Monday, 30 April 2012

"teens should be at the mall" - Hunger Games 3

the book:

Mockingjay (Hunger games 3) by Suzanne Collins
Published 2010 chapter 3

[Katniss has agreed to a role leading and personifying the rebellion of the Districts against the Capitol. She is the mockingjay - a kind of bird, invented for the book, symbolizing the freedom fight.]
Plutarch slides the sketchbook across to me. For a moment, I look at it suspiciously. Then curiosity gets the better of me. I open the cover to find a picture of myself, standing straight and strong, in a black uniform. Only one person could have designed the outfit, at first glance utterly utilitarian, at second a work of art. The swoop of the helmet, the curve to the breastplate, the slight fullness of the sleeves that allows the white folds under the arms to show. In his hands, I am again a mockingjay.

“Cinna,” I whisper.

“Yes. He made me promise not to show you this book until you’d decided to be the Mockingjay on your own. Believe me I was very tempted,” says Plutarch. “Go on. Flip through.”

I turn the pages slowly, seeing each detail of the uniform. The carefully tailored layers of body armour, the hidden weapons in the boots and belt, the special reinforcements over my heart. On the final page, under a sketch of my mockingjay pin, Cinna’s written, I’m still betting on you…

“You’re going to be the best-dressed rebel in history,” says Gale with a smile.

observations: The best line in this book is “He frosted [=UK ‘iced the cake’] under heavy guard.” It is one of the bizarre things about the whole project that it is impossible to tell whether this is an actual joke. And, yes, it is easy to find oddities and questions and unevenness of tone in the books, and Katniss can be annoying. However there is one major question: is there ANY other fictional heroine like this one? She is tough, resourceful, not dependent on men. There is a true role-reversal here – she is strong and a bit unfeeling, the men adapt to her, rely on her. She isn’t a heroine because of the traditional female virtues – intuition, empathy – but because of her strength and ability in hunting. This is a real question: If you know of any female role model as straightforward as this one we’d love to hear about it.

youtube you can watch a mesmerizing parody of the Lana Del Rey song Video Games, renamed Hunger Games - it does a pretty good job of telling the story in a funny and striking way and gets both song and books perfectly. Key line: "Watching all these tributes fall, teens should be at the mall.”

Links up with: earlier entries
here and here. Is the mockingjay linked with American classic To Kill a Mockingbird, featured here?

The picture of an air pioneer is from the
San Diego air and space museum archives, via Flickr; she is catalogued as individual 037.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Dressing for the theatre, dressing for a man

the book:

The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope

published 1875   chapter 27

[Paul has invited Mrs Hurtle – possibly a widow, possibly divorced - to dine and go to the theatre with him: his note includes this:‘The Thespian is a good sort of place, and lots of ladies dine there. You can dine in your bonnet.’]

Mrs Hurtle came to him out of her bedroom, with her hat on her head. Nothing could be more simple than her dress, and nothing prettier. It was now June, and the weather was warm, and the lady wore a light gauzy black dress,—there is a fabric which the milliners I think call grenadine,—coming close up round her throat. It was very pretty, and she was prettier even than her dress. And she had on a hat, black also, small and simple, but very pretty. There are times at which a man going to a theatre with a lady wishes her to be bright in her apparel,—almost gorgeous; in which he will hardly be contented unless her cloak be scarlet, and her dress white, and her gloves of some bright hue,—unless she wear roses or jewels in her hair…But there are times again in which a man would prefer that his companion should be very quiet in her dress,—but still pretty; in which he would choose that she should dress herself for him only. All this Mrs Hurtle had understood accurately; and Paul Montague, who understood nothing of it, was gratified. "You told me to have a hat, and here I am,—hat and all." She gave him her hand, and laughed, and looked pleasantly at him, as though there was no cause of unhappiness between them.

observations: Mrs Hurtle is a splendid character: she is American, and scathing about some of the customs in England. She is also known to have killed a man in Oregon. Hilariously, young Paul – who is engaged to her – is scared to break off the engagement in case she shoots him, and his solemn thoughts about their relationship are always interrupted by his terrors on this matter, the word Oregon becoming almost a codeword for this fear - ‘Paul at the moment thought of the gentleman in Oregon, and of certain difficulties in leaving.’ She threatens to horsewhip Paul, and also takes a firm line with Sir Felix in the business with Ruby – this blog entry.

She is much the best female character in the book, and one can only think that Trollope could have done much better to follow women like her. He seems to disapprove, but not to be able to hide a soft spot for her. Marie Melmotte, another of the women, starts the book not very impressively, but half way through Trollope suddenly changes her character dramatically – there is an odd moment where everything has gone badly wrong for Marie. She is being accompanied by a ‘gentleman’ who is never named and doesn’t otherwise feature – but she laughs, and ‘the gentleman thought that Miss Melmotte would be able to get through her troubles without much suffering.’ It’s an unlikely change, but it makes for a much more interesting character.

Grenadine is a light silk with an open-textured weave.

Links up with: A previous visit to this book, here, and a trip to the theatre for a younger lady here.

The photo is a fashion shot of a German actress called Anita Berger, and came from Wikimedia Commons

Friday, 27 April 2012

Nuns and their habits

the book:

Precious Blood by Jane Haddam

published 1991   Part 1 Chapter 4

[Gregor Demarkian, unofficial detective, is visiting a convent while he investigates a suspicious death.]

If he’d known anything about convents, he would have gotten his breakfast sooner. As it was, he waited until seven o’clock before going across the courtyard, even though the nuns had come back from church at twenty to. He had a half-formed conviction that he was giving them time to get their cooking done….

Gregor looked into a long, narrow room almost entirely filled with a long, narrower table and its chairs – not the kitchen, but the dining room. At the far end of the table, Sister Scholastica sat over a cup of coffee… The rest of the nuns were all eating breakfast and trying to correct school papers at the same time. Most of them had their veils unfastened and hung on the back of their chairs. Only two of them bothered to look up at him.

