Sunday, 30 June 2013

Dress Down Sunday: The Little Shadows by Marina Endicott

published 2011


Aurora and Clover [are lacing] their corsets. Aurora said, ‘Tighter, tighter,’ and Clover pulled. Aurora had a beautiful corset: cut-away hips and a short back, made of French coutil with écru lace trimming and pale blue ribbons. God only knew what it had cost, Mama said. It was from the Queen of the May costume. She ought to have a corset too, but Bella was still treated like a baby; hers was only a band, even though she had a bust beginning, and perhaps with a little cotton stuffed inside a corset she would look more like the sixteen she was supposed to be. ..

[Later, at rehearsal] ‘You have laced yourself too tight to breathe. You cannot sing if you cannot breathe.’ Gentry’s stick whisked at Aurora, flicking like a carriage whip on her stiffened midriff. ‘Take her to the dressing room and loosen her corset,’ he told Flora, not troubling to make it a request. His impatience was always on fire in the mornings. A bad time for classes. But they had the choice: learn, or go. He cast his pearls before them! What was it to him if they chose to lace themselves into asphyxia for a pair of booze-soaked Irish eyes?

observations: Another visit to this fabulous book, one of my favourites of this year. And one about which I can’t help wondering – would it be more famous, more acclaimed, if it featured men’s business and male characters?

Coutil – I looked it up on Wikipedia so you don’t have to – is a tightly woven cloth created specifically for making corsets, so it doesn’t stretch or allow the bones poke through.

** ADDED LATER The blog's good friend Ken Nye, a costume expert, has added a comment about singers and corsets, do take a look below.

The three girls are working up a vaudeville act, the Belle Auroras, in which they sing and dance – their singing lessons are rather like those given to Kit by Papa Andreas in The Lark in the Morn and the Lark on the Wing. They will slowly become more successful over the course of the book, and undergo various vicissitudes and pleasures in their personal lives. It is all so well done – the relaxed attitude to periods (good, bad or annoying depending on the circumstances), the complete lack of sentiment, despite the fact that the girls all have great loves in their lives, the picture of their mother as she tries to keep up appearances but drinks a little too much. The friendships on the road, the strange lodgings – it’s all familiar from many other books (and even, in mood if not details, a song – the lovely Knopfler/Harris track Rollin’ On), but Endicott makes it new and engrossing.

This is Aurora working the crowd:

she turned the lamp of her attention on every person in the audience, letting each of them know how she loved them, and always, always would.

Links on the blog: Connie in London Belongs to Me looks back on a similar life in England. 

Also Fevvers in Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus.

The picture is a corset advert from Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, 29 June 2013

The Orpheus Trail by Maureen Duffy

published 2009

I sat there for about half an hour, covertly inspecting the cyclists and a few walkers, mainly women with dogs and pushchairs on their way to the Parks. Then suddenly there he was turning the corner, a little hunched inside his overcoat but unmistakable from the website photograph, slightly shaggy moustache, plump face with two wings of bushy hair sprouting from a bald patch stretching back from his forehead. I got out of the car and walked towards him. The words came out as if they had been well rehearsed. ‘I’m a friend of Jack Linden’s. I think we should talk.’…

[The mysterious Professor turns up in the British Museum later:]
I chanced a quick look around the corner. No mistake. There was the shaggy moustache, the wings of bushy hair. Why was he in this exhibition and not among the mummies that were his field of expertise?

observations: There’s a prescient note in this book: the hero Alex, a great man for his cat, says:
Maybe one day some urban wildlife Attenborough will hang a mini video camera round a cat’s neck and film that mysterious life lived beyond our grasp.

--and just last week exactly such a programme was shown on British TV, a whole set of cats being tracked round a small village.

On the whole, though, the book is more concerned with history, and archaeology. The story reads like a very old-fashioned detective story, written by someone who has heard of such works but never actually read one. But then modern life intrudes – the website above, and odd mentions of Soham and the Iraq war, suddenly drag you back into the present. And then it becomes clear that Duffy - a very distinguished writer, with fiction, non-fiction and poetry on her list – is very very concerned about modern-day issues of child trafficking. The investigation is moderately interesting if oddly-written –
I set off up the A127, the old arterial road to London for pre-Second World War outings ‘beside the seaside’ to join the M25 snaking round north London before turning west on the M40, and eventually down another old London Road, over Magdalen Bridge into the city centre, past St John’s College and out on the Woodstock Road, where I pulled in to study my city map.

--Alex feels ‘childish excitement’ at this detailed navigation, but he must be the only one.

It feels mean to be carping, but the very odd ending does neither her nor her unimpeachable cause any favours at all.

Links on the blog: A remote one - St Cedd, who is rather obscure, features in this book: he is also the patron saint of the church in Cover Her Face, where the fete leads to murder.

The picture is of Leonard Hobhouse of LSE, the first Professor of Sociology at a British University.

Friday, 28 June 2013

Therese Desqueyroux by Francois Mauriac

Published 1927  this translation by Gerard Hopkins, 1928

[She] gave her whole attention to the passers-by. Some of them seemed to be waiting, walking up and down the pavement. There was a woman who twice turned and smiled at her (a working-girl, or someone got up to look like a working-girl?) It was the hour of the day at which the dressmakers’ workrooms empty. Therese had no intention of leaving…

In the window of the Old England tea-shop she saw herself reflected, and realized how young she was. The close–fitting travelling suit became her well. But those years at Argelouse had left their mark upon her face. She looked worn and haggard. She took note of her short nose and too prominent cheek-bones. ‘I’m not an old woman yet’, she thought. She lunched (as so often in her dreams) in the rue Royale. Why go back to the hotel? She had no wish to. The half-bottle of Pouilly she had drunk filled her with a warm sense of well-being. She asked for some cigarettes. A young man at the next table snapped his lighter and held it out to her. She smiled.

observations: Should be read in conjunction with the entry earlier this week.

