Friday, 31 May 2013

Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie

published 1941

[Philip Blake’s narrative] Angela…had played truant as usual when she ought to have been mending a torn frock

I went off bathing with Angela. We had a good swim – across the creek and back, and then we lay out on the rocks sunbathing…

[Miss Williams’ narrative] I picked up a torn skirt which she had left lying on the floor and took it down with me for her to mend after breakfast.

She had, however, obtained bread and marmalade from the kitchen and gone out…. I went in search of her… Her bathing dress was missing and I accordingly went down to the beach. There was no sign of her…

observations: To Robert Barnard, it was the best Christie of all, and he makes his case very persuasively in his excellent book on AC, A Talent to Deceive. I’ll only commit to a Top 5 of her books, and keep changing my mind for an order amongst them, but Five Little Pigs is definitely in there.

But of one thing I’m in no doubt: the 2003 TV version of the book is the best Christie adaptation by far. It is superbly well-done, with wonderful camerawork, settings, lighting, costumes, make-up, acting - everything is perfect. If it had been released as a feature film it could have won Oscars. Throughout there is an air of aching sadness, a feeling for lost summers, times past, misunderstandings and missed opportunities... and that most Proust-ian music, Satie’s Gnossienes, is playing gently in the background. The characters are all looking back on their past and wondering what became of them. For once Poirot really does look at the psychology (normally he claims to do so, then goes out looking for ordinary clues.) Among the many perceptive subtleties is Christie’s take on a child who is much-loved, but suffers from the fact that her parents are completely wrapped up in each other.

The adaptation makes one significant change in a character and a big change in someone's fate, and tries to tidy up some of the slightly loose ends in the plot. But it is most definitely true to the book, an affecting heart-rending story, where you really feel for the people involved (not always 100% true with Christie…)

All the acting is tremendous, but there are two points of particular interest. Gemma Jones plays the governess, Miss Williams, and you come away thinking she was BORN to play Miss Marple: she would be perfect in the role – not fussy or annoying, but sharp and firm. She really, really ought to be the next one to take this role. 

And, Toby Stephens plays a very nuanced version of Philip Blake, looking just like the Duke of Windsor – he should surely play that role some day.

Crime writer Martin Edwards (we keep doing the same books) has seen a current production of a stage play based on the book – see his comments on his blog here.

The picture – by blog favourite Sam Hood, from the State Library of New South Wales – looks like a still from the film: 
it is very much in the same style, though of course it was contemporary when the photo was taken. She could be Carla, or Angela, or even the young Caroline.

Below, a screengrab from the film, Amyas Crale is painting Elsa Greer.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

I Am The Great Horse by Katherine Roberts

published 2006   Twelfth Footprint, 333 BC

By the time the sun comes up, we are at the edge of the camp where the Amazons have pitched their round tents. The Amazon horses are small and strong. They have blue circles painted on their necks and quarters and – yes, it’s true! – little stubby horns in the middle of their foreheads. They throw up their heads as I get closer, and one or two squeal challenges at me. I am feeling a bit better, so I squeal back. A woman with braided hair, and wearing leather, is washing the circles off them. She has a deep scar across her cheek. When she sees me coming, she picks up an axe that was lying nearby….

The Horsemaster stares in disbelief at the little horned horses with their blue circles. Then he raises his gaze to Amazon queen, taking in her braided hair, her axe and bow, and her leather clothes. Seeing the rest of her herd are all women too, he relaxes slightly. “Out of my way, woman!” he says. “I’m exercising these horses.”

observations: Further to earlier entries on Ancient Greece and Persia and Alexander the Great: this is the best version of his life aimed at young people (but good for anyone), it is the best book about his horse Bucephalas, and probably the best book ever narrated by a horse (it’s more exciting than Black Beauty). In the opening pages, the horse says:

Climb on my back, if you dare, and let ME carry you into the battles that changed the world!
I find it hard to imagine a more entrancing start to a story - the book ends with his saying
The wind goes silent in my ears. Together, we fly….It is time for you to slip off my back now and return to your own world…

which some of us do with sadness that it is over and (spoiler) Alexander and his horse are both dead. 
It would be hard to overstate what a great book this is: anyone would love it, though also it would be highly recommended for boys who don’t read much.

The Amazons above help Alexander for a part of the story, and there is a splendid description of Queen Penthesilia ‘axing another Persian’.

The top picture is from the Walters Museum in Baltimore – the vase actually predates Alexander somewhat: the Amazons really were immortal. The marble horse’s head is slightly later, and is also Greek, and also from the Walters Museum. The Museum (which generously makes its collection available on a Creative Commons licence) has a lovely collection of Alexander-related artworks and manuscripts.

Links on the blog: Very different horse stories here and here.

For another Alexander.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Lark in the Morn by Elfrida Vipont: guest blogger

published 1948 chapter 11

[Kit is going to an important Quaker boarding school]

‘Is it a nice uniform?’ asked Kit anxiously.

‘It’s a very practical one,’ said Laura, ‘though the girls seem to need more clothes than they did in my day. I’m sending you with the bare minimum: so long as your things are good and plain and sensible, they’ll do.’…

She did hope the uniform would come in time. She would hate to arrive looking different from all the other new girls.

The big box from the school outfitters was delivered in the nick of time and it was a great relief when everything was assembled. The uniform looked very neat: grey gym-tunic and blue blouses, grey blazer, grey coat and skirt, grey Harris tweed overcoat, grey felt hat and grey beret. There were grey linen shorts for gym, and a blue silk tunic for Greek dancing. Blazer, hat-band and beret bore the school badge, a white fleur-de-lis on a blue ground.

observations: We have met Kit when she is older in The Lark on the Wing. Like Jassy & Vict in (yes, again) Love in a Cold Climate, Clothes in Books as a child was longing for boarding school, expensive new clothes and rags in the dorm, but alas never went there. So today we have a guest blogger, artist and ceramicist Wendy Wilbraham, who did go to a leading Quaker boarding school, though a good many years after Kit, and who read the book and agreed to tell us about uniform, but starts by saying that they didn’t use ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ like some of the Quakers in the book, but they did have musical evenings of fearsome memory.