“Vatican Two” Sister Scholastica said.

observations: The story of nuns in America is the story of education there, as this book explains in amongst the rather lurid classic detective story details of crimes, long-ago scandals, high school companions who have drifted apart, and a murderer who will stop at nothing to keep a secret. Jane Haddam has written more than 25 of her Holiday Mysteries (this one is Easter) featuring Mr Demarkian – ‘the Armenian-American Hercule Poirot’. They are all dense, full of details and characters and plot, and great fun. Often they have a religious connection, and/or a setting in a closed institution such as a school or (in this case) a rather splendid convent/school/Cathedral combo. The author has also written (under a different name) two more thrillers – one set in a convent, the other featuring a serial killer pursuing nuns.

The nuns in this extract are all about to go off to teach young children in the parochial school. Such nuns are part of the American myth – whether they have created lovely memories, as in the (Dutch) picture above, or are remembered as stern tyrants. They were more essential to the school system than in most countries (even much more Catholic countries), and the changes brought in by Vatican Two - the church council mentioned above - were more extreme and have resulted in more dramatic disagreement within the church. Nuns’ habits were part of the changes – they became more practical and less obvious, and in some cases optional, and that is still controversial. Right now American nuns are still in combat with the church hierarchy over many issues, both in the USA and at the Vatican – you can find out more about ‘the quiet revolution’ and the fights

Links up with: Murder story set in educational establishment in
this blog entry.

The photo is from the Dutch National Archives, via

Thursday, 26 April 2012

The reluctant bride: Hunger Games 2

the book:

Catching Fire (Hunger Games 2) by Suzanne Collins
 published  2009 Chapter 11 

[Katniss is to be married in a public ceremony, and the President has chosen some dresses for her to try on. A team of stylists has arrived to get her ready for a photo shoot: people are to vote on which wedding dress is best]

I try to act delighted that my bridal photo shoot is here at last. My mother hung up all the dresses, so they’re ready to go, but to be honest, I haven’t even tried one on.

After the usual histrionics about the deteriorated state of my beauty they get right down to business…Since I only have to look hairless for a few hours instead of several weeks, I get to be shaved iinstead of waxed. I still have to soak in a tub of something, but it isn’t vile, and we’re on to my hair and make-up before I know it. The team, as usual, is full of news….

Downstairs, the living room has been cleared and lit for the photo shoot. Effie’s having a fine time ordering everybody around, keeping us all on schedule. It’s probably a good thing, because there are six gowns and each one requires its own headpiece, shoes, jewellery, hair, make-up, setting and lighting. Creamy lace and pink roses and ringlets. Ivory satin and gold tattoos and greenery. A sheath of diamonds and jewelled veil and moonlight. Heavy white silk and sleeves that fall from my wrist to the floor, and pearls.

observations:  Follows on from this entry. This is the second book in the trilogy: the engagement between Katniss and Peeta is political – they think it will keep them safe, the Capitol thinks a wedding will keep the populace happy. Suzanne Collins is really having it both ways - Katniss is outdoorsy, not at all girly, and not at all sure she should be getting married, so determined not to enjoy this photo shoot. But there is still room for this lavish description of the beautiful gowns, and no doubt this scene will feature in the second film in the trilogy. Equally, Katniss does not enjoy any of her makeovers in the books (although she does like Cinna, her stylist, and is friendly with her prep team) but they are all described in full. Perhaps there is an assumption that not all her readers are quite as anti-fashion and beauty as she is. It is not a spoiler to say that there is not going to be any fancy wedding with a lovely gown any time soon.

Links up with: previous entry,
here. And weddings and wedding dresses feature frequently in the blog: for example here and here and here, or click on the label ‘wedding’ below.

The photo above again features dresses from the Italian designer de Cesari, the picture, like
this blog entry and this one, came from Perry Photography: you can see more of her work at Flickr.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

A heroine to make the blood run cold

the book:

Alys, Always by Harriet Lane

published 2012 

[the narrator, Frances, is insinuating herself into a family of privileged Londoners; she has been invited to meet Polly, the daughter of the family, at an upmarket café-restaurant]

The place is full, and even though most of the people present are conducting business, there’s something sparkly and frivolous in the air. The atmosphere crackles with gossip and speculation. And cash. The place is full of cash.

Little groups of women in proper jewellery, drinking Bloody Marys. A captain of industry joking with a newspaper proprietor. A film star in shorts and heavy stubble sitting alone, eating an omelette and pencilling his way through a pile of notes…

Polly, seated at a table in the central circle, reaches over to kiss me hello. She looks different again today, a little Nouvelle Vague in a beanie and tight striped jersey, with lots of eyeliner, but I’m realizing this is part of her look: she can take it in any direction, at will.

observations: Frances is about to get dumped with the bill here, but will feel it is well worth it (even though she copied Polly’s order of muesli rather than choosing the eggs Benedict she would have preferred). She encounters the family – rich, well-connected, the father a prize-winning author – by chance, and builds on the connection thoroughly, efficiently and patiently. At the start of the book she is quiet, unnoticed, put-upon. By the end she is very different. All this is described beautifully by Harriet Lane, cleverly, subtly, and as insinuatingly as Frances could ever be. She is shown as being completely ruthless and hard-headed (and hard-hearted) and yet it is difficult to have any sympathy for the family she fixes on. It is much easier to go along with Frances and her wiles, faced as she is with a world full of entitlement and privilege easing the path of everyone except her. The reader tends to think that she and the family deserve each other – a sign of the author’s brilliance. It’s a debut novel, though you wouldn’t think so, so assured and perfectly constructed is it. Can’t wait to see what she will do next…

Links up with: Another character in the book, a young woman, is described as being badly-dressed but having the impermeable self-confidence of a John Singer Sargent portrait, self-possessed and complacent - one of his ladies lights up the blog entry
here. Finding your way into a family features in many books, and the theme is discussed in the blog entry here.

The picture is from George Eastman House, via

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Why the Hunger Games clothes are unusual

the book:

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

published 2008    Chapter 10

[Katniss is preparing to take part in a televised gladiatorial combat: 24 teenagers – tributes - will fight in an arena till only one victor is left.]

