Wednesday, 12 March 2014

The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith

published 1892







February 10, Sunday. -- Contrary to my wishes, Carrie allowed Lupin to persuade her to take her for a drive in the afternoon in his trap. I quite disapprove of driving on a Sunday, but I did not like to trust Carrie alone with Lupin, so I offered to go too. Lupin said: 'Now, that is nice of you, Guv., but you won't mind sitting on the back-seat of the cart?'

Lupin proceeded to put on a bright-blue coat that seemed miles too large for him. Carrie said it wanted taking in considerably at the back. Lupin said: 'Haven't you seen a box-coat before? You can't drive in anything else.'

He may wear what he likes in the future, for I shall never drive with him again. His conduct was shocking. When we passed Highgate Archway, he tried to pass everything and everybody. He shouted to respectable people who were walking quietly in the road to get out of the way; he flicked at the horse of an old man who was riding, causing it to rear; and, as I had to ride backwards, I was compelled to face a gang of roughs in a donkey-cart, whom Lupin had chaffed, and who turned and followed us for nearly a mile, bellowing, indulging in coarse jokes and laughter, to say nothing of occasionally pelting us with orange-peel.

Lupin's excuse -- that the Prince of Wales would have to put up with the same sort of thing if he drove to the Derby -- was of little consolation to either Carrie or myself.



observations: The box coat is intriguing – it is quite hard to find out what it is, references are rare. It seems to indicate a spacious, wide cut in the back, which might well be useful for someone driving a cart, but also just a fashion of that time. One definition has it that it is a loose unfitted coat, formerly worn by coachmen. Another says it is a coat that is ‘snug only at the shoulders’. It seems two etymlogies might have converged – the box is where the driver sits, while a box outline would be wide and free.

There are more references to it in US sources of the first half of the 20th century. The phrase comes up in the words of St James Infirmary, one of the classic and oldest of blues songs (and in fact one that probably did not originate in the USA, although now associated with New Orleans):
When I die, bury me in straight laced shoes,
A box backed suit and a Stetson hat
Put a 20 dollar gold piece on my watch chain;
 So the boys'll know I died standin' pat

-- the implication being that these are smart, fashionable clothes, the man hasn’t come down in the world, he’s still a wide boy. 

The box-back is the large one on the right in the picture above. 

More about the book in a previous entry, where I said how funny and enjoyable it is.

Mr Pooter would probably be thrilled: in an entry on this Royal memoir I said that fathers will always feel like that about their son’s clothes, though in that case it happened to be the King and the Prince of Wales, with a comparison to Fred Astaire thrown in for good measure. (It’s not the same Prince of Wales – the one mentioned above is the grandfather of the Duke of Windsor.)

15 comments:

  1. Moira - Oh, how interesting! I never knew before what a box coat is. It must not have had much enduring popularity because without your help; I'd have found it hard to picture one. And thanks for reminding me of this novel too.

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    1. Once you start noticing the clothes in books you find all kinds of interesting little byways, and the blog is a good excuse for following them up.

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  2. I'm going to have to resist giving a lecture on the history of costume and woolen manufacture in England from the middle ages to the present time on this one... The term box-coat is very old and describes both a style of cutting in which a loose fitting coat is made with the back all in one piece and with no shaping at the waist or pleats at the hip, and the type of cloth such coats were originally made from. My older tailoring texts (1820's) show them with several capes on the shoulders, but that is just an addition, not a defining feature. The "Dictionary of Needlework" (1882) defines "box cloths" as "thick, coarse Melton cloths, dyed in all colours, although usually in buff. They are designed for riding habiliments, measure 1 1/2 yard in width, and vary in price." Box coats are cut with the back all in one piece from side seam to side seam and were considered far less formal than the frock coat which has a fitted back cut in four pieces and the skirt attached with a waist seam. The informal "sack" suits have their backs cut in two parts with a center back seam and vent. By the 1890's the loose cut of the box coat had spread to men's suits which were replacing the formal frock-coat as business wear. Mr. Pooter would have been disapproving of wearing such an outlandish garment on a Sunday, while riding in a carriage which to his mind would have been a rather formal occasion. It would have also been humiliating to have been put in the back of a trap. In the ranking of status, the seats facing forward are the important ones. Children and servants rode backwards.
    On another page, I picked up a copy of "No Name" yesterday. The first thing I see is that the action is set in 1846. I must now form completely different mental pictures of the clothes...

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    1. Thanks as ever Ken for the usual fascinating and informative additions. Interesting that it defined a cloth as well as a style. I guess the positioning on the cart is a bit like having to sit in the back seat of a car? This is such a good way to learn history...

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    2. It's not how far back one sits in the vehicle, it's which way one faces. Modern cars have seats facing only to the front. The closest I think one can come nowadays is to consider a limousine with those little folding jump-seats against the partition. One would simply not plop down on the comfortable bench seat and leave one's parent to perch on a little stool-affair. Even if the seats themselves were equally comfortable (which they aren't...), it's a matter of respect due to one's elders.

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  3. Just checked the previous entry (hottie in blue) - still not tempted to try this.

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    1. No? Honestly it is funny. And as I think I said, it speaks to the parents of sons.

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  4. Love Diary of a Nobody. Did you see the Hugh Bonneville monologues in the character of Pooter? Sublime

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    1. No, never even heard of them, sounds wonderful. He doesn't look likemthenillustrations, but once you get past that, perfect. I must investigate....

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    2. It's available on DVD. I do recommend it.

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  5. Did I tell you I got a copy of this book? It is sitting in a prominent place where I won't forget it, since it is so small. Looking forward to reading it, when I decide where it fits in.

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    1. Oh good, Tracy, I hope you enjoy it. It is a very easy read.

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  6. This is a superbly funny book, one of my top 10.

    It really is worth reading.

    Sue

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