Monday, 30 September 2013

A Treacherous Likeness by Lynn Shepherd

Published 2013  set in London in 1850 chapter 3

[Charles Maddocks is investigating Claire Clairmont]

When Charles turns round the woman before him is a conflagration of all his preconceptions. Shorter and slighter than he is, with smooth olive skin, and glossy black hair that shows no grey, though he guesses she must be – what – fifty? Even fifty-five? But it’s the eyes that draw him in. So drowning dark the iris and pupil melt together, and so brilliantly intense he can only meet her gaze a moment before he wants to look away…

[He moves in to her house as a lodger, under false pretences]

The maid [is] beckoning from the house.

‘Miss Clairmont was wondering if you’d like to join her for luncheon, sir.’…

By the time his hostess comes through the door he is where he should be, behind his chair. Miss Clairmont’s long black hair is down, and she’s wearing a midnight-blue gown that clings to her body and cannot possibly have been either made or bought in England. She comes towards him in a rustle of silk on silk, and he can smell a dark musky scent on her skin.

observations: Claire Clairmont is a fascinating character by any standards, and Lynn Shepherd’s book more than does her justice. The novel takes the known facts about Shelley and his circle, and weaves a dramatic plot, or perhaps theory, around them, adding explanations and possibilities (some of them far-fetched) but sticking closely to the correct chronology. (Shepherd also very clearly explains what is fact and what is speculation in an afterword.)

Clairmont is often portrayed as rather silly and annoying - sex-mad and foolish, chasing after men and declaring her belief in free love: in fact she was intelligent, had had some education, and was eager to learn more, and it is obvious but not facile to ask how her behaviour would have looked if she’d been a man. Shepherd goes some way to redress the balance; though the extraordinary story of Shelley and his wives, their sisters, Byron, the children of them all – well, it would make an unlikely and melodramatic novel in itself, just with the undisputed facts. Clairmont’s own family (her stepfather William Godwin had formerly been married to Mary Wollstonecraft: Mary Shelley was their daughter and thus Clairmont’s stepsister) is quite bizarre enough even if none of them had ever met Shelley.

This book is a prequel to Lynn Shepherd’s Tom-All-Alone’s (blog entry here), and is even better: riveting, atmospheric, thought-provoking. It’s another book that I feel if it had been written by a man would be taken more seriously (see also Marina Endicott and Elizabeth Speller), and seen as a major historical novel, perhaps a Booker Prize candidate.

It is always interesting to contemplate Claire Clairmont - lover of Byron and perhaps Shelley, who were both so very much dead by 1824 - living on until 1878.
The strange thing had been for me to discover… she was still alive: it was as if I had been told Mrs Siddons was, or Queen Caroline, or the famous Lady Hamilton, for it seemed to me that she belonged to a generation as extinct.
That’s from Henry James’s The Aspern Papers, another tale based on her unusual life, and one referenced by Shepherd – the book is full of literary nods.

The picture is a portrait of Claire Clairmont by Amelia Curran.

The book is also known as A Fatal Likeness.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Dress Down Sunday: Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter

Published 1984     Part 1 Chapter 1



[A young reporter is visiting Fevvers’ dressing room]

…A writhing snakes’ nest of silk stockings, green, yellow, pink, scarlet, black… introduced a powerful note of stale feet, final ingredient in the highly personal aroma, ‘essence of Fevvers’, that clogged the room. When she got round to it, she might well bottle the smell, and sell it. She never missed a chance…

Perhaps the stockings had descended in order to make common cause with the other elaborately intimate garments, wormy with ribbons, carious with lace, redolent of use, that she hurled round the room apparently at random during the course of the many dressings and undressings which her profession required. A large pair of frilly drawers, evidently fallen where they had light-heartedly been tossed, draped some object, clock or marble bust or funerary urn, anything was possible since it was obscured completely. 

A redoubtable corset of the kind called an Iron Maiden poked out of the empty coalscuttle like the pink husk of a giant prawn emerging from its den, trailing long laces like several sets of legs. The room, in all, was a mistresspiece of exquisitely feminine squalor, sufficient, in its homely way, to intimidate a young man who had led a less sheltered life than this one.

observations: The glorious Fevvers, the Cockney Venus, is (unsurprisingly) a circus artiste, in the 1890s. And she has wings… So this is a book with a touch of magic realism. She is an over the top character, and lives out wild adventures – she tells her story to the young American reporter, Walser: how she grew wings and ended up as an aerialist. (No doubt she’d be in Cirque du Soleil these days). After interviewing her, Walser tells his boss:

it’s the ambition… of every red-blooded American kid to run away with the circus 
-- so he does, joining Colonel Kearney’s circus as it travels on a Grand Imperial Tour to St Petersburg and then on to Siberia. 

Angela Carter is a wonderful writer. Reading her collected articles and journalism, you can’t doubt how radical and feminist she was, but she was also endlessly entertaining and very funny, an excellent counter-example for those who still (astonishingly) persist with sexist stereotypes about feminist writing.

Iron Maiden seems to be a nickname for a metal-based corset, I haven’t found any references to an actual brand name, though that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist. The description of the corset as a giant prawn is one that sticks in the mind… and will be applied to all pink underwear in future.

