Thursday, 31 January 2013

The Becket Factor by Michael David Anthony

published 1990    chapter 1

As he went to leave, he noticed The Times lying on the arm of the settee…there, a few inches above the crossword, was the face that had looked up at him from the presbytery floor that afternoon.

He stood gazing down at the photograph. The patrician stare was just as it had been, only the dress was different: then it was black, high-buttoned coat; now it was mitre and full canonicals, and the hand, with its episcopal ring, was gripped round the haft of a crozier

Maurice Campion, of course! He should have recognized him at once – how many times had he seen that face on newsreel or in television debates. He frowned. But why had the Bishop been in Canterbury on a winter afternoon? Above all, why incognito?

He remained staring down at the photograph for a few seconds longer, then suddenly impatient, he crumpled the paper and threw it into the basket.

observations: After reading a scholarly biography of Thomas Becket, and TS Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, the blog moves on to a crime story concerned with the possible discovery of Becket’s bones, an eventuality which the author rather charmingly thinks would rock the England of 1990 to its foundations: ‘that thing we’ve dug up is like an unexploded bomb’. The protagonist is a retired Colonel, with a background in Intelligence, working out his retirement at Canterbury Cathedral. Murder in the Close is always a good start, and then there are spies from the 1930s and some Cold War stuff - had MDA perhaps been writing the story for a while, then the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 meant he quickly had to do some extra work?

It’s a very strange mishmash, with all these threads, and a feel to it that would belong more in the 1950s at best or even the 1930s, but it is true that the Becket parallels are very carefully placed, and work very well – striking if, like Clothes in Books, you’ve just been reading about the saint.

It’s nice to think anyone would consider the Anglican church important enough to plot against - ‘undermine from within, hasn’t that always been the Soviets’ way?’ As the New York Times once told us, the Church of England is ‘all that stands between us and Christianity.’

Links on the blog: The two earlier Becket stories, links above. Saints featured in this entry.

The picture, from the UK’s National Archives, shows Michael Ramsay, who became Archbishop of Canterbury before the time of this book – he was Archbishop of York at the time of the photo.

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

The Glittering Prizes by Frederic Raphael

published 1976     Second section: A Sex Life  - set about 1956

 How could three years which passed so slowly be gone so soon? Here they were, the best and the brightest of the Cambridge actors, already finishing the last performance of the very last production in which they would appear… a fin-de-siecle production of Much Ado About Nothing…. 

The scene was set in an Oxford college of the 1890s and the cast was dressed in blazers and boaters and garden party dresses. Shirley Ransome, as Hero, looked particularly delicious in a daring yellow dress, while Anna Cunningham, as Beatrice, wore a lace dress and a wide hat and high boots over dark blue stockings. Dan Bradley was Benedick. He wore a floral suit with a green carnation and carried a silver-topped cane. Alan Parks, as Claudio, sported a rowing Blue’s blazer and white flannels. Denis Porson, wearing the scarlet robes of the Master of the College, camped outrageously as Don Pedro; he toyed suggestively with Benedick’s carnation and several times stopped the show with his buffoonery.

observations: The Glittering Prizes was a key BBC TV series in the UK of 1976, and everyone was reading the semi-autobiographical book - were these characters all meant to be someone real? It was the story of a group of golden young people from around 1952 right up to the mid-70s: the Cambridge graduates who inherited the earth and found careers in the media, in politics, in education.

Raphael - who had a lot of success early in his career, including a screen-writing Oscar for the 1965 Julie Christie vehicle Darling - had a great story to tell, and had claims to be a serious writer, but here he shows a complete contempt for the reader. The book is largely dialogue, and he doesn’t bother to explain where characters are or describe surroundings. That CAN be fair enough (Elmore Leonard) but here it just seems to be insulting laziness, he has merely retyped his script – for example, suddenly characters are going upstairs or downstairs for no apparent reason, presumably to do with the BBC’s sets and locations.

The dialogue is incredibly tiresome – characters doing Goon voices, adding ‘he said irritaingly’ at the end of remarks, and making sub-Wilde repartee. It is probably a very accurate record of how these people talked, but it is hard on the reader. He scarcely bothers to distinguish among the characters, and it is hard to care who does what, whose marriage breaks down, who has an affair. The women in particular are not drawn well at all. It is a pity, because there are moments when you can see what a good and interesting writer he was and could be, moments of real drama and feeling and conviction, a fascinating story about the lives of these people. But it doesn’t come off.

Links on the blog: Shakespearean costumes. Academic Cambridge (in different eras) appears here, here and here. Frederic Raphael wrote the screenplay of the 1967 film of Far From the Madding Crowd.

The picture of a summer garden party is from a French fashion magazine, La Gazette du Bon Ton.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Murder in the Cathedral by TS Eliot

1935   Part II

CHORUS: Between Christmas and Easter what work shall be done?

The ploughman shall go out in March and turn the same earth

He has turned before, the bird shall sing the same song.

When the leaf is out on the tree, when the elder and may

Burst over the stream, and the air is clear and high,

And voices trill at windows, and children tumble in front of the door,

What work shall have been done, what wrong

Shall the bird’s song cover, the green tree cover, what wrong

Shall the fresh earth cover? We wait, and the time is short

But waiting is long.

observations: After John Guy’s Becket biography last week, here's Eliot’s play, which covers just the last few days of Becket’s life. It must be a compelling drama to see staged, and Eliot’s words are beyond wonderful. The chorus creates a very real atmosphere of tension and fear, and, as above, of that longing for spring at the turn of the year (like, now). And it’s not all merry ploughboys and 12th century life – this, in the middle of the temptations:

Man's Life is a cheat and a disappointment;
All things are unreal,
Unreal or disappointing:
The Catherine wheel, the pantomime cat,
The prizes given at the children's party,
The prize awarded for the English essay,
The scholar's degree, the statesman's decoration,
All things become less real.

