Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Parker Pyne Investigates by Agatha Christie

The Case of the Rich Woman

published 1934

The name of Mrs Abner Rymer was brought to Mr Parker Pyne. He knew the name and he raised his eyebrows.

Presently his client was shown into the room.

Mrs Rymer was a tall woman, big-boned. Her figure was ungainly and the velvet dress and the heavy coat she wore did not disguise the fact. The knuckles of her large hands were pronounced. Her face was big and broad and highly coloured. Her black hair was fashionably dressed, and there were many tips of curled ostrich in her hat.

She plumped herself down on a chair with a nod.

“Good morning,” she said. Her voice had a rough accent. “If you’re any good at all you’ll tell me how to spend my money!”

“Most original” murmured Mr Parker Pyne.

observations: The Parker Pyne stores are seen as a minor part of Christie’s work. She wrote a dozen or so, and only half of them were of the original setup, where a client comes to PP’s office and pays money to be made happy – in others he is on holiday and comes across situations where he lends a hand or solves a crime.

But to me they are a delight, wholly separate from the Poirots and the Marples, really enjoyable short stories – unrealistic but fun, and complete in themselves. They are silly, but strangely memorable, and occasionally affecting, and you wonder if PP or Christie might have been onto something. If she hadn’t had such a huge success with her other books, she might have carved out a little niche with these tales. And, PP isn’t half as annoying as Poirot.

The basic setup is: A client comes to the office, having seen the small ad (above) in the newspaper. They explain what’s wrong to the maestro, pay some money, then go away. Then something happens to them – very, very varied events, you would never in a million years guess what is going to happen to Mrs Rymer – and then later everyone decides if they are indeed happier or not. So simple, so perfect: I wish there were more of them. Love, money, boredom, discontent – Mr Parker Pyne has a handle on all the ills of modern life. Oddly enough, he employs Miss Lemon and Ariadne Oliver, both of them better known from the Poirot books. Also on his staff: a temptress, Madeleine de Sara, and a lounge lizard, Claude Luttrell (possibly the best name in all of Christie) - and if that doesn't make you want to read them, you're a lost cause.

Links on the blog: Agatha Christie all over the place, click on the label below.

The picture is from the Library of Congress.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

High Rising by Angela Thirkell

published 1933 Chapter 1

She had…decided that, next to racing, murder, and sport, the great reading public of England (female section) likes to read about clothes. With real industry she got introductions, went over big department stores, visited smart dressmaking friends, talked to girls she knew who had become buyers or highbrow window-dressers, and settled down to write best-sellers. Her prevision was justified, and she now had a large, steady reading public, who apparently could not hear too much about the mysteries of the wholesale and retail clothes business

One of her novels had even been dramatised with considerable success, its central scene being the workroom of the famous Madame Koska, where a minion of a rival firm got taken on as a bodice hand, and made notes of advance season models. But a judgment fell on her when, in the handsome traveller for a French silk manufacturer, she recognised the lover she had robbed and left some years ago. How he also recognised her, the struggle in his breast between love and duty, how the honour of the dressmaking world got the upper hand, how he denounced her to Madame Koska, how Madame forgave her, how the mannequins struck half an hour before Madame’s spring opening, how the minion went on and wore forty-eight frocks with such ravishing grace that Madame Koska took five thousand pounds’ worth of orders in that afternoon alone: all this is too long and improbable to relate.

observations: Laura, a widow, needs to make money to raise her fine sons, so has taken to writing these potboilers/bestsellers - what a pity we can't read them, right up the blog's street.

Thirkell is very funny in this book on the youngest boy, and achieves something that is quite rare in books: Tony is delightful, and it is clear his mother loves him very much, but he is shown as being very very boring to spend any time with. He is obsessed, convincingly, with model railways, and goes on and on about them at length. He sounds completely normal and nice, but tedious.
Laura had once offered to edit a book called Why I Hate my Children…’

There is also a splendid scene in which Tony is found in a tempest of tears: he has written a poem (printed in the book) which is so, so sad and touching that he cannot help weeping for its beauty.

Very much of its time department: Tony has fond memories of being blooded on his first foxhunt ie having the blood of the dead fox rubbed all over his face. He would seem to be about 7 at the time. (Another child goes fox-hunting, similar era, in this book.)

Of course, Thirkell and Laura are right – fashion salons are fascinating. The play Nine till Six, here and here, is set in one, Nancy Mitford’s Linda is as much a habituee as her creator, and Suzanne from Madensky Square has a salon in a small kind of way.

High Rising has featured before with a gruesome New Year’s Eve party.

The pictures are by Edouard Vuillard, the Dressmaking Studio I and II, from the Athenaeum website.

Monday, 29 July 2013

A Killing at Cotton Hill by Terry Shames

published 2013 chapter 25

Finally I find Houston Antiques ‘N Art, located in a mall that stretches about as big as Dora Lee’s farm. The place… looks like a warehouse, crammed up tight with fine pieces of furniture butted up next to some of the ugliest junk I’ve ever laid eyes on…

[Dallas Morton] is a rangy man who wears clothes that make him look like he’s ready to grab his partner at a square dance. His pale blue shirt hs ruffles down the front and he’s wearing tight black plants and cowboy boots with high heels. It’s all finished off with a bolo tie with a piece of turquoise the size of my fist. He wears a silver and turquoise bracelet and rings to match.

observations: Two weeks ago, looking at the JK Rowling/Robert Galbraith book The Cuckoo’s Calling, I said I wouldn’t have guessed who wrote it, but I might have thought it was a woman’s book. A Killing at Cotton Hill is less famous, in fact virtually unknown, but it gave me a huge surprise: I assumed that Terry was a man right up until her biographical details popped up at the very end of the book – I wouldn’t have suspected for a moment that the writer was female. The narrator, retired law officer Samuel Craddock, is a totally convincing voice.