Then the clothes arrive, the same for every tribute. [My stylist] Cinna has had no say in my outfit, does not even know what will be in the package, but he helps me dress in the undergarments, simple tawny trousers, light green blouse, sturdy brown belt, and thin, hooded black jacket that falls to my thighs. “The material in the jacket’s designed to reflect body heat. Expect some cool nights,” he says.

The boots, worn over skintight socks, are better than I could have hoped for. Soft leather not unlike my ones at home. These have a narrow flexible rubber sole with treads, though. Good for running.

I think I’m finished when Cinna pulls the gold mockingjay pin from his pocket. I had completely forgotten about it.

“Where did you get that?” I ask.

“Off the green outfit you wore on the train,” he says. I remember now taking it off my mother’s dress, pinning it to the shirt. “It’s your district token, right?”

observations:  For anyone who’s been in a news and culture blackout lately: Suzanne Collins wrote a mega-bestselling Young Adult trilogy about a future dystopia where young people fight to the death for the entertainment and edification of TV viewers. The first book has just been made into a film, which has been extremely successful. Now join in:

Some readers were unhappy about the clothes Katniss Everdeen is given in the film– see
this Slate article for a rundown of such views. (Some people think the actress is the wrong shape, but we’re not going to dignify them with a reply.) And it is true, the costumes do not live up to the description in the book. But more to the point is this: in book and film, Katniss is dressed for the fight in clothes which look half-way convincing, like something someone undergoing a trial by combat might find useful and practical. She is not dressed in superhero clothes, nor is she dressed as a futuristic spage-age dollybird – the picture above represents how she would surely have been imagined in a different era. It is possible to have differing views about many aspects of the books and the films, but it is very hard to think of any book and film where the fighting clothes are so practical, and it is hard to think of any heroine who is quite like Katniss. We’ll look at her again later in the week.

Links up with: a fight to the death with no guarantee of survival - Agatha Christie's version in 1939.

The photo is a fashion show for air hostesses (though it seems unlikely that anyone actually wore skirts that short on a plane) and is from the
San Diego Air & Space Museum archives.

Monday, 23 April 2012

A patriotically beautiful young man pleases the Oxford dons

the book:

Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers

published 1935   chapter 18

[Harriet Vane is visiting her all-women college at Oxford University. Her colleagues on the teaching staff are gathered for tea.]

“Lor!” said the Dean.

She gazed with interest from the Senior Common Room window, teacup in hand.

“What’s the matter?” inquired Miss Allison.

“Who is this incredibly beautiful young man?”

“Flaxman’s fiancĂ©, I expect, isn’t it?”…

“Don’t be ridiculous” said the Dean. “I know Flaxman’s Byron by heart. This is an ash-blond in a House blazer.”

“Oh dear me!” said Miss Pyke. “Apollo Belvedere in spotless flannels…”

“Perhaps he belongs to that bunch playing tennis,” hazarded Miss Allison.

“Little Cooke’s scrubby friends? My dear!”

“Why all the excitement anyway?” asked Miss Hillyard.

“Beautiful young men are always exciting” said the Dean.

“That,” said Harriet, at length getting a glimpse of the wonder-youth over Miss Pyke’s shoulder, “is Viscount Saint-George.”…

Lord Saint-George stood, with a careless air of owning the place… his eye roving over a group of Shrewsburians a-sprawl under the beeches like that of a young Sultan inspecting a rather unpromising consignment of Circassian slaves.

“Supercilious little beast!” thought Harriet.

Observations: Specially chosen as it is St George’s day. Viscount Saint-George is the nephew of Lord Peter Wimsey, and is a student at the University - the ‘House’ blazer indicates that he is at Christ Church college. Gaudy Night should by all standards be a tiresome book. There is no murder, and when the culprit for the various vandalistic crimes is revealed it is not at all convincing that her revenge would  take this form. There are endless scenes where DLS puts her own opinions into approved characters’ mouths, and then has (less clever and attractive) others arguing with those views and being defeated.
But the book has a special place in the affections of hard-core fans of Dorothy L Sayers – even though there are also long descriptions of the day-by-day running of a women’s college in the 1930s, and the social AND intellectual snobbery run unchecked. Good sociological interest, as we like to say when we can’t really explain why we like books. Young Saint-George has met the villain of the book in strange circumstances, and has come to the college see if he can recognize her. Another of the dissatisfactions of the book is that this villain is able to appear perfectly normal 99% of the time, but is completely babblingly deranged when Saint-George meets her – twice. The young man is a charmer, and though he is intended to appear rather callow, spoilt and immature compared with DLS’s revered Lord Peter, he actually makes a refreshing change.

Links up with: Dorothy L Sayers books in
this blog entry and this one (for pointed remarks about why we don’t like Lord Peter), Kingsley Amis for St David’s Day, James Joyce for St Patrick’s Day. The young lord is blond, as Holly Golightly wouldn’t be in the UK.

The picture is of the hugely successful 1930s songwriter Ivor Novello – stunningly talented AND very good-looking. It is from the
Library of Congress.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

"There'll be a lot of applause there": the wonders of Saki

the book:

Cousin Teresa by Saki (H H Monro)

From the short-story collection Beasts and Superbeasts, published 1914

[Lucas Harrowcluff, an unsatisfactory & disappointing son and brother who has made nothing of his life, is explaining to his family his great new idea for a music-hall turn]

Cousin Teresa takes out Caesar
Fido, Jock and the big borzoi.
A lilting, catchy sort of refrain you see, and big-drum business on the two syllables of bor-zoi. It’s immense. And I’ve thought out all the business of it; the singer will sing the first verse alone, then during the second verse Cousin Teresa will walk through, followed by four wooden dogs on wheels; Caesar will be an Irish terrier, Fido a black poodle, Jock a fox-terrier, and the borzoi, of course will be a borzoi. During the third verse Cousin Teresa will come on alone, and the dogs will be drawn across by themselves from the opposite wing; then Cousin Teresa will catch on to the singer and go off-stage in one direction, while dogs’ procession goes off in the other, crossing en route, which is always very effective. There’ll be a lot of applause there, and for the fourth verse Cousin Teresa will come on in sables and the dogs will all have coats on…. Then Cousin Teresa will come on from the opposite side, crossing en route, always effective, and then she turns round and leads the whole lot of them off on a string, and all the time everyone singing like mad:
Cousin Teresa takes out Caesar
Fido Jock and the big borzoi.
Tum-Tum! Drum business on the two last syllables.