It is very hard to remember that this is a book of 1920s, written by a rather stern and moral man. Therese is endearing and has been unhappy and not very moral at all - but things will not end up so badly for her.

Mauriac was a great French man of letters, winner of a Nobel Prize, though almost unknown in England. He, rather surprisingly, said that he wrote this story using techniques which had been introduced by the then-new medium of silent film (which came up in this novel and this work of non-fiction). He seems to have had a huge, non-judgmental soft spot for Therese - he follows her in some later stories, rounding off her life with The End of the Night: the blog is treating it as one long story. Like Thackeray with Becky in Vanity Fair, Mauriac wants her to be redeemed – and Therese is in the end - but he knows she is much more lovable in her sinful state, smoking away endlessly. Here she has, astonishingly, got away from her husband and the provinces, and is hoping for a brighter future. She is at the mid-point of the four stories, and we can leave her there happy.

The reference to a working-girl – I couldn’t decide if this was meant to have implications of a street-walker, but the original French ouvriere, and consultation with (as ever) JDS, show he really does mean a person who works at the ‘ateliers de couture.’ So perhaps this one IS a prostitute, but is trying to look like one of the midinettes.

Links on the blog: Therese has longed to live in Paris, and imagines it as being very like this scene in Michael Arlen’s Green Hat. The final plotline for her resembles, of all unlikely books, The Nutmeg Tree by Margery Sharp – the estranged daughter returns, the mother tries to help with a love affair. But perhaps Therese and the lovely Julia aren’t so far apart. Therese’s maid sews for her trousseau – something that also happens in this entry.

Both pictures are originally from Vogue, via the marvellous Clover Vintage Tumblr

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Hardscape by Justin Scott

published 1994 chapter 13

[Ben Abbott is going out with his aged Aunt Connie]

“Would you like to come with me?” was her way of asking if I would drive her. She would drive herself – the sight of her peering under the rim of the steering wheel would scatter the few who hadn’t already taken cover at the first glimpse of her black Lincoln – but if I were to oblige she would take the sensible course. But she would not ask…

Connie had started the Lincoln, backed it out of her stable, and closed the doors herself. She was sitting in the passenger seat at 11.30, wearing a cardigan sweater over a summery dress and a Lilly Dache hat she had purchased when invited to launch a World War II battleship. Her pie sat on the back floor, swathed in tinfoil. I laid my roses on the back seat, their stems found in wet paper towels and Saran. As I climbed behind the wheel I lifted her veil and kissed her astonishingly soft cheek.

observations: Lilly Dache was a top-class, innovative milliner: French-born, she moved to the USA and eventually had her own business making hats for film stars and rich women. She was very famous in her day, though I had never heard of her till I read the name in this book – quite an unlikely way to discover her.

This was the first of a short series of books featuring Ben Abbott, Wall St trader turned realtor. Justin Scott wrote shedloads of books (under several names) and this one is a little gem. It is rooted in 1994, with Bill Clinton in power after the Reagan and Bush years, and takes small town life (in Connecticut) and big money in its stride. It has a good, busy plot, and a very attractive hero. The women characters are exceptionally real and well-done (and how rare is that in a macho murder story?) – there is a splendid scene where he is out for dinner with a female trooper and she reads him his rights –
in a low voice, by heart, while holding a menu. A prosperous-looking couple at the next table exchanged the little smile lovers do when they see another couple sharing a special moment.

In another scene, he is trying to help a neighbour child get orthodontistry, when he gets across two women who accuse him of making her feel ugly –
‘you’re forcing a little girl onto a treadmill of vanity’

‘He’s always bugging me about potatoes,’ muttered Mrs Mealy.

treadmill of vanity?...’

- the scene is hilarious, while being completely even-handed to all the participants, no-one is made to seem wrong or ridiculous. (Again, how rare is that?)

It is interesting to read a story written when the world is on the cusp of gigantic change – the future of electronics and computers is acknowledged as very important, and is part of the plot, but there are answering machines, change for the payphones, car phones, and virtually no computers.

All this and an entrée into the world of bespoke hats. Great book. So this one's for Col of the excellent & highly-recommended blog, Col's Criminal Library - he and I enjoy reading about each other's choices of books, while not having many shared favourites. This one could be an overlap point.

Links on the blog: we like a hat at Clothes in Books: there's a discussion of 1940s styles here - good ship-launching fodder - and click on the label below for more.

The picture is of Lilly Dache in one of her own hats. If you enter ‘Lilly Dache’ into Google Images you get pages of breath-taking hats.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

My Friend Monica by Jane Duncan

published  1960   Part 1 set in the late 1940s

[Narrator Janet is meeting up with her wartime friend, Lady Monica Loame, near her home in Scotland]

The next morning, when we drove up to the Crook, Monica was sitting on top of a wooden stile that bridged the fence between the lawn and some woodland in a russet and green sweater and skirt and hand-made brown brogues, looking like a well-posed, well-taken picture of that autumn’s best country wear in an expensive magazine. Her uncle was standing beside her with his back against a fence post, in a baggy, hairy, tweed suit, looking like an old sheep farmer, and not in the least like an inventor of complicated valves. When Monica introduced us he glared at me in a hostile way, or so it seemed, [and] muttered a greeting.

observations: What’s impressive about Jane Duncan is her self-confidence. She correctly assumed that a lot of people would buy her series of 19 (yes, 19!) books vaguely based on her life, full of her own ideas and thoughts and views. Proust, she isn’t – but there’s a kind of fellow-feeling there.

The first in the series, My Friends the Miss Boyds, did (I said recently) have some intrinsic interest because of her childhood, although it turns out that the author did NOT grow up on the croft – she just spent her holidays there. This one (the 3rd, we are drawing the veil of charity over the 2nd, Muriel) has a very strange plot: something happens that could easily have filled the book, but which is thrown away…


Janet falls over and is told that without a shadow of a doubt she will never walk again, no way, not a chance. Now guess. How long do you think before….? Never mind that: how many pages? From dreadful accident, via diagnosis, to first twitch: 

20 pages. 