Links on the blog: This book gave us an International Women’s Day entry, and another Carter book a Mother’s Day entry. There was a night at the circus here, circus skills here, and a clown’s funeral here.

The two feathered ladies are by  Perry Photography: you can see more of her pictures at Flickr, or at her website weddingsinitalytuscany. The corset picture is an advert from 1890.

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Dandy Gilver and a Deadly Measure of Brimstone by Catriona McPherson

Published 2013   set in 1929  chapter 9 

At the centre and slightly in front, the Great Personage. If I had seen him in the street I should have taken him for an actor or perhaps a theatrical impresario, and if anyone had suggested a spirit medium could achieve such grandeur and such a look of prosperity I should have wondered what the world was coming to. He wore a homburg hat as glossy as an otter and an astrakhan coat which reached to his ankles with lapels like those of Beau Brummell. His cane was ebony and had a silver knob of some complicated design, and his tie was yellow satin. As he paced along he surveyed the terrace, the grounds and the sitting guests like a Persian king come among his subjects and greatly pleased by them. It was impossible not to watch, and almost impossible not to giggle. 

‘What have you—’ I waited as the procession passed by. ‘What have you managed to find out about him?’

‘Nothing except his name,’ whispered Alec. ‘I insinuated myself into a group of them at breakfast and asked it. But I rather got the impression they thought if I didn’t know I wasn’t worth telling.’

‘And?’ I whispered back. ‘What is his name?’

‘Loveday Merrick.’

See earlier entry for more details.

Dandy Gilver is my favourite historical sleuth, and her books are among those I buy full-price, the moment they come out.
In this one, the mysterious relationship between Dandy Gilver, her husband and her business partner Alec is as intriguing as ever. 

For long-time fans: Dandy’s lady’s maid Grant gets a starring role, with some unsuspected talents. There is a great moment when she and Dandy are swapping slips of paper – emergency room numbers in case of danger for the maid, and the list of what Dandy should be wearing handed over in return.

And then, in the perfect exchange from these books, they have to invent a codeword in case of trouble during a seance:

‘Resurrection,’ I said.

‘A word that wouldn’t happen to come up any other way,’ Alec said patiently.

‘Oh. Yes, I see. Mohair.’

‘Perfect,’ said Alec. ‘If you feel frightened, Grant, or just want to stop, say “mohair”, loud and clear, and we’ll swoop in and get you.’

‘Thank you,’ Grant said. ‘That’s a great comfort, sir. Can we make it cashmere, please?’

You would have to know the situation and the characters, but that had me ROFL, honestly.

I can’t recommend these books too highly – this is the 8th of the series - but as if that weren’t enough, Catriona McP writes other books on the side - 2 under the name Catriona McCloud, and another just out with a most un-Dandy-like setting in the north of England. I don’t know how she does it, but I can only hope the Dandy books will go on forever.

The two chaps in the pictures, both Great Personages, are singer Enrico Caruso and newspaper magnate (and Citizen Kane original) W Randolph Hearst – both photos are from the Library of Congress.

Friday, 27 September 2013

The Damned Utd by David Peace

Published 2006  set in 1974     Day 27 & Day 21  (contains strong language…)

‘What do you think of this then, Sydney?’ I ask him.

‘Of what?’

‘Of this?’ I ask him again, pointing at this old Leeds United goalkeeping jersey.

‘I think if the team have to wear suits when they travel, so should their manager.’


In my modern luxury hotel room, in my modern luxury hotel toilet –

Because I never learn; never bloody learn; never did and never fucking will; why I failed my eleven-plus and haven’t got a certificate to my name, not a bloody one; why I scored 251 goals in 274 games but won only two England caps and not any fucking more – Why I won the Second Division and the league titles; why I reached the semi-finals of the European Cup and why one day very soon I’ll win the bloody cup itself – Because I never learn; never bloody learn. Never did and never fucking will – Because I’m Brian bloody Clough. Face fucking down on the floor tonight – The future bloody manager of England, face fucking down on the floor.

observations: As has been pointed out, Clothes in Books doesn’t do sport much. But after dipping a toe into the water last month with David Peace’s Red or Dead, a very long book about Liverpool FC’s Bill Shankly, I was impressed enough to try this, an earlier novel by the same author about a different football manager, the infamous Brian Clough. Mostly because it surely has the best book title ever.

The Damned Utd is a lot shorter than Red or Dead, and not quite so repetitive (as one reviewer pointed out, it’s not as though Peace doesn’t know he is being repetitive: but on the other hand, it seems fair to warn readers). The football was a lot less interesting in this one, and the double time scheme was confusing (though I suspect that’s personal, and cause and effect). But it is a horribly, rivetingly real picture of a man fighting his inner demons, and his alcoholism: totally persuasive, it convinces you that this must be what it is really like.

The word ‘impossible’ is completely inadequate for Clough – the book shows clearly how hard he must have been to live and work with, his terrible destructive streak that made him act badly and alienate everyone around him. And yet Peace does something extraordinary: through all the horrible scenes he makes Clough seem like a sympathetic person, so you want him to succeed, so you want him to stop making such a mess of everything - he doesn’t disgust the reader.

