Friday, 31 January 2014

Symposium by Muriel Spark

published 1990

Margaret had filled the sitting-room with autumn leaves from the florist. She was wearing a longish green velvet dress with flapping sleeves. Hurley was wondering what she had to pose about in that pre-Raphaelite way. To his astonishment William was apparently besotted with his bride. She was the sort of girl who made Hurley very homesick for America and a touch of good sense in a woman. What is wrong with her, he wondered, looking at Margaret, that she has to drape herself in green velvet against a back ground of fall foliage? She could look wonderful in a plain civilian outfit. Why doesn’t she get her teeth fixed?...

[Hurley talking to a friend later:] ‘There’s something funny. Her get-up wasn’t natural for a young girl at 6.30 on a normal evening. She had green velvet, a wonderful green, and a massive background of red and gold leaves all arranged in pots.’

observations: In the last Muriel Spark book on the blog – The Public Image, here – it seemed you had to beware of what the male characters thought of the heroine. She was baldly criticized, clearly put down. But to this reader at least (not the blurb writer, and not some other readers such as punk star John Lydon) the men were completely unreliable in their reports of her, and Spark expected you to see that she was not the person they described – this is discussed in the blog entry.

But here it is quite different - although all the characters have their problems and unreliability, we cannot dismiss what Hurley says altogether. The woman’s husband has a splendidly slippery line about her: ‘I’m bound to put my muddy boots on the vast soft carpet of her character.’

This is an easy read, the plot goes round and round, the characters connect up, everything is leading up to the big dinner party which is the symposium of the title: there is a lot going on, it’s hard to keep it all in focus sometimes. In the end I wasn’t quite sure what kind of book or story it was meant to be. But I did enjoy it more on a second reading than the first time.

The book is set in an world where AIDS has recently come to the fore, and there is a strange Catholic trope about suspicious spouses:

It’s like that vile practice of watching to see if your wife, your husband, goes to Holy Communion. Now they watch for the contraceptive act.
No wonder she is lumped as an RC writer with Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, with a morality that is foreign to most people today. These scruples reminded me of Waugh's Guy Crouchback trying to have sex with his ex-wife, because it wouldn’t be a sin with her. There is also a splendid Catholic moment where people are staring at a mural, wondering if the figures have haloes, or are merely wearing fur hats. (That would make a good CiB entry.)

There’s a choice of two green dresses here – one very pre-Raphaelite and one not. It becomes apparent during the book that this young lady is quite precise and firm and rather cold, so perhaps an outer dress and an inner dress.

Thanks to Emma for the suggestion.

The top picture is by Boris Grigoriev, the lower one is of Maria Zambaco by Edward Burne-Jones – they had a relationship, and their story, well worth a look on Wiki, sounds rather like a Muriel Spark novel. Both pictures are from The Athenaeum website.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

A Cry in the Night by Tom Grieves

published 2014

Sam knew it would be better for the case if Zoe asked the questions, but he also knew it would look odd to have a silent Senior Investigating Officer and, worst of all, he had no idea what Ashley might do. The nerves made him jumpy and he worried that Zoe would notice. He said little in the corridor as he tried to imagine various scenarios and how he would deal with them, but in the end he decided to brazen it out.

He’d avoided looking at Ashley and only paid attention to her now that she was in front of him. She’d changed since she’d been in his hotel room. Her white attire had been replaced with a baby-blue cashmere top, skinny jeans and cowboy boots. He introduced himself to her and she made him shake her hand. He could tell she was enjoying this game and it scared the hell out of him.

observations: A Cry in the Night left me bemused. Half the time I felt as though I had jumped into the middle of one of those long-running series with a pair of cops (in this case Sam and Zoe) bantering away, long history, unresolved sexual tension. But so far as I can tell, this isn’t the case: they were invented for this book. They behave in very strange ways, constantly subverting your expectations (I made a note 
‘???really?’ at one point over something Sam was doing, because it seemed so unprofessional.)