A recent entry was praised for its unusual medical diagnosis, whereas this medical miracle is common in fiction, though sadly not so much in real life - see also: Matthew in Julian Fellowes’ Downton Abbey, Katy in What Katy Did, Colin in The Secret Garden.

But even stranger: this is all pretty much done by p120 (of 234) so you wonder: how is Duncan going to fill up the rest of the book? The answer is 'badly': pages and pages of ‘shall we take Monica to Reachfar or not?’ and then pages and pages of talking with Monica and explaining a whole lot of things that don’t need explaining, except that Monica can tell Janet how wonderful she is.

Obviously I am going to continue with this series a while longer, the books have a terrible magnetic pull.

Links on the blog: My Friends the Miss Boyds here. Upmarket ladies in tweed skirts here and here - in fact, pictures of women in tweeds are surprisingly difficult to find.

The glorious picture is from this ever-entertaining free vintage knitting pattern site.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Therese Desqueyroux by Francois Mauriac

Published 1927  this translation by Gerard Hopkins, 1928  Chapter X

At the funeral [of Aunt Clara] she occupied the place allotted to her. On the next Sunday she went to church with Bernard, who, instead of entering by a side-aisle as was his custom, made a point of walking down the nave for all to see. Therese kept her crape veil down until she had taken her seat between her husband and her mother-in-law. A pillar hid her from the congregation. There was nothing between her and the choir. On every other side she was hedged in. Behind her was the crown of worshippers, on her right hand Bernard, Madame de la Trave on her left. Only in front of her was there a free and open space, empty as is the arena to the bull when he comes from the darkness into the light – space where, flanked by two small boys, a man in fancy dress was standing, his arms a little spread, whispering.

observations: A film of Therese has just been released: there was a previous one in 1962, and the mystery is why there haven’t been endless versions of the story. Actresses should be queuing up to play her…

She has tried to poison her husband Bernard. He and their two families work hard to cover up this scandal – the case against her is dismissed, but she is now at the mercy of her husband. She lies around smoking a lot (she smokes more than any character in any book ever) and looking unhappy and being bored. Aunt Clara has just died, and locals are saying ‘For all we know, it may be her as done it.’ (She didn’t.)

Mauriac is something like Evelyn Waugh** – very strongly Catholic, in a rather unbending way, living the life of an intellectual and sounding as if he might be pompous and priggish, yet occasionally able to produce a miracle of unlikely empathy. Therese is a wonderful creation, on a level with Flaubert’s Emma Bovary. We have every sympathy for her, even though she is obviously an awful person who would be very annoying in real life. She is outraged when her husband wrongly guesses the motive for her attempted murder of him:
Among all the myriad causes which had prompted her act, this fool had not been able to understand a single one

-- which you feel is just a little unreasonable.

In case the great symbolism of the passage above is not evident, the man in fancy dress is the Priest celebrating Mass. So you might think that she will repent and become a nun, say. But you’d think wrong – the blog will check in on her future later this week.
**Nancy Mitford once criticized an article on religious matters by Mauriac as dull: Waugh claimed this proved she had no understanding of religion, and there was no point talking to her about it.

Links on the blog: Therese is played by Audrey Tautou in the new film – she also played the heroine in the marvellous A Very Long Engagement, set in France a few years earlier.

The picture is of a mourner at the funeral of King George V, from the LSE library

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Greenshaw's Folly by Agatha Christie

From The Complete Miss Marple Short Stories  - story first published 1956, this collection 2003 by the FolioSociety

They turned the corner of the house and came out on a neglected lawn. In one corner of it was a large artificial rockery, and bending over it was a figure at the sight of which Horace clutched Raymond delightedly by the arm.

‘My dear,’ he exclaimed, ‘do you see what she’s got on? A sprigged print dress. Just like a housemaid – when there were housemaids….’

The figure in the print dress had straightened up and had turned towards them, trowel in hand. She was a sufficiently startling figure. Unkempt locks of iron-grey fell wispily on her shoulders, a straw hat rather like the hats that horses wear in Italy was crammed down on her head. The coloured print dress she wore fell nearly to her ankles. Out of a weather-beaten, not too clean face, shrewd eyes surveyed them appraisingly.

‘I must apologize for trespassing, Miss Greenshaw’ said Raymond West as he advanced towards her…

observations: Of course she isn’t a housemaid, she’s Lady Posh Posh, and Raymond West is Miss Marple’s nephew. This is the latest Marple to get the TV treatment: the adaptation was shown tonight on British TV, and so I haven’t seen it as I write, but we can guess that the writer has expanded the plot and added some sexy bits. It has definitely been combined with another story, The Thumb Mark of St Peter, in which the love of Raymond’s life is Joyce. She has changed her name to Joan by the time we get to this one. In addition, in many of the early Marple short stories there is a regular character called Jane, even though that is Miss M’s Christian name – typical Christie, so particular about some things and so careless about others.

Horace, above, is plainly meant to be gay, though she never uses the word – in A Caribbean Mystery (on TV last week, also on the blog) another friend of Raymond’s is described as ‘a queer’, possibly uniquely in the canon.

Christie features a lot on Clothes in Books, and it isn’t only because I love her books: clothes play a hugely important part in her mysteries. She doesn’t always bother with very detailed descriptions, because she is more concerned with surface effect, what they show and what they hide. A big hat, a frock with scarlet poinsettias, a red bathing suit. Or, a spotted dressing-gown. Or, a costume for an actor or for a fancy dress (= US costume) party. All specialized kinds of disguises…

Links on the blog: Agatha Christie all over the blog, click on the label below. There’s a rather unusual lady gardener in this book, along with a splendid picture of Vita Sackville West.

The photograph is called The Gardener’s Wife and is from the Tyne and Wear Museum and Archives.

Dress Down Sunday: Barbara Pym Centenary

No Fond Return of Love

published 1951  chapter 15


[Dulcie and Viola are walking for the bus after going to church]

‘That man there, arranging things in that shop window,’ Viola [said]. ‘He’s smiling at you. Do you know him?... What’s he doing in a shop window at this time of night?’