Peace’s style is unique, and may not be to everyone’s taste, but he certainly has one of the best voices writing in English today. (The strong language in the extract above is typical). Of course a book like this, described as a novel, is always going to require the questions ‘Is it true? Is it fair? If it’s not true, is that outrageous?’

Red or Dead is here. Nick Hornby is the other great football writer of recent years. Sportswriting is a different kind of job in the USA – as we pointed out in this blog entry on Richard Ford. Another real life being turned into fiction here.

The picture of Brian Clough is from the Dutch National Archives.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Guest blogger: Veronica Horwell & the catwalk in Dickens

Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens

1838/39 chapter 18

Doing a recent Guardian books podcast, I was lucky enough to meet Veronica Horwell, cultural commentator extraordinaire. One of the topics of the podcast was the early days of the catwalk, and Veronica told me she reckoned she’d found perhaps the earliest mention of such modelling, in Dickens. So naturally I signed her up immediately to do a guest blog:

Veronica Horwell writes: Charles Dickens researched Nicholas Nickleby in 1837-8, and he balanced his Dotheboys Hall account of the contemporary "care home scandal" of the Yorkshire schools, where mentally ill, handicapped and unwanted sons of the middle and upper classes were sent, with a description of the servitude of respectable young women who were being sweated as skilled seamstresses in the top end of the London garment trade. Ralph Nickleby, uncle to Nicholas and his sister Kate, is an upmarket loan shark, banker and stockbroker, and one of his debtors is the firm of Mantalini, milliners and dressmakers, so very smart that it doesn't have a shop, but instead two spacious drawing rooms, used as showrooms, on the first floor of a big house in Cavendish Square, behind Oxford Street (just then becoming a fashionable shopping district). Madame Mantalini -- notwithstanding the phoney name, she's English -- produces dresses, bonnets and the fussy textile accessories of the decade, and though chic clothes were then created and fitted to order, she seems to have had model or sample garments made up already so customers could judge the finished effect -- Dickens writes that she has elegant bonnets and "some costly garments in the most approved taste" in the showroom windows: also there are dresses already made up on stands, others laid over sofas, or flat out on the carpets, or hanging from full-length mirrors. There is also a wide selection of luxury fabrics.

Madame Mantalini offers Kate a job, sewing, making alterations etc, six days a week, 12 hours a day, around the working back side of the premises: in the busy court and social season she may be ordered to labour in a stuffy, skylit room round the clock for days for a little overtime pay. As Kate is new and not much use yet to the skilled workroom, and is also very pretty, Madame Mantalini suggests to her workroom overseer and chief saleswoman, Miss Knag, that "for the present … it will be better for Miss Nickleby to come into the showroom with you, and try things on for people." That last phrase is significant -- it implies two meanings: that Miss Knag, besides "tying a string or a fastening hook and eye" to dress customers in hats and accessories (bespoke, couture dresses had to be cut and fitted exactly to their intended wearers, and that would have been done in privacy and likely in their own homes, not in a public showroom), actually wore the sample garments-- modelled them. Miss Knag has worked for Madame Mantalini for 15 years, is mutton dressed as excessively fussy lamb, has the only sound business head on the premises (when the Mantalinis go bankrupt, she takes over the business), and is unjustifiably vain of her appearance: she considers herself an ornament of the establishment. After just a few days of Kate being quietly helpful and possibly modelling in the showroom, it all ends in disaster when Miss Knag shows a couple of ordered wedding bonnets to the tarty little bride-to-be of an aged, frisky lord, and her sister. The girl objects:

'Madame Mantalini,' said the young lady.

'Ma'am,' said Madame Mantalini.

'Pray have up that pretty young creature we saw yesterday.'

'Oh yes, do,' said the sister.

'Of all things in the world, Madame Mantalini,' said the lord's intended, throwing herself languidly on a sofa, 'I hate being waited upon by frights or elderly persons. Let me always see that young creature, I beg, whenever I come.'

'By all means,' said the old lord; 'the lovely young creature, by all means.'

'Everybody is talking about her,' said the young lady, in the same careless manner; 'and my lord, being a great admirer of beauty, must positively see her.'

'She IS universally admired,' replied Madame Mantalini. 'Miss Knag, send up Miss Nickleby. You needn't return.'

'I beg your pardon, Madame Mantalini, what did you say last?' asked Miss Knag, trembling.

'You needn't return,' repeated the superior, sharply. Miss Knag vanished without another word, and in all reasonable time was replaced by Kate, who took off the new bonnets and put on the old ones: blushing very much to find that the old lord and the two young ladies were staring her out of countenance all the time.

The pictures are: the original Hablot Browne illustration of Madame Mantalini’s shop, and Kate Nickleby from a 1912 edition of the book.

Nicholas Nickleby featured on the blog before, with a young lady who was richer, but clearly less refined, than Kate.