Sam and Zoe have come from the big city (Manchester) to the Lake District to investigate the disappearance of two children in a remote village, a place with a history of witch-burning. My favourite line in the whole book has the two cops discussing the case in his room at the pub:

‘They’ll be talking about us downstairs,’ Zoe said. ‘How long till this whole thing turns into the Wicker Man and they’re burning you at the stake?’
The book and the plot and the ending were all very confusing, and I couldn’t tell how much of that was deliberate. The final exposition is unbearably clunky (they overhear two people talking, saying in effect ‘so then you did this’). Zoe takes enormous offence at being called ‘love’, then seems not to notice when someone else does the same. There is a QC, ie barrister, who is apparently also a solicitor who turns up to bail people out from police stations. The tenant of a house instructs the agent ‘to put the house on the market with immediate effect.’ Apparently Grieves is an experienced TV writer, which makes all these things very surprising – I would expect such awkwardnesses from a novice writer.

I’m not convinced I really understood every aspect of the ending, how you were to take all the strange things that happened. But despite all this, it certainly kept me reading, and I liked the way it confounded me occasionally and wrong-footed me constantly, so I would give it a confused and cautious recommendation – if you like this kind of thing, then you’ll like this one.

The picture is from an American fashion blog.

More cowboy boots in this entry, skinny jeans here

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Dracula by Bram Stoker

published 1897

From regular guest blogger Colm Redmond

[From Mina Harker’s Journal; Jonathan is her husband]

We came back to town quietly, taking a bus to Hyde Park Corner … and walked down Piccadilly. Jonathan was holding me by the arm, the way he used to in the old days before I went to school. I felt it very improper, for you can’t go on for some years teaching etiquette and decorum to other girls without the pedantry of it biting into yourself a bit. … I was looking at a very beautiful girl, in a big cart-wheel hat, sitting in a victoria outside Guiliano’s, when I felt Jonathan clutch my arm so tight that he hurt me, and he said under his breath, “My God!”

I am always anxious about Jonathan, for I fear that some nervous fit may upset him again. So I turned to him quickly, and asked him what it was that disturbed him.

observations: This is a long, vivid book that conjures up many an enduring image. None more so than the Count, viewed from above through the window by his terrified guest, crawling around the sheer external wall of his castle like a spider, so as not to be seen navigating the corridors.

Like Morrissey, however, Bram Stoker is disappointingly unconcerned with clothes. I believe he only mentions them three times, and one of those is quite vague: there is “a dark-haired woman, dressed in the cerements of the grave”, and that’s admittedly quite startling – for a character who is not only bent over a child and biting its neck, but is also dead – but doesn’t really tell us much. You feel like he only mentions that her cerements are white because he wants us to see the contrast with the blood that “stain[s] the purity of her lawn death-robe.”

He misses a big chance with some gorgeous young female vampire accomplices, of a frankly licentious persuasion, who live in Dracula’s castle: he doesn’t give any physical description of them or their clothes. The makers of any number of horror films have not let that stop them, they invariably choose to portray them in skimpy, diaphanous, loosely-fastened items; but Stoker didn’t specify.

There’s a slightly comical occasion when Dracula’s suit jacket is cut open with a sword, and gold coins he’s been hiding tumble out onto the floor. But again we have to imagine what the suit is like. The scene is a good example of how he can seem like a slightly ludicrous, fairytale character, like Rumpelstiltskin: the book is scary and suspenseful, but Dracula is cunning and sometimes desperate, not superhuman and invulnerable. His abilities (turning into a bat or a hound, just for example) are useful but not all-conquering and they’re counter-balanced by impediments such as not being able to cross running water under his own steam. Nor is he suave and charming, like the Hammer version – he just tries to act like that, in a rather sickly manner.

Mina copes bravely with some seriously weird things, but I think Stoker still considers her a bit of a drama queen. He slyly pokes fun at her by making her write inane things in her journal. If someone clutched your arm and whispered “My God!” under his breath, would you need any particular reason to ask him what was wrong…?