I’m so excited I shan’t sleep a wink tonight, I’m off tomorrow by the 10.15. I’ve wired to Hermanova to lunch with me.”


Lucas’s family are distinctly underwhelmed by this new song, and have no faith in it, but frankly the reader can see at once that it is going to be a huge megahit, and indeed it is, with a nice twist at the end. The only mystery is why no-one has ever created this song and act in real life, so convincing is the description – we sing it in my house quite regularly.

Saki’s stories are wonderful, very funny and sharp and unsentimental, often with a sharp twist, and it is also typical of him that the character of Lucas is so clearly outlined in the short monologue above. The author, who was killed in the First World War, wrote a lot, and the funny, sad and memorable novel called The Unbearable Bassington could do with re-discovery. But his reputation rests on the short stories.

Other favourites are The Un-Rest Cure, Sredni Vashtar, The Way to the Dairy, The Open Window and – oh joy – The Story-Teller, a tale that any sensible child will love to bits.

Links up with: The authors were roughly contemporary: we feel that the chaps in Three Men in a Boatthis blog entry and this one – would have been part of the crowds vociferously demanding the song at the music-halls
Cousin Teresa in the picture above is actually visiting a dog show - the image comes from
Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

The present and past for someone with no future

the book:

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani
Published in Italy 1962, in English (no translator credited) 1965  Set in 1930s Part 4

[Follows on from this blog entry: The narrator comes back to see the Finzi-Continis after a break, and finds fewer people there, as the family has been warned not to host Jewish gatherings]

They were playing down there on the tennis court, Micol against a young man in long white trousers…

We sat down…on two deck-chairs placed side by side by the tennis court gate, in the best position to follow the game. Micol was not wearing shorts as she had done the previous autumn, but a very old-fashioned woollen pleated skirt, a white blouse with sleeves turned back and peculiar white stocking’s like a nurse’s. Red-fdaced and sweating freely, she was doggedly sending shots into the farthest corners of the court…

A ball rolled towards us and stopped a short distance away. Micol came across to pick it up, and for a moment my eyes met hers. This visibly upset her…


Of course the narrator is in love with Micol, the daughter of the couple featured in this blog entry. Michal in the Bible is one of the wives of David, and according to the academic Robert Alter is ‘the only woman in the entire Hebrew Bible explicitly reported to love a man.’ She inspires love too – not necessarily from David (it is not specified that he loves her, and they have a fairly horrible row) – but from another husband she has along the way, Paltiel. She is taken from him so she can be returned to David, and Paltiel ‘went with her, weeping as he went after her’ until he is ordered to go back.

Links up with: a strange connection with
this entry on The Wings of the Dove (a book which is also featured on the blog here and here): in the James novel, there is a metaphor for the main couple in the story meeting: ‘She had observed a ladder against a garden-wall and had trusted herself so to climb it as to be able to see over into the probable garden on the other side.’ In this book, that is how the couple meets – Micol climbs the ladder against her garden-wall to address the narrator, and this artefact has considerable importance in the book as a means of entry and exit from the garden of the Finzi-Contis.

The end of this book is heart-breaking, as the author quotes the opening line from a Mallarme sonnet – le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui – famously hard to translate so we won’t try. This, Bassani says, is Micol’s preferred epitaph, because she knew she had no future, so loved the past and the present.

The photo is from the state library of Florida, and can be found on

Friday, 20 April 2012

You dress up as a ham, and your Dad doesn't turn up

the book:

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

published 1960   chapter 27

[Scout Finch, the 8-year-old narrator, has had a turbulent summer, but is now back at school in Maycomb County, Alabama]

Mrs Grace Merriweather had composed an original pageant entitled Maycomb County: Ad Astra per Aspera, and I was to be a ham. She thought it would be adorable if some of the children were costumed to represent the county’s agricultural products: Cecil Jacobs would be dressed up to look like a cow; Agnes Boone would make a lovely butter-bean, another child would be a peanut, and on down the line until Mrs Merriweather’s imagination and the supply of children was exhausted….

My costume was not much of a problem. Mrs Crenshaw, the local seamstress, had as much imagination as Mrs Merriweather. Mrs Crenshaw took some chicken wire and bent it into the shape of a cured ham. This she covered with brown cloth, and painted it to resemble the original. I could duck under and someone would pull the contraption down over my head. It came almost to my knees. Mrs Crenshaw thoughtfully left two peepholes for me. She did a fine job; [my brother] Jem said I looked exactly like a ham with legs. There were several discomforts, though; it was hot, it was a close fit; if my nose itched I couldn’t scratch, and once inside I could not get out of it alone.


The pageant comes at the end of the book, and all this is going to be relevant to the final twist and turn of the story – she can’t see much and she can’t get out of the costume, but the chicken wire will be on the plus side. Scout and Jem are about to come under threat: “thus began our longest journey together.”

It is hard to say anything new about To Kill a Mockingbird. Its iconic status makes it untouchable, and attempts to criticize the book, or its hero, don’t go down well. But, here we go anyway: Jem and Scout walk home from the pageant alone. And this is because their father, Atticus Finch, refused to come and watch her in the school play. Really? One of the finest, bravest most wonderful fathers and heroes in all literature is ‘too tired’ to watch his daughter perform at school? Shame on you Atticus Finch.

Links up with: Breakfast at Tiffany’s,
blog entry here – Harper Lee was a close friend of Truman Capote, and it is generally agreed that he appears in To Kill a Mockingbird as Dill. More strangely dressed children in this blog entry.