With thanks, of course, to Veronica Horwell.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Laughing Torso by Nina Hamnett (& a misunderstanding)

published 1932  chapter 7

Constance and I sat in front of the fire and talked and got on very well indeed. I had known a cousin of hers who had been killed. She was a most charming and interesting woman and my dreary existence was cheered up by her company. As Edgar neglected me a good deal I spent most of my time with her. She had a marvellous figure and danced with not much more on than a tiger skin before the War, and even then this was considered most shocking, and when she appeared at the Palace Theatre there was a terrible disturbance.

I painted a portrait of Constance. [When it was exhibited] all kinds of grand people… flocked to my portrait, expecting to see an almost nude woman. They were bitterly disappointed, and Constance and I laughed.

observations: Another visit to a favourite book of recent weeks. 

Hamnett painted her friend wearing Arab robes to surprise the public. Constance sounds lovely – she features quite a lot more, partying in Chelsea and enjoying herself with Nina, a bit of a good-time girl. But actually she was Lady Constance Stewart Richardson (Hamnett says Stuart, but Stewart seems to be correct), the daughter of a Scottish Earl, and it seems – and the photo suggests - that her dancing was more serious than Nina implies, more Isadora Duncan than pole-dancer.

Meanwhile. Nearly a dire mistake – when I first read that description of Constance I thought ‘there’s an image just like that’ and dug it out from the Library of Congress (a source of great photos). And although it was leopard skin rather than tiger, it seemed the perfect picture:

But then a bit more research revealed that it was a Greek dancer called Iolaus, and that he was a man. One of my erudite regular readers would surely have caught me out. It is more obvious in this picture of him:

--- and there is a review in the New York Times (Feb 1913) saying
Iolaus, a well-formed youth as could easily be seen, was well-liked in a series of dances.
I’ll bet. He appeared with Violet Romer ‘an American actress, dancer and flapper.’

The top photo is Lady Constance, and is here at the Library of Congress: Iolaus here and here.

To find more Nina Hamnett, click on the label below.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Literary sex scenes

Today’s blog entry is about literary sex scenes - which writers of former times would have liked to put more sex in their books? – and appears on the Guardian books blog here.

‘No writer of fiction among us has been permitted to depict to his utmost power a MAN’ – this is WM Thackeray introducing his book Pendennis and, perhaps surprisingly, it is very clear that he means something very specific: he was upset that ‘society will not tolerate’ a truthful depiction of a young man’s sexlife. He made the complaint several times: that he was constrained by convention from being honest about what he saw as a huge and vitally important part of life. It seems clear that if he had had the chance he would have included sex scenes in his book - rueful, good-natured, non-judgemental ones, surely.

So, his fellow-writers (in the Victorian era and up to more open modern times) – did they share his wish for more honesty? It’s a complete guessing game, as respectable writers didn’t even write about the constraints, let alone try to breach them, but let’s do some guessing. Who was bothered by the conventions, who would exercise their freedom if they were writing now?

Click here to read on…

Most of the authors mentioned in the piece have entries on the blog: including Evelyn Waugh with Helena, Charlotte Bronte & Jane Eyre, Virginia Woolf – here and hereThomas Hardy, John Dickson Carr and Daphne Du Maurier.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Robert Barnard RIP

Death of an Old Goat by Robert Barnard

published 1977   chapter 4

[The book is set in a remote Australian university town: Alice is a guest at a party given by the Wickhams for a visiting academic]

At this moment Lucy Wickham caught out of the corner of her eye the figure of Alice O’Brien, heading for the drinks corner, and maliciously decided to frustrate her. ‘Alice’ she said, gazing at her loud scarlet and orange frock of unfashionable length, and her peeling face with the too blatant make-up.

 ‘So glad you could come. How nice you look tonight. But then you always look so nice, of course.’

Alice gritted her teeth and wondered whether to hand Lucy the empty glass and demand a refill. No. Perhaps later. Or perhaps when she became permanent.

‘Beaut party,’ she said chattily in her broadest Australian voice. She knew that Lucy would not be able to sustain conversation long in that style. ‘Nice home you’ve got, too.’

Lucy was struck dumb by the directness of the hint: Miss O’Brien had been on the staff two years, and this was the first time she had been invited to the Wickhams’. Conscious that she was not at her best with animals that would defend themselves, she retreated.

observations: Robert Barnard, a well-known and highly-respected figure in the world of crime fiction, died a few days ago at the age of 76. He wrote a large number of popular crime novels, and this was one of the first (the chronology is vague - in some sources this one is dated to 1974, but the copyright page gives 1977). It is a hilarious academic mystery, with sustained satirical passages that make you surprised it isn’t better known – Barnard mentions Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (on the blog here and here), and this book is at that level, while Alice, above, is a nicer version of Jim's Margaret. 

Some of the humour is broad and not at all politically correct: characters are shown as snobbish, misogynist and elitist, and quite horrendously racist – but you couldn’t doubt that it is intended as fierce satire. You also couldn’t doubt that Barnard worked in academia: his vicious descriptions of academic infighting, the canap├ęs at the party above, and the contents of an English lecturer’s bookshelves, all suggest straight transcriptions from life. You would guess he had a great time writing it, with its Macbeth moments, with the studies of ‘the poetry of George Eliot and the plays of Dickens’ and, above all, with the visiting academic who clearly remembers meeting Jane Austen (“charming woman… most witty”) before she died, although she was very ill.