Now, uniform:

‘Ours was insufferable.

The skirt was steam pleated from waist to or two were slim so not so bad but almost all of us went through a stage of being round (and the school food did not help, all that stodge) and steam pleats do terrible things to a girl’s waist. This was miniskirt era, we rolled it up from the waistband with a belt [CiB says: yeah, we did that at state school too] Much later a new skirt was designed - somehow shaped at the hips so it sort of stood out before becoming A-line and we used to tack up the hem (with tacking cotton, easily breakable ) so that should there be a check on the girls’ hemlines mode) we could in an instant pull on the cotton thread and...DOWN it fell to the regulation ‘knee length when kneeling to ground.’

On top – either a cream blouse with ENORMOUS flat collar wings and v necked cardi, OR cream blouse with HUGE peterpan collar and round necked cardi. (My friend Liz sewed the collar and cuffs only to a sweater so she looked as though she was wearing the whole layers when she wasn’t.)’

Living social history.

Laura is interesting because (unlike most adults in children’s books of the time) she is shown as having no redeeming features – Kit never decides that Laura does have her best interests at heart, and there is actually a suggestion in the later book that (while being such a goody goody) she defrauds Kit of her inheritance. For a family member not meant to be a proper villain, that’s quite something – as I said before, I feel Vipont may have had some personal grudges she was paying off here, and it is one aspect of the book that is refreshing – no learning no hugging between these two.

There is more to come on this book.

Both pictures are by Sam Hood (creator of 'Rich People with Dog', yesterday, amongst other images on the blog), and come from the State Library of New South Wales. The four girls are dancing round a maypole, something we looked at on 1st May.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

The Galloway Case by Andrew Garve

published 1958 chapter 9

[Reporter Peter Rennie has come to visit a crime writer, Richard Dancy]

I followed him to the top floor. At the entrance to his flat three black dogs made a simultaneous rush at me, barking gruffly, and I heard a woman’s voice inside calling them to heel.

“Don’t take any notice of them,’’ Dancy said. “Oh, darling, this is Mr. Rennie from the Post.… My fiancée, Lavinia Hewitt.’’

I said “How d’you do?’’ to Miss Hewitt. She was a tall, thin, angular woman of about thirty-five, with a face of almost incredible plainness. The clothes she was wearing— a dun-colored cardigan, a shapeless tweed skirt, and heavy, flat-heeled shoes— did nothing to improve the effect. I decided she must be very intelligent or very goodhearted. She was still trying to call off the Scotties, not very effectually.

She said “I do hope you like dogs, Mr. Rennie,’’ in a rather gushing voice. I said I did. She said she could tell I did or they wouldn’t like me so much.

observations: The Bello imprint, part of Pan Macmillan, is bringing back all kinds of interesting old books in e-formats – their list is well worth a look if you have any liking for out-of-print novels redolent of their age. A fair number are detective stories, and this one was mentioned by Martin Edwards (himself a crime writer) on his Do You Write Under Your Own Name blog. It’s a good, honest, old-fashioned crimestory carrying you along with its constant action and regular revelations. The initial setup is good: the hero, a dashing reporter, has to find a lovely woman who has suddenly disappeared from his life, and ends up having to pursue two miscarriages of justice – a man has not only been wrongly convicted of murder, but also accused of plagiarism. The details of the investigations are splendid, and seem quite logical, although the end result (involving a man getting the autographs of many crime writers for a purpose you would decline to believe) is a farrago of nonsensical plans, taking pages and pages to explain. But that’s OK – you wouldn’t read it a second time, but it’s been good fun along the way. The attitudes are very much of their time – when Rennie first meets his young woman he says:

She wasn’t wearing a ring, I noticed, and I wondered what was wrong with the men in her part of the world.
Obviously the opposite of the woman above – who has, however, a massive fortune of £80,000 so that’ll do nicely when it comes to getting a man.

Garve doesn’t bother much with clothes descriptions and they tend to be routine. So he doesn’t really deserve this quite wonderful picture – from the State Library of New South Wales. It is part of a photograph by Sam Hood called, in an unusual outbreak of social commentary, ‘The Rich with their Dogs’. 

Links on the blog: This woman is obsessed with her dog. This US President is famous for his dog. And there is a truly splendid song about dogs here. There’ve been a couple of Josephine Bell mysteries on the blog, both now published by Bello.

Monday, 27 May 2013

Holiday Monday: the Kennedys go to the beach

The Importance of Being Kennedy by Laurie Graham

published 2007 chapter 7

[Narrator Nora is nanny to the Kennedy children during the 1920s and 30s]

I had all the girls in matching outfits. They looked a picture, lined up ready to go to Mass on Sunday morning. Wool coats with bonnets and muffs for the cold weather and cotton print dresses in the summer, with white ankle socks and Mary Janes. But when we went to the seashore they wore any old rags, just shorts and vests, first up, best dressed, and they ran around barefoot, brown as tinkers.

When I first worked for the Kennedys we'd go to a different place every year, but once we'd tried Hyannis we took the same cottage there every year.

Mrs K's driver said, ‘Know why we're going to Hyannis again? Because Your Man was turned down for the Country Club at Cohasset.’

I said, ‘And how would you know a thing like that?’

‘Because Herself told me,’ he said, ‘when I was driving her into town. She said it was because the Cohasset doesn't take Catholics but if you ask me it's more likely they'd heard about him running whiskey. And do you know why he got in at Hyannis? Because they're not so toffee-nosed down there. They saw the colour of his money and didn't bother to enquire where he got it.’

observations: Laurie Graham is considered a comfortably middle-brow author, writing the kind of books women love to read. She has produced a fair number of novels – all highly enjoyable – she writes and researches very well, and her books looking at historical figures from the viewpoint of a minor player are particularly good. Nora tells the well-known story of the Kennedys in the first half of the 20th century in a refreshing, entertaining and very funny way, and she does the same with the abdication of Edward VIII in Gone with the Windsors. (His own version here and here.)