- would make a pretty good poem on its own.

Astonishingly, according to Wikipedia, Murder in the Cathedral was shown live on British TV in 1936, in the brand new service which was to stop completely at the outbreak of the Second World War.

Another version of the story comes in the 1964 film Becket, based on a play by Jean Anouilh, which apart from having a huge basic mistake (it claims Becket is Saxon, rather than Norman, and this is quite an important feature of the plot), is an interesting dramatization of the friendship, with very much a homoerotic subtext. Henry is surrounded rather unhistorically by nagging shrewish women – his mother (the Empress Matilda) and wife (Eleanor of Aquitaine) were two of the most interesting and surprising women of their age.

Links on the blog: There was a previous entry about Becket, and two stories of mediaeval life, here and here.

The picture is from an Anglo-Saxon manuscript made available via the Gutenberg Project.

Monday, 28 January 2013

The Dying Light by Alison Joseph

published 1999 chapter 13

‘Just follow,’ he said…

Venn moved effortlessly, and although she had no idea what she was supposed to do, it was easy to keep up with him. He stopped, took off his coat and flung it over a chair. His shirt was loosely fitted in fine white cotton. Agnes was glad she’d worn her low heels. ‘See?’ he said after a while. The rhythm changed again, and Agnes was aware that they’d become a spectacle, and that the few people left were watching them, and suddenly she didn’t care, and the drumbeat and the rhythm were enough, and she abandoned herself to the feeling of the dance…

The music finished. Venn let go of Agnes. He held her gaze for a long moment. She followed him back to their table and sat down. He poured more champagne.

‘And me, honey.’ Rosanna came and joined them and passed him her glass. ‘Or have you forgotten all about me?’ Venn poured her a drink.

‘Mind you, a nun,’ Rosanna went on. ‘It’s enough to turn a man’s head.’ She fixed Agnes with a hard look. ‘A nun who can dance.’

‘Oh, not me.’ Agnes smiled at her. ‘I can’t dance.’

observations: I once read a Quentin Tarantino quote to the effect that all great films have a dance scene in them: surely he’s right, and the same might nearly apply to books. Dance scenes were the topic for an ingenious post by Margot Kinberg on her Confessions of a Mystery Novelist blog, and she and I discussed this book.

Sister Agnes, our nun sleuth heroine, has gone to a shady nightclub as part of her investigations. Venn is the club owner, also rather shady but very attractive. The dance scene is quite overt, telling us about both characters, and making it clear that Sister Agnes is very much part of the world of emotions. Several times later in the book there are comments on her dancing… and on the skirt she was wearing – her more worldly friend says she was
pinching other women’s men and dancing with them in nightclubs. And you were wearing that skirt of yours. I’ve always thought you look fantastic in that.

I wish I could say that this is a great book. It is certainly a reasonable read, with an interesting if wildly over-complicated plot – like all detective story fans, I can keep a family tree in my head, but this one, with its raft of cousins and brothers and uncles, defeated me. And I find the books too gloomy and Sister Agnes just annoying. But plenty of people love this series, and it’s certainly worth a try.

Links on the blog: Margot and her blog had a hand in the Death on the Nile entry too. Nearly nuns: Katherine of Aragon might have gone into a convent; the young woman in this family has every intention of becoming a nun; and Dorothy Parker contrasts women’s dresses – ‘linen’s for a nun’.

The fabulous picture, Jitterbugs II by William H Johnson (who has featured before on the blog) is from the Smithsonian Institution.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Dress Down Sunday: Prima Donnas by Rupert Christiansen

published 1984, revised 1995     chapter 8: National style and the lack of it


[Strauss’s] Salome was more in [Mary Garden's] line: she sang it in in French, as she did all new operatic roles, and performed the Dance of the Seven Veils herself, swathed in layers of diaphanous tulle. In Chicago, the police banned it as an affront to public morality: the police report on the first performance read thus: ‘It was disgusting. The whole show lacked high class. Miss Garden wallowed around like a cat in a bed of catnip. There was no art in her dance that I could see. If there was it must have been black art. I wouldn’t call it immoral; it was not high class enough to be called immoral….’

But Mary Garden was to go a lot further than biblical virgins caressing severed heads. As Massenet’s Cleopatre, ‘the queen, disguised as a boy, visits an Egyptian brother and makes love to another boy.’

When Fevrier’s Monna Vanna appears before her captor clad only in a fur mantle, she is asked whether she is naked underneath: ‘Oui,’ replied Garden, and made everyone believe it... Most meretricious of all was her involvement in D’Erlanger’s Aphrodite, which included the crucifixion of a Negro slave, overt lesbianism, and a multiracial orgy…

Sadly, Garden’s records communicate nothing of this fatal allure. In general, her singing makes a pleasant, correct and unmemorable impression.

observations: Mary Garden was a huge opera star in the first third of the 20th century, and a noted contrast to last week’s diva, Geraldine Farrar, according to Christiansen:
…There was nothing healthy about [Mary] Garden…. For good clean frilly-knicker fun Geraldine Farrar was New York’s prima donna, but Garden excelled in conveying the more sophisticated and exotic varieties of eroticism.

Yet Garden said herself that she wasn’t a very sexual person herself: ‘I had a fondness for men, yes, but very little passion and no need’ – she is generally described as a complete egotist, with an excellent eye for publicity. She ended up, very unusually for a woman, director of the Chicago Opera, and was, apparently, an artistic rather than a financial success. She doesn’t seem to have been at all prone to the usual diva trait of finding unsuitable men and being badly-treated and conned by them.

Links on the blog: This entry should be read with last week’s from the same book on Geraldine Farrar. Another Strauss opera is mentioned in the notes to this entry.