It is a short, very clever book: in the last page or two you wonder how he can end it: and then the final sentence rounds it off with sudden brilliance.

As if Old Goat  and the other novels weren’t enough, Robert Barnard also wrote one of the very best studies of Agatha Christie’s work: the 1980 A Talent to Deceive, a book that any true Christie fan can return to again and again – it is clever, funny and perceptive, and it is unlikely ever to be bettered.

The party-ready, on-trend women in orange and scarlet are from fashion magazines of 1977.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Dress Down Sunday: My Friend Madame Zora by Jane Duncan

Published 1963  set in 1951


[Janet has gone to a dress design showroom with her friend]

Monica said: ‘Go in there Janet, and take your suit off’ and a slinky woman led me away into a fitting-room… [She] measured various bits of me and went away, leaving me standing in my underwear. I lit a cigarette, sat down on another little sofa and waited. I finished the cigarette, put it out and waited. When I was half way through a second cigarette, I decided that Monica had… forgotten me.

[But Monica is looking at a dress:] .. a brilliant scarlet dress made of folds and folds of chiffon, but which was mostly ankle-length skirt, the top part consisting of only a minimum in the front…

A minute or two later, feeling a fool, I walked out of the fitting-room in the scarlet dress, with nothing on under it but my shoes.

‘I feel like the woman in Gone with the Wind,’ I said, ‘only I feel really gone with it.’

observations: In fact the scarlet dress isn’t the perfect-makeover-Cinderella dress, unexpectedly: it’s the dress that’s so wrong it shows the fancy designer what Janet should be wearing – dull, deep blue silk and some taffeta.

Read earlier entry to get a line on the series of books and an earlier appearance by My Friend Monica.

Noticeable that everyone smokes and drinks all the time – boy do they drink, the whisky flows like water – friend Monica, above, is pregnant and has ‘only three’ glasses in the pub at one point, and lights up without a moment’s qualm. And why would she have a qualm in 1951, when the book is set...

Following on from this scene, Janet’s solid engineer husband, the annoyingly-named Twice, says something surprising and perceptive about clothes, when Janet is worried about the new-dress-project.
We all admire elegance in car body design, for instance, or in domestic architecture or table-ware. All these crafts can be raised to border on the arts and we all accept that admire the master craftsmen who make the things. Why should we feel differently about clothes – especially women’s clothes?
The book is very down on Madame Zora for her fortune-telling, but has it both ways by giving hints of Highland second sight, psychic feelings and timeslip thoughts. But then endearingly – late on at the dramatic climax of the plot on a stormy night – Twice says "This place is like a scene from Wuthering Heights tonight." 

This climax has no surprises exactly, but the exact form the resolution of the various plot strands take would have been quite hard to predict.

For more Dress Down Sunday, click on the label below.

The top picture comes from the Clover Vintage Tumblr.

Strapless dress is a sketch for a Balmain model.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

The Sirens Sang of Murder by Sarah Caudwell

published 1989

It was a long room, furnished in devoted imitation of the Belle Epoque with crimson velvet and gilt-framed looking glasses. There were when I entered only three people in it, but if there had been thirty I daresay the woman sitting curled up on the sofa would still have been the first to attract my notice. Dressed in grey-green chiffon interwoven with silver, with some ornament also of silver shining in her auburn hair, she looked like a nymph in Ovid’s Metamorphoses in the process of transformation into a fountain, and there was about her movements a corresponding fluidity and charm which would have seduced the eye from women with better claims to be thought beautiful. She was holding a glass of champagne, and the pleasant sound of her laughter reached me as I entered.

observations: Sarah Caudwell wrote only a handful of detective novels, but they are among the very best. This was the third, and there is the expected complex reporting procedure – though the young barristers at New Square (it is 1989) have discovered telex machines. As is usual, some of the group are hanging around on home territory (the Corkscrew winebar and Guido’s restaurant) receiving information in various formats and in different time schemes. This time Cantrip has been lured to the Channel Islands with various beautiful women, and will end up on Sark and Little Sark. Complex financial dealings regarding tax avoidance, and the strange nature of trusts, will be explained just enough. Julia will be arrested on a beach at dawn in evening dress (with exuberant d├ęcolletage).

All the books have enormous joie de vivre, and a winning combination of old-fashioned clueing and plotting, and modern attitudes and young people. The lovely Julia becomes irate at one point because a pen has been dropped at the scene of the murder:
She had never read of such a thing – or at any rate not in any piece of respectable crime fiction published since the beginning of the Second World War…. If we must have a clue of a physical nature… then let it at least be one invisible to the naked eye and identifiable only by the most sophisticated techniques of modern pathology.
--- but one of Caudwell’s secrets is that she uses both, in the cleverest of ways.

Links on the blog: Another Caudwell book. A pale green and silver evening dress is worn by this former Princess.

The picture is John Singer Sargent's La Carmencita.