Her touch with history is absolutely sure, she makes her characters very real, and the reader can get completely carried along in her stories. She’s unlikely to win the Booker Prize, but I feel that if she were a man she’d be considered a lot more seriously.

Links on the blog: This book has featured before, with a lovely picture of debutantes. JFK’s wedding was here. The Boston family here summered in Maine. History (in this case Alexander the Great) related by a minor player. The important issue of beach clothes in this entry.

Today is a Bank Holiday in the UK, and Memorial Day in the USA. One would be hoping for sunshine, and the real start of the summer. I hope it’s like that somewhere.

The picture of the Kennedys (minus Edward, who hadn’t yet been born) was taken in Hyannis Port in 1931. It is from the John F Kennedy Presidential Library. JFK is top left.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Dress Down Sunday: London Belongs to Me by Norman Collins

published 1945  chapter 91


Tears and all, she was steadier now. Kind of peaceful inside herself as it were. She looked back over her past life almost as though it were somebody else’s. And crikey it wasn’t half a waste! The money she’d had in her time – and the chances. Talk about chucking opportunities away – she’d fairly shovelled ‘em. Offers of marriage. Little places down in Maidenhead. Sovereigns slipped in playfully under the frilly part of her garter. Diamonds. If she’d watched her step she could have been a rich woman by now./ Rolling in it. Paying super-tax. And instead of it, what was she? Just the old girl with the dyed hair who sat behind the counter in the ladies’ cloakroom and had a saucer, with a few pins in it, in front of her ready to receive the tips.

It wasn’t even as if she’d learnt any sense as she’d grown older. Not a bit of it.

observations: This is Connie, exactly what she sounds, an aging actress or showgirl living out her life in a tiny room in a boarding house in south London. The book follows the lives of all the lodgers over two years, ending in Christmas in 1940, and old Connie doesn’t have much of a time, but she makes the most of every opportunity she gets. She has a particular talent for getting herself to others’ social gatherings – from a casual tea to a wedding - even when she hasn’t been invited. Money and food are a constant problem, and she’s light-fingered with others’ property and she even ends up in prison at one point (the nightclub she works in is raided) but she carries on regardless, a quite splendid character who would be extremely tiresome in real life, but is great fun in a book. Her finest moment comes when a fellow-lodger is moving out; Mrs J looks round and says ‘Say goodbye to Connie for me … tell her I’m sorry to have missed her.’ Only to be told by another inhabitant that Connie has ‘gone ahead’ – she is in the removal van up with the driver. Just along for the ride.

 ‘She’s done what?’, as Mrs J says.

Links on the blog: the book has featured before. More Dress Down Sunday by clicking on the label below – including Gerty in Ulysses with her wide garter tops. The Duke of Windsor had quite another kind of garter.

The lady with the stockings is Charlotte Davies, a vaudeville star in the early part of the 20th century. The two women performed as Bessie and Nellie McCoy – Bessie later became a Mrs Davis, coincidentally. Both pictures are from the Bain Collection at the Library of Congress.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

published 2013   chapter 6

[Narrator Don Tillman has been caught out by the dress code - Gentlemen are required to wear a jacket - at an expensive restaurant]

My Gore-Tex jacket, the high-technology garment that had protected me in rain and snowstorms, was being irrationally, unfairly and obstructively contrasted with the official’s essentially decorative woollen equivalent. I had paid $ 1,015 for it, including $ 120 extra for the customised reflective yellow. I outlined my argument. ‘My jacket is superior to yours by all reasonable criteria: impermeability to water, visibility in low light, storage capacity.’ I unzipped the jacket to display the internal pockets and continued, ‘Speed of drying, resistance to food stains, hood …’

The official was still showing no interpretable reaction, although I had almost certainly raised my voice. ‘Vastly superior tensile strength …’ To illustrate this last point, I took the lapel of the employee’s jacket in my hands. I obviously had no intention of tearing it but I was suddenly grabbed from behind by an unknown person who attempted to throw me to the ground. I automatically responded with a safe, low-impact throw to disable him without dislodging my glasses.

observations: Don is going for his first date with the titular Rosie, and it is not going well so far. The reader assumes that Don has Asperger’s, and his commitment to literalness, logic and what he thinks is rationality are working against his plan to find a wife. As he says:
For a few moments, I was overwhelmed by the sheer unreasonableness of the situation. I was already under stress, preparing for the second encounter with a woman who might become my life partner.

-- but when Rosie turns up at the restaurant, things will start to look up, though they have a long way to go.

This is a romcom with an unusual male protagonist. There’s not much in it that is not predictable, but it is very amusing along the way, and rather charming. He dances with a skeleton, checks himself out on a post-natal-depression questionnaire, and responds to ‘tell me about it’ in an entirely guessable way.

Don helps Rosie to look for her genetic father, because
It’s critical for parents to be able to recognise their own children. So they can protect the carriers of their genes. Small children need to be able to locate their parents to get that protection.

- and there are some interesting comments in the book about parents, children, and the affection between them. But on the whole this is a lightweight book, with some echoes of  Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.

I tried to find a picture of a $1000 Gore-Tex jacket, but it was hard: assuming it’s Australian dollars, that’s more than 600 English pounds. This one costs a satisfying £360 and is from Columbia Sportswear.

Links on the blog: characters working in a fancy French restaurant, and choosing the right jacket for a NY restaurant. Taking hats to restaurants can be important too.

Friday, 24 May 2013

The Judge's Story by Charles Morgan

published 1947  chapter 3

The sun was warm on his hands, though his face was in the shade, and he began to nod in the balmy scent of the July day, almost knowing in his heart that his Athenian would never be written.

The world is too much with us; late and soon, 
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:

-- Julia’s favourite sonnet.