The book was recommended/passed on to me by the proprietor of the Col’s Criminal Library blog, and his review here is an excellent summing-up of the book – and one I totally agree with. I loved this book: the Texan geography, the small-town atmosphere, the logical steps in solving the crime, the descriptions of the people and places that the investigator came across along the way – all were perfectly done. I’m delighted that it’s the first of a series, though sorry we’ll have to wait for future entries.

The book is available in the UK via amazon and on Kindle. And there is a really nice Pinterest board showing items of interest from the story, including works of modern art, and answering my question as to what bluebonnets, mentioned several times, are: a kind of lupin, the Texan state flower. And if you think having a state flower is strange and American, then there’s news for you: the bolo is the official neckwear of the state of Texas. Yes really – it sounded like an internet myth, but Clothes in Books is not frightened of doing deep, original fashion research, and we found the details on the Texas State website.

The Wikipedia definition is: 
A bolo tie (sometimes bola tie or shoestring necktie) is a type of necktie consisting of a piece of cord or braided leather with decorative metal tips – aglets (aiguillettes) – secured with an ornamental clasp or slide.
It would be a bootlace tie in the UK.

With big thanks to Col for the book.

The picture was taken by Markus Barlocher and is available on Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Dress Down Sunday: Madensky Square by Eva Ibbotson

published 1998


[Dressmaker Susanna has to make a bridesmaid’s dress for a rather plain young woman]

‘… I’d like to do better for the poor Bluestocking. Always a sheep in the nativity play and that dreadful briefcase full of Beowulf . . .’ For a moment I shut my eyes and tried to shake my mind free of all preconceived notions about Edith Sultzer. I can do that sometimes and get a kind of instant cameo of a person’s essence. It doesn’t last long, but it gives me a clue and I design to that. I had forgotten about the schnapps. What flashed before my closed eyes was a bedroom with a french window leading out on to a verandah which overlooked a wide grey river. Inside the room was a large and tumbled bed and on it a plump Edith Sultzer in black lace underwear bounced up and down.

‘What’s the matter?’ asked Alice.

I stopped giggling and shook my head. ‘Nothing,’ I said, and explained. ‘It’ll just have to be the moss-green crêpe.’

observations: Should be read with this entry, which explains more about the book.

Of course there’s a long way to go with this wedding, nothing will turn out quite as it might. And Edith will – Spoiler – end up with a
grey alpaca dress which might have been worn by that low-spirited English governess, Jane Eyre -
[--the dress we refused to portray Jane Eyre in (this entry), determinedly finding her a much nicer grey outfit.] 

BUT also she 'scribbled down for her the address of the woman who makes lingerie for the girls of the Opera Ballet.’ – so Susanna’s vision may have come true.

Of course as a good dressmaker Susanna is very interested in underwear. Setting off with a friend to buy saucepans, she is distracted by the lingerie department and a French slip in pale blue lace. She makes Edith get a corset – and then she hears from Paris:
that Poiret is freeing women from the corset. All I can say is that if he was designing for the women of Vienna, he would think again.
Clothes in Books had some incredible Poiret coats – no corset needed – in this entry.

The 21st century woman on the bed in the top picture is advertising American Apparel.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes

published 2013

‘She’s very attractive,’ I said.
‘Thank you,’ a voice said icily from behind. ‘People say I get it from my mother.’
I turned, and it was the cop, of course. She put her handbag and cellphone down and turned to the secretary. ‘Go to your desk, please, Hayrunnisa.’ Hayrunnisa didn’t need to be told twice.

The cop was dressed in a headscarf that was tucked into a high-collared jacket that fell to her knees. Underneath it she wore a long-sleeved blouse and wide-legged pants that brushed the top of a pair of high heels. Everything was of good quality – stylish too – but there wasn’t an inch of flesh exposed except for her hands and face. This was the other side of Turkey – conservative, Islamic, deeply suspicious of the West and its values. ‘My name is Leyla Cumali,’ she said.

observations: Very early on, the narrator says ‘Sex today sure isn’t for sissies’, in relation to a gruesome and horrible murder. It stuck in my mind, it got us off to a good start. This book is full of items to be noticed, for different reasons: Caulfield Academy (really, Holden?), a description of real-life war that sounds exactly like a computer game, two secret passages AND a hidden door with ‘a small, ingenious lever’ like the Hardy Boys, a character who thinks she might head for Perugia and the ‘university for foreigners’.

And the best reason ever for that old chestnut, a villain telling his victim and us what’s happening:

he had no interest in explaining to Tlass what he was doing, but he needed the rush of fear and adrenaline to dilate the pupils and engorge the organs with blood.

Sarah at Crimepieces in her review here explains why she thinks it’s best not to try to describe this book. It’s a huge spy thriller – 700+ pages in the print version – full of byways and anecdotes, each with a clue and a surprise and a little resolution, like a string of pretty beads (the one about the mirrors was good – is that really possible?). It was a whole series of steps, in the service of a very strong jeopardy plot.

I liked the way the narrator had no qualms or difficulty in telling us how clever he was and how wonderful everyone else thought him, though he seemed quite dim and callous to this reader.

This is a key sentence in the book - he comes back to it again and again: 

A small voice inside, a child’s voice, kept telling me something I’ve never forgotten: I would have such as to have known her.
- and I have no idea what it means. Is there a word missing? An editing error?

The presence of a child, the absence of a mobile signal, a record shop, how difficult it is to create a new ID – these were items that I felt were either screamingly obvious or problematic. The timings seemed way off – how many years were supposed to have passed between different incidents? 