Friday, 20 September 2013

The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett

published 1907  chapter 6

[The study] was luxuriously comfortable, and its effect was sober and rich and fine. When Bettina came in, Vanderpoel, looking up to smile at her in welcome, was struck by the fact that as a background to an entering figure of tall, splendid girlhood in a ball dress, it was admirable, throwing up all its whiteness and grace and sweep of line…

She smiled back at him, and, coming forward took her place in a big armchair close to him, her lace-frilled cloak slipping from her shoulders with a soft rustling sound which seemed to convey her intention to stay. 

[They discuss what they should do about her sister Rosalie]

Bettina picked up her fallen cloak and laid it over her arm. It was made of billowy frills of Malines lace, such as only Vanderpoels could buy. She looked down at the amazing thing and touched up the frills with her fingers as she whimsically smiled. "There are a good many girls who can be trusted to do things in these days," she said. "Women have found out so much. Perhaps it is because the heroines of novels have informed them. Heroines and heroes always bring in the new fashions in character. I believe it is years since a heroine 'burst into a flood of tears.' It has been discovered, really, that nothing is to be gained by it. Whatsoever I find at Stornham Court, I shall neither weep nor be helpless…”

observations: We keep returning to The Shuttle: although it is no mean undertaking to read all of this very long novel, it throws up all kinds of unexpected side issues. As we pointed out before, Bettina is a remarkably capable, independent heroine – she would be unusually so in a novel written a lot more recently than 1907. She doesn’t weep, and she is not helpless. And she has some surprising thoughts: she is (of course) very kind and generous, but while being Lady Bountiful among the villagers, she considers for a moment an old man, for whom she is kindly buying a pipe:

A man has one life, and his has passed like that. It is done now, and all the years and work have left nothing in his old hands but his pipe. That's all…Who am I that I can buy him a new one, and keep it filled for him until the end? How did it happen?
She consciously decides not to think too hard about it, but I’m impressed she thought it at all.

And there is another passage worth quoting at length. The evil Sir Nigel married Rosalie and made her life a misery while trying to get his hands on her money. Bettina makes him face up to a rather unlikely thought:

“Don't you know….that if you had been kind to her, and had made her happy, you could have had anything you wished for—without trouble?" This was one of the unadorned facts which are like bullets. Disgustedly, he found himself veering towards an outlook which forced him to admit that there was probably truth in what she said…

She went on: "She would have wanted only what you wanted, and she would not have asked much in return. She would not have asked as much as I should. What you did was not businesslike." She paused a moment to give thought to it. "You paid too high a price for the luxury of indulging the inherited temperament. Your luxury was not to control it. But it was a bad investment."

"The figure of speech is rather commercial," [he says] coldly.

"It is curious that most things are, as a rule.”

This is a fascinating and impressive dose of realism (and capitalism) amid the melodrama.

This book featured before here and here, as have other books by Frances Hodgson Burnett - click on the label below.

The dress is a fashion illustration of a Paquin dress, from Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Clothes in Books: Ayelet Waldman


The Clothes in Books blog is  featured in the Guardian books podcast this week, and is described by the books editor there as 'a delight'. The discussion covers fashion/lit issues, including Bret Easton Ellis, Waugh, Dickens and Mitford. 

The blog entries discussed in the podcast include those for Don’t Look Now, David Copperfield, Brideshead Revisited, Romance & Love in a Cold Climate, Cold Comfort Farm, and Rules of Civility.

Death Gets a Time-Out by  Ayelet Waldman

published 2003

[Investigator/narrator Juliet is visiting Mexico]
Just then we arrived at the central market. I paid the driver and we picked our way past the outspread blankets of vendors… we wandered deep into the market, past stall after stall of knock-off jeans and T-shirts. Tucked in between these stalls we found one that was unlike its neighbours. .. Racks of pastel dresses dripping in tulle, beading and sequins were carefully arrayed in cabinets behind glass doors…. I fingered the white gown that hung on a headless mannequin in a corner of the store….

[The shop owner] unlocked one of the glass cases and pulled out four little piles of tulle and lace. One, in a white so creamy it looked almost peach-coloured, had a bodice of pearls and little puffs for sleeves. It screamed [6 year old daughter] Ruby Wyeth at the top of its lungs.

“This one,” I said.

observations: Ayelet Waldman is married to Michael Chabon and famously said she loved her husband more than her children (it would be facile indeed to say – well, Michael Chabon? Who wouldn’t be taken with him?). Apparently not true of the heroine of this book, lawyer investigator Juliet Applebaum, who is shown as a harassed but happy and very loving mother, trying to do her best by children, husband and clients, and realistically rushing from one thing to another. Curiously Juliet’s husband Peter is one of the least convincing characters – he has not really fleshed out over this series of books, while many minor figures are much more real. The books, a bit wince-making, are called Mommy Track Mysteries.

But it’s an enjoyable detective story – set in LA with an intriguing combination of movie stars, a cult Scientology-style religion, and the leftover days of hippie communes and free love, along with the trip to Mexico – which does involve serious detection as well as shopping for the children.

Minor complaints dept: When crime story writers put acknowledgements at the beginnings of books, you do think they should be careful – there’s a mention of an area of research which flags up a plot development fairly blatantly.

