published 1930 set in 1905
[Sylvia Lady Roehampton is attending a State Ball at Buckingham Palace]
So she loitered, having come out of the cloak-room only to face an unexpected mirror that returned to her, full-length, the image of the complete woman she might have postulated from the head-and-shoulders revealed to her in the mirror propped on the cloak-room table. There, she had scrutinised a lovely head, something after the manner of Lely, she thought – having been told so innumerable times – and the bare shoulders, oyster satin, and pearls of Lely, all of which she affected on state occasions because she knew they accorded with her type of beauty. Here, in the long mirror, she saw herself not only as a kit-cat, but full-length: oyster satin flowing out at her feet, pearls vanishing into the valley between her breasts, pearls looped round her wrists, a rosy scarf tossed round her shoulders. She wore no tiara… Lady Roehampton was an unconventional woman… Satisfied by the image that the mirror returned to her, she gave herself a little smile.
observations: I wrote a recent blogpost on bad mothers - here at CiB and at the Guardian - and this book was one I mentioned as being full of examples. The various mothers are heartless and unable to understand their daughters, ready to marry them off to the highest bidder. The daughter of the woman above, in love with a penniless artist, is told by Sylvia’s friend to marry the Lord who is also on the scene and, with a hideous wink, ‘we’ll see what can be done about the painter afterwards.’
Sylvia is later in the book said to have ‘suffered’ greatly by being brave and rebellious: she flouted conventions by appearing as a Queen in a public pageant, and had an affair with her friend’s teenage son. So I got quite excited by an incident at the Ball above:
Could she indeed give two fingers to the Viceroy-designate without thinking of the India he would govern?Perhaps she really was a rebel? But no, it means that she greeted him by offering 2 fingers to shake.
I love pageants in books so much (I'd do an entry every week if I could) that I am going to add in a photo (right) of how Sylvia might have looked as Queen Etheldreda, Queen of Beauty (yes really), even though it isn't described in the book.
There is an Author’s Note saying ‘No character in this book is wholly fictitious’. Meanwhile, one of the characters, Romola Cheyne (she doesn’t really appear, she’s a whisper in the background), is plainly meant to be Alice Keppel, mistress of Edward VII and, intriguingly, mother of Violet Trefusis, one of the great passions of Vita’s life.
The main picture, by William MacGregor Paxton, comes from The Athenaeum website – none of the Lelys looked at all the way Sylvia sounds.
The smaller picture is from a suffragette pageant in 1913, and comes from the Library of Congress.