The picture is obviously something of a cheat, as she is fairly plainly not in character, not on stage, and not naked underneath the fur coat. But it is Mary Garden, from the Library of Congress.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Thomas Becket by John Guy

published 2012 chapter 14

The order of service can be rediscovered in the pages of a surviving fragment in the British Library. At an early hour, and in full view of a large congregation gathered in the nave of the cathedral, the air thick with incense as the monks chanted the hymn Veni Creator Spiritus (‘Come Holy Ghost’), Thomas came out of the vestry, wearing a black cope and a white surplice as befitted a humble priest. He moved slowly up the steps of the choir to the high altar, where he knelt quietly in prayer. From there he was led back to the steps of the choir, where he was released from all secular obligations in the name of the church of Canterbury. With this part of the service completed, Bishop Henry began the solemn rite of consecration, in which he laid his hands on Thomas before giving him his pastoral staff, mitre, ring and gloves, acclaiming him as the archbishop of Canterbury and primate of all England.

Q: How long had Thomas Becket been a priest when he became Archbishop of Canterbury?

A: Less than a day. He was an archdeacon, but had to be consecrated a priest quickly the day before the enthronement above.

This book is full of fascinating facts: John Guy is such a great writer of history, and he had some worthwhile material in the ever-fascinating story of Henry II and Thomas Becket, frenemies before the term was invented. In this passage, Guy makes the scene seem real and detailed, but he also makes it clear in the first line that he’s not winging it, he has factual backup for all this. The story – which ends in the murder of Becket, his canonization, his grave becoming a shrine and, ultimately, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales – has riveted writers ever since, particularly because of the homoerotic undertones in the relation between Henry and Thomas. As with every other aspect of the story, John Guy looks at the evidence carefully and calmly.

He certainly has an eye for the priceless detail:
The record of a grant of land Henry made in Suffolk to a jester called ‘Roland the farter’ for making a leap, a whistle and a fart annually at Christmas gives [an]...accurate impression of his [cultural] tastes.

John Guy’s book on Mary Queen of Scots, My Heart is My Own, is also magnificent, more hair-raising and extraordinary than any novel.

Links on the blog: Another saint here. In terms of Bishops, ‘only London, not Canterbury’ is a line from this book, Cardinal Wolsey got York but never Canterbury, and the Archbishop came calling in the famous first line of this novel.

The picture is of a Nottingham Alabaster representation of the enthronement, from Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Burns Day: Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson

published 1886 chapter 21 set in 1751

[Narrator David Balfour, on the run with Alan Breck, comes across a Wanted poster] This we looked upon with great curiosity and not a little fear, partly as a man may look in a mirror, partly as he might look into the barrel of an enemy's gun to judge if it be truly aimed. Alan was advertised as "a small, pock-marked, active man of thirty-five or thereby, dressed in a feathered hat, a French side-coat of blue with silver buttons, and lace a great deal tarnished, a red waistcoat and breeches of black shag;" and I as "a tall strong lad of about eighteen, wearing an old blue coat, very ragged, an old Highland bonnet, a long homespun waistcoat, blue breeches; his legs bare, low-country shoes, wanting the toes; speaks like a Lowlander, and has no beard." Alan was well enough pleased to see his finery so fully remembered and set down; only when he came to the word tarnish, he looked upon his lace like one a little mortified. As for myself, I thought I cut a miserable figure in the bill; and yet was well enough pleased too, for since I had changed these rags, the description had ceased to be a danger and become a source of safety.

observation: Today is Burns Day, so the chosen book is a Scottish classic.

Robert Louis Stevenson had a tremendous talent for creating characters, and the relationships between them. David Balfour and Alan Breck are a double act for the ages, as memorable as Long John Silver and Jim Hawkins from his Treasure Island. Alan is hilarious and infuriating, and David duly becomes annoyed. But their friendship is very touching, and the moment where they part in sight of Edinburgh is as sad for us as for David:
I could have found it in my heart to…cry and weep like any baby…there was a cold gnawing in my inside like a remorse for something wrong.

Anyone would enjoy this book, but it’s a pity modern teenagers would probably find the style odd and archaic – if they could get over that it is an excellent adventure, full of exciting incidents and memorable characters (the wicked miserly uncle, the sea Captain) and both funny and readable. The scene where David is stranded on an island is terrifying, but then turns to farce as his rescuers try to communicate to him (‘I told him I had no Gaelic; and at this he became very angry, and I began to suspect he thought he was talking English’) that he is not stranded at all. 
And there is an odd line ‘O, man, but it's a heart-break!' that sounds weirdly modern…

Links up with: A round up of Scottish-related entries filled up a tartan-themed entry for St Andrew’s Day.

The statue is by the sculptor Sandy Stoddart, erected at the place where the characters parted at the end of the novel. The photograph is © Copyright ronnie leask and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

The blog is one year old today

Clothes in Books is one year old today. When it started, it seemed as though the words would be the stars (the book excerpts, not my words) but really that probably isn't so. This is just the subset of pictures of yellow dresses:

Noel Streatfeild   Theatre Shoes

But there were great lines from some notable authors looking at women’s relations with clothes and money (and maybe men too)– and great pictures too:

Jane Austen Northanger AbbeyDorothy L Sayers  Have his Carcase
Virginia Woolf   Orlando