Passage of time dept: the investigator goes to visit a witness, who turns out to know a lot about her, her screenwriter husband and her great friend, an actress, and about the connections between them. Juliet sees this as rather sinister, a bit worrying, how on earth does he know all this? The book was only published in 2003, but nowadays that level of knowledge would take 3 clicks on Google and IMDB, and is certainly no more than – say – if your brother or friend met someone interesting, or was going on a date, well, you would certainly have checked them out that far. (Or is that only me?)

Minor mistakes dept: The dresses above are described in the book as confirmation dresses. I would respectfully suggest that this is wrong: they are dresses in which little Catholic girls make their First Holy Communion at around the age of 7. (Juliet is Jewish so there is no reason why she should know that.)

The photographer agrees with me: this lovely image from the market at San Miguel in Mexico is described as First Communion Dresses. It was taken by Diane Tanner, and can be seen on theworldisround website. The site is well worth a look, and Ms Tanner has some fabulous photos from travels all over the world.

Links on the blog: Ayelet Waldman’s (non-genre) novel Daughter’s Keeper featured here, while Michael Chabon’s Mysteries of Pittsburgh is here. Books set in Mexico include Barbara Kingsolver’s Lacuna, and Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Clothes in Books: Angus Wilson

The Clothes in Books blog is  featured in the Guardian books podcast this week, and is described by the books editor there as 'a delight'. The discussion covers fashion/lit issues, including Bret Easton Ellis, Waugh, Dickens and Mitford. 

The blog entries discussed in the podcast include those for Don’t Look Now, David Copperfield, Brideshead Revisited, Romance & Love in a Cold Climate, Cold Comfort Farm, and Rules of Civility.

Learning's Little Tribute
by Angus Wilson

short story from the collection Such Darling Dodos

published 1950

As soon as the clergyman had murmured his last words over the coffin, Miss Wells was scuttling with almost unseemly haste down the yew-lined avenue toward the cemetery gates. It was one of her misfortunes that, though well equipped with the proper rules of conduct in life, she too often spoiled their effect in her anxiety to show her knowledge of them. It was right, of course, to leave the relatives to their private grief, but not perhaps at the double…

Miss Wells was above everything delicate. In part also she was genuinely moved to tears… The little bows and ribbons with which she was decorated shook and trembled, the lucky charm bracelets and semi-precious necklaces jangled as she searched among the debris of memo notes, lipstick ends and loose powder for her lace-bordered handkerchief.

observations: Angus Wilson: so very highly thought of in his day, and so very much forgotten now. DJ Taylor did his best in this recent Guardian article to offer a retrospective, and did inspire me to re-read these short stories. They divided neatly into two halves: some of them were too drearily miserable – full of horrible domestic and psychological prisons, stiflingly unpleasant, with people quietly hating each other and driving each other mad. But others, like this one, were hilarious and very enjoyable. This one is symbolic, because there is a funny picture of academic bitching and politicking (Wilson’s Mastermind subject), but then a breath of fresh air bursts in as the widow from the funeral above walks in and coolly takes them down, dismissing their patronizing views and offers of help with the children: ‘what with Vera always winning scholarships and Ronnie never winning them, we’ve spent a fortune on their education.’

Miss Wells is a keen observer of all this: and as she is ‘inclined to rich living [she] ordered a second Ovaltine.’

There are very clever lines in all the stories: Thea in Christmas Day in the Workhouse ‘had worked up a special vulgar manner’ in her job in a wartime office, and when things go wrong ‘there she was left with it on her hands.’ In one called Totentanz, it would seem to be Cambridge where ‘the dons and their wives formed a phalanx against spontaneous gaiety that would have satisfied John Knox himself.’ That one takes a quite spooky turn, and also features a rather good fancy dress party – always a Clothes in Books favourite. There are others where mental illness competes with supernatural possibilities, but not to any very admirable effect. I can’t see much chance of a Wilson revival any time soon (for a start, the name is too much like AN Wilson’s) but might take a chance on reading one of those dusty long-lost novels.

The picture is of opera singer Geraldine Farrar, in costume - she had a blog entry to herself earlier this year. This picture of modern dance pioneer Ruth St Denis would have done nicely: 

-- if we hadn't already used it up on this entry, where she is described as having 'an appearance like a composed salad'.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Clothes in Books: Monica Dickens

The Clothes in Books blog is featured in the Guardian books podcast this week, and is described by the books editor there as 'a delight'. The discussion covers fashion/lit issues, including Bret Easton Ellis, Waugh, Dickens and Mitford. 

The blog entries discussed in the podcast include those for Don’t Look Now, David Copperfield, Brideshead Revisited, Romance & Love in a Cold Climate, Cold Comfort Farm, and Rules of Civility.

