hospital

the book:

Doctor in the House by Richard Gordon

published 1952   chapter 10


The annual [children’s] teaparty afforded a sure indication that Christmas was coming… as it was impossible to entertain every child in the district, invitations should be sent only to those who had attended the hospital in the years of November and December. As all the children within several miles knew of the party… the increase in juvenile morbidity after October 31st was always alarming…

The non-edible attractions included paper chains, crackers, funny hats, a tree ten feet high, and Father Christmas. It was the duty of the children’s house-physician to play this part. The gown, whiskers, sack and toys were provided by the Governors; all the doctor had to do was allow himself to be lowered in a fire-escape apparatus from the roof into the tight mob of children screaming below. This obligation he discharged with the feelings of a nervous martyr being dropped into the bear-pit. It was inevitable that he should breathe heavily on his little patients with a strong smell of mixed liquours…

The energy of the children diminished only if they had to retire to a corner to be sick; but the hospitality of St Swithin’s was unlimited, and it usually happened that several of the little guests were later asked to stay the night.

observations: The party is described in great detail, even though Richard Gordon says it would really take an Ernest Hemingway to do it justice – a writer with ‘a gift of extracting a forceful attractiveness from descriptions of active animals feeding in large numbers’:

At 3 the front of the hospital looked like an Odeon on Saturday morning. At four sharp the doors were opened… and the mob was funnelled into the building – scratching, fighting, shouting…

The whole interlude of Christmas in a big London teaching hospital in (presumably) the 1930s/40s is a delight – there is also the doctors’ entertainment for the patients, and the alcohol-fuelled nurse/doctor dance. The two chapters are full of details and customs lost to time, but with a shared humanity that shines out through the ages, and would surely be recognizable in the very different hospitals of today.

And a whole generation of British people must have had its view of hospitals (and the humorous possibilities therein - farce, medical disaster and sexual innuendo) formed by this series of books, along with the Carry On films that came a little later.

Links up with: A previous blog entry looked at the narrator learning how to
deliver babies, and explained a bit more how this book worked. Inspector Grant is stuck in hospital, but probably not attending parties like this one. Actual Ernest Hemingway here. More Christmas entries this week and next.

The picture is of a Christmas party in 1940, and comes from
Wikimedia Commons. Father Christmas’s mask seems like a really bad, scarey idea.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Xmas Office Party - looking lovely all day

the book:

The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe

Published 1958 chapter 12

[Fabian Publications Christmas party happens at the end of a normal working day, so the employees come in ready for the event]

‘This is not to be missed’ April said, taking Caroline’s hand and leading her out into the [typing pool].

There was Brenda at her desk, resplendent in gold lame, very tight, with a bow right under where she sat. She wore spike-heeled bronze kid pumps and a great many strings of fake beads. She was drinking her morning coffee out of a paper container, leaving a semicircle of lipstick on the rim, and there was a stack of letters at her elbow, although no-one would do much filing today.

‘Call girl after a hard night,’ Caroline whispered.

‘Do you think she wore that on the subway this morning?’ April whispered back, gulping in her laughter…

Some of the other girls in the pool were more conservatively dressed in black velvet skirts and white beaded sweaters, or plain taffeta with swishing crinolines. The teletype operator was married and thought the whole Christmas party would be a waste of time without her husband, so she had compromised by wearing an ordinary tweed office dress with a spray of tinselled Christmas baubles pinned to the shoulder.

obvservations: The description of the day of the office party is a hilarious classic, and surely still true to life, at least in spirit. Caroline and April are the book’s heroines, and are wearing sophisticated upmarket dresses in beige and black wool, so the rather crass Mary Agnes says to them: ‘Gee aren’t you two going to get dressed up for the Christmas party?’ Of course Caroline says ‘we are dressed up’ and Mary Agnes looks blank and shrugs. (Jaffe is not one to resist an obvious moment, but it all adds to the joy of the book.) At half-past three the girls from the pool will start heading for the washroom to redo their hair and make-up…

Love the fact that taffeta over a crinoline is not very dressy, and absolutely adore the fashion tip of adding a corsage of baubles to make your tweed dress Christmassy.

Links up with: Best of Everything has featured before, here and here. There'll be special Christmas entries all this week and next. There was a gold dress in this entry, and this one.

photo is of JG Klein ready for her prom, and was taken by her father.

Monday, 17 December 2012

A black dress, and a jewel the size of a trouser-button

the book:

The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett

aka The Making of a Lady

published 1901  Part 1   chapter 1 & chapter 3


A black net evening dress, which a patron had good-naturedly given her the year before, could be remodelled and touched up delightfully. Her fresh face and her square white shoulders were particularly adorned by black…

Lord Walderhurst lifted his eye-glass and inserted it in his unillumined eye. He looked also across the room. Emily wore the black evening dress which gave such opportunities to her square white shoulders and firm column of throat. The country air and sun had deepened the colour on her cheek, and the light of the nearest lamp fell kindly on the big twist of her nut-brown hair and burnished it. She looked soft and warm, and so generously interested in her pupil’s progress that she was rather sweet. Lord Walderhurst simply looked at her. He was a man of but few words. Women who were sprightly found him somewhat unresponsive. In fact, he was aware that a man in his position need not exert himself. The women themselves would talk. They wanted to talk because they wanted him to hear them.

observations: Should be read with Saturday’s entry.