“And what are you doing there, Gasky?” Julia’s voice asked beside him, and he opened his eyes to see Vivien, in a flowered cotton frock, and to feel her hand on his shoulder, forbidding him to rise. But he rose and kissed her so that she might know he wasn’t old and hadn’t been asleep.

observations: This week Stella Gibbons’ Westwood featured twice on the blog: one of the main characters, Gerald Challis, is assumed to be a wicked picture of Charles Morgan, a now mostly-forgotten writer of the time. He wrote about Art, Love and Death, and once said that we use humour to avoid emotion and vision and grandeur of spirit. This view did not make him popular – another non-fan was Nancy Mitford, who said of this book:

It’s about an awful old upright judge who talks in a ghastly affected way & says thankee kindly & is keen on Hellenism & Humanism & sometimes disappears to write his great book called The Athenian.

She too intended to make fun of him in a novel, but her correspondent Evelyn Waugh replied that this would be pointless, as none of her readers would know who he was. (It has always been true that Morgan had a much higher reputation in France, where Mitford was living: rather like Norman Wisdom in Albania).

And indeed the book is not full of jokes (although there is very nearly one where the Judge is asked what translation of the Odyssey he used as a bedtime story for a little girl – his own, of course, and he read it to her in Greek too). It is tackling the big issues in life and although the manner is rather precious, it becomes quite engrossing. The first time I read it I raced through it, gasping at one point, and very anxious to know what would happen. On a second reading, it’s all a bit flimsy and a lot more questions arise – WHY can’t the woman above do anything about the problems (you mustn’t worry yourself dear)? Why is the extremely villainous Severidge more interesting than all the other characters? What is WRONG with the Judge? It’s also true that on first reading Morgan tricks you (very cleverly) into ignoring a key point, which is the actual value of an antique book at the centre of the plot. When you take out the questions of honour, and the author’s hatred for Severidge, the events of The Judge's Story look somewhat different.

The sonnet is by Wordsworth: its relevance to the plot is heavy-handed, but it is still an A-list poem.

The picture, Portrait of a girl in a flowered dress by Alfred Henry Maurer,  came from The Athenaeum website.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Westwood by Stella Gibbons

published 1946   chapter 28

He turned to look at Hilda. She wore a thin blue silk dress that exactly matched her eyes, and carried a large white handbag. Her slender bare legs were expertly painted brown and on her small feet were white shoes. (We have described these objects from a masculine point of view; now, shifting our focus – or altering the Frame, as Professor Eddington might put it – we may say that the dress was of cheap rayon, and the shoes and handbag last year’s; but they were all fresh and in perfect order, and Hilda wore them with such calm confidence that the effect could hardly have been improved.)

‘I am lucky,’ he answered, smiling, and took her hand in his cool one.

‘You’re telling me. I put off ever so many things to come to your old Kew to-day.’

observations: Needs to be read with the earlier entry.

This time it’s Hilda, Margaret’s best friend, and a different kind of girl (as they were most definitely described) altogether. She has no difficulty attracting men, and is terribly happy in life. She doesn’t have Margaret’s restless searching attitude, or her general misery. Gibbons keeps changing her mind – is Hilda too down-market, or could Margaret learn a thing or two from her? To modern eyes, Hilda wins.

The book is full of contemporary details of wartime London – Hilda’s legs are painted because she has no stockings and she keeps not paying enough attention to her important admirer because she is commenting on other women’s stockings. Earlier Hilda speaks of Lyndoe, who was the first newspaper astrologer, and there are mentions of various other real but now-forgotten people of the era: Freddy Grisewood, Anne Duffield, Michael Arlen (not forgotten round here, of course), while Arthur Eddington was an astrophysicist with an interest in the philosophy of science. There is a precision: Margaret is making a blouse out of net, not chiffon, because net is unrationed while chiffon costs coupons.

There are pages of strange digressions, and Margaret only meets Gerald Challis – the alpha male of the family, and the would-be seducer above – a third of the way through. Challis is assumed to be based on the writer Charles Morgan, though I wonder if there is also a touch of the du Mauriers about the family –  Gerald, above, gives Hilda the nickname Daphne...

Elizabeth Bowen’s 1948 novel Heat of the Day is the key text on wartime London, and Gibbons is no Bowen. But Westwood, though rambling and occasionally irritating, makes you think you can imagine what it would be like to live through the petty irritations of civilian life in wartime London, feeling that the war should be giving you great opportunities, but worrying that your youth is wasting away. Poor Margaret.

One shocking detail in the book – Gibbons says:
nowadays it is not the done thing to give descriptions in novels of what women are wearing…

Clothes in Books is horrified at the idea, but fortunately it didn’t seem to take. 

Links on the blog: Stella Gibbons has featured a number of times - click on the label below.

The picture, again, is illustrating utility clothing for the Ministry of Information.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Petite Mort by Beatrice Hitchman

published 2013

She looks away and laughs: quick and bitter, and the silence descends again. After a while she says: ‘You are an enigma, Mlle Roux.’ And it is in that moment that someone close by says: ‘Luce!’

The woman is dressed in grey, with a ruffle at the throat of her blouse: but underneath her skirt I see the toes of riding boots. Her face is long and lean, like a horse’s, brown-grey hair pulled sharply back, but the eyes are twinkling, and the skin of her face is leathery, as if she spends a lot of time outdoors. Terpsichore is grinning; they lean forward for the bises; the woman looks at me over Terpsichore’s shoulder. Then she takes my hand and shakes it, like a man. 

Terpsichore says: ‘Mademoiselle Roux, may I present Madame Vercors, wife of Louis Vercors, former Minister of the Interior.’

‘Aurélie,’ says the woman. ‘Call me Aurélie.’

Enchantée,’ I say.

observations: A clever entertaining book with a refreshingly cold heart and a setting in the early days of the French film industry – there’s a lot to like. It’s a bit fussy at times, too many changes of tense and narrator and time, and too much riding on the (really not very interesting) twist, but definitely an author who is going places, and who can do a lot with descriptions of people, places and (very important round here) clothes. The book takes in love, jealousy, bisexuality and glamour in pre-1914 Paris. Of course, the movie-star Terpsichore and her assistant are there for the first night of The Rite of Spring…. which tells you what kind of book this is.