With thanks to Dinah McLaughlin for the suggestion.

The photograph was made available on
Wikimedia Commons by the photographer pinguino k, and the young woman is actually a hotdog. But probably one made of ham.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

November, and winter is coming: 1938 in Italy

the book:

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani

published in Italy 1962; in England 1965 (no translator credited)  Part 2

[1938: The Jewish young people of the Italian city of Ferrara are no longer welcome at their tennis club, so take to meeting at the garden of the wealthy Finzi-Continis, who have a tennis court.]
One evening… against all our expectations, Professor Ermanno and Signora Olga [Finzi-Contini] did turn up. They looked as if they were passing the tennis court just by chance, after a long walk in the park. They were arm in arm. He shorter than his wife, and very much more bent than he had been ten years before … was wearing one of his usual pale, lightweight linen suits, with a black ribboned panama hat pulled down over his thick pince-nez, and, as he walked, leaning on a bamboo cane. She, all in black, was carrying a large bunch of chrystanthemums obviously picked in some remote part of the garden, during their walk….

‘Don’t get up’ said Professor Ermanno, in his pleasant musical voice. ‘Please don’t disturb yourselves. Do go on playing.’

Of course he wasn’t obeyed. Micol and Alberto introduced us at once: Micol did most of it.

The book is a sad and elegiac story of the Jews of Ferrara, going about their lives in the late 1930s with a black cloud growing over them. The Jewish young people are meeting regularly. They flirt, they fall in love, they discuss their futures and their studies and their exams, but we know from the opening pages what awaits them.

In the notable non-fiction work by Edmund de Waal, The Hare with the Amber Eyes, the Jewish family builds a mausoleum which remains empty because the family members die in Nazi concentration camps: in this book something similar happens.

The start of the book has a little girl telling her family that tombs from long ago are just as sad as those from recent times – a memorable image, and one that fits the book, as the events related get further and further away.

The photo is from the Bain collection, via

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Pearls and Lace and Doves - "I see myself"

the book:

The Wings of the Dove by Henry James

published 1902  chapter 28

[Kate Croy and Morton Densher, at a party, are admiring the heiress Milly Theale. Kate speaks first:]

"Everything suits her so--especially her pearls. They go so with her old lace. I'll trouble you really to look at them." Densher, though aware he had seen them before, had perhaps not "really" looked at them, and had thus not done justice to the embodied poetry--his mind, for Milly's aspects, kept coming back to that--which owed them part of its style. Kate's face, as she considered them, struck him: the long, priceless chain, wound twice round the neck, hung, heavy and pure, down the front of the wearer's breast--so far down that Milly's trick, evidently unconscious, of holding and vaguely fingering and entwining a part of it, conduced presumably to convenience. "She's a dove," Kate went on, "and one somehow doesn't think of doves as bejewelled. Yet they suit her down to the ground."

"Yes--down to the ground is the word." Densher saw now how they suited her, but was perhaps still more aware of something intense in his companion's feeling about them. Milly was indeed a dove; this was the figure, though it most applied to her spirit. … [He heard Kate say:] "Pearls have such a magic that they suit every one."

"They would uncommonly suit you," he frankly returned.

"Oh yes, I see myself!"


Links up with: blog entries here and here. Returning to this book yet again, because it is such an extraordinary piece of literature.

Milly Theale at a party is, James says, “the angular pale princess, ostrich-plumed, black-robed, hung about with amulets, reminders, relics, mainly seated, mainly still”. The book is full of such descriptions, fleeting but impossibly complex. It also has a strange feature: phrases in which the reader may not be sure if this is a metaphor or not. Early on, there is a description of the first meeting of Kate Croy and Merton Densher:

She had observed a ladder against a garden-wall and had trusted herself so to climb it as to be able to see over into the probable garden on the other side. On reaching the top she had found herself face to face with a gentleman engaged in a like calculation at the same moment, and the two enquirers had remained confronted on their ladders.
The couple have already been shown to be meeting in gardens all the time, so this reader, at least, had to go over this several times to check it was actually symbolic (and an arresting image all the same).

Beyond all this, the book has one of the finest closings ever:

‘As we were?’

‘As we were.’

But she turned to the door and her headshake was now the end. “We shall never be again as we were!”

The picture is by John Singer Sargent, is in the Museum of Art at Birmingham Alabama, and can be found on
Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Bad Girl in a Black Dress

the book:

Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote

published 1958

[The narrator is living in a New York rooming-house, and is interested to meet a fellow-tenant.]

I went out into the hall and leaned over the banister, just enough to see without being seen. She was still on the stair, now she reached the landing, and the ragbag colours of her boy’s hair, tawny streaks, strands of albino-blond and yellow, caught the hall light. It was a warm evening, nearly summer, and she wore a slim cool black dress, black sandals, a pearl choker. For all her chic thinness, she had an almost breakfast-cereal air of health, a soap and lemon cleanness, a rough pink darkening in the cheeks. Her mouth was large, her nose upturned. A pair of dark glasses blotted out her eyes. It was a face beyond childhood, yet this side of belonging to a woman. I thought her anywhere between sixteen and thirty; as it turned out, she was shy two months of her nineteenth birthday.


Miss Holiday Golightly (Travelling) is forever Audrey Hepburn in many people’s eyes: and the film is very entertaining in its own right. But it is not really a film of the novella, it is softened and sentimentalized, and made into a vehicle for Hepburn – a beautiful, stunning performance, but it is very hard to imagine AH as southern white trash made good. The film fancies up something which in the book is basically a form of prostitution, and while the unnamed narrator might love Holly, she is not a very nice person by most standards. But book and film will live forever. In UK the streaks in her hair would be blonde – an often unnoticed difference in usage.

The picture is of the startlingly beautiful Evelyn Nesbit Thaw (1884-1967), perhaps a Holly Golightly for her age. We cannot do justice to her life and career, but she is well worth looking up. Just for starters, her millionaire husband Harry Thaw murdered her ex-lover, noted architect Stanford White, in a case that scandalized America – “the crime of the century” - featured a lot of fascinating sexual details, and has lived on in books and films. Her beauty was legendary.