‘Oh he’s the knitwear buyer for this chain of shops. I suppose he’s arranging the window ready for Monday morning.’

The dapper shirt-sleeved figure of Bill Sedge carrying a bough of artificial cherry blossom, now appeared in the shop doorway. [He offers to take them for coffee, and goes to get his coat]

‘Just look at those petticoats,’ said Viola self-consciously, as they waited by the shop window, ‘all those frills and frou-frou – not quite us somehow.’

‘A New Temptation,’ Dulcie read from a card fixed to a black lace strapless brassiere. ‘For whom, one wonders.’

‘Perhaps we ought to be looking at Mr Sedge’s knitewear,’ said Viola, going to the other side of the window, ‘that will be more suitable.’

observations: Should be read with this entry. The centenary of Barbara Pym's birth is being celebrated this month.

Dulcie and Viola, with their intense curiosity about people, and in the hopes of a ‘rich evening’ of discovery, have gone to the church of Neville Forbes – just because he is the brother of the person they are really interested in. They have earlier followed a complete stranger in the street because they think he might be Nev. (Both brothers obviously have a great ability to attract women.) Now at least Viola will be somewhat distracted by the window-dresser, though still happy enough to go on an expedition to the West Country to meet more of the family – the Forbes brothers’ mother makes a priceless remark about Nev wearing his cassock:

I suppose it saves your other clothes – like wearing an overall
When people say Barbara Pym is like Jane Austen you want to ask them if they’ve actually read Jane Austen, or if they think all single women who write novels must be the same. Barbara Pym is wonderful, but not in a Jane Austen kind of way.

Not a great deal happened in Pym’s life (in that respect she is like Austen), apart from some unresolved and unsatisfactory love affairs, and a job that she seemed to enjoy – but her diaries, letters and biography make for unexpectedly riveting reading. As we said in the previous entry, Dulcie’s ‘researches’ aren’t much of an exaggeration from her own activities.

Links on the blog: Dulcie’s neighbour is very keen on getting everything delivered from Harrods – just like one of the residents at the Hotel du Lac. Pym's Excellent Women is here.

The photograph of a shop display is from the State Library of New South Wales.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Midsummer: Stig of the Dump by Clive King

published 1963  chapter 9

[Barney and his sister Lou have come out on Midsummer Night, and found themselves in the world of caveman Stig]

They were walking over the smooth turf towards the cluster of huts. The armed tribesmen were on each side of them, and it was difficult for them to feel sure whether they were prisoners or guests… they passed into the circle of firelight, and the crowd, who had been talking among themselves quite quietly before, fell silent, and everyone was looking at them. They walked in silence round the edge of the circle. Barney heard a very small whisper from Lou: ‘Remember when we were bridesmaid and page at the wedding?’ He did remember, and the feeling was about the same as when they had walked into the church with the bride…

On the other side of the circle was a group of older men, and in the middle there was a figure sitting on a tree-trunk. As they went nearer they could see that he had white hair, very bright black eyes, and was dressed in some very silky fur, with necklaces and bangles of animals’ teeth. They didn’t need to be told that this was the chief.

observations: Stig of the Dump again, with Barney and Lou’s excursion back into Stig’s time, because of the magic of Midsummer. Lou will give a truly splendid speech to the tribe, made up of phrases from overheard adults, a bit of speech day and some quotations from poems. She does a particularly good job acting out the seasonally inappropriate ‘Christmas is coming’:

‘PLEASE!’ she begged, holding out her hand, ‘put a penny’ – she paused - ‘in the old man’s hat,’ she finished with her hand on her heart.

and it will go down a storm with the non-comprehending but appreciative audience. They will also see some standing stones being erected, and help save a baby – quite the adventure for one night. Although Stig doesn’t disappear with the sunrise, unlike his tribe, this is pretty much the end of his adventures with Barney, though the book has a wholly admirable hazy ending: absolutely perfect.

Links up with: This picture of Stig is one of the blog's proudest moments. Midsummer can come in other guises - last year's seasonal efforts showed off these strange creatures:

The top picture - really, what can we say? Other than thank you Julia. They are dressed as pile-dwellers, and you can find the details (in German) hereThe 2nd picture is, again, from the Builth Wells Historical Pageant of 1909, via the National Library of Wales. For the other pictures, see the original entries.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Oxford Blood by Antonia Fraser

published 1985  chapter 19 

Shortly after… Saffron himself arrived. In his dark green tail coat with its white facings – the mark of an Oxford Blood – he looked extraordinarily handsome; the slightly gaunt appearance he had presented since his accident, and still more since Tiggie’s death, suited him. With the thick black hair flopping across his forehead, slightly too long for the conventional idea of one who wore a tail coat in the evening, Saffron looked for a moment more like a musician, a young violinist perhaps, than a rich young undergraduate come to escort a lady to a Commem Ball.

Because Jemima was wearing a ball dress of roughly the same colour – bottle-green watered taffeta, off the shoulder, with flounces and a very full skirt – she had to admit to the mirror that they looked curiously well matched. Even her white shoulders matched the white facings of his coat.

observations: The gilded rubbish are attending a Midsummer Ball - should be read with earlier entry on this book.

Throughout Oxford Blood you have to keep reminding yourself that Saffron is a young man, not a woman. He is an aristocrat, and a member of one of the very unattractive  male dining clubs at the University – called here the Oxford Bloods. Taffeta ball gowns were very much the thing at the time, and the iconic image of the era is a young woman in a jewel-coloured dress with her partner’s dinner jacket over the top, sleeves rolled or pushed up. The fashion then expanded to women actually wearing such jackets specifically made for them, and at an earlier social event in the book:

Poppy looked ravishing in a loose but extremely well-cut white linen dinner jacket, wing collar and narrow black tie…[Jemima] could not summon up enormous interest in Poppy’s political views; on the other hand she would like to know where she got the dinner jacket.
The Oxford University Balls are very formal, fancy affairs held at the end of the summer term, with expensive tickets and endless entertainments – they go on all night, ending in breakfast for the survivors.