The Happy Prisoner by Monica Dickens

published 1946 

She stood now …. in the dark red silk dress and matching coat. Perhaps because she had not dressed herself, she had the air of not being inside her clothes. They hung from her square shoulders as if they were secured only by tabs, like a paper doll’s one-dimensional wardrobe. They had buckled her belt tightly into her waist, to lessen her appearance of being the same shape all the way down, but she had loosened it surreptitiously on the way downstairs and had pushed it towards her hips, so that she looked longer-bodied than ever. She wore silk stockings on her muscular legs, and boat-shaped court shoes, low-heeled, because of Fred, in which she complained that she could not walk. A spray of gardenias was pinned to her coat and she carried a posy of the same flowers, clutching them doggedly before her like an orphan presenting a bouquet to a visiting mayoress. The other hand hung uselessly, encased in a black kid glove, which, like the rest of her clothes, did not seem to be on her, but to be a separate entity, like a false hand.

observations: I’m still pushing my way through a selection of works by Monica Dickens – goodness she wrote a lot – and there is plenty to interest the dedicated reader. She will never be my favourite writer, and occasionally it astonishes me that she ever got published - this one is typical in being a touch tiresome in places, but fun as a period piece.

Tomboy-ish Violet, daughter of the family at the centre of the book, is marrying Fred, who is just a tenant farmer and so very low-rent. (The key family are dreadful snobs, though they pretend not to be.) However as she is ugly, dresses badly (she once had a perm but it made her look like Douglas Byng) and likes being outside all the time, the family agrees to the match to get her off their hands. You have to admire Dickens in one way – she can’t even let Violet look nice on her wedding day. I feel most writers would have allowed love to give her some shine. There was still rationing in 1946, and Violet:
spent all her coupons on a new riding-coat and a pair of boots [and wanted to go] to the church on horseback and [come] out under an archway of riding-crops and hoes.
In a touch that made me think of Nessa from Gavin and Stacey, her brother Oliver complains: ‘she’s fused my electric razor, doing the hairs at the back of her neck.’ 

Oliver is bed-ridden because of war injuries, with a usefully vague diagnosis – we are building up quite a repertoire of them on Clothes in Books – and all the other characters revolve round him as he lies in bed, watches them, tries to solve their problems, and wonders about his lovely nurse Elizabeth. His omniscience can sometimes be surprising:
His mother was wearing her second-best corsets, Oliver noticed. She really should have worn her best under that grey jersey suit.
Links on the blog: Oliver’s sister Heather gets a blue embroidered evening coat in the book, reminiscent of this one from a previous entry: 

-- and also wears a silk escape map wrapped round her hair at one point, a true period detail. The horse show all sounds very Brat Farrar. To read more entries about Monica Dickens, click on the label below.

The top photo, of a wedding in the 1940s, came from the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Clothes in Books: Louis MacNeice

The Clothes in Books blog is  featured in the Guardian books podcast this week, and is described by the books editor there as 'a delight'. The discussion covers fashion/lit issues, including Bret Easton Ellis, Waugh, Dickens and Mitford. 

The blog entries discussed in the podcast include those for Don’t Look Now, David Copperfield, Brideshead Revisited, Romance & Love in a Cold Climate, Cold Comfort Farm, and Rules of Civility.

Poem: Les Sylphides by Louis MacNeice

collected 1940

Life in a day: he took his girl to the ballet;
Being shortsighted himself could hardly see it--
The white skirts in the grey
and the swell of the music
Lifting the white sails.

Calyx upon calyx, canterbury bells in the breeze
The flowers on the left mirror to the flowers on the right
And the naked arms above
The powdered faces moving
Like seaweed in a pool.

Now, he thought, we are floating - ageless, oarless-
Now there is no separation, from now on
You will be wearing white
Satin and a red sash
Under the waltzing trees.

But the music stopped, the dancers took their curtain,
The river had come to a lock--a shuffle of programmes--
And we cannot continue down
Stream unless we are ready
To enter the lock and drop.

So they were married--to be the more together--
And found they were never again so much together,
Divided by the morning tea,
By the evening paper,
By children and tradesmen's bills.

Waking at times in the night she found assurance
In his regular breathing but wondered whether
It was really worth it and where
The river had flowed away
And where were the white flowers.

observations: Perfect description of the movement and staging of ballet, in so very few words – 'moving like seaweed' – and of the feeling that can come upon you while seeing great art. It doesn’t seem transient, but it is. The story of the marriage is too hopelessly sad: you have to tell yourself life doesn’t have to be like that. Reading it again I was astonished to find that it is the woman thinking about it in the last stanza, I had to double check that was right, as the poem has so very much been from the man’s point of view till then.

Apparently the early years of MacNeice’s own first marriage were very happy – too happy, according to critics, and to some extent himself, he had nothing to write about – but his wife left him in 1935, and the usual poet’s trail of affairs and another marriage followed, giving rise to better poetry. The price you pay, life in a day.

MacNeice was part of the Auden/Day Lewis/Spender circles of poets in the 1930s, and is probably over-shadowed by them and now the least-remembered, but he wrote some lovely poems. One of his most famous is Bagpipe Music – beginning
It’s no go the merrygoround, it’s no go the rickshaw,

all we want is a limousine and a ticket for the peepshow

and then going on to the very Clothes in Books line
Their knickers are made of crepe-de-chine, their shoes are made of python.
- one of those images we wish we could find and bring to you, it’s on our list of ones that got away.

Les Sylphides is the non-ballet-goers idea of a ballet: no real story, a lot of young women in long white skirts moving gracefully round the stage, just the one male dancer, a romantic reverie, to music by Chopin.

The picture is from a performance of Les Sylphides by the Ballet Russe touring Australia in the late 1930s.