The girl in the extract (the third and final mention of clothes, and then it’s only her hat) is waiting outside a shop for her purchase to be wrapped: Giuliano’s was a posh jeweller at 115 Piccadilly; the mis-spelling is Stoker’s. He mentions quite a few real places and surprising things in the book, such as a Kodak camera (very new indeed at the time), and people using a phonograph as a dictaphone. [As featured in the comments to the Clothes in Books Guardian piece on non-anachronisms;  Mina's diary gets a mention in this piece also.]

The pictures show another “very beautiful girl” - Grace Kelly – in a big hat in the Hitchcock film To Catch A ThiefIt's not immediately obvious that these are all the same outfit, nor that this is a swimsuit, with a sort-of-skirt around it for modesty away from the beach. Also strictly speaking it's not one hat but two - a crownless white one over a black turban. And of course that's Cary Grant with her - he and his suit featured in this entry and this one.

Here are some more cartwheel hats:

Lillian & Dorothy Gish, apparently. The one sitting down is blindsided and clearly doesn't know what the other is up to - she made her SWEAR not to pull any flirty stunts with her hat-brim and she just went right ahead and did it anyway.

[Note from original Clothes in Books: The two Gish girls have featured on the blog before - here and here - and at a guess I would say that's Lillian on the left.

I could never quite see what the fuss was about Grace Kelly, but that astounding top picture tells me.]

For more from the guest blogger, click on Colm Redmond below.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Wolf Hall & Bring Up the Bodies: RSC Stage Adaptation by Hilary Mantel & Mike Poulton

published 2014

Character Notes: GREGORY CROMWELL You are in your late teens as this story unfolds. You are Thomas Cromwell’s only surviving child, and you are brought up as if you were a prince. You will be known to your contemporaries as ‘the gentle and virtuous Gregory’. Implacably sweet-natured, you seem to be bowed under the weight of all that is invested in you… The important thing is, the King likes you. You will marry the sister of Jane Seymour. (So the blacksmith’s grandson is related to the King.) This family connection saves you when your father is executed… though you do not inherit your father’s title of Earl, you are granted a baron’s title, and as Lord Cromwell you live and die a country gentleman, fathering many children and making a negligible impact on national life. How could you possibly have lived up to expectations? In the third Cromwell novel, you will say to your father, ‘You know everything. You do everything. You are everything. What’s left for me?’

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Published 2009

Jane's sister Lizzie is at court with her husband, the Governor of Jersey, who is some connection of the new queen's. Lizzie comes packaged into her velvet and lace, her outlines as firm as her sister's are indefinite and blurred, her eyes bold and hazel and eloquent. Jane whispers in her wake; her eyes are the colour of water, where her thoughts slip past, like gilded fishes too small for hook or net. It is Jane Rochford – whose mind, in his view, is underoccupied – who sees him watching the sisters. ‘Lizzie Seymour must have a lover,’ she says, ‘it cannot be her husband who puts that glow in her cheeks, he is an old man. He was old when he was in the Scots wars.’

observations: There are no known surviving pictures of Gregory Cromwell, and it’s just a guess that the woman in the picture, by Hans Holbein, is Elizabeth Seymour, who will become his bride.

The first two of Hilary Mantel’s Tudor trilogy have been turned into two plays, currently being performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford: they are marvellous, and long-ago sold out, and will certainly move to London soon. Ben Miles is truly excellent as Thomas Cromwell, and Gregory is given a rather larger role than in the books, so that he can be used for exposition of some of Cromwell’s thoughts and explanations. Thomas Wyatt is also used for this purpose, and there is a picture of him extant, but he looks so unlike our view of him that I was reluctant to use it. (Clothes in Books holds a romantic view of Thomas Wyatt, and featured one of his poems last year along with further discussion of these Tudor times.)

The character notes in the playscript are by Mantel herself, and make particularly fascinating reading for anyone who knows the books well: and here tucked away is a line from the anxiously-awaited third one, and news of Gregory’s fate – which we (discreetly) spoilered in this entry on Bring Up The Bodies, while elsewhere we suggested that Catherine Zeta Jones is born to play the part of Anne Boleyn.