I’m guessing Aurelie is wearing a riding-habit, a byway of women’s fashions that always intrigues. Rich women were expected to ride side-saddle, so had special clothes designed to fit the activity. Those of us who aren’t great horsepeople find it very hard to imagine riding sidesaddle – apparently it wasn’t dangerous and difficult, and you weren’t much more likely to fall off. But I don’t know why that should be.

*Added Later* My most informative blog reader and costume expert, Ken Nye, very much doubts that it was a riding habit - see what he has to say in the comments below...

Links on the blog: Aristo in a habit here. Silent movies in this recent entry,  British film history here, and an American moviestar  came up last week.

The picture is of Elizabeth the Empress of Austria dressed for riding in 1884.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Maskerade by Terry Pratchett

published 1995

[Two witches are visiting a dress shop in Ankh-Morpork, prior to a visit to the opera]

‘My friend here wants a new dress,’ said the dumpier of the two. ‘One of the nobby ones with a train and a padded bum.’

‘In black,’ said the thin one.

‘And we wants all the trimmings,’ said the dumpy one. 
‘Little handbag onna string, pair of glasses onna stick, the whole thing.’ 

Madame Dawning [said] ‘This is rather a select dress shop.’

‘That’s why we’re here. We don’t want rubbish. My name’s Nanny Ogg and this here is … Lady Esmerelda Weatherwax.’…

The dress was black. At least, in theory it was black. It was black in the same way that a starling’s wing is black. It was black silk, with jet beads and sequins. It was black on holiday.

‘It looks about my size. We’ll take it… And now we’ll go back into the shop and have a poke around for the other stuff,’ said Lady Esmerelda. ‘I fancy ostrich feathers myself. And one of those big cloaks the ladies wear. And one of those fans edged with lace.’

‘Why don’t we get some great big diamonds while we’re about it?’ said Nanny Ogg sharply.

‘Good idea.’

[This 2nd picture would have been an ideal illustration for Granny Weatherwax if it hadn’t already been used on the blog to stand in for Molly Bloom (quite the classical singer herself) in Joyce’s Ulysses.]

observations: It would take a long time to explain what Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax are planning at the opera tonight: the best thing is to read the book. In this entry on another of his books, we explain why Terry Pratchett is so good, and so worth reading.

Maskerade is a wide-ranging satirical take on opera, musical theatre (particularly Phantom of the Opera), and ballet dancers (‘half a dozen of the[m] sharing a stick of celery and giggling…they’re all half-crazed with hunger’). The operas are called Lohenshaak and La Triviata, and the splendid jokes and sharp remarks keep coming and coming.

The two witches want to travel by coach:
‘Have you got any special low terms for witches?’

‘Yeah, how about “meddling, interfering old baggages”?’

In a nice touch, Nanny Ogg has a witch’s hat that performs like an opera hat:
She pulled out a flat, round black shape and banged it against her arm. The point shot out. After a few adjustments her official hat was almost as good as new.
There’s a mystery to be solved, and it’s not bad, with a touch of GK Chesterton’s Fr Brown (‘…to be seen and not noticed…’) and a funny bit about recognizing the Ghost: ‘Good grief! You can recognize him because he’s got a mask on?’

The top picture (from the Library of Congress) is of opera singer Anna Fitziu – in fact Granny Weatherwax needs to look like an opera patron, someone who will make a donation, but the clothes look right.

Links on the blog: Pratchett looks at equally serious and important entertainers in the clowns’ funeral scene in Men at Arms. Real-life opera singers (though possibly not less extraordinary than TP’s) here and here. Plenty of other witches - Eastwick, Christie, Halloween, Pendle...

Monday, 20 May 2013

Westwood by Stella Gibbons

published 1946  chapter 4

[Margaret has found a rationbook belonging to Hebe Niland, and is going to return it]

Margaret walked quickly, wondering if her clothes were suitable, and then scornfully telling herself that even if she did see Alexander Niland he wouldn’t notice what she was wearing, and then remembering that he was a painter and would naturally notice everything. She had tied her hair with the velvet bow and put on a dark-brown suit with a yellow and crimson handkerchief knotted under her chin, and her shoes and stockings were heavy and good, as were the shoes and stockings of most girls in England in those days. Her heart beat faster than usual and she was almost trembling; so much of her craving for a more beautiful and satisfying life took the form of wanting to meet interesting people that the possibility of meeting one, however briefly, excited her painfully…

Hebe must be his wife, or perhaps his sister? No, she seemed to remember that he had painted several portraits of his wife. Hebe Niland. It was a strange name and Margaret thought it a beautiful one. Someone with that name started with an advantage lacked by someone named Margaret Steggles.

observations: Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs (entry last week) reminded me of this book – Margaret, leading a limited life in wartime London, is pulled into the lives of the Bohemian, arty and very grand Niland and Challis familes, through the chance of finding the rationbook. She is totally exploited by them – they are absurd, pretentious and selfish, but they are all too clear-eyed about Margaret. Everyone is horrified when Gerard Challis says that one of the servants has a slave mentality ‘she has enjoyed giving her life to us, you know’, but really their attitude to Margaret is much the same. And the truth is that – like Nora in The Woman Upstairs, like Frances in Alys, Always – she wants a way in to the family, and if helping out means she gets it, then fine by her. (Though Nora and Margaret could learn a thing or two from Frances.)

You can’t help feeling that poor Margaret’s plight would have been much eased if television had been available to her. Her home life is awful:
Mrs Steggles settled down with some fancywork …. and the daughter read in silence. A great dreariness filled Margaret’s heart.

If only they could have watched Strictly together in those long uncomfortable evenings, Margaret would not have had to go out stalking. She and her new friend Zita are sooo turning into Barbara Pym heroines by the end of the book (see here on the blog for Pym’s stalkers in nice cardis and comfortable shoes).