So Jemima and Saffron are not over-dressed, though we are going to find out what Jemima wears under her dress (not much). The clothes are always carefully described, so it’s surprising that at one point Fraser has forgotten/made a change – a character is wearing gold lame early in the book, and later is wearing a red velvet dress ‘same as she wore’ at the earlier event. Another surprise comes with the news that the butler at the posh house has won a TV talent contest before an audience of millions and is now famous for his singing – it’s a very modern reality-show touch.

For B and C and G. I hope that you and your friends survive/enjoy it.

Links on the blog: The book featured before. The hero of this book went to a similar Ball in Cambridge, 80 years earlier. A fictional version of Princess Diana wears a green evening dress here.

The main photo is of Drew Barrymore – 80s wild child if ever there was one – at a film festival, and was taken by David Shankbone. The other picture is from a fashion mag of 1985.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

The Histories by Herodotus

Written between 450 and 420 BCE

This translation by Andrea L Purvis in 2007

Book 9

After some time had passed, however, their affair became known, in the following manner. Amastris the wife of Xerxes wove a great embroidered robe which was quite spectacular, and gave it to Xerxes. He put it on with delight and went to see Artaynte [his mistress] while wearing it. He was so pleased with her, too, that he told her to ask him for whatever she wanted in return for her services… Once he had given his oath, she fearlessly asked for the robe. Xerxes did all he could to make her change her mind… [as Amastris] would now discover for certain what was going on. He offered Artaynte cities, gold in great abundance, and an army which no one but she would command (and an army is a very generous gift for a Persian to give), but he could not persuade her. Finally he gave her the robe and she, overjoyed with this gift, put it on and gloried in it.

observations: These men never learn do they? Never, never offer a blind promise or oath, and never say ‘I swear you can have whatever you want.’ In the Bible there’s Jephtha, finding he has promised God to kill his daughter (who doesn’t even get a name), and after that we’ll have Salome asking Herod for the head of John the Baptist.

This particular story is even more complicated because the mistress, Artaynte, is the daughter-in-law of Xerxes, (married to his son Darius) and he at first was in love with her mother – whom his wife will blame for this imbroglio. But she is also his niece: his brother Masistes is her father, and thus the husband of the other woman desired by Xerxes. Yes, it is complicated, and hard to keep the family tree and the details in order.

I particularly like the helpful note about offering an army as a gift, in case the reader didn’t realize its value.

SPOILER: This is not going to end well for Masistes, or for any of his family, and there is another example here of Herodotus’s distance from modern narrative methods. Masistes hears threats from Xerxes – who is, after all, the supreme ruler – and goes away, 

saying only 'My lord, you have not destroyed me yet.' 

So we anticipate considerable resistance from and perhaps victory for Masistes (whose wife is being horribly mutilated even during this conversation.) And no doubt that might have happened, Herodotus tells us. Only it didn’t in fact: Xerxes sent after him and he, his sons and his army are killed by the end of the next paragraph. ‘So that is the story of Xerxes’ passion and the death of Masistes.’ Too bad.

Links on the blog: In Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth, there’s an involved story about a man giving his lover a blouse and his wife finding it. More from Herodotus here (the extraordinary story of the cloakpins) and here (those who served in the army).

The top picture is of a relief of Xerxes in his palace in Persepolis, and was taken by Jona Lendering. The other picture is of a Shah of Iran about 2000 years later, but plenty of embroidered robes. The image is from the Walters Museum in Baltimore.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

The Detective's Daughter by Lesley Thomson

published 2013   section set in 1985

The classroom door bashed him when the boy in front let it go. He held it for a boy with a runny nose who stepped on his heel, pulling off his shoe. The boy did not say sorry. Jonathan bent to do up his laces. ‘We are going to be last.’ Simon squeezed his fingers tight.

The playground was behind the neo-Gothic mansion and a trek from the classroom. The twenty boys crocodiled across a quadrangle of cobblestones. It was a flaw in the conversion from private house to institution that the cloakroom could only be reached by a circuitous route involving going outside without coats. The boys’ pinched faces were whipped by a harsh wind off the South Downs that swirled leaves and twigs around their grey-socked legs. They were not allowed to run. Jonathan turned his ankle on the wet cobbles; his new shoes cut into his shins and rubbed the back of his heels. He longed to break free from Simon’s grip. 

observations: Poor Jonathan. He’s the son of a murder victim, and has been sent away to what someone later describes as Dotheboys Hall. One had hoped that the traditional boys’ prep school, a horrible British institution, wasn’t quite that bad by the mid-80s, but perhaps it was.

This really excellent book doesn’t hold back on the bad results of the murder, but is also very good on detection and relationships. It’s long, but there were still a few bits that weren’t clear to me, maybe loose ends (what did happen to Simon?) – the climax goes on forever and is very detailed but still seems to leave vital bits out. But all that said, The Detective’s Daughter is superb: a wonderful picture of London in the snow, a slow unveiling of what really happened to Kate Rokesmith, and a look at parent-child relations. 

Stella Darnell, the eponymous daughter, is going through her father’s house after his death, and finds a box-full of papers relating to a long-gone murder case – he was a retired policeman. That’s a very enticing setup for a crime fiction fan, and, even better, Stella and her worrying ally Jack (about whom we know more than she does) make a most appealing team, even though they are both distinctly odd. There is a very creepy atmosphere at times in the book, the tension is very well done. It becomes fairly obvious who the criminal is about three-quarters of the way in – but I couldn’t have stopped reading on for any money. A wonderfully good book, and I am certainly going to seek out her previous novel, A Kind of Vanishing.

Links on the blog: Jennings and Derbyshire are at prep school, but much happier.