Stella Gibbons   Having it All

And there were some pictures that just made you want to stare and stare:

women fishing. Josephine Tey and the Singing Sands

Rona Jaffe  The Best of Everything

French girls in best dresses. Agatha Christie
Aquamarine Carol Anshaw

Stephen McCauley  Appearance like a composed salad

Clicking on the pictures should take you to the original entry.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

published 2011 chapter 2

At one point, I found myself…lingering in front of a small canvas, a domestic interior, entitled The Studio. The colours of this picture were particularly striking against the scarlet damask of the wall. The painting depicted an elegant lady in a black frock. She was standing in what appeared to be an attic room, an easel in the background the only suggestion that this loft belonged to an artist. A shaft of light fell from a skylight window, illuminating the woman’s figure. Her hat was trimmed with a short, diaphanous veil. In one hand, she held a little bag of seed, which she was feeding to a canary in a cage. Although she seemed to be a guest in the house, one formed the impression – simply from the way that she fed the bird – that she was a frequent visitor. The expression on her face was intriguing: she looked so placid and content, lost in thought, perhaps – even – in love. Of course, I would like to be able to say that, upon first viewing, I was seized by the genius in the conception and execution of this painting, The Studio.

observations: A long, clever, solid book, one to get lost in: it tells the story of a Victorian spinster and her relationship with the family of the artist Ned Gillespie – Harriet Baxter moves to Glasgow and makes friends with his wife, his children, his mother-in-law and his sister, and even starts advising him about his art. A shocking event disrupts this already-slightly-uncomfortable situation, and then everything goes very wrong indeed. The story is Miss Baxter’s memoirs, and she is also keeping us up-to-date with what happens as she writes her story, in 1933. It doesn’t do to spoiler too much: any experienced reader can spot an unreliable narrator a mile off, and although the events take slightly unexpected turns, the long-term story isn’t a huge surprise to crime fiction fans. But still, it is extremely cleverly written, very funny, and lingers in the mind, as you wonder if there were further implications about other, casually mentioned, incidents.

Miss Baxter has a very distinct and enjoyable voice, and though sometimes you think the book could have been a good 100 pages shorter, time spent in her company is not wasted. She is something like the protagonist of Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal. A lot of people loved Harris’s first novel, The Observations. I prefer this one by a long way.

Links on the blog: The wonderful Fiona in Being Emily was an art student in Glasgow.

The picture is Woman with a Birdcage by Joszef Rippl-Ronai, from The Athenaeum website.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

The Wisdom of Fr Brown by GK Chesterton

collection published 1913    story: The Strange Crime of John Boulnois

He saw something else …--the figure of a man.

He saw it there only for a moment... it was outlandish and incredible in costume, being clad from neck to heel in tight crimson, with glints of gold… The wild red figure reeled an instant against the sundial; the next it had rolled down the steep bank and lay at the American's feet, faintly moving one arm. A gaudy, unnatural gold ornament on the arm suddenly reminded Kidd of Romeo and Juliet; of course the tight crimson suit was part of the play. But there was a long red stain down the bank from which the man had rolled--that was no part of the play. He had been run through the body.

There came… a young woman in silvery satins of a Renascence design; she had golden hair in two long shining ropes, and a face so startlingly pale between them that she might have been chryselephantine--made, that is, like some old Greek statues, out of ivory and gold. But her eyes were very bright, and her voice, though low, was confident.

"Father Brown?" she said.

observations: This dramatic scene is the unexpected culmination of a bout of amateur theatricals – always a good prospect for enjoyable trouble in detective fiction, as the opportunities for crime AND fancy costumes are appealing to writers. In the Fr Brown story ‘The Flying Stars’ there is an even better example – changed quite a lot for the new version broadcast by BBC TV in the UK last week. Was the original too hard to make convincing?

The new adaptations have taken dramatic liberties – the setting has been moved to the 1950s, and Fr Brown’s parish is quite bizarrely unconvincing (EVERYONE in the village is RC? And that church – it is so plainly Church of England, it hasn’t been Catholic in 400 years), but still the series is quite splendid, making for most enjoyable watching.

And the stories still make good reading too, both for intrinsic interest and as period pieces. In this one, a character has found ‘some weak points in Darwinian evolution’ – he is a proponent of Catastrophism, but perhaps a form of punctuated equilibrium is on his mind? 

It is interesting that the word chryselephantine is so ugly, when presumably the items it describes were meant to be beautiful. Somehow, one has no very high hopes.

Links on the blog: Shakespearean costumes came under consideration here, and Darwin appeared recently, along with a really good picture of a gaucho. This priestly sleuth was described as 'no Father Brown'.

The image is from the Library of Congress.

Monday, 21 January 2013

The White House Mess by Christopher Buckley

published 1986   chapter 16

I… asked him to meet me in a “quiet out-of-the-way place”. He had suggested Mortimer’s, which I now realized cast some doubt on the man’s sense of discretion. Mortimer’s, in the heart of the upper East Side fo Manhattan, was clearly an “in” restaurant. I did not recognize the people there by name, but they seemed very much “in”, the kind who used to be seen at the White House during the Reagan administration.

I had worn my tartan plaid jacket, the one I wear only on weekends. It was a bit on the loud side, but I assumed it would allow me to blend in with the chic New York set. Oddly, the maitre’d had looked at it with an unmistakeably condescending air. I resolved to tip him only ten per cent.

I had been seated in a table in the rear… Presently I heard the distinctive stentorian voice.

“Jerbert! My God, what a horror you look!”

observations: His name is actually Herbert 
(“Auntie Herbert” to his White House colleagues) and he is meeting Billy Angulas-Villaneuva, a rather showy Spanish painter and set designer. It is a source of great regret at Clothes in Books that we couldn’t find a picture to illustrate Billy arriving at the White House “conspicuous in mauve suede trousers and carrying his sulfur-crested cockatoo, Perseus, in its Victorian bamboo cage.” 

Today is the inauguration of Barack Obama for another four years as the President of the USA, so it seemed a good moment to revisit this satire on White House memoirs – see earlier entry here. As we said then, this book is laugh-out-loud funny, the kind of book you want to force everyone to read. From the NBC hit show Tumor Ward, to the apology form letter ready to send out after the brutish advanceman has been in town, to the President calling his wife ‘Flotus Blossom’ – this book is hilarious.