The pro-American jingoism was a bit much (especially as Hayes is not American) – dead Americans plainly counted for a LOT more than the dead of any other nation – and I wasn’t impressed by the dragged-in claim out of nowhere that there’s no need for unions. 

But still, an enthralling spy thriller, and would certainly read another one by. Thanks for the reco Sarah…

The picture is actually of an Iranian woman. It was taken by Hamed Saber and available on Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, 26 July 2013

The Five Simple Machines by Todd McEwen

published 2013   2nd story: Wheel

Then there were the nights when Federico’s girlfriend’s girlfriend joined them. She was as voluptuous as she was vacuous; her only conversation consisted in saying over and over again that her grand-uncle sat on the Supreme Court. They didn’t seem to have much contact, unless he was making the Justice’s ears burn in Washington as she endlessly babbled about him… this girl, thought Federico, looked like the old-fashioned KILLER BARBIE, before Barbie became a cheerleader and then the perpetual victim of cookie-buying pedophiles: her stripy swimsuit, swept-up hair smelling of Kent cigarettes, her f[]-me-or-go-to-hell eyes, killer legs, killer mules…

Killer Barbie was driving them out of town, to the reservoir, what a fenced-off prosaic place for a picnic. There was nothing but water, in a cage, picnic tables, and an anemic wood full of trash…

Killer Barbie said Let’s try to find a place without all these cigarette butts, so I can smoke…

observations: So there I was recently thinking about Barbie dolls and what an important part of life they have been to many many people, and yet how little they turn up in books. And then up pops this story (definitely not for children), one of six. The book is a mixture of tiresomeness and entrancing writing, and one of the tiresome aspects is that there are SIX simple machines, not five, and this is explained, pointlessly, at the beginning of the fourth story.

I have bowdlerized the version above. And no, no qualms about that – when preparing extracts for the blog, I sometimes excise the colour of a dress, say, if it doesn’t match what is otherwise the perfect illo, so my principles are long gone, and this is a quite stupendously rude story.

This character is referred to as Killer Barbie throughout, which alone would make it lovable, and in fact it is an excellent story, and McEwen is an extraordinary writer – even though I disliked at least one of the other stories very much, and others to varying degrees. I love one of the machines being a wedge and having the heroine wearing wedge shoes: I hate his need to write and write and write about teenage/college boys’ discovery of sex.

But mostly the stories are very funny, and very clever:

Tilly… was on secondment from Variety in London, where it seemed they had little to do. Well, what were they going to write about? Kenneth Branagh?

The end of this one  seems to be deliberately referencing Catcher in the Rye , with a scene set near a merry-go-round, and you feel Todd McEwen would approve of this Catcher in the Rye picture here: 

McEwen is something like a male equivalent of the writing of Miranda July, Lena Dunham, Sheila Heti.

Clothes in Books has considerable form on the question of Barbie dolls: the evidence is here and here. And McEwen has, impressively, got the big but often under-appreciated point about the dolls: originally they were not princesses or dressed in pink ballgowns – they were hard-edged career girls in the Joan Crawford mould, with a wardrobe to match. Not so much anymore, which is a shame.

There are a lot of website devoted to dressed dolls; they start getting scarey, like alternate world scarey, after a bit. More straightforward dolls on the blog here (Les Mis), here (Saki’s wonderful and wicked Morlvera) and here (the Little Princess).

Thursday, 25 July 2013

The Secret Island by Enid Blyton

Published 1938  chapter 13 – The Summer Goes By

No one came to interfere with the children. They lived together on the island, playing, working, eating, drinking, bathing – doing just as they liked, and yet having to do certain duties in order to keep their farmyard going properly.

Sometimes Jack and Mike went off in the boat at night to get something they needed from either Jack’s farm or Aunt Harriet’s. Mike managed to get into his aunt’s house one night and get some of his and the girls’ clothes – two or three dresses for the girls, and a coat and shorts for himself. Clothes were rather a difficulty, for they got dirty and ragged on the island, and as the girls had none to change into, it was difficult to keep their dresses clean and mended

Peggy… was so glad she had been sensible enough to bring her work-basket with her to the secret island. She could stop their clothes from falling to pieces by keeping an eye on them, and stitching them as soon as they were torn.

observations: Talking about Monica Dickens’ book The House at World’s End recently, I mentioned this one – a much simpler affair, but similar in having that holy grail for all right-thinking child readers: their contemporaries living alone in a secret house. (There is also Blyton’s seminal 1940 The Treasure Hunters, where the children find a house in the woods to claim as their own.)

This one is high concept: four children are mistreated by relatives and run away to an island, where they manage to build themselves a house and remain hidden for ages. In a strange nod to Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream (see the fairies here), they know a bank where the wild thyme grows, and sleep there the first night:

Heyho for a starry night and a heathery bed! … they lay on their backs in the sand, looking up at the evening sky, listening to the crackle of the wood, and smelling a mixture of wood-smoke and honeysuckle.

And while we’re raising the tone: the children aren’t actually shipwrecked, but still they brought to mind George Orwell’s comments:

Some desert-island stories, of course, are worse than others, but none is altogether bad when it sticks to the actual concrete details of the struggle to keep alive. A list of the objects in a shipwrecked man's possession is probably the surest winner in fiction, surer even than a trial scene.

And – mutatis mutandis – this is exactly what is still gripping in this book, and was even more gripping when I first read it many many years ago. Peggy-who-sews is also the cook (it’s not a book to challenge stereotypes), and she makes rice pudding, custard and toffee on the campfire, which seems impressive, and (now) completely impossible, but it would be daft to pick at this in a book where the children live for six months in a house they have made out of willow branches.