The picture of cricketing schoolboys is from the National Library of Australia.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

The Little Shadows by Marina Endicott

published 2011   Act One Part 3 

[The Belle Auroras have got their first real singing job

‘Have you a lobby photograph for the girls there?’ He saw from her face that they had none. ‘After your lunch go to Leroy’s Studio on 8th Avenue. They will not overcharge you.’…

They made a little stir going through the lobby, three bright-faced well-fed girls on the way to Leroy’s Studio— where a plump, avid young man seemed only too happy to take their photograph, divesting them of their coats with speedy competence and sitting them in a succession of poses against his painted backdrop, Aurora in the centre and the other two in various attitudes around her. He disposed Aurora’s coat tenderly over her shoulders when they were done and looked meaningfully at her, but she contrived to be very concerned about the tying of Bella’s shawl. Three poses, ten prints, to be sent to the theatre in the morning - $2 more out of the grouch-bag, but Aurora decided not to fret about that. They would soon enough be paid - Gentry had all but promised.

observations: @Sara O’Leary is a friend to this blog in many ways, but she has surpassed herself in recommending this book. It is a) the perfect Clothes in Books novel in that it is full of splendid clothes descriptions but b) is also one of the best books I’ve read this year. It’s a book to get lost in: it follows the lives of the Belle Auroras, three sisters trying to make their way in vaudeville in Canada and the northern USA at the beginning of the 20th century. I think Endicott is well-known and a prizewinner in her native Canada, but she deserves much wider recognition. The writer she most reminds me of is Michael Chabon: she has the same ability to create a whole world and convince you it is real, with an almost uncanny authenticity. Of course a smart writer can research vaudeville, and find out about the jokes and the kind of acts, and the way it all worked – for example, we find out that ‘going on in one’ means an act that uses only the front of the stage, so the scenery could be changed behind the curtain. It’s satisfying to learn that, and I expect you could look it up in a reference work. But there's an extra dimension - how does Endicott make even the gossip in the dressing-rooms sound so real? I am in awe of this book.

This bit of The Little Shadows is near the beginning, as they start out, and there will doubtless be several more entries as we follow them around.

Meanwhile, there are several references to the girls and their mother doing their hair in rags, something we looked at in this entry with this picture:

The grouch-bag is slang for a purse – there is a claim that Groucho Marx got his name from wearing one round his neck. The girls’ budgeting is followed in some detail, very reminiscent of the wonderful Fossil Sisters in blog favourite Ballet Shoeshere they’re working out how much audition dresses will cost – and of course the matching Whicharts. The Little Shadows has the charm and wonder of Ballet Shoes along with the realism and grit of the Whicharts.

The picture is of a vaudeville act called the Machinson sisters, and is from Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, 17 June 2013

The Herb of Death by Agatha Christie

from: The Complete Miss Marple Short Stories  - story first published 1932, this collection 2003, new edition with illustrations by Andrew Davidson 2012

[Mrs Bantry is describing a house party where someone died]

‘Now the girl Sylvia...  Sylvia Keene. She was pretty – really very pretty. Fair-haired, you know, and a lovely skin. Not perhaps very clever. In fact, rather stupid.’

‘Oh! Come, Dolly,’ protested her husband…. ‘One of the most graceful creatures I ever saw. Such a pretty way with her. I bet the young fellows all thought so.’

‘That’s just where you’re wrong’ said Mrs Bantry. ‘Youth, as such, has no charms for young men nowadays. It’s only old buffers like you, Arthur, who sit maundering on about young girls.’

‘Being young’s no good’ said Jane. ‘You’ve got to have SA.’

‘Ah yes’ said Miss Marple. ‘What in my day they used to call “having the come hither in your eye.”’…

[On the day of her death] ‘It was Sylvia herself who took the [poisoned] leaves to the kitchen. It was part of her daily job to gather things like salad or herbs, bunches of young carrots – all the sort of things that gardeners never pick right...’

observations: Something of a Miss Marple festival right now, with a new TV adaptation shown last night, and an old entry recycled to match

This particular edition of her stories came from The Folio Society, a London-based organization devoted to producing beautiful books. They gave me a copy of the book and invited me to an Agatha Christie party at their wonderful HQ on the edge of Covent Garden. (I am both a highly influential book blogger and easily bought.) In fact, I have always been a fan of disposable paperbacks, and am now a convert to the Kindle.

So I surprised myself by how much I loved their books: they are not (as you might suspect) leather-bound books by the yard for personal libraries, where they will sit unread, just there for show. They are lovely, easy-to-handle, beautifully printed books: a pleasure to read, and very much aimed at real book-lovers. I suspect the Society faces a difficult time in this era of ebooks, but (again, to my surprise) I came away thinking that I hope very much that they find a new audience, and that we all should be buying copies of our particular favourite books from them (they have a huge catalogue), giving their books as gifts (my new resolution), and ensuring their survival.

Agatha Christie is a great fit for their list, and her biographer Laura Thompson gave an excellent talk at the party - her book Agatha Christie: An English Mystery is highly recommended.

The reference to Sex Appeal and Come Hither is classic Christie, and also comes up in blog favourite Love in a Cold Climate – the entry references Marple and Christie too. (As it happens, Laura Thompson also wrote a biography of Nancy Mitford.) 

At Agatha Christie's house in Devon, Greenway, you can see foxgloves (with the poisonous leaves) growing in the garden - knowing this story gives the plants a sinister air.

The picture is one of the beautiful illustrations for the book, and is used by kind permission of the Folio Society.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

A Caribbean Mystery by Agatha Christie

published 1964   chapter 23

*****Vintage entry - first appeared on the blog last year, being recycled because a new TV adaptation has been produced *****

[Old-lady sleuth Miss Marple is investigating a crime while on holiday in the West Indies.] Miss Marple woke suddenly and sat up in bed. Her heart was beating. She switched on the light and looked at the little clock by her bedside. Two am. Two am and outside activity of some kind was going on. She got up, put on her dressing gown and slippers, and a woollen scarf round her head and went out to reconnoitre….