Links on the blog: The tartan fashion police were in action here, while this chap wears a more tasteful plaid, and there's a whole entry devoted to tartan here. Click on the US President label below to see some of the blog entries for election-time last November.

The picture is of Hollywood actor Ryan Gosling. This book would make a terrific film, and perhaps he should be in it, though maybe not as Herbert – that would be a Johnny Depp role.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Dress Down Sunday: Prima Donnas by Rupert Christiansen

published 1984, revised 1995 chapter 5, Great Names of New York


[Geraldine Farrar’s] manner on stage had naturalistic immediacy that compensated for a lack of vocal éclat.

She played up to her audiences with an energy bordering on vulgarity. Caruso balked at having his face slapped by Farrar’s Carmen; as the music hall singer Zaza in Leoncavallo’s opera of that name, she created a scandal by ‘raising her skirt to perfume the panties with an atomiser’; as the Goose Girl in Humperdinck’s Konigskinder, she would take her curtain call carrying one of the birds under her arm…

The teenage girls who screamed and waved flags at the stage door on Farrar nights were christened the Gerryflappers, and their collective crush became something of a nuisance at the Met, which was fast losing its dignity…

[Farrar announced her retirement just after her 40th birthday] At a Saturday matinee in April 1922 she went out as Zaza, perfumed panties and all. ‘I don’t want any tears in this house,’ she said in her traditional curtain speech… The Gerryflappers then clad her in crown, sceptre and robes and she was borne aloft on to Broadway through an enormous cheering crowd.

observations: For anyone with the slightest interest in opera, this book is a treasure trove. It combines mini-biographies of many of the great singers of the past 300 years, along with anecdotes - scurrilous, informative and funny - and technical details pitched at just the right level (for this reader anyway). Three things become clear: 1) great singers are as different from each other as any other group of people would be, but 2) unhappy marriages and relationships feature a lot, with the divas having a particular pull to conmen, and 3) every generation of fans and critics says the new lot aren’t a patch on the old ones.

Like many of the singers in the book, Farrar was a phenomenon in her day, but her name would not be known outside opera circles now. (Zaza, the opera, has also sunk from view, though it sounds splendid.) She started making movies in 1915, and the mind boggles rather at the thought of her starring role as a silent Carmen – plenty of opportunities for the piano-players in the cinemas, perhaps.

Links on the blog: Death at the Opera was a bit of a misnomer, but still a good book. The play Romance (the unlikely connection between Love in a Cold Climate and Travels with my Aunt) features an opera singer who would certainly have earned a place in Prima Donnas if she’d really existed.

The illustration of Farrar in Zaza is from the 1920 edition of a book called Interpreters by Carl Van Vechten, available at Project Gutenberg.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Alys, Always by Harriet Lane

published 2012

A tiny movement outside the kitchen window catches my eye, and I stop and lean over the sink and look out, down on to the street, and I can see – in the illuminated triangles beneath the street lamps – that snow has started to fall, slowly and steadily. It falls and falls, for days and days. It seems, for a while, that the snow is the only thing happening in the world. It catches London off guard. Buses are left abandoned on roads. Schools are closed. Councils run out of salt. And when I wake up in the morning, my first thoughts are not of Alice, but of hope that the snow is still out there, still working its disruptive, glamorous magic.

On my day off, I walk across the Heath, through a sort of blizzard. All the usual landmarks – the paths, the ponds, the play areas, the running track – are sinking deep beneath lavish drifts. Under a pewter sky, Parliament Hill is glazed with ice. Blinded by flurries, people are tobogganing down it on dustbin lids, carrier bags, tea trays stolen from the cafeteria near the bandstand. The shrieks and shouts fade quickly into insulated silence as I walk on towards the trees, their branches indistinctly freighted with white. Soon the only sounds are the powdery crunch of the snow beneath my boots, the catch of my breath. When I reach Hampstead, the flakes are falling less furiously; now they’re twinkling down, decorous and decorative. I trudge up Christchurch Hill and Flask Walk, looking in the windows, which are always cleaner – more reflective, more transparent – than the windows in my part of town.

observations: There’s still a lot of snow around in the UK today, so another snowy scene to celebrate. After yesterday’s murder story, this is a book with no such definable crime – just some lying and cheating - but a strong air of people-behaving-badly. It was one of the best new novels of 2012.

In this early passage, the narrator Frances (one hesitates to call her the heroine) hasn’t yet realized that Alice should be spelled Alys, one of the many perfect details, and the emptiness and poverty of her life are being lightly sketched in. She is soon going to take steps to change all that, and the reader will watch with horrified delight her progress through literary London, even-handedly laughing at her and her victims – it’s a very funny book.

Links on the blog: Yesterday’s entry had links to other snow references, and Alys, Always has featured before. Hampstead - a key literary location in the UK - has had a wide range of blog references: the Provincial Lady lived there before marriage, these counter-factual Resistance fighters met there for safety, and there's a dress shop that women of a certain age should avoid.

Both pictures are American: the children are tobogganing in Central Park in New York (photo from the Library of Congress), the family outside a house are in Brooklyn, courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.

Friday, 18 January 2013

The Sittaford Mystery by Agatha Christie

published 1931 chapter 1

Major Burnaby drew on his gum boots, buttoned his overcoat collar round his neck, took from a shelf near the door a hurricane lantern, and cautiously opened the front door of his little bungalow and peered out. The scene that met his eyes was typical of the English countryside as depicted on Xmas cards and in old-fashioned melodramas. Everywhere was snow, deep drifts of it - no mere powdering an inch or two thick. Snow had fallen all over England for the last four days, and up here on the fringe of Dartmoor it had attained a depth of several feet. All over England householders were groaning over burst pipes, and to have a plumber friend (or even a plumber's mate) was the most coveted of all distinctions.

Up here, in the tiny village of Sittaford, at all times remote from the world, and now almost completely cut off, the rigors of winter were a very real problem.