It is also true that Blyton is the most terrible writer, and that anyone who had disabled this key - ! - on her typewriter would have been doing the world a favour. But I still have a soft spot for The Secret Island, and have always thought it foolish to try to stop children from reading Blyton – she surely encouraged more readers than any other author, in her day.

Jeopardy for children in books has long been a subject close to the heart of Clothes in Bookssee here for the evidence. More children running away in this book.

The top picture shows two children at Green Lake in Seattle, the lower one is from a church camp in Oregon.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Christine Keeler and the Profumo Affair

Nothing But…. by Christine Keeler

Published 1983   chapter 1

I was on my way to stardom. I started rehearsals; I wasn’t to be a dancer yet but a topless showgirl. A few days later I made my debut in silver shoes, a glittery G-string and an enormous head-dress of feathers and sequins, carrying a lantern. I loved it. I loved working there at first, it was fun to work with so many girls, we gossiped and giggled, and at last I felt as if I belonged somewhere. And I learned a lot listening to all the talk from the girls who had been around a lot longer than me.

Nightclubs were expected to provide glamour, literally for ‘the tired businessman’ in those days. Between shows we were invited to sit and talk with the customers… Luckily my stepfather had taught me to speak well…

The Trial of Stephen Ward by Ludovic Kennedy  
published 1964

In her photographs she had seemed quite tall, but in effect, and despite the tarty high-heeled shoes, she was tiny, a real little doll of a girl, and here of course was half the attraction. She walked superbly on long slender legs, her carriage was remarkable; one was struck too by the mass of copper hair that reached to her shoulders and framed within it, the small oval face with the high cheekbones and hint of Red Indian blood…

And then there was her voice, which in itself was enough to kill any romantic notions that anyone might have of her…. It was the voice of any little shopgirl, lacking style and distinction…

observations: Poor Christine Keeler, thinking she spoke so nicely, but not up to Mr Kennedy’s standards. The two main women in the Profumo affair couldn’t have been more different – Mandy Rice-Davies featured in Monday’s entry – and of course it was Keeler who ended up in prison after the case, whereas Rice-Davies floated on the surface and went on to live an eventful life, but one that was surely happier than Keeler’s.

Two earlier entries explain more about the case, and should be read with this one.

Keeler was so beautiful at the time of the trial – so young and so lovely and so unlucky. Not as unlucky as Stephen Ward, who committed suicide rather than face prison for crimes that he plainly was not guilty of – as Kennedy’s book makes plain.

Keeler’s book is of interest only because of who she was, and you don’t feel it adds much to the discussion. Kennedy’s book is clever and witty and insightful, though it is very much of its time: he has an unthinking snobbishness and elitism of his own – while busy identifying similar traits in others – and a line of sexism that presumably was absolutely normal. He is horrified by the overt miscarriage of justice in the case, the Establishment covering up for itself, the travesty of the judicial report. But he also says casually that it was ‘not unusual’ for women to lie in sex cases, and quotes approvingly a judge who says that perjury by women is commonplace. (Men, apparently, never perjure themselves to get at another person. The judge says so.)

Links on the blog: Earlier this year the blog featured Rupert Davenport-Hines’s An English Affair: a new, and very interesting, book on Profumo, looking at the aspects of English life that he felt produced the scandal. Damon Runyon discusses the clothes of New York showgirls in this entry.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Royal Baby: Blue hat at the ready....

Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Published 2012   Part 2  chapter 1   set in 1536

[Thomas Cromwell is observing Anne Boleyn] For now, Anne seems oblivious to the wings that hover over her, to the eye that studies her path as she jinks and swerves. She chatters about her child Elizabeth, holding up on her fingers a tiny cap, a pretty ribboned cap, just come from the embroiderer. Henry looks at her flatly as if to say, why are you showing me this, what is it to me? Anne strokes the scrap of silk. He feels a needle point of pity, an instant of compunction. He studies the fine silk braid that edges the queen’s sleeve. Some woman with the skills of his dead wife made that braid. He is looking very closely at the queen, he feels he knows her as a mother knows her child, or a child its mother. He knows every stitch in her bodice. He notes the rise and fall of her every breath. What is in your heart, madam? That is the last door to be opened.

Now he stands on the threshold and the key is in his hand and he is almost afraid to fit it into the lock. Because what if it doesn’t, what if it doesn’t fit and he has to fumble….?

observations: A Royal baby for obvious reasons today.
The two Cromwell books – Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies – are remarkable for many reasons, but one is that Mantel is equally good on the broad sweep of history, and the details that pass through a person’s head, the little things they notice. Thomas Cromwell is always convincing – of course he notices everything, and he is brilliant, but his past as a merchant and trader produces beautiful details of clothes and trimmings, ideal for Clothes in Books. He is VERY good on hats: from this embroidered baby cap, through the image of a hat with a broken feather (feathers appear in many forms in the books), to the startling hat – never described but see the Clothes in Books version here – worn by the Spanish Ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, at Christmas, and mentioned now and again throughout this book.

Looking at Catherine Zeta Jones in Chicago and since, you’d think she would be the ideal candidate to play Anne Boleyn, she would be inspired casting. 

There’s a sobering Thomas Wyatt’s poem about his feelings for Anne here.

Links on the blog: both books have featured before, here and here, and Tudors and Boleyns were on our mind before, twice.

The picture is of a different Royal Baby – Louis d’Orleans, a 19th century princeling who as a child moved to Twickenham near London, and died in Sydney of TB. But at least he was a boy, which was more than Anne Boleyn could manage. Well done Kate! (Though they say it doesn't matter any more which gender it is...)