The book is so intriguing that it’s going to need another entry, later this week.

Links on the blog: Hebe Niland wears a hat that is ‘nothing but a huge black and white flower.’ New York hat fashion at the time was obviously exactly the same: see this entry for details.

The picture is from the Imperial War Museum’s wonderful collection of photos from the period – this is from the Ministry of Information, showing utility clothes.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Dress Down Sunday: N or M? by Agatha Christie

published 1941 chapter 2


[Tommy and Tuppence Beresford are working undercover and discussing their noms de guerre]

[Tommy said] ‘But why Blenkensop?’

‘Why not?’

‘It seems such an odd name to choose.’

‘It was the first one I thought of and it’s handy for underclothes.’

‘What do you mean, Tuppence?’

‘B, you idiot. B for Beresford. B for Blenkensop. Embroidered on my camiknickers. Patricia Blenkensop. Prudence Beresford. Why did you choose Meadowes? It’s a silly name.’

‘To begin with,’ said Tommy, ‘I don’t have large B’s embroidered on my pants. And to continue, I didn’t choose it. I was told to call myself Meadowes. Mr Meadowes is a gentleman with a respectable past–all of which I’ve learnt by heart.’

‘Very nice,’ said Tuppence. ‘Are you married or single?’

‘I’m a widower,’ said Tommy with dignity. ‘My wife died ten years ago at Singapore.’

observations: Last week Clothes in Books was wondering about step ins - ‘as opposed to what?’ we wondered. One of the blog’s favourite followers, the knowledgeable costume expert Ken Nye (contributed to Anne Boleyn, Shepperton Babylon, Nijinsky, and Doris Keane…) spoke up: as opposed to camiknickers, ‘which would have dropped over the head and buttoned between the legs.’ It’s obvious when it’s pointed out.

Robert Barnard rightly describes Tommy and Tuppence as everyone’s least-favourite Christie sleuths (at one point Tuppence says ‘Sometimes I feel that we never were any use,’ and the reader nods sagely). Here they are looking for spies in a seaside resort during the Second World War – see this earlier entry for the strange story of how the book brought Christie under suspicion herself.

Tuppence is described as having ‘twittered’ in the book, though this means her annoying talking – she would no doubt claim she has put it on for cover, but the reader knows better. She does, however, tell someone

Cut out the compliments…I’m admiring myself a good deal, so there’s no need for you to chime in.

---and her daughter at one point is nervous that her mother is going to be unfaithful to the dreary Tommy, doing something described as ‘off weekending with someone’. If only.

At one point she is threatened with torture by dental instruments, just like Marathon Man, only 30 years earlier.

It is interesting and surprising that her underwear is monogrammed – books of the time often mention laundry marks, but this is something more fancy. The American etiquette writer Miss Manners says that if you are a housemaid who marries a Duke then you can have his crest embroidered on your underwear.

Links on the blog: Anne Boleyn wore a B round her neck. In an entry on Death on the Nile, we commented on Christie’s use of a Biblical story – this time there is David’s son Solomon, and a very reasonable conclusion for Tuppence to draw, eventually….

With thanks to JS (again) for language detail.

The young woman is from the Clover Vintage Tumblr, the other picture is the Royal monogram of Princess Beatrice of Battenburg, a daughter of Queen Victoria.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann

published 1966   Jennifer in the 1960s

Jennifer returned to New York the first week in January. Senator Adams was detained in Washington for a few days, and Anne went with her as she bought her trousseau.

‘Everything must be different,’ she insisted. ‘Striking, but – you know – subdued. You’ve got to help me, Anne.’

They were in the fitting room at Bergdorf’s when Jennifer suddenly leaned against the wall. ‘Anne … have you an aspirin?’

She was ashen and the pupils of her eyes were dilated. The fitter rushed for the aspirin. Jennifer sat down…

Jennifer lit a cigarette. ‘It’s passed now. But that pain – it was a real bonecrusher…’

The fitter returned with the aspirin and the head saleslady came rushing in, visibly concerned..

Jennifer selected three dresses. The salesgirl thanked her, got her autograph for her niece and wished her luck.

observations: The news is not going to be good for Jennifer when she does have a checkup.

Poor Jennifer – the kindest and most harmless of the girls in the book – is a moviestar, with all the outward signs of success, but her body is abused by the people around her in the most blatant way. It’s not symbolic or a metaphor, it’s just factual: she has a facelift, and hormone shots for her breasts, she undergoes a sleep cure to lose weight (all organized by someone else), and in a chilling moment she tells Anne that of course she will be able to have children, because she has had seven abortions, so must be fertile. The ending Susann chooses for her is awful.

All this is related by Susann in her flat, weirdly non-judgmental style: she doesn’t blame male oppression for what happens to the women, nor does she judge the women for what would have been seen then as bad behaviour. Julie Burchill claims the book for a feminist tract in her 2003 introduction to a Virago edition – it’s more that the facts are all there, and the reader can make of them what she wants. Susann just seems to be shrugging her shoulders.

A moviestar today might have more control over her life.

This book has featured before, and is seen by me as a (rare) Clothes in Books failure. The picture, take a look here, is very nice, but it is not right for the text, which features Jennifer again. So I am taking the opportunity to offer two other pictures:

which would suit the description better. Both show dresses by Jean Patou, and are from the Dovina is Devine ll photostream. The top picture is from another great resource, the Clover Vintage Tumblr.

