published 1964 set in 1951
....She was small, thin, dressed from head to foot in an indeterminate drab brown colour, and in this breezy sea-going atmosphere she had, somehow, the effect of a withered autumn leaf….
....Miss Morrison sat beside [the captain] in the brown tweed coat and skirt in which she had come on board, eating prodigiously and speaking no word unless asked a direct question, and even then, sometimes, she would make no reply other than a flat stare, which indicated that the question was too basically silly to merit an answer…
...She was dressed for the day in her brown tweed coat and skirt, and came into the saloon carrying the canvas bag in one hand and the brown cotton umbrella in the other, depositing these on the floor on either side of her chair. The captain, and indeed all of us, watched with interest while she ate half a grapefruit, a plate of cereal and a kipper, and some toast… then asked for bacon and eggs.
observations: These extracts (3 separate ones) are all in the first quarter of the book, during the sea voyage from the UK to the (fictional) West Indian island of St Jago, where the rest of the story will take place. This is Cousin Emmie herself, and we get the rather repetitive point. She dresses badly and has an enormous appetite and a sharp manner. Her wardrobe (and as we have mentioned before, a ‘coat and skirt’ in this context and at this era means what we would call a suit) will not improve much in the tropics.
But the book is rather an improvement on some of its predecessors: I am reading my way through this series of early 60s bestsellers (click on the Jane Duncan label below to see the whole range) and this is definitely one of the better entries. Early on, the narrator (and authorial stand-in) Janet says: ‘My life… seems to contain much more of what the authors of books seem to regard as unimportant trivia, and I seem to be much more at the mercy of such trivia than the people in books.’ This is really one of her ‘I’m so endearing with my self-deprecating honesty remarks’ but also: she has a nerve. She writes this long, long series of books entirely about the trivia in her life and wants us to be interested. In each book various emotional goings-on force themselves on her: she thinks about the lives of her friends neighbours and family, and her own marriage, considers some possibility, dismisses it, drones on, then eventually realizes that the obvious is true (affairs, pairings, attractions, partings) without any apparent feeling that she could have been a bit more sensitive and sympathetic.
Janet quite dislikes Cousin Emmie, the lady in brown, for most of the book, but for once a character is allowed to overcome the Janet-ian prejudice. Cousin Emmie is really a rather marvellous creation: she has no truck with politeness or tact, and she steals biscuits, but it turns out she is annoyingly perceptive, and sees very well what is going on, and steps in to solve a problem. Janet is forced to admit that she is generally quite a good thing. And there is a surprisingly sympathetic and non-judgmental look at Lesbianism, for the era anyway.
Cousin Emmie will get herself a dress in foulard: one of those fabrics which now appears only in books. The term appears often up until about 20 years ago, but now has disappeared. It was ‘a lightweight twill or plain-woven fabric of silk or silk and cotton.’
The picture is from the Helen Richey archive at the San Diego Air and Space Museum: Richey was an aviation pioneer who seems to have left all her photo albums to the Museum, and the collection has a lovely random quality about it.