I re-read Wolf Hall after seeing the plays, and experienced the same effect as the other times I have read the book and its sequel: for a few days I kept considering things the way Thomas Cromwell might, seeing the world through his eyes. (Which presumably is more like Hilary Mantel’s world…) And, nothing changed my view that the books are the great novelistic achievements of the early 21st century: it is too early to tell about the plays, but they certainly help out while we’re waiting for the next book.

Boleyns, Tudors and Mantel all over the blog – click on the labels below. Mantel's Jane Seymour - Lizzie's sister - is here.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Best books of 2013

Three beautiful performers in The Little Shadows, one of the books of the year


Before getting on to the best books: I’m always fascinated by other bloggers’ and readers’ statistics, so have produced a few of my own.

Of the books I read in 2013:

About 57% were by female authors (really happy and relieved by this!)

Only about a quarter very recent, ie published 2012/13

Two thirds were, roughly-speaking, UK-based (ie set here, or written here, or by an author closely associated with the UK): about a quarter were US-based, and the rest were spread out from France to Japan, taking in Ancient Greece, Eire, Australia, Canada and Discworld as well. (I was surprised that the proportion of American books wasn’t higher.)

Only 18 books were translated from other languages (French was the most-represented, along with Ancient Greek, Japanese and Danish). I was surprised and disappointed that the number was so low. (More Scandi-noir needed?)

Best books of 2013
These are best books read, so most were published in earlier years. (Crime fiction has been dealt with in a separate entry.) Not in any special order.

The Little Shadows by Marina Endicott – an astonishing book about a music-hall act in North America in the early years of the 20th century, and Exhibit 1 in my claim that books by women are under-valued. This book is successful, but it should be a world-class bestseller, up for all the major prizes.

That they May face the Rising Sun by John McGahern Hard to describe. Just read it.

Happyland by J Robert Lennon Extraordinary book with an extraordinary backstory – read the entry – and his other recent book Familiar would be another contender.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Yes it was as good as you could have hoped, and well worth the length and the wait.

Shepperton Babylon by Matthew Sweet Best non-fiction – an unmatched combination of information and entertainment, and hilariously funny.

Therese Desqueyroux by Francois Mauriac A real oddity, but a wonderfully strange and un-heroic heroine.

Anna Karenina in a fur hat and a snowstorm in 1969

Impossible Object by Nicholas Mosley the book that should have won the Booker Prize in 1969, breath-taking but now forgotten.

Sunday clothes

Mr Ives' Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos (who died this year) a life-affirming book about life loss and faith.

Deadeye Dick by Kurt Vonnegut - sooo much better than I was expecting

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner an early feminist classic about single women, English lives, and witches.

Sneaking in five runners-up: Jess Walters Beautiful Ruins, Eva Ibbotson's Madensky Square,  Stefan Zweig's The Post Office Girl, Angela Carter's Wise Children, Charles Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle.

midnight silk dress with flickering flames...

It seems unfair to have chosen favourite crime novels separately, though it gave me a chance to name more books. Five of the best crime authors, who would have a place on the overall best books list: Catriona McPherson, Elly Griffiths, Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowling), Lynn Shepherd, Michael Hogan.  

And hoping for equally good books in 2014.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Dress Down Sunday: In a Dark House by Deborah Crombie

published 2005


Gemma climbed down from the chair and stood back, surveying the storage space. There had to be more – she was sure of it. Pushing all the hanging clothes aside, she was rewarded for her diligence. A low door was set into the back wall of the cupboard, a not unusual feature in many old houses. The extra storage space was remarkably easy to access, once you knew of its existence, and the latch was a simple hook and eye.
Kneeling, Gemma swung open the door. A faint odour of old mothballs wafted out, and she saw immediately that she had struck gold. Some of the open boxes on the floor held strappy, high-heeled shoes, others an assortment of lacy lingerie. Folded over hangers on a low bar were sequined tops and sleek skirts, a few low-cut cocktail dresses, a beaded vintage cardigan. Gemma sat back, wondering what to make of her find. One thing was certain – there was more to Elaine Holland than her housemate had dreamed.

observations: This book was recommended to me by my true blog friend Margot Kinberg, proprietor of the Confessions of a Mystery Novelist blog. She pointed out this very Dress Down Sunday scene, whereby the police use the hidden lingerie as a clue, assuming that the discovery throws a very different light on the character of Elaine, a woman who has gone missing.