Friday, 17 May 2013

The Greeks and Greek Love by James Davidson

published 2007   chapter 11

Xenophon emphasizes that [Spartan] Boys had one cloak which they wore throughout the year, even in summer, the better to prepare them ‘also for summer heats [thalpe]’. Plutarch says tunics were banned from Twelve, they had one cloak for the year, and boys did not bathe or anoint themselves, except on certain days of the year. All of this seems perfectly consistent: Spartan Boys, like Cretan Boys, kept their kit on. Now also perhaps we can understand why the legend of the EarthquakeTomb makes such a play of the Cadets having stripped off and run out to exercise all covered in oil. That ‘stripping off’ and ‘running out’ must, as in Crete, have been the ceremony of leaving boyhood and entering into adulthood, just like the ephebes of Athens at the Panathenaea running naked from the altar of Eros to the altar in the city, carrying torches.

observations: Even James Davidson (who seems absolutely lovely) perhaps doesn’t quite know who this book is aimed at. Near the beginning there is a footnote to explain what the subject and object of a verb are. That’s on page 12. On page 3 there is a quotation from an unnamed ancient author. If you look up the footnote to see who wrote it, you are told ‘Arr.’, and nowhere in the book is there any possibility of finding out what that means – because, apparently, it is a standard abbreviation. I can’t really believe that anyone who knows what ‘Arr.’ means (Arrian) also needs to be told about grammatical cases…

But who cares? This is a fabulous book about the ancient world, beautiful to look at with fascinating illustrations, a joy to read, and very informative. Obviously it is primarily about Greek homosexuality (a subject on which there seems to be little academic consensus) but it also takes in everything else about Greek life. It is serious and scholarly, of course, and Davidson plainly has an extraordinary depth of knowledge, and an easy familiarity (apparently) with every aspect of the ancient Greek world – you’d know that from his previous, wonderful, book, Courtesans and Fishcakes (which even manages to persuade you that the title isn’t just whimsy). But you by no means have to be an academic to read it: you just need to be willing to be pulled into something strange and extraordinary, with a beautiful phrase, a surprising anecdote, or a memorable image on every page. His writing style is easy and accessible, and also inventive: you have to read the book to find out what doing the do, homosex (guess!) and archaeologicable mean.

The picture is of a sculpture of a Spartan officer from the Wadsworth Museum in Connecticut.

Links on the blog: More of the ancient world in Herodotus here and here, and Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy (which contains quite a lot of doing the do).

Thursday, 16 May 2013

One Pair of Hands by Monica Dickens

Published 1939   chapter 4   set in the 1930s

[The narrator is working for a dress designer]

When I took in the tea the drawing-room was draped in lengths of material of all colours, and the three of them were flinging themselves among it, holding up a piece here and there and exclaiming ecstatically. I put the tea-tray down on a vacant stool and was just going out when Martin Parrish rushed at me with a bit of gold lamé, and, commanding me to stand still, draped it swiftly and skilfully round my form. He stepped back with clasped hands, surveying with his head on one side, and I stood there feeling like one of those improbable-looking effigies in shop windows. ‘Look!’ he cried, calling upon the other two to admire. ‘Quite perfect for that blonde type – the whole effect in gold could be too marvellous. Take a note, Kenneth; what’s the number of the stuff? Oh, yes. Here – avoid any contrasts with BX 17 – accessories, etc., unbroken line important to carry on colour effect…’

‘No, don’t go away, I haven’t finished,’ said my employer irritably as he advanced on me with a length of black taffeta which he bunched round me…

observations: In the days before Young Adult books were invented, there was a kind of grown-up book felt to be suitable and appropriate for the libraries of girls’ schools: light but edifying reading. Books like this one – a jolly, supposedly true account of someone’s life as they tried out a career, full of anecdotes but also giving you a clue as to what life was like. Nursing featured a lot: this one is about being a cook.

Monica Dickens was the great-granddaughter of Charles Dickens, and so rather posh: her selling point is the hilarity of a young woman of her background going into something so menial as cooking. (She also wrote more of her true-life adventures – nursing again - various novels, and the Follyfoot children’s books.)

Online friend Lucy Fisher (guested on Lark on the Wing, see also  her blog) pointed out this scene to me, and while I loved this bit, when I reread the book I was disappointed – I had remembered it from my own girls’ school years as being quite good. Now, I find it snobbish, mean-minded and tiresome: Dickens is plainly dreadful at the job most of the time, but is very put out if the people paying her get cross about her bad food, clumsiness and carelessness. It’s not clear if she’s being ironic here -

I must have struck it unlucky - most of the people I went to never wanted to see me again…
- but it’s very believable.

The top photo - from the Library of Congress - is of actress Winifred Bryson. The other woman in a gold dress was used on the blog to illustrate Jane Gardam’s Long Way From Verona, a YA book that would make for much better reading for a modern teenager.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Smallbone Deceased by Michael Gilbert

published 1950   chapter 12

[Investigator and lawyer Henry Bohun has a part-time job as a nightwatchman at a warehouse]

The door opened softly and a young man came in. They all look so alike, thought Bohun. Young, tough, white, boxer’s face. Black hair, white silk scarf, old battledress. This one carried a gun and looked as if he knew how to use it.

Bohun let him get three paces in the room before he kicked the switch. A steel shutter came down across the door, thudding softly home across its counter-balance. Bohun got cautiously to his feet and said with almost ludicrous earnestness:

“Think before you do anything rash. I’m certain you wouldn’t like the police to find you locked in here with a dead body.”

“Open that unprintable door,” said the young man

observations: Margot Kinberg (at her terrific Confessions of a Mystery Writer blog) was talking about memorable scenes and characters in murder stories, and I put this one forward: Bohun and the burglar will chat in a good-humoured way while waiting for the police to arrive, and he asks the burglar about something that’s puzzling him. The burglar gives him a helpful answer, a clue, and our hero – well, he doesn’t let him escape but he helps minimize the crime. We don’t ever find out the burglar’s name, and he doesn’t appear again, but it’s a scene that sticks in the mind. And there is another memorable minor character, the taxi driver: How did he know his fare was a lawyer? “Norways tell a lawyer” said Mr Ringer. 
Plus the young woman who has just been proposed to: “I shall make a rampaging wife!” she says - something we can all aspire to.

