Lady Kilmichael was one of those happy women who go on into middle life looking well in white – by good luck, she had a white evening dress with her which would show off the silver jewellery to perfection. So to please Walter – dear Walter! And he seemed altogether in a mood to be pleased – she very much did her best with herself; she was happy too, tonight, and presently came trailing down to dinner clothed in a singular radiance. Walter fairly stared at her – he had forgotten that Grace ever looked like that….
Nicholas first stood, and afterwards at table sat, entirely unable to take his eyes off her. What with working late, with evening walks, and frequently dining out in little restaurants, he had seen very little of Lady Kilmichael in evening dress… Beauty he had never looked for in her, beyond the beauty of ‘good bones’ and supple muscles, which he had appreciated with professional detachment; beauty now he found, and it left him dumb.
observations: When I blogged on Angela Thirkell’s Northbridge Rectory a while back, I said that the heroine, Mrs Villars, is ‘the usual woman of great humour and self-deprecation but terribly attractive to everyone etc etc – see all Thirkell’s books – and a repository for what one assumes were Thirkell’s own views.’ Blog friend Lucy Fisher came into the comments to say ‘how I loathe those! Ever read Ann Bridge?’ As it happened someone had just lent me one, so I picked it up.
Well. The book follows Grace, Lady Kilmichael, a well-off middle-aged wife and mother, who is restless and feeling annoyed with her loved ones. She worries that she no longer has a role in life, and that her husband has found another woman. The fact that she is one of the leading artists of her day is no consolation, apparently. So she goes for a painting trip to the Dalmatian coast. The book follows her travels, with plenty of tourist-guide but very artsy descriptions of the area. She meets a young man, Nicholas, and travels with him and gives him advice on his painting. (Their travelling together sounds rather compromising to me, but no-one else is bothered.) Eventually everyone understands her true worth and everything is all right again. The book is said to have inspired the then Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII, then Duke of Windsor) and Mrs Simpson to take a cruising tour of the Adriatic coast just before he became King.
Illyrian Spring was a huge bestseller in its day, and you can only think that this must have been massive wish-fulfilment for the novel-buying women of Britain: Grace is unappreciated, but there are plenty of small but satisfying gotcha moments where someone suddenly realizes how clever she is, or that she is a talented artist. At one point, she is conscious of being rather dishevelled: ‘She was quite unaware of how becoming and indeed rejuvenating an effect this had on her appearance.’ I find that authorial heavy-handedness very off-putting, but many people really enjoy the book and I can see it has a certain nostalgic charm.
Ann Bridge herself was a diplomat’s wife, and, intriguingly, a great friend of mountain climber George Mallory.
Grace’s train travels were reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s Mystery of the Blue Train, including getting off the train north of Paris and rejoining it later - ideal for committing a murder, but in her case a chance to meet up with the dealer who handles her artwork. Grace powders her nose using a ‘flapjack’ which was the current name for what we would call a compact. There is a character called Linnet, which I was only saying the other day is very rare: the name must have been having a moment, as Henrietta’s daughter here, and Linnet Doyle (The Richest Woman in the World) in Christie’s Death on the Nile, and Grace’s daughter, all would be approx. the same age. And kind readers in the comments pointed me in the direction of a couple more Linnets too – I need to collect them and do a dedicated blogpost.
The picture is from the Clover Vintage tumblr.