Major Burnaby, however, was a hardy soul. He snorted twice, grunted once, and marched resolutely out into the snow. His destination was not far away… The door was opened by a neatly clad parlourmaid. The Major was divested of his British Warm, his gum boots and his aged scarf.

observations: Large parts of the UK are covered in snow today, and with most of the population relishing the resulting snow day (no marked spirit of its being essential to trudge into work or school), they could do worse than settle in front of the fire with this mystery, in which prevailing weather conditions play a big part – these are the opening lines. Yesterday’s entry featured a séance, and so does this book - ‘always a great addition to any murder story (as Agatha Christie well knew)’. It’s a clever plot, with one of the keys to the solution in plain view, and the atmosphere of the snowy moors, the proximity to the prison and the escaped criminal, the darkened rooms and the séances, are all very well done.

The book, published as Murder at Hazelmoor in the USA, is one of the relatively few in the Christie oeuvre not to feature any of her regular detectives. The setting in the county of Devon, although imaginary, would be near to where she grew up and where in later years she had a holiday home at Greenway beside the River Dart.

Links on the blog: Agatha Christie (click on the label below) is the most-featured author on the blog. The snow is ‘general all over Ireland’ in Joyce’s superb story The Dead, and it was choking the louvres of the belfry in the Fens at New Year in Sayers’ The Nine Tailors.

The picture of a man in snowy woods in Sweden and is from Flickr.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Murder is Academic by Christine Poulson

published 2002  chapter 8

‘Let’s begin, shall we?’ Ingrid gestured towards a round mahogany table in the centre of the room.

‘Where do you want us to sit?’ I asked, for all the world as though this were a dinner-party.

‘I’ll sit here. If you could be opposite, Cassandra. And – now let me see – if I have Stephen on my left and Merfyn on my right. Does that suit everyone? I think it works best if it goes male, female.’ It is just like a dinner-party! I thought. However, there was nothing on the polished table except a small pile of A4 lined paper, a Biro and a couple of pencils. We took our places. Would it be like séances in the movies, where everyone puts their hands on the table? Rather to my surprise it was. We didn’t hold hands, but just let our little fingers touch. Ingrid looked round the table, catching the eye of each of us in turn. Then she gave a little nod…

I stole a glance at Ingrid. Her face was expressionless, her eyes closed, her lips slightly parted. She wasn’t what I’d been expecting. Though, come to think of it, what had I been expecting? A fey, New Age figure with long hair and floaty garments? A dotty, dishevelled eccentric like Margaret Rutherford in Blithe Spirit? Ingrid was a woman of about fifty, discreetly made-up, wearing deep red nail varnish and what looked like a Jaeger suit.

observations: This is another Cambridge murder mystery, published by Ostara, but dated 70 years after the recently-featured Murder at Cambridge, and women play some rather different roles. There’s quite a genre of academic murder stories - perhaps because detective fiction is always reputed to be popular with dons, and they write of what they know. Many a modern female lecturer is out hunting murderers, following up clues, being thoughtful about her students, and running an exotic lovelife. While also dealing with office politics and, as in this case, unpleasant heads of college. And, usually searching for some lost documents, or papers, or (these days) computer discs. Amanda Cross (who died in 2003) started writing such mysteries in 1964, and has been joined by many others along the way. If you like these books, then this is a nice example – a bit slow-moving and confused at times, but promising well – it was the first of a short series.

The séance above is something of a red herring, but séances are always a great addition to any murder story (as Agatha Christie well knew), and this plot strand is very funny.

Links on the blog: The Pale Horse and The Box surround another séance. Javier Marias was busy at Oxford University, and Possession was a literary version of an academic mystery.

The picture of a séance is by Vaino Kunnas, is in an art gallery in Finland, and is part of the Google Art Project.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

The Kingmaker's Daughter by Philippa Gregory

published 2012 March 1484

The three oldest Rivers girls came to court with their heads held high, as if their mother were not guilty of treason against us. Richard tells me that they will pay their respects to me in the morning, after chapel and breakfast, and I am conscious of arranging myself in the beautiful rooms of Greenwich Palace, with my back to the bright light from the windows, in a dark gown of red and a high headdress of deep ruby lace. My ladies sit around me and the faces that they turn to the slowly opening door are not friendly. No woman wants three pretty girls beside her for comparison, and these are Rivers girls looking for husbands, as Rivers girls always are. Besides, half the court has knelt to these girls, and the other half kissed their baby fists and swore they were the prettiest princesses that had ever been seen. Now they are maids in waiting to a new queen, and they will never wear a crown again. Everyone is anxious that they understand their dive from grandeur to pauperdom, and everyone secretly hopes that they will misunderstand, and make fools of themselves.

observations: Mean Girls at the court of King Richard. Our narrator is Anne Neville, who is the Queen of England. It’s not hard for a historic novelist to write in some dramatic irony: Anne will not be Queen much longer, her husband will not be King, both will be dead within a year and a half, and one of these sneered-at girls (daughters of the previous King) will be Queen of England instead - this whole court will be swept away. 

Philippa Gregory’s Other Boleyn Girl featured twice in the blog last year, described as changing ‘the whole landscape of historical-novels–based-on-real-people - much as Anne Boleyn changed the whole future of the English throne and church.’ Her series on the Wars of the Roses (of which this is the fourth book) is less compelling than the Tudor ones, but that’s because the story is less interesting: what PG aptly calls the Cousins’ War can be confusing, with everyone changing allegiance and rising and falling with the fortunes of war. And in the end it can get a bit difficult to distinguish among the feisty, feminist heroines with their notions of their own importance.

Links up with: Richard III, Anne’s husband, is the major historical character in Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time.