Another character says ‘why hide the things at all? Don’t most single women have a few pairs of sexy knickers?’ and the policewoman, Gemma, says ‘I don’t think having a stash of slightly tarty clothes and a mobile phone constitutes significant detail. But it has made me curious.’

The story starts with a huge warehouse fire, and a dead body is found in the building . Crombie does a very good job of keeping the plates spinning – it’s a long way into the book before we find out who the dead woman is, and in the meantime she has produced some very convincing plot elements whereby the main policeman can say ‘You realize we now have four missing women that potentially fit the description of one body?’

He is Duncan Kincaid – he and his colleague and eventual partner Gemma James are series regulars, and their fans have been following their relationship over (now) 15 books – this was the tenth one – with some very complex problems and issues which spread out over the books.

This one was clever and entertaining, contained some fascinating details about firefighting and about the history of London, and was set very recognizably in the borough of Southwark in south London.

The middle picture is, extraordinarily, a cake from a Sydney specialist bakery.  The other two photos are showing off gift boxes.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Two-year Blog Anniversary

Clothes in Books is just two years old, so now seems like a good time to look back at the past year

A list of the ten best books of the year will appear on Monday

Pierrots - that's the kind of subject we like. And the kind of photo we like. And (Angela Carter's Wise Children) the kind of book we like


Major blog news was that the Guardian newspaper liked what it saw here, and asked me to take part in a podcast on fashion in books, then invited me to contribute to their excellent books blog. So I now write regularly for them, and you can find links to those particular entries by clicking on the tab above.

Guest bloggers are always welcome - instances in 2013
could it be that I am rather common?
included a hilarious take on an alleged YA classic, from Lucy Fisher (picture right), a lovely look at Patrick Leigh Fermor from Veronica Horwell, and super-traveller and super-translator Julia Slater matching up with the Just So Stories. But recently we have welcomed a regular guest blogger, Colm Redmond, whose job it is to vary the content, and who has found some mind-boggling images and stories, and some books CiB probably wouldn’t have thought of.

yes that is Morrissey, and Kristeen Young, and no we don't know what they are doing

Poems have always appeared occasionally, but this year there was a new departure when I translated (freely) one of Sappho’s poems from the Ancient Greek for an entry.

Look at us now Kleis, you with your hair

all kinds of dress except the ecclesiastical

The photos were from Perry Photograpy: we get some of our best pictures from there, including lovely ones like this from the Venice Carnevale.   

More poems came with a look at Tudor hero Thomas Wyatt and his troubled relationships, a visit to Adlestrop, an Armistice Day special, and to mark Seamus Heaney’s death.

Particularly popular discussions and research:

1)   We looked at domestic arrangements and cooking problems in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.

2) Salome – what does she wear on stage, and can good singers be expected to dance too? 

3) ...and underwear for singers (OK, Salome doesn't wear much), and for everyone really - what's the best material for corsets? Ken Nye (see below) tells us, The Little Shadows shows us (more on Marina Endicott's masterpiece on Monday).

4) Advertising agencies in 1930s novels – which would be the best one to work in? (Dorothy L Sayers' Pym’s, by a long way – cakes for tea.)

5) Pierrots –  existential everymen from the commedia dell'arte, or English seaside entertainers? And what IS Lord Peter doing in that harlequin suit?

6) Shingles, bingles, bobs and related hair triumph and tragedy.

Many many people have given helpful input, but I must make a special mention of costume expert Ken Nye, who knows the answer to most clothes questions, and is always willing to help out with a technical tipoff, a full explanation, or a useful picture.