Links up with: - of all unlikely books, Anne of Green Gables, blog entries
here and here. According to Wikipedia (so it must be true) L M Montgomery ‘used a photograph of Nesbit—from the Metropolitan Magazine and pasted to the wall in her bedroom —as the model’ for Anne.

The photograph, taken in 1920, is from the Wilson Centre for Photography, and can be found on

Monday, 16 April 2012

A miracle of a writer and a dream-like dress

the book:

The Rings of Saturn by W G Sebald

English translation by Michael Hulse   published 1998  chapter 8

[The narrator, travelling in Ireland, becomes a paying guest at a decaying mansion with a penniless aristocratic family]

Catherine and her two sisters Clarissa and Christina… spent several hours every day in one of the north-facing rooms where they had stored great quantities of remnant fabrics… Like giant children under an evil spell the three unmarried daughters, much of an age, sat on the floor amidst these mountains of material, working away and only rarely breathing a word to each other…

They mostly undid what they had sewn either on the same day, the next day or the day after that…[perhaps] in their imagination they envisaged something of such extraordinary beauty that the work they completed invariably disappointed them. At least that was what I thought, when on one of my visits to their workshop they showed me the pieces that had been unspared the unstitching. One of them, a bridal gown made of hundreds of scraps of silk embroidered with silken thread, or rather woven over cobweb-fashion, which hung on a headless tailor’s dummy, was a work of art so colourful and of such intricacy and perfection that it seemed almost to have come to life, and at the time I could no more believe my eyes than now I can trust my memory.


W G Sebald died in a road accident in 2001: many think he would have won the Nobel Prize for Literature if he had lived. His books are indescribably strange, with a dream-like quality and a lack of clarity as to what exactly they are – novels, recollections, memoirs, travel books? Are these three sisters real people, or did he make them up? In this book he is travelling around the East of England, describing all kinds of real things like the silk industry and the herring industry, but also interspersing this with recollections of other events, such as the stay in Ireland. The books are completely compelling, mesmerizing. Two quite separate sentences, both about silk, encapsulating different aspects of his style:

 [Catherine is talking to the narrator] ‘At one point, she said after a while, at one point we thought we would raise silkworms in the empty rooms, But then we never did.’

[About the silk industry] ‘However, after an interval of a hundred years it was revived by the German fascists with that peculiar thoroughness they brought to everything they touched, as I realized with some surprise when, last summer, searching in the education office of the town I grew up in for the short documentary about North Sea herring fisheries which had been shown to us in primary school, I happened upon a film on German silk cultivation, evidently made for the same series.’

Links up with: wedding dresses in this blog entry and this one - or click on the label 'weddings' below.

Five star linkup with yesterday’s entry: In the book Village School ‘a mobile film van calls at the school, to show educational items, including a film ‘about the herring industry, which might widen the outlook of some of these children’. W G Sebald was 11, and living in the German town of Sonthofen, when Village School was written. Miss Read was never likely to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, but it is delightful to think of German and English schoolchildren sharing this treat.

The picture is of an Italian wedding dress made by Genni Tommaso and de Cesari, and, like
this blog entry and this one, came from Perry Photography: you can see more of her work at Flickr.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

English life but not as we know it

the book:

Village School by Miss Read

published 1955   chapter 8

[The needlework inspector has turned up at the village primary school: Miss Read is showing her the children’s work from the needlework cupboard]

‘The bigger ones are making aprons with cross-over straps. That brings in button-holes,’ I enlarged, pulling one or two specimens into view, ‘and the small girls are making bibs or hankies.’

I left her to look at them while I broke up a quiet but vicious fight which had started in a corner… ‘Oh dear!’ said Miss Pitt, scrutinizing an apron. ‘Oh dear! I’m afraid this is very out-of-date.’

‘Out-of-date?’ I repeated, bewildered. ‘But children can always do with pinafores!’

Miss Pitt passed a fawn hand across her brow, as one suffering fools, but not gladly.

‘We just don’t’ she began wearily, as though addressing a very backward child, ‘we just don’t expect young children like this to do such fine, close work. Pure Victoriana this!’ she went on, tossing Anne’s apron dangerously near an inkwell. ‘All this HEMMING and OVERSEWING and BUTTONHOLING – it just isn’t done these days. Plenty of thick bright wool, crewel needles, not too small, and coarse crash, or better still, hessian to work on, and THE VERY SIMPLEST stitches! As for these poor babies with their hankies - !’ she gave a high, affected laugh. ‘Canvas mats, or a simple pochette is the sort of thing they should be attempting…’


It’s difficult to keep this straight: Miss Read writes the books, and they are fiction, but Miss Read narrates them and they are apparently about her (and is her first name actually ‘Miss’?) and her village school. And then it turns out that ‘Miss Read’ is a pseudonym. Well. Dora Saint, aka Miss Read, died this week at the age of 98, having written around 40 books of English rural life. They have an intricate time scheme, in that time passes and modern life is reflected there to a degree, but actually mostly they are stuck in the 1950s – 1960s at best – and most of the characters stay on, never getting very much older. They are a lovely picture of a different time – of course it is only the girls who do sewing here, but it is hard to imagine any English children doing anything so elaborate in primary school (ie 11 years old and under) these days. Someone once said ‘the popularity of the Miss Read books prompts this question – how terrified is the British public of real life if this is what they like to read?’

Links up with: Flora Poste (expensively educated) does fancy sewing in
this blog entry.

Special 5-star link (of which Clothes in Books is extremely proud): Village School has a strange and unlikely connection with Rings of Saturn, a book by the German author W G Sebald, one of the finest writers of the 20th century. All will be revealed in tomorrow’s blog entry.