Monday, 22 July 2013

Mandy Rice-Davies and the Profumo Affair

Mandy by Mandy Rice-Davies

Published 1980 chapter 17

Stephen Ward’s trial began on 22 July at the Old Bailey… Morris Krevatz made me a grey gabardine dress for the trial, and I wore it with a hat of pale pink petals. One wore something different every day, of course, but that was my most special outfit. I bought it to boost my confidence.

Unholy Joy by John Lawton

published 2013 though written earlier

With her “He would wouldn’t he” she announced a fact that was supposed to break worlds. She had f.ed, and seemed not to care who knew it. Her testimony at the Old Bailey added to this. Christine had been shy and confused, as she had every right to be, Mandy had – or so it seemed at the time – stood tall and spoken up for herself and the ethics of a new generation. The confidence with which she dressed helped this impression. A hat of pink petals and a sleeveless grey gaberdine dress, specially tailored for the occasion, that seemed to combine modesty with a hint of revelation – concession to the time and the place with her own personality.

The Trial of Stephen Ward by Ludovic Kennedy

published 1964 Part 2

Unlike Christine, who photographed better than she looked, Mandy Rice-Davies looked much better than her photographs. She was still only eighteen and had not yet lost, as Christine had, the bloom of youth. It was a hard, cat-like little face but a very pretty one. After two years as Rachman’s mistress she still looked fresh as a milkmaid, and that was quite a feat. Astride her golden head sat a little rose-petalled hat, such as debutantes wear at garden parties. Her shoes, unlike Christine’s, were quite lady-like. Her simple grey sleeveless dress accentuated the impression of modesty – until one looked at it closely. Then one saw that the slit down the front was only held together by a loose knot at the middle. When she walked one could see quite a long way up her leg.

observations: So 50 years ago today, Stephen Ward went on trial: the real victim of the political scandal known as the Profumo Affair. The very readable accounts by Kennedy and Lawton make it clear how badly he was treated and that the charges (of living off immoral earnings) should have been thrown out.

It was a complicated business, too intricate to explain in full: Christine Keeler had had an affair with Minister of War John Profumo, and simultaneously had been seeing an attaché from the Soviet Embassy. Profumo lied about this to the House of Commons, and so was forced to resign. Plenty of rich, famous and well-connected people were hanging round the fringes of the story, which had got underway at Cliveden, home to the Astor family, with some semi-naked frolics at the swimming pool. Hypocrisy and class-consciousness thread through the story like raspberry ripple in ice-cream.

The best line in Kennedy’s book is:

the scribbling [of the judge recording the trial] often could not keep pace with the speaking, and counsel were obliged to interrupt with weird admonishments like: “Not so fast, Miss Barrett, please, my Lord is taking a note”, which sounded like a negro spiritual.

John Lawton wrote, in 1998, a really excellent fictionalized version of the affair, A Little White Death, as part of his Troy series.

Christine Keeler’s autobiography will feature later this week.

Earlier this year the blog featured Rupert Davenport-Hines’s An English Affair: a new, and very interesting, book on Profumo, looking at the aspects of English life that he felt produced the scandal.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Dress Down Sunday: In the Mink by Anne Scott-James

published 1952  chapter 6


[The narrator is Beauty Editor at a fashion magazine]

The corset boys were very different from the hairdressers. They were good solid businessmen, easy to deal with and enthusiastic about their trade…

“Delighted to see you, Miss Gaskell,” [Mr Attenborough] greeted me one morning. “Have a glass of Madeira with me. I’m glad to say you’ll be the first person to see our new brassiere cups.” He pressed a bell. “Miss Simpson, bring me the new Dainty-Cup samples, will you please? Now Miss Gaskell, here we are. Five cup sizes – two more than the usual number – so there’s one for every figure. Egg Cup. Coffee Cup. Tea Cup. Breakfast Cup. Challenge Cup.”

He selected one of the larger cup sizes and held the bra up against his portly chest. “See what I mean?” he said. “But I can show it better on you.” And he transferred the bra from his chest to mine. Lovingly stroking the Dainty Cups into place. “We must find your exact fitting, so you’ll be the very first young lady in England to wear one. I should think you’d be a Coffee Cup.”

“How lovely,” I said enthusiastically. “Perhaps Miss Simpson would show me the fitting-room later on.” I was afraid he was going to insist on fitting me then and there…. “I must plan a special corset feature right away.”

observations: Where to begin with this? First of all, we should quote our lady journalist further: “he had no impure motives, he was just an enthusiast for his new product.” But really! It’s hard to think of a worse idea than calling your bra cups by these names, but fitting them onto a business acquaintance is probably one. Plus telling her she’s Coffee. Interesting that five cup sizes was seen as a lot – nowadays even the most routine bras come in far more sizes than that. 

The book is a lightly-fictionalized version of the author’s life and career – a top journalist in her time, she also had several marriages. In the Mink has featured  before: this Dress Down Sunday entry containing more details of the author's life; this entry has a fabulous photo; and a spot of orientalism here.

Links up with: Joe in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day was another corset manufacturer, and in general corsets feature a lot on Dress Down Sunday – click on the label below for more. Louisa M Alcott was very exercised by the question of corsets, and we illustrated her with a very popular picture of a corset shop. And 135 years later, Laura Moriarty’s book The Chaperone also takes them very seriously.