[Mr Rafiel] was fast asleep in bed...when he was taken by the shoulders and shaken violently… “It’s me,” said Miss Marple, for once ungrammatical, “though I should put it a little more strongly than that. The Greeks, I believe, had a word for it. Nemesis, if I am not wrong.”

Mr Rafiel raised himself on his pillows as far as he could. He stared at her. Miss Marple, standing there in the moonlight, her head encased in a fluffy scarf of pale pink wool, looked as unlike a figure of Nemesis as it was possible to imagine.


Miss Marple does not have on a headpiece consisting of a flower, a waving feather and a square of netting, but she IS wearing a fascinator. It is never named as such in this book, but in Nemesis, a sort of sequel seven years later, Miss M reminisces about the incident above: “She’d been wearing that pink wool – what used they to call them when she was young? – a fascinator. That nice pink wool kind of shawl-scarf that she’d put round her head.” An old definition of a fascinator is ‘a covering for the head of silk, lace, or crocheted net worn by women’ - a lightweight head covering which would give some warmth and protection without ruining a hairstyle. It’s not clear how the term became attached to an item worn by women who want something on their head but not a hat, mostly for weddings.

The books may not describe a world that anyone would recognize as real, but are still good for a few sociological observations along the way – particularly in language and attitudes. In this one, a housesitter is mentioned: “He’s very house proud. He’s a queer.” This may be the only such direct reference in the canon – although there are strong implications of gay relationships in some of the books (don’t even start on the recent TV adaptations.) There is also some speculation about the possibility of a secretary having an affair with a male valet/masseur (oh the career opportunities open to AC characters!): “He hasn’t cut any ice in that direction. For one thing, there’s class distinction. She’s just a cut above him. Not very much. If she was really a cut above him it wouldn’t matter, but the lower middle-class - they’re very particular.”

Connections: In the later book, Miss Marple (who is about 140 by now) is described by a solicitor as being of the type of a 
Provincial Lady. She also featured in this blog entry on The Body in the Library.

The picture is from the Library of Congress, via 
Flickr, and shows a Queen of Romania – apparently Queen Elisabeth. Not quite the right queen, but no excuse not to quote Dorothy Parker's Comment:

Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea,
And love is a thing that can never go wrong
And I am Marie of Romania.

Bloomsday: Ulysses by James Joyce

published 1922  section 13

Gerty was dressed simply but with the instinctive taste of a votary of Dame Fashion for she felt that there was just a might that he might be out. A neat blouse of electric blue selftinted by dolly dyes (because it was expected in the Lady's Pictorial that electric blue would be worn) with a smart vee opening down to the division and kerchief pocket (in which she always kept a piece of cottonwool scented with her favourite perfume because the handkerchief spoiled the sit) and a navy threequarter skirt cut to the stride showed off her slim graceful figure to perfection. She wore a coquettish little love of a hat of wideleaved nigger straw contrast trimmed with an underbrim of eggblue chenille and at the side a butterfly bow of silk to tone. All Tuesday week afternoon she was hunting to match that chenille but at last she found what she wanted at Clery's summer sales, the very it, slightly shopsoiled but you would never notice, seven fingers two and a penny. She did it up all by herself and what joy was hers when she tried it on then, smiling at the lovely reflection which the mirror gave back to her! And when she put it on the waterjug to keep the shape she knew that that would take the shine out of some people she knew.

observations: It's 
BLOOMSDAY - June 16th, the day of James Joyce’s first date with Nora Barnacle, immortalized in the action of Ulysses. See last year’s entry

Gerty is something of a diversion along the way, taking the role of Nausicca in Homer’s Odyssey – as explained in this blog entry (which follows straight on from this one). The word for the dark brown colour of her hat is offensive now, but we're not really feeling we can edit James Joyce.

Although it is famously reputed to be a book that people buy but never open, it is a great read – demanding but rewarding. And funny – Molly Bloom goes to confession and tells the priest:

he touched me father and what harm if he did where and I said on the canal bank like a fool but whereabouts on your person my child…
One of the many unexpected byways of Ulysses is towser – in a line of the utmost poetry, Joyce says:
And with that he took the bloody old towser by the scruff of the neck and, by Jesus, he near throttled him.
This has its similarities with a line from Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim:
The bloody old towser-faced boot-faced totem-pole on a crap reservation, Dixon thought.
If you look it up at Merriam-Webster online, you find towser defined as a large dog or a large rough person -- and one happy reader adds to the Ulysses citation by saying ‘in 101 Dalmatians (the cartoon version), the old gentleman wonders why no one names their dogs Towser anymore.’ (Obviously, the threat of violence.)The internet is a wonderful thing.

Links on the blog: For more Ulysses click on the label below, and Joyce’s The Dead is here.

The picture is by photography pioneer Alfred Stieglitz.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

The Hundred-year-old Man who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

First published 2009, published in English 2012, translation by Rod Bradbury

[The car stopped] Out stepped an officer with a chest full of medals, accompanied by his aide. The aide took the officer’s binoculars out of the boot and then the officer and his aide left the car to seek out a place with a better view of the bay on the other side of which Vladivostok had recently stood. This made it simple for Allan and Herbert to sneak up to the car, seize the officer’s pistol and the aide’s automatic and then make the officer and his aide aware of the fact that they were now in a tricky situation. Or, as Allan said: ‘Gentlemen, would you kindly take your clothes off?’…

The gentlemen would of course be given a couple of sets of inferior black-and-white prisoner’s clothes in exchange, and in any case the nearer they got to Vladivostok – or whatever one should call the cloud of smoke and ruins over there – the warmer it would get. Upon which Allan and Herbert put on the stolen uniforms and left their old prison clothes in a pile on the ground. Allan thought that it would perhaps be safest if he drove the car himself, so Herbert got to be Marshal Meretskov, and Allan his aide.

observations: A LOT of people have bought this book, and many of them loved it and wrote enthusiastic reviews on amazon and, presumably, recommended it to, or bought it for, their friends. The setup is plain: Allan Karlsson escapes from his old people’s home rather than attend his 100th birthday party, and gets involved in a series of adventures with people he happens upon along the way. Roughly alternate chapters follow these goings-on, and tell you the story of his life – a life in which he just happened to be in many of the hotspots of the world during the 20th century, drastically influenced events, and met many world leaders.