Michael Gilbert’s books had very varied settings, from a Cathedral Close (Close Quarters) and the solicitors’ office in Smallbone, to a prisoner-of-war camp and the HQ of a political party - but action scenes weren’t particularly his line. This is a very traditional Golden Age story: it includes a floorplan of the offices, and that magic moment when a character is scared by noises, opens the door and says ‘Heavens it’s you!’ in great relief....New chapter

There is also very solid, satisfying clue-ing: what’s the implication of that letter addressed Dear Mr Horniman? Why is it meaningful that one of the secretaries is near the office on her day off - might she not be just doing her shopping?

Lawyers feature hugely in detective stories, but usually because they are in charge of the will, though in this crime story there is an anagrammatic, husbandly secret.

The picture is from an army surplus site – the white silk scarf was too big an ask, life has got harsher in the intervening years.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Penelope by Rebecca Harrington

published 2012  chapters 1 & 2

A handsome man with chin-length blond hair was walking past… wearing a three-piece linen suit and laughing into a cell phone, like the regent of a tiny, unpronounceable European principality. Penelope wondered if he was drifting toward the registration desk. It seemed as though he was going to.

Penelope thought about the man in the rumpled linen suit. It was possible he lived in her dorm – but she doubted it…

The trees did not move, the sun was too yellow. The Yard looked stately if remote. No one was playing touch football on it, that was for sure. Maybe the man wearing the rumpled linen suit at registration had actually been a mirage. He looked like what she had thought Harvard men were going to look like before she went here, although now that she was here, none of the students looked remotely like that.

observations: Doing the rounds of the internet right now is a truly hilarious aticle about living like Gwyneth Paltrow (pointed out to me by my friend Riona MacNamara). It didn’t at all make me want to read the GP book It’s All Good, but I immediately downloaded this novel by the article’s author, Rebecca Harrington.

Penelope is new to Harvard, socially inept, a naïve provincial girl who seems to know nothing about the place (it is hard to imagine how she got in) - the book follows her first year. She is completely deadpan, something of an empty vessel. You have to just go with this; she is not going to change and develop over the year, and neither are the horrible people around her. The style is odd, very flat and almost childish. The effect is weird but obviously deliberate: this book is satirical and not meant to be taken seriously, nor to be judged on its fine writing. But it is very very funny, laugh-out loud funny. (Though not for everyone – the reviews online are evenly divided, and many people find the style distancing and boring.)

The Paltrow article, and others by Harrington, seem to be written entirely in the persona of Penelope. But is the author herself quite different? There are spectacularly off-putting acknowledgements at the end of the book. Penelope might be a hopeless person, but you sincerely doubt that she would ever write ‘He is the best!...I feel so lucky to have met her…Thank you so much for being there for me every step of the way. What would I do without all of you in my life?’

She uses the words gamut, amuck and throngs wrongly in the book, similarly the word annals in the article… strange? Deliberate? How about those wonderful editors she’s busy thanking?

BUT – any book this funny gets a free pass. It is brilliant, and I would read another book by her in a minute.

Links on the blog: More undergraduate stories here and here and here.

The picture is from an old fashion magazine and shows designer Katherine Hamnett and a male model.

Monday, 13 May 2013

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

published 2013   part 2

At the warehouse, we rifled through racks and bins of all kinds – vast shapeless nylon granny dresses, shrunken, felted woolen dresses, polyester stretch pants, sheets and blankets, sequined netting, iridescent organza, animal print plush jersey jackets, bolts of corduroy in extraordinary shades of plum and puce and pear. Sirena fingered everything with her eyes closed, as if the garments had messages in braille upon them – ‘It’s to know if I can work with this,’ she explained, when I teased her. ‘Some fabrics, the synthetics, the fake ones, like some people, is this’ – and she mimed scraping her fingernails on a blackboard.

‘Are there people you don’t like, then?’ I asked. It hadn’t occurred to me before.

‘Nora!’ She shook her head incredulously. ‘Aren’t there people you don’t like?’

‘So many of them.’

‘I can’t work with people I don’t choose, not in this way. For me, life’s too short. Yes? Life is too short. When they’ – she mimed the fingernails – ‘then they must go. Like the fabric, I don’t take it home; so with the people, they’re the same. Not for me!’ 

observations: Nora – a primary-school teacher in the Boston area - makes friends with a foreign family whose child she teaches. She and the mother are both artists, and they share a studio space for one happy year – here Sirena is looking for materials for a huge installation she is making. (Nora, of course, makes tiny little shoe-box sized art – between that and her first name you couldn’t doubt Messud’s commitment to obvious symbolism.)

The book starts out with Nora looking back on this time, very angry, so, obv, something is going to happen, right at the end of the book, which is going to make her so (this is a Messudian structure and number of commas for a sentence).  I so was hoping to be surprised, but the betrayal seemed easy to see coming, there were fairly blatant clues, it was predictable.

Claire Messud did a nice job at creating a voice, Nora was a rounded character. But – the book seems to be claiming that The Woman Upstairs is a trope, that she’s recognizable, that there are a lot of women like that. But she didn’t seem at all recognizable, she didn’t match anything I see in the world. She resembled plenty of other book people though:

- the obsessive teacher in Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal 

- Charles Ryder falling love with the whole family in Brideshead Revisited
- the heroine of a rather good but forgotten Stella Gibbons book called Westwood, who is completely exploited by a grand theatrical family.

... and some of the cast of a very obscure play by NC Hunter called Waters of the Moon.

Claire Messud got very cross with an interviewer who said ‘I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook on life is unbearably grim.’ A lot of authors are snooty about readers who want to find characters to like – a question for another day – but here Nora didn’t climb up out of the pages enough, or become real enough, to feel that strongly about her.

The pictures are from the Smithsonian Institute’s collection – on the left, sculptor and designer Gwen Lux, on the right, painter Lucile Branch. The other photo is the studio of a Hungarian artist, Zelma Baylos, who worked in New York in the early 20th century.’

Links on the blog: Sirena's installation is linked with Alice in Wonderland, who popped up in Saturday's entry. Claire Messud is married to James Wood, who wrote The Book Against God.