The picture is an advert for Warners’ underwear (we used another of their ads on the blog here) and can be found at Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

The Town in Bloom by Dodie Smith

1965  Part 2 chapter 10   set in the mid-1920s

[Narrator Mouse is attending a garden party at a village in the country. She is helping with the entertainment, her friends are coming as visitors]

I hoped to see some pretty dresses but most of the gentry wore drab-looking silk, and the villagers wore drab cotton. Not one dress, in my view, qualified as a real garden-party dress. I remembered that Molly, LIlian and Zelle had worried about what they should wear…

A large, chauffeur-driven car pulled up at the garden gate and out got three absolute visions in fluttering printed chiffon. Molly’s was mainly pale green, Lilian’s was pink and mauve, and Zelle’s was beige and white. All their dresses – and their hats – were the apotheosis of garden-party clothes

[Later] I found I looked pretty awful... My grey linen dress with its spotless white collar (“like” a Puritan Maid, according to Aunt Marion) was creased and the collar no longer spotless. I felt in no mood to mingle with the girls in their chiffon glory.

observations: On a sunny summer's weekend, wouldn't we all like to be going to a garden party? All the young women's lives will be changed at this event  – it is a very traditional book in many ways, even though it is also quite weird. The girls have a surprisingly modern attitude to sex, deceit and adultery: most unlike Cassandra in I Capture the Castle. This book is to Castle as The Whicharts is to Ballet Shoes in Noel Streatfeild world – see more about this here.

When it was published, one reviewer said it was ‘a book with no tone whatsoever’, and others criticized it as being out of step with the times. Valerie Groves wrote a biography of the author, Dear Dodie, which makes fascinating reading: it is clear from it just how autobiographical Town is, what an odd life DS led, and that the girls’ attitudes to sex in this book were very much shared by DS, who had a surprisingly racy time in her teens and twenties – only just hanging on to her amateur status, as Dodie Smith rather startlingly said.

Links on the blog: Town in Bloom features here and here, I Capture the Castle here and here. Garden parties of sorts here and here.

Top picture is from the Thomas Lennon collection at the Australian Powerhouse Museum, the lower one from the State Library of Queensland.

Friday, 19 July 2013

The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith 2

published 2013  part 4 chapter 7

[investigator Strike is questioning a supermodel, but she is more interested in his own background]
‘And your mum,’ she said, unfazed, blowing smoke out of the corner of her mouth. ‘I mean, she’s just, like, a legend. You know how Baz Carmichael did a whole collection two seasons back called “Supergroupie”, and it was like, Bebe Buell and your mum were the whole inspiration? Maxi skirts and buttonless shirts and boots?’

‘I didn’t,’ said Strike.

‘Oh, it was, like – you know that great quote about Ossie Clark dresses, how men liked them because they could just, like, open them up really easily and fuck the girls? That’s, like, your mum’s whole era.’ She shook her hair out of her eyes again and gazed at him, not with the chilling and offensive appraisal of Tansy Bestigui, but in what seemed to be frank and open wonder. It was difficult for him to decide whether she was sincere, or performing her own character; her beauty got in the way, like a thick cobweb through which it was difficult to see her clearly.

observations: So first of all – has she made up that quote about Ossie Clark dresses? It’s a great, funny line, but doesn’t seem to appear anywhere else. On the other hand, actress Emma Watson (Hermione Granger) wore vintage Ossie to the premiere of the final Harry Potter movie, and suffered a wardrobe malfunction when bad weather blew the dress open – is the author thinking of that? Or perhaps JKR had a dress of her own – she’s the right age.

Famously, this book is actually by Harry Potter author JK Rowling, and was published under a false name. Maybe it was a publicity stunt, but then she doesn't need the money, and might really want to know how she would do without her name on the front cover. But perhaps her publishers then did the leaking because they wanted to sell more copies…

As we said in a blog entry on the book earlier this week, it’s a really good honest detective story, with some excellent clueing, such as the reason for Lula’s brief meeting with Rochelle. Some characters are brought in and abandoned (the book is dedicated to ‘the real Deeby’ so it’s odd that he doesn’t live on the page) while others, like the fashion designer or the description of a model's beauty above, are extremely well done. The names, as you would expect from the creator of Gilderoy Lockhart, Nymphadora Tonks and Wilhelmina Grubbly-Plank, are wonderful: the hero is Cormoran Strike, just for starters. And Galbraith/Rowling has clever observations:

Robin was laughing in the slightly grudging manner of a woman who is entertained, but who wishes, nevertheless, to make it clear that the goal is well defended.

The book is set at a very specific time – just before the UK election in May 2010 – and is full of computers, mobile phones and phone hacking, but still has an old-fashioned feel. Characters pound the streets of a very real London, visiting beautifully-described pubs; the temp turns up with her A-Z at the tiny office at the top of the stairs, and is soon fiddling with the acro clips – it all sounds like the 1970s in London. Like the dress.

The picture above is of a very real Ossie Clark dress, mine, though I would certainly dissociate myself from the quotation, as would the person wearing it in the photo.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

My Friend Annie by Jane Duncan

Published 1961     chapter 6   set about 1925

The clientele of this place, apparently, was entirely female, and ladies such as I had never seen before, who had a strange uniformity about them. They had faces that were neither young nor old, but all bearing a queer, indescribable resemblance to one another, and there was, too, a uniformity about their style of dress. They all wore the same pattern of coat, with a long, rolled collar of light-coloured fur, into which was pinned an artificial flower. They all had small hats, high-heeled shoes and large handbags. They all had painted faces and they were all smoking cigarettes. Actresses off duty, I wondered. No. That could not be. I myself had just come from the theatre and the players could not yet have had time to change their clothes, while, from the evidence of the used cups in front of them and full ash-trays on the tables, these ladies had been here some time.

observations: In an earlier entry on Jane Duncan I explained that these books were the archetypal novels for a girls’ school library in the 1960s and 70s, so it is all the more surprising that the women in this passage (not, it is only fair to say, in the photo) are prostitutes. It is one of the many surprises about these books – they are virtuous and priggish a lot of the time, then suddenly burst into some crashingly modern bit about sex. The real shock in this one is not the prostitutes, it’s that dreary goody goody heroine Janet lives with a man without marrying him.