The picture of Anne Neville is from the Rous Roll, via Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Worth by Jon Canter

published 2011   part 2

When we arrived at eight o’clock on a Friday night, a choice of Jane’s rejected purchases would be hanging on the hook of our bedroom door, for Sarah to help herself. To denote a rejected item, Jane inked a black cross on the label. One Friday, we arrived to find a red dress with silver studs. Sarah was insulted. How could her sister think she’d wear a dress like that? …I told Sarah to try it on. It hung loosely on her, reaching her knees, because there was more of Jane than Sarah. More bust, more hips, more height, more aggression, more need. When you saw them together, you thought Sarah had made herself smaller than her sister, by a lifetime’s recoiling from her. 

‘I like it,’ I said.

‘It’s not me,’ she said uncertainly, confused by my approval, not sure if she should let herself be altered by the dress. ‘When am I going to wear it? It’s so loud and stupid. What a waste of money.’ 

I agreed. It was loud, stupid and wasteful. That was what made it so supremely metropolitan, perfect for wearing now. Sarah could never wear it at her homeless charity, nor at her yoga lessons, nor on a footpath.

observations: So she’ll wear the dress once, not like it, donate it to a charity shop, and then her sister will spot it in the charity shop and get annoyed. And then this thread of the plot will disappear, as will the sister. This is a very entertaining book, particularly if you do not know too much about it beforehand – is it ladslit? Romcom? A crime story? Rural horror? A bit of all of them? It is very funny and very clever, with some great accounts of social events, and a very interesting take on the couple at the centre of the story, constantly subverting your expectations. They have moved to the country to save money, but are not at all sure about what they have found there. But soon, red dresses, trips to London like the one above, and (for the most part) their family and prior friends will all fade away as they make friends with Catherine, a next-door neighbour. The observations are splendid, and the interactions between the narrator and Sarah are superb. There are many priceless moments, but indeed the whole book would be worth it for this outrageous reason for patronizing  private schools:

for ten or twelve thousand pounds a year, you could drive your four-by-four into a private-school car park and get the chance to run over a rich mum, which wouldn’t matter, they liked being flattened, anything to be skinny.

Links on the blog: the Crumbcatcher dress was red, and Proust’s Mme de Guermantes had a red dress too, and there’s a lady in shocking scarlet here.

The picture is of the singer Amerie at the Heart Truth charity event – for more details of this rich Web resource, see the explanatory credits for this entry, which also featured a famous-ish person in a red dress.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie

published 1937 chapter 7

[The book is set largely on a boat cruising down the Nile, and the characters have gathered for dinner on the first night]

Mrs. Allerton set herself to produce a pleasant atmosphere. As they drank their soup, she picked up the passenger list which had been placed beside her plate.

"Let's try and identify everybody," she said cheerfully. "I always think that's rather fun… Mr. and Mrs. Doyle. Yes, indeed, the lions of this trip. She really is very beautiful and what a perfectly lovely frock she is wearing."

Tim turned round in his chair. ..Linnet was wearing a white dress and pearls.

"It looks frightfully simple to me," said Tim. "Just a length of stuff with a kind of cord round the middle."

"Yes, darling," said his mother. "A very nice manly description of an eighty-guinea model."

Tim said: "I can't think why women pay so much for their clothes. It seems absurd to me."

Mrs. Allerton proceeded with her study of her fellow-passengers.

observations: In a discussion of this book with the distinguished crime fiction blogger Margot Kinberg (Confessions of a Mystery Novelist is her highly-recommended blog) we agreed on two things – one, that a book with a nice hot setting makes good reading at the height of winter (read her post on the topic here), and two, that the relation between Poirot and the murderer in this book is exceptionally well done. It’s hard to discuss without spoilering, but there is a depth and sadness to the ending of the story that hits home and lingers in the memory. The murder is good, an unguessable plot and good clueing, but it’s the psychology of the main characters (who at first glance might seem like total stock figures from central casting) that is striking. At the end the murderer, a good loser, says to Poirot ‘don’t mind so much about me … you do mind don’t you?’ and he says Yes. (A rare thing – both Poirot and Marple disapprove strongly of murder and usually have no sympathy whatsoever with the killers).

And there is a very compelling use of the story of David, Bathsheba and Uriah the Hittite  – it is one of the most heart-stopping moments in the Old Testament (‘You are the man!’) and the effect is very similar here. ‘Do not open your heart to evil’, indeed.

Linnet Doyle, in the white dress, is very rich and very beautiful, and the 80 guinea dress would be more than £3000 ($5000) at today’s prices.

With thanks to Margot, a most generous blogging friend. And also for Jackie, staunch blog supporter, who made it to a cruise on the Nile.

Links on the blog: Agatha Christie has featured many times – click on the label below. A different kind of trouble on board ship here. Egyptmania swept England in the 1920s – there’s a themed party in this entry. King David and his wives featured here.

The picture is from the State Library of New South Wales.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Dress Down Sunday: Poor Cow by Nell Dunn

published 1967


Well my love I have something to tell you. ha ha. Me and Beryl have taken up Modelling ha ha Yes. It’s alright nothing bad we get £2 an hour mind you only 1 hour a week so far, I’ll send you some photos in my bikeny Sexy. Well what do you think -? new you wouldn’t mind…

I had my first test last Wednesday. Oh Dave you would never have thought it was me. By the way its for the Revalie – Praded – Men Only, you never no you may open a paper and say there’s that Joysy. I doesn’t look like me I had a long piece of fals hair sexy, not bad at all, bottom of my bekiny black top. Black Neglegee with Green nylon Nightdress – Oh its all mad realy. Top Hat was the funniest he said I could have some of the photos so shall I send them to You. Yes Joysy of course still musent let it go to my head A. Mind you the lights are so briliont.

observations: Joy is writing to her young man, Dave, who is in prison – it seems strange that she thinks he’ll be thrilled with this news. The spelling is as is. Nell Dunn came from a posh background, but went to live in a rough part of London and wrote Up the Junction and this book, which were both hugely successful. They are strange books – not as patronizing as you might expect; you would guess that Dunn was good at transcribing, that she actually listened to her friends and neighbours. But it’s hard to imagine that they were best-sellers for any but prurient reasons: they show a dismal way of life, with a lot of not-very-inspiring sex, and they aren’t written with any great style. You can only imagine that readers thought they were curious about the lives of poor people, wanting Nell Dunn to do their slumming for them to get some social realism.

