Male authors getting the details right: Brideshead

the book:

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

published 1945  Book 1 ch 3 & 5 & Book 2 ch 2 -  events taking place around 1923

[Narrator Charles Ryder is talking about Lady Julia Flyte, glamorous sister of his best friend Sebastian]
[The first time we met] She wore a bangle of charms on her wrist and in her ears little gold rings. Her light coat revealed an inch or two of flowered silk; skirts were short in those days.
[Later that year] We met at Gunter’s in Berkeley Square. Julia, like most women then, wore a green hat pulled down to her eyes with a diamond arrow in it; she had a small dog under her arm, three-quarters buried in the fur of her coat. She greeted us with an unusual show of interest…
She was thin in those days, flat-chested, leggy; she seemed all limbs and neck, bodiless, spidery; thus far she conformed to the fashion, but the hair-cut and the hats of the period, and the blank stare and gape of the period, and the clownish dabs of rouge high on the cheekbones, could not reduce her to type.


Julia is the great heroine of the book and is beautiful, clever, infinitely desirable – ‘she outshone by far all the girls of her age’. Charles is going to fall in love with her, a relationship of enormous seriousness and importance: she is the love of his life. So it’s not much of a description is it? ‘bodiless, spidery’? Earlier he has said that her legs were spindly, her painted mouth unfriendly. One does not expect great romance from Waugh, but still…
Note the arrow in her cloche: in first editions of the book the hat was decorated with diamond clips. But then EW’s great friend Nancy Mitford saw an advance copy and wrote to him in December 1944: “A triumph… a great English classic… One dreadful error. Diamond clips were only invented about 1930, you wore a diamond arrow in your cloche. It’s the only one [mistake], which I call good – the only one I spotted at least.” So Waugh changed the sentence for (the many) subsequent editions. An unexpected identification comes up in the same letter: much has been made of who might be the originals of the characters in Brideshead, but I have never seen anywhere else NM’s suggestion that she saw a little of Lord Andrew Cavendish in Sebastian – Lord Andrew was married to Nancy’s sister Debo, became the Duke of Devonshire, and lived out his life as almost a parody of a kindly traditional English nobleman. About as far from Sebastian as could be, you might think…
The photograph is from the collection of the State Library of New South Wales, and is featured on Flickr. The 'arrow' in this case is a representation of Sydney Harbour Bridge.