The series, although forgotten now, certainly did appeal to people at the time of publication, they were bestsellers, and it is true they make for easy reading – but only if you skim through some of the more cringe-making passages. Writer Jane/Narrator Janet (and yes, you are plainly supposed to confuse them) frequently sinks into an embarrassingly faux-self-deprecating style: silly old me, I always thought that…[insert piece of random alleged common sense, coming to her from crofting childhood surrounded by truly wonderful adults]. You end up rooting for the people Jane/t hates quite often, and boy is she a good hater – she sounds vile, and completely up herself. And yet…nothing is making me re-read them all, but I am working my way through them.

One of her former schoolmates turns out to be a prostitute in this section, but there is never the slightest attempt to understand why that should be, the character is completely flat and really, close to non-existent. That might not matter so much except - she is the eponymous Annie… She does make a completely splendid appearance near the end of the book in white satin and diamonds. I’d have loved to know a lot less of Janet’s thoughts and a lot more of Annie’s.

There have been two previous entries on the blog from this series.

The photo (and again I must stress, perfectly respectable women) is of an American women’s jazz band (very Some Like it Hot) visiting Australia in the 1920s. It was taken by Sam Hood, whose collection at the State Library of New South Wales is a wonder.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith

published 2013

[investigating the dead woman’s movements] “She had an appointment at home with a make-up artist she knew, and her friend Ciara Porter joined her there. You’ll have seen Ciara Porter, she’s a model. Very blonde. They were photographed together as angels, you probably saw it: naked except for handbags and wings. Somé used the picture in his advertising campaign after Lula died….”

Midnight found Strike drinking a can of lager and reading about the posthumous controversy that Bristow had mentioned, of which he had been vaguely aware while it unfolded, without being very interested. A furore had sprung up, a week after the inquest had returned a verdict of suicide, around the advertising shot for the wares of designer Guy Somé. It featured two models ... Both wore huge curving angel’s wings

Strike stared at the picture for minutes, trying to analyse precisely why the dead girl’s face drew the eye so irresistibly, how she managed to dominate the picture…

observations: So the big question is, of course, would you have known it was JK Rowling writing this is you hadn’t been told? I don’t think I would have known for a moment (despite all the classical tags – Classics was Rowlings’ subject, and Latin resonates through the Harry Potter books): but I’m pretty certain I would have thought it a very unlikely book to have been written by a man. About three-quarters of it is written from a male POV, and that seems to be done very well, no complaints – but the bits about women and their interactions and clothes are very real and convincing, too much so for most male writers. If anything, I might have thought it was a male/female double, like Nikki French.

And of course once you know – well, the only other famous writer with the initials JK is the economist JK Galbraith.

And is it good? Yes, it’s excellent – not perfect, but highly enjoyable. It’s very traditional: someone is dead, a member of the family isn’t happy, a private detective is brought in. We happily follow his investigations, which occasionally get bogged down in a bit too much of who was where at exactly what time, and who exactly went into or out of the block of flats. He has a messy personal life, a temporary assistant (who is going to leave the job any minute…. any minute… still there) and a good line in spotting clues. The logistics of the solution are well-worked-out, but defy belief, but that's OK.

The book is set among some very, very rich people, and it is quite entertaining to contemplate that JK Rowling really is that rich, unlike most people who write about that world. She knows whereof she speaks.

There is every sign that this is going to be a series, and that is undoubtedly good news.

There’ll be another entry on the book later. 

Rowling's The Casual Vacancy (which we also liked very much) featured on the blog here and here.

The photograph is by Denise Perry – see her website here.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Deadly Inheritance by Janet Laurence

published 2012   chapter 1 [set in 1903]

The boat train from Liverpool was crowded with passengers newly arrived from America. The trip had been rough. Looking pale, a pretty girl of some seventeen years occupied a corner seat in a First Class carriage. She smoothed her smart, pink linen travelling suit with a careful hand. Her straw boater was set neatly on long, blonde hair. Her eyes were large and pale blue. Opposite, sitting with her back to the engine, was a woman ten or so years older, who showed no sign of having suffered mal de mer. Where the girl was dressed in the height of fashion and displayed all the polish that money could achieve, her travelling companion’s costume was restrained and serviceable. Chestnut hair was drawn back in a plain knot, under a hat that would never catch anyone’s eye. Her gloves were cotton and her boots very ordinary. Her face, though, was rather fine, with classic features and a pair of exceptional grey eyes. She wore an expression of amused tolerance.

observations: So this is an odd thing. Yesterday’s book, published 1907,  was Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Shuttle, the tale of two American sisters, daughters of a millionaire, one of whom marries into the British landed gentry. The other sister comes to visit.

Today’s 2012 book is about two American sisters, daughters of a millionaire, one of whom marries into the British landed gentry. The other sister comes to visit. The theme – the girls bring their money, the men bring a title – occurs elsewhere, in the works of Edith Wharton and Henry James, as well as in identifiable real life. But the similarities in these two books are so marked that I expected to find some reference to them in the more modern one: there is no such in the Kindle version I read, although there is quite a list of acknowledgements to others.

There’s an Earl of Mountstanton in one, and a Lord Mount Dunston in the other. Both have the very specific detail of a young man trying to make his living in New York by selling typewriters. There is a wicked old dowager in each, and a young heir. (Mind you, only FHB would dare call her young boy Ughtred: the modern version is a cheery Harry.) There is dirty work concerning the dowry money and the upkeep of the estate. There are characters called Seldon in one, Selden in the other.