The photo is of a display of junior needlework at a county fair, and comes from the
Cornell University Library via Flickr.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

The original Tom and Jerry, and a Victorian classic

the book:

The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope

published 1875    Chapter 43

[Ruby, a country girl, has come up to London in pursuit of Sir Felix Carbury, hoping he will marry her]

[Ruby and Sir Felix] were sitting together at a music-hall,—half music-hall, half theatre, which pleasantly combined the allurements of the gin-palace, the theatre, and the ball-room, trenching hard on those of other places. Sir Felix was smoking, dressed, as he himself called it, "incognito," with a Tom-and-Jerry hat, and a blue silk cravat, and a green coat. Ruby thought it was charming. Felix entertained an idea that were his West End friends to see him in this attire they would not know him. He was smoking, and had before him a glass of hot brandy and water, which was common to himself and Ruby. He was enjoying life. Poor Ruby! She was half-ashamed of herself, half-frightened, and yet supported by a feeling that it was a grand thing to have got rid of restraints, and be able to be with her young man. Why not? The Miss Longestaffes [local gentry] were allowed to sit and dance and walk about with their young men… But yet, as she sat sipping her lover's brandy and water between eleven and twelve at the music-hall in the City Road, she was not altogether comfortable. She saw things which she did not like to see. And she heard things which she did not like to hear. And her lover, though he was beautiful,—oh, so beautiful!—was not all that a lover should be. …


This book is very long, and something of a disappointment, not as entertaining or riveting as reputed, and certainly not, as often claimed, full of resonances with modern life, nor yet modern financial practices. But the characters – while not exactly changing and developing during the book (with one exception– a blog entry to come) are interesting enough, and the reader cares what happens to them, so the final hundred pages or so (did we say it is loooong?) are very involving.

Trollope is snobbish, class-ridden, and makes appalling comments throughout the book about Jews – but on the other side of the scales he has a very straightforward, and very modern, view of the double standards applying to men and women, and how unfair they are. It’s not exactly a surprise or a spoiler to say that Sir Felix is not going to marry Ruby. More interesting is his hat.

Tom and Jerry were popular fictional characters of the first half of the 19th century: invented by Pierce Egan, a sports journalist, they featured in a magazine, books, pictures and plays, their stories – tales of highlife and lowlife - the precursors of Dickens’ Pickwick Papers. In the picture above, Tom and Jerry are on either side of the central pillar, blue coat black hat, green coat white hat. These hats appear fairly normal, and it is in no way obvious why Sir Felix thinks he won’t be recognized in the outfit described above. The picture is called ‘Tom and Jerry sporting their Blunt on the phenomenon monkey Jacco Macacco’. Blunt, as all readers of Georgette Heyer know, is slang for money. Jacco Macacco (which has to be the best monkey name ever) was a real animal, famed for fighting and defeating dogs.

Links up with: Nicholas Nickelby, this blog entry, for posh boys and lower-class girls - Dickens not nearly as feminist as Trollope.

The original illustration is by George Cruikshank a leading satirical cartoonist of his day, uploaded to Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Hunger Games, 1939: Ten little ... whats?

the book:

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

published 1939   Chapter 13

Mr Justice Wargrave was sitting in his high-backed chair at the end of the room. Two candles burnt on either side of him. But what shocked and startled the onlookers was the fact that he sat there robed in scarlet with a judge’s wig upon his head. Dr Armstrong motioned to the others to keep back. He himself walked across to the silent staring figure, reeling a little as he walked like a drunken man. He bent forward, peering into the still face. Then, with a swift movement he raised the wig. It fell to the floor revealing the high bald forehead with, in the very middle, a round stained mark from which something had trickled. ..

Suddenly Philip Lombard laughed – a high unnatural laugh….’That’s the end of Mr Bloody Justice Wargrave. No more pronouncing sentence for him! No more putting on the black cap! Here’s the last time he’ll ever sit in court! No more summing up and sending innocent men to death…’


This is Agatha Christie’s best-selling crime novel, which is saying something, and is the best-selling mystery story of all time. It also has one of the most problematic titles of all time. She originally called it after a children’s rhyme using the n-word. Her American publishers changed the name immediately to Ten Little Indians, but it continued to be published under the original name in the UK until – unbelievably – 1985. Now it is usually known as And then there were none.

It is one of her cleverest and most elaborate plots, and it is hard to imagine anyone guessed the ending on first reading. Ten people are marooned on a tiny island off the south coast of England, and one by one they are killed. So when there’s only two people left…..? (It sounds rather like The Hunger Games.) Almost the last words of the book are: ‘When the sea goes down, there will come from the mainland boats and men. And they will find ten dead bodies and an unsolved problem.’ Although no-one makes huge claims for Christie’s writing style, this one is very atmospheric, and decidedly creepy.

The island in the book (which also has to have its name changed) is based on
Burgh Island, a popular holiday spot in the 1930s, and still a great place to visit. It featured, very recognizably, also in Christie’s Evil under the Sun. There is a very modernist 1930s hotel on the island, which has appeared in many UK TV dramas.

No more putting on the black cap – until capital punishment was abolished in the UK, a judge sentencing someone to death put a square of black silk over his wig to indicate the seriousness of the moment.

The picture is by the American artist John Singleton Copley, Portrait of Judge Martin Howard, is used with permission, and can be found on this fascinating
site of his Complete Works.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Clothes Panics again: encouraging remarks for young people

the book:

Theatre Shoes by Noel Streatfeild

published 1945, originally known as Curtain Up  chapter 14

[The Forbes children, part of a theatrical dynasty, are going to the first night of their grandmother’s new play in wartime London – but clothes and money are a big problem]

“If we had the coupons I don’t think I should need any extra money,” declared Sorrel. “I could buy a utility frock. That dress that Mary had for her audition was utility and I thought it looked awfully nice.”