I’m a bit helpless before this book: I expected to find it a charming, light, satirical read, but found it long and tiresome. It didn’t entertain me, I didn’t get the point. It certainly didn’t add to my knowledge or understanding of 20th C history. I didn’t see why there was one character called Bosse, and another called the Boss. I found it off-putting that the only significant female character was mostly referred to as The Beauty rather than her name. (Is that OK in Sweden? I thought they were liberal-minded and feminist?)

Sentences like this one:
He groaned when they put him on an upturned wooden chest in one corner and propped his body against the wall
- kept tripping me up. What is an upturned wooden chest? Is ‘him’ different from ‘his body’, and if not, how do you parse this sentence? I can’t visualize it at all.

Were these translation problems?

I would love someone to explain to me what I am missing, and what they liked about it.

The picture is a commemorative stamp of the Soviet Union, of a different Marshal. (We featured a couldn’t-be-more-different Russian stamp for a couldn’t-be-more-different book here.)

Friday, 14 June 2013

Where'd You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple

published 2012

[Bernadette Fox is emailing her virtual assistant]

I’d also like a fishing vest, one replete with zippered pockets. Back when I actually enjoyed leaving the house, I sat on a plane next to an environmentalist who spent his life zigzagging the globe. He had on a fishing vest, which contained his passport, money, glasses, and film canisters – yes, film, it was that long ago. The genius part: everything’s in one place, it’s handy, it’s zipped in, plus you can whip it off and plop it down on the X-ray belt. I always said to myself: next time I travel, I’m going to get me one of those. My time has come. You’d better get two...

[later] Oh! The fishing vest’s arrived. Thank you! Already, I’ve tucked away my glasses, car keys, cell phone. I may never take this thing off.

observations: Earlier this week, Maria Semple’s This One is Mine featured – and the wedding dress is much more attractive than the fishing vest, even if this is the better book (it first appeared on the blog last year). It is a very complex story, with a lot of threads, and bursting out with ideas and comments, and judgments on present-day life, and on Seattle. But everything is assigned to a character – you can’t guess where Semple would stand on most of the issues that crop up. It’s an enormously clever, satisfying book.

The fishing vest has an important role to play: it makes sense that the slightly loopy Bernadette wears it, but it is clear that she looks odd in it, and it’s seen as another piece of evidence for her state of mind. And then, on re-reading, you see how important it is at a later point in the book, taking care of something that might otherwise be inexplicable. One thing though – another character says:
Through the mesh pockets, I could see her wallet, cell phone, keys, passport. ‘I can do anything,’ she said with a smile.

--- but most fishing vests do NOT have mesh pockets. When you think about it, a solid pocket makes much more sense when you are around water. But here is one that is a bit mesh-y:

Links on the blog: More on life in Seattle in this book. New directions - the blog generally features high fashion or decorative or historical clothes, but this fishing vest follows on from a recent venture into Gore Tex in the excellent The Rosie Project.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford

published 1945

Linda occupied her days buying clothes… [Fabrice ] took an intense interest in her clothes, looked them up and down, made her parade round her drawing-room in them, forced her to take them back to the shops for alterations which seemed to her quite unnecessary, but which proved in the end to have made all the difference.

Linda had never before fully realized the superiority of French clothes to English. In London she had been considered exceptionally well dressed, when she was married to Tony; she now realized that never could she have had, by French standards, the smallest pretensions to chic. The things she had with her seemed to her so appallingly dowdy, so skimpy and miserable and without line, that she went to the Galeries Lafayette and bought herself a ready-made dress there before she ventured into the big houses. When she did finally emerge from them with a few clothes, Fabrice advised her to get a great many more. Her taste, he said, was not at all bad for an Englishwoman, though he doubted whether she would really become elegante in the true sense of the word.

observations: Once Nancy Mitford moved to Paris - in Pursuit of Love herself and partly financed by this book’s bestsellerdom – nothing English was ever going to be good enough; everything French was superior. She made a joke of this attitude, and knew other people mocked her, but still she thought it self-evident. In Don’t Tell Alfred she has a character (plainly based on herself) saying that even the things the British are supposed to be good at – well, even there the French excel. (Tweeds, weather, lamb cutlets and weddings are all mentioned.)

Mitford dressed very beautifully herself, and very much at the top French couturiers. She looked wonderful, but that was partly because she had a very good, slim figure. (Note the anecdote in this blog entry about her waist.) It’s hard to believe that Linda looked all that bad – earlier in the book we have been told that her dresses have ‘originality and prettiness’, and after all they are made by Mrs Josh, whose husband is a terrific Hon…

In an earlier entry on this book we advanced the theory that Linda isn’t as appealing to readers as she is to the characters in the book – Davey and Lord Merlin have quite unlikely passions for her, while Fanny loves Linda’s child more than her own, and it all gets a bit much. But Mitford does have her moments of steel. The closing lines of this book are quite remarkable.


Linda has died in childbirth, and Fanny is discussing this with her own mother, The Bolter, who says ‘perhaps it’s just as well. The lives of women like Linda and me are not so much fun when one begins to get older.’

Fanny protests that Fabrice was the great love of Linda’s life.

‘Oh, dulling,’ said my mother sadly. 'One always thinks that. Every every time.’

One of the great closing lines, and not at all sweet. And words that always, now, make me think of Diana, the Princess of Wales – a bolter if ever there was one, very much a Linda. (Monica Ali imagines an alternate life for Diana in this entry.)

Links on the blog: More Nancy Mitford all over the blog, click on the label below. Proper clothes shopping in London in the same era in this entry.

The picture is of the Cheruit salon in Paris. Cheruit designs featured in this entry and this one.