In this case it is not the younger sister (Belle in one book, Betty in the other - Belle and Betty each go off on their own on a horse and get into jeopardy and have to be rescued) who is the saving of the situation, but her companion Ursula, and the book is a reasonably intriguing thriller, with a dead nursemaid and some villainous goings-on to guess. Two mistakes: the vicar wouldn’t have been on the inquest jury in an English village, and you do not use thick knitting needles to make a lacy shawl.

Compare notes with yesterday’s book.

The picture of a woman in a straw boater is from Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, 15 July 2013

The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett

published 1907   chapter 15

[American visitor Bettina Vanderpoel is out walking]

She caught sight of someone, a man in leggings and shabby clothes and with a gun over his shoulder, evidently an under keeper. He was a big, rather rough-looking fellow… [he helps her, she offers him a gold piece as a tip]

"Hang it all," he said, "I can't take this, you know. I suppose I ought to have told you. It would have been less awkward for us both. I am that unfortunate beggar, [Lord] Mount Dunstan, myself…Why shouldn't you take me for a keeper? …You came upon [a fellow] tramping over a nobleman's estate in shabby corduroys and gaiters, with a gun over his shoulder and a scowl on his ugly face. Why should you leap to the conclusion that he is the belted Earl himself? There is no cause for embarrassment."

"I am not embarrassed," said Bettina.

"That is what I like," gruffly.

"I am pleased," in her mellowest velvet voice, "that you like it." Their eyes met with a singular directness of gaze. Between them a spark passed which was not afterwards to be extinguished…

observations: The Shuttle is a terrific melodrama about US heiresses marrying into the British nobility - very
long, with weird incidents interspersed with quite dull descriptions of this and that. It has the distinction, apparently, of being the only book Persephone have felt they had to abridge in one of their attractively-presented reprints. There is probably no harm in shortening it (though they haven’t done it exactly as I would have) though they should be a bit more upfront – it’s hard to tell from my edition that it isn’t the full whack. The full version is available online.

Bettina, a millionaire’s daughter, has come to England to find out what happened to her sister: Rosalie married a titled man some years previously, and has virtually lost touch with her family, who suspect, correctly, that all is not well. Bettina finds a very bad situation when she gets there, and proceeds, slowly, to solve all the problems, and win everyone’s hearts at the same time. But the book isn’t as twee as that makes it sound – some of the melodrama is unbelievable, but other aspects are horribly convincing, and seem to reflect some aspects of FHB’s own life. She paints an awful but very real picture of a sadistic, cunning and manipulative husband. And Betty really is an unusual heroine for her time – FHB is annoyingly adoring of the character she created, but at least she shows a capable, independent, intelligent woman who doesn’t rely on others for help.

Special note for Margot - linguist and proprietor of the Confessions of a Mystery Novelist blog:  there’s quite a discussion of ‘New York slang’ – words and phrases that the Brits are fascinated to hear and haven’t come across before. They’re mostly very familiar now – to butt in, a looker, up against it – but it’s always intriguing to find out when phrases first started appearing.

Tomorrow the blog will feature a modern book with strange similarities to this one.

The photograph is from the National Library of Ireland, the picture is a German lithograph of The English Gamekeeper from Wikimedia Commons: the Lord probably looked like a mixture of the two pictures.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Dress Down Sunday: National Velvet by Enid Bagnold

published 1935  chapter 2


The candle in the scarlet-painted candlestick was burnt low and had a shroud. The bottle-candle was high and gave a good light.

Spring and evening sky showed between undrawn cotton curtains.

Mrs Brown sat on a stout mahogany chair before her dressing-table, and Velvet knelt behind her unhooking her dress from neck to waist at the back. The dress was dark blue rep, built firm. It was like unhooking the strain on a shrunk sofa-covering. Hook after hook Velvet travelled down till at last she reached far below the waist. Then Mrs Brown stood up and the dark blue dress dropped to the floor, leaving her in a princess petticoat like a great cotton lily. The strings of this, untied at neck and waist by Velvet, disclosed her in bust-bodice, stays and dark-blue cloth knickers.

observations: The life described in this book is very strange: the family lives next to a slaughter-house, and they are plainly quite working-class in some ways, though with aspirations. Enid Bagnold herself was not at all working-class – apparently she is Samantha Cameron’s great grandmother – but although this book is completely fantastical and unreal in many ways, the setting is not, and is very convincing – you wonder how Bagnold knew.

It’s not exactly clear what constitutes a ‘princess’ petticoat, and this picture doesn’t help much.(Hello? Ken? Can you help AGAIN?) ***  YES HE DID, see below in the comments *** Her stays consist of a ‘metal fencework’, and one of the tips has worked its way through the material and cut her skin –

’ought to get whalebone,’ said Mrs Brown, sniffing at her own economy.
She should  have had her corset made of coutil, which we learned in this entry stops the bones poking through. 

She then tells her daughter ‘Pray to God y’don’t get fat, child’. Velvet is aghast, but the mother says 

‘You can’t be what you don’t look.’
‘You can, you can! You are!’
 -- Velvet says. But the mother says ‘KEEP thin.’

Of all the gnomic and strange exchanges in the book, this is one of the most interesting. The mother is most unusual in fiction in being extremely loving and supportive, but having very little to say. But she still dominates the book, and is quite the creation.

The image of the shrunk sofa-covering is wonderful.

Links on the blog: The book has appeared before, on Grand National day of course. For more Dress Down Sunday, click on the label below. From a similar era: Miss Pettigrew considering corsets and whalebone.

The pictures are an advert for petticoats and a 1933 entry in the Spirella corset catalogue.