The key moment of the engagement between Lord Walderhurst and Emily occurs less than a third of the way through – on first reading you’re expecting it to be the whole point of the book, but far from it. (Burnett originally planned two separate stories, but quickly decided it should be one book.) Unlike Jane Austen (who never married herself) Frances Hodgson Burnett (who had an elaborate & complex marital life) wants to tell us what became of her heroine after the wedding. The subsequent 200 pages contain dramatic and evil scheming by a displaced heir - Emily has to be very brave – and culminate in a near-deathbed scene of quite extraordinary unbelievability.

An adaptation of the book has just been shown on British TV, with considerable changes– sadly, Lord W does not propose on the moors with a big parcel of fish between them – and some simplification which does not reduce the melodrama. It is sumptuously done, lots of pretty dresses, and made for very easy watching. (Though the final battle with the villain went on far too long.)

A final point about the proposal: Lord W famously has a revered family engagement ring on him when he asks Emily to marry him, which Nancy Mitford (in
Love in a Cold Climate) implies is ‘the size of a pigeon’s egg’. It is actually 'the size of a trouser-button', which seems a bit indecorous, and not all that big, either. How would Miss Poor-but-virtuous Emily know what a trouser-button looked like anyway?

picture is of Frances Cleveland – she was a First Lady of the United States, married to President Grover Cleveland.

Links up with: This book featured before. There are black dresses all over the blog – click on the label below. More
Presidents and their women in our November entries to mark the US election

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Dress Down Sunday: Dancing in front of stars

Dress Down Sunday -
what goes on under the clothes

the poem:

She walks in beauty, like the night by Lord Byron

written 1814, published 1815

She walks in Beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that's best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which Heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impaired the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o'er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express,
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.

And on that cheek, and o'er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent!

observations: The astronomer Patrick Moore died this week at the age of 89, having held a unique role in British life for a huge number of those years. He was probably the only astronomer most people could name or recognize, and was the kind of eccentric, distinctive, larger-than-life personality that people like to think of as both unique and very typically British. He presented the TV programme The Sky at Night (just what it sounds like) on the BBC for years.

There’s not a huge amount about stars and astronomy in literature, so we have picked this poem with its metaphorical starry skies. It is probably Byron’s most famous poem, and has its own satisfying and never-failing beauty. He is supposed to have been inspired by seeing a cousin in a ‘spangled’ black mourning dress, ie one decorated with sequins. One might think that rhinestones would be a better fit, resembling stars in the black of a dress. One might also think glittery black is not much of a mourning dress – too gaudy.

The picture is a bit of lese majeste really, but she has stars (equally symbolic: they represent the stars on the USA’s flag) and she’s rather splendid really. An advert for Carter's Corsets, it comes from
George Eastman House.

Links up with: The
Girls of Slender Means go up to the roof and lie there chatting, looking at the stars. In The Green Hat, the stars were ‘brilliant as sequins on an archangel’s floating cloak.’ For more Dress Down Sunday click on the label below.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

She is fatuous, he looks clean: Making of a Romance

the book:

The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett

(aka The Making of a Lady)

published 1901   part 2 chapter 1


Lord Walderhurst came in half an hour later and found her standing smiling by the window. ‘You look particularly well, Emily. It’s that white frock, I suppose. You ought to wear a good deal of white,’ he said.

‘I will,’ Emily answered. He observed that she wore the nice flush and the soft, appealing look, as well as the white frock. ‘I wish—’ Here she stopped, feeling a little foolish.

‘What do you wish?’

‘I wish I could do more to please you than wear white—or black—when you like.’ He gazed at her, always through the single eye-glass. Even the vaguest approach to emotion or sentiment invariably made him feel stiff and shy…‘Wear yellow or pink occasionally,’ he said with a brief awkward laugh. What large, honest eyes the creature had, like a fine retriever’s or those of some nice animal one saw in the Zoo. ‘I will wear anything you like,’ she said, the nice eyes meeting his—not the least stupidly, he reflected…

observations: If you know of this book (perhaps from Nancy Mitford –it’s mentioned approvingly in both Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate) but have never read it, you probably have a clear idea of what it’s about. Lovely, poor-but-virtuous girl snares handsome aristo, and gets a giant ring and a title for her trouble.

In fact she is old (34!) and really rather stupid, verging on the simple-minded, she has huge feet (nothing wrong with that) and is described as fatuous. (She makes Fanny Price from Austen’s Mansfield Park look witty and spirited.) Prince Charming is dull, selfish, not particularly pleasant, and at one point the author, trying for something nice, says ‘he looked exceedingly clean’. His comparing Emily with a dog, and being pleased she doesn't look stupid, above, is typical.

Regular blog readers will guess that we are still going to judge that this is a book well worth reading, highly enjoyable, strangely romantic in its way, and with a strong and rather charming implication that Lord Walderhurst marries her on a kindly whim, but actually finds her quite sexy in the end, and that this is reciprocated.

The book has just been adapted for British TV – as The Making of a Lady – and no doubt the strange melodrama of the book's second half will feature strongly, and Emily will be less stupid, and more beautiful, and younger.

Links up with: Francis Hodgson Burnett is something of a blog favourite for her children’s books –
here and here. A splendid Noel Streatfeild/FHB crossover here – two favourites in one.

picture is a reception gown designed by Madeleine Cheruit, as featured in a French fashion magazine.