[Holly said] “I don’t think you wear things like that for first nights. When Alice told me about them she said all the ladies wore satin and velvet and diamonds and foxes, and all the gentlemen had top hats and black tails…”

“It’s a party dress I want – something that would rustle and stick out… Suppose it could be yellow. Crepe de chine or silk net over taffeta…”

[But because of money and rationing – coupons – there is no prospect of Sorrel getting such a dress. But then Sorrel talks to her Aunt Lindsey:]

Aunt Lindsey got up. “You come with me, Sorrel. If there was one thing I was extravagant about before the war it was evening dresses, and I’m a very good dressmaker. Let’s see what we can find.”…

[The big night arrives:] Aunt Lindsey had made it beautifully. Moreover she had not only made the frock, but she had also sent some yellow ribbon … for Sorrel to tie on her hair… “I shouldn’t think there was ever a prettier dress in this room, would you?”


Poor 12 year old Sorrel has an earlier social occasion when she does NOT have the right frock. Kindly Alice is a theatrical dresser (“an understudy thrown on in a hurry was the breath of life to her”): she looks at Sorrel and says ‘Well there’s a war on and you’re at least covered and I suppose we mustn’t expect more.’ And then the author says ‘Which the more you thought about it, became the less encouraging.’ This reader had only undetailed memories of the triumphant successful dress later, but those two sentences were produced verbatim from memory after 30+ years, having made a huge impression on a similarly-aged girl (not in wartime), imagining going into a family event with those words ringing in her ears after hoping for a  compliment.
So let’s just be happy for Sorrel – a real Streatfeild heroine, who gets her moment. NS is very good on clothes panics (she is certain to feature more in the blog) and always provides a satisfactory ending in the garment line, not too fairy-tale-ish, but nice for her readers to imagine.
Links up with: Several of NS’s books were renamed to include ‘Shoes’ in the title, to bring them in line with the mega-successful original, Ballet Shoesthis blog entry here. It is very reasonable in this case, as the children go to Madame Fidolia’s Academy, there is news of the Fossils, and other characters from Ballet Shoes appear.
The picture is called Woman in Evening Dress by Kees Maks, a Dutch painter, and is on Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Being young, being a student, looking like a hippy

the book:

Being Emily by Anne Donovan

published 2008

[Narrator Fiona is at Art school in her home town of Glasgow]

I loved being an art student. Loved carrying a portfolio under my airm, wearing paint-spattered jeans and above all walking up they steps every morning to a building designed by one of the greatest architects ever…

My style was changing too. Insteid of baggy trousers I’d started to wear tighter jeans and I searched charity shops for floral dresses which I customised and wore over them. I tied scarves round my hair and clipped diamante earrings to the lapel of an auld velvet jacket. I was dead chuffed with myself as I looked into the blotched mirror on the back of the door, getting ready to go out. The turquoise and green jewel colours made my hair look less drab and I’ve even started slicking a bit of shiny eyeliner on my lids, using red lipgloss instead of Vaseline. [My twin sisters] noticed the change with interest but just as much disapproval as they had for my usual look.

Christ Fiona, you look like some auld hippy.
Check the bandana – you’ll be going on a demo next.


This book is written in a form of Glaswegian dialect, spelt phonetically, and it is a tribute to the writing and the story that this is not at all off-putting, and not at all difficult to read, even for non-Glaswegians. It is the story of a young woman growing up over ten years with her family, and is rooted in her love for Emily Bronte. Yes, that description could go either way couldn’t it? But this, and Anne Donovan’s other novel, Buddha Da, are wonderful books, and it’s a travesty that they are not better known (although Buddha Da won a number of literary awards.) The setting couldn't be more different, but there is a resemblance to Jane Gardam's books of girls-growing-up. Being Emily deals very convincingly with a family tragedy and with Fiona’s relationships with boys. It is intriguing and fascinating in the descriptions of her artworks, and contains some lovely scenes – when she goes off to the Art School, her father makes her breakfast and gives her, wrapped up, ‘a pack of coloured pencils, the kind you get in Woolies when you’re starting school’, saying seein it’s your first day. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to be touched. And it’s very funny. Oh just go and read it.

The picture shows the silent movie star Stacia Napierkowska, and comes from the Library of Congress via Flickr.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

She died young, but in a beautiful dress

the book:

Next Season by Michael Blakemore

published 1968    chapter 7

[The actors are preparing for the dress rehearsal of a performance of the Duchess of Malfi] “I feel like Theda Bara,” [Amanda] said, but with some pleasure. She was lavishly dressed in green and gold, and wore a splendid copper-coloured wig. Sam wondered if she might yet be good in her part. Her throat and shoulders were bare, and as they talked he took surreptitious account of them. She was a little too skinny to play the part of a great voluptuary, but the designer had made the very best of her small bosom and the shapeliness she derived from the slight muscularity of her young body. Her clear skin was checked along the top of her shoulders by a faint track of freckles, mark of idle days in the sun (like almost all Australian girls).

“Full company onstage please. Full company onstage.”


John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi is a bloodthirsty, macabre Jacobean revenge tragedy. Amanda in the extract above is playing the very sexy Julia, mistress to a Cardinal but with an eye for others. She will die (the spoiler is worth it for the bizarreness) by kissing a poisoned Bible. This play, running in London right now with Eve Best charismatic in the title role, is one that doesn’t treat women well, but does provide great parts for actresses.

The book is by a well-known theatre director, and describes one season in a provincial UK theatre through the eyes of a very much B-team actor. It is described as riveting by many theatre people: this is possibly less true for the rest of us, with its long detailed explanations of how a play is put on, and the inner thoughts of the not-terribly-interesting Sam as he goes about creating his minor parts, and pursues Amanda – the actress above, posh, theatrical royalty, not particularly good in her part but bound to succeed because of who her father is – and Valerie, a shopgirl in a pink nylon overall with a local boyfriend who must be avoided. The book does however also give a very convincing and off-putting picture of life in an English town in the 1960s: half a grapefruit with a cherry on it for your starter at a smart hotel (much better than the prawn cocktail), sex with Valerie after placing brown paper on the floor of the basement of the chemists’ shop [drugstore] where she works, everything shut on Sundays, the National Anthem before the play starts. And, surprisingly, a barbecue on the beach for the off-duty actors.

The picture is of the suicide of Cleopatra, believed to be by Michele Desubleo, made available of
Wikimedia Commons by the Artgate Fondazione Cariplo.