There’s an odd postscript to the film Ken Loach made of this book: Terence Stamp played Dave (who is not the father of Joy’s child – that’s Tom, also in prison). Steven Soderbergh’s really excellent 1999 film The Limey starred Stamp, and used footage from Poor Cow to show his character’s past. Presumably Soderbergh was a big fan of the earlier film – The Limey is not a direct sequel, but the two characters could be said to be in a similar area.

Revalie (Reveille), Praded (Parade) and Men Only were all pinup magazines of the time.

Links on the blog: Terence Stamp also played the man who is going to disrupt this Christmas party, in the film of Far From the Madding Crowd.

The picture is from the State Library of New South Wales.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

published 1995 chapter 21

When I walk into the sitting room, I can see immediately that I’m doomed to die a long, slow, suffocating death. There’s a man wearing a sort of brick-red jacket and another man in a carefully rumpled linen suit and Charlie in her cocktail dress and another woman wearing fluorescent leggings and a dazzling white silk blouse and another woman wearing those trousers that look like a dress but aren’t. Isn’t. Whatever. And the moment I see them I want to cry, not only through terror, but though sheer envy: Why isn’t my life like this?...

The one wearing the white silk blouse shuffles along Charlie’s enormous sofa, which is made of glass, or lead, or gold – some intimidating, un-sofa like material, anyway – and smiles at me…

‘We were just talking about what we’d call a dog if we had one,’ says Charlie. ‘Emma’s got a Labrador called Dizzy, after Dizzy Gillespie.’

‘Oh, right,’ I say. ‘I’m not very keen on dogs.’..

They smile politely.

As it turns out, this is my major contribution to the evening’s conversation, and later on I find myself recalling the line wistfully as belonging to a Golden Age of Wit.

observations: The appalling dinnerparty is a useful setpiece of fiction, and this is a particularly good one, because none of it is life-and-death, nothing very major happens (in Anthony Powell’s A Buyer’s Market, Widmerpool has the contents of a sugar castor poured over his head in the supper-room at a dance), but still you can sweat through it with Rob wondering if the evening will ever end, but enjoying the horror. And it’s funny. And Nick Hornby makes it clear that though he tends to be on Rob’s side, it’s not the other guests’ fault – Rob is not much good on conversation, and has made his mind up from the start that everyone else is awful. NH captures beautifully that moment where young(ish) people are at different stages of their lives, and some of them want to discuss property prices and pensions, and others are still in squalid rented flats, going to nightclubs, and making lists of the 5 best B-sides.

Rob is tracking down his old girlfriends in an attempt to make sense of his life. Another one will turn up for a date at the cinema in 

a big floral dress, a beige raincoat… ‘What’s that cool guy in the leather jacket doing with Virginia Bottomley’s elder sister?’ the audience is thinking. Probably.

Links on the blog: This book has featured before. A high-powered dinner party here, Royalty behaving badly at one here, Maugham’s Kitty in The Painted Veil meets her seducer while wearing her wedding-dress at this dinner party.  A bad one on New Year's Eve featured here.

The photo shows palazzo pants – which we presume is what Rob/Nick means – and is from a fashion show at the Art Institute of Portland

Friday, 11 January 2013

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

translated by Norman Denny

Published 1862     Part 2 Cosette     Book 3 Fulfilment of a Promise

A doll is among the most pressing needs as well as the most charming instincts of feminine childhood. To care for it, adorn it, dress and undress it, give it lessons, scold it a little, put it to bed and sing it to sleep… all the future of the woman resides in this…

In a very short time the stranger was back, and now he was carrying the fabulous doll which during that day had been coveted by every child in the village. He set it upright in front of Cosette and said: ‘Here – it’s for you.’… Cosette looked up, as dazzled by his appearance with the doll as she might have been by a burst of sunshine.

[the next day] When Cosette appeared in the downstairs room the stranger undid his bundle. It contained a woollen dress, an apron, a camisole, a petticoat, a shawl, woollen stockings, a pair of shoes – all the clothing needed for an eight-year-old girl. Every article was black

‘Take these, child,’ the stranger said, ‘and get dressed as quickly as you can.’

Day was breaking when the people of Montfermeil, engaged in opening their shutters, saw a poorly clad man go along the Rue de Paris hand-in-hand with a little girl dressed in mourning who was carrying a large doll.

observations: The film of Les Miserables goes on general release in the UK today, based on the immensely popular musical. To read the original book is no light undertaking – my Penguin copy has more than 1200 pages – but very much worth the effort. It is an unforgettable story, imaginative, complex and complete: a perfect work of art and surely one of the greatest novels ever written.

In the excerpt above, Cosette gets black clothes because her mother is dead. Fantine had worked in a factory and as a prostitute to support her, and in her desperation for money had sold her hair and even her teeth, not knowing that Cosette was being mistreated by her carers, the Thenardiers. They bully her and treat her as a servant – but her life, like her clothes, will change when the stranger – Valjean, the hero – takes her away. But there is still an awful lot of the plot to come.

With thanks to Anna for the suggestion.

Links on the blog: Saki’s children, rich and poor, share the idea of a vicious doll. The Little Princess was left with nothing more than her doll when she descended into poverty.

The pictures are from the National Library of Wales and the McCord Museum in Montreal.