The photos   As ever, I am immensely grateful to all the wonderful organizations and individuals who have made their photos available on the web – I am always amazed and impressed by their generosity.


Sometimes I am really really happy with the match of book and picture- for example, above,
No Love Lost by Margery Allingham and The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler.

Sometimes I find descriptions I would love to find a photo for: lesbian shirt blouses in
this entry; ‘Their knickers are made of crepe de chine and their shoes are made of python’ from Louis MacNiece’s poem Bagpipe Music; ‘a scarlet leisure suit appliqued with characters from Tintin’ worn by an expectant mother in this book.

Sometimes I come across a photo and long to find a novel to match: surely somewhere there is a book to go with this (right), from the glorious 
free vintage knitting pattern site, straightforwardly described as the Lady-Man Poncho-skirt. (Maybe Armistead Maupin in his wilder moments, could you see Mary Ann and Brian in this combo?)

The picture that got away. So far.

And as I said in the entry for
this book: ‘Maybe one day I will find the book that requires as illo the photo called ‘Miss Godby dancing to the dirge’, (subtitle: Queen of the Fairies foretelling the death of Prince Llewellyn) and then I will probably think the blog can close down.’ But I don’t think that’ll be happening anytime soon.

Thanks to all of you for reading, commenting, making suggestions and contributing information, photographs and blog entries. Making new blog friends has been the nicest and most unexpected part of running Clothes in Books - I'd be lost without you.

Don't forget to look out for the 10 best books read in the past year, Monday's entry.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith

published 1892

    A big red-letter day; viz., the Lord Mayor’s reception. The whole house upset. I had to get dressed at half-past six, as Carrie wanted the room to herself. Mrs James had come up from Sutton to help Carrie; so I could not help thinking it unreasonable that she should require the entire attention of Sarah, the servant as well…

At nine o’clock Carrie swept into the room, looking like a queen. Never have I seen her look so lovely, so distinguished. She was wearing a satin dress of sky-blue – my favourite colour – and a piece of lace which Mrs James lent her, round the shoulders, to give a finish. I thought perhaps the dress was a little too long behind, and decidedly too short in front, but Mrs James said it was a la mode. Mrs James was most kind, and lent Carrie a fan of ivory with red feathers., the value of which, she said, was priceless, as the feathers belonged to the Kachu eagle – a bird now extinct. I preferred the little white fan which Carrie bought for three-and-six at Shoolbred’s, but both ladies sat on me at once

extra picture - blogfriend and costume expert Ken Nye suggested this one in the comments, below: short in the front, long behind

observations: Re-reading fictional diaries recently, for a blog entry and a piece for the Guardian books blog, this one came as a big pleasant surprise. I first read it when I was a lot younger, and then I was somewhat impatient with the humour, finding it heavy-handed, and disliking the snobbishness and pretentiousness that were being satirized. It all seemed horribly typical of Punch, the humour magazine where it first appeared.

But now I find it hilarious and clever, and the relations between Charles Pooter and his wife Carrie, and their son Lupin, are beautifully done. At the beginning of the book, Pooter explains that he sees plenty of memoirs by supposedly well-known people and feels he could do just as well himself. And in fact he and his creators have done exactly that – the diaries of Victorian worthies disappear, but as long as people find this funny: ‘I left the room with silent dignity, but caught my foot in the mat’ – well, that’s how long Diary of a Nobody will survive. The book is a lovely easy read, and very very funny.

On this day they are very happy to be going to the Mansion House for this prestigious event, but when they get there find that the local ironmonger is there too, devaluing their invitation – social events rarely go well for the Pooters. But it’s not as bad as the East Acton Volunteer Ball, where after asking the waiter for food and champagne for all his friends, Mr Pooter is shocked to find he has to pay for them. He had assumed they were included in the price of the ticket: 

'£3 0s 6d! I don’t think I was ever so surprised in my life.’
Champagne is always his downfall – Carrie’s version is that it does not agree with him…

The picture by Auguste Toulemouche is from the Athenaeum website

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Guardian Books Blog: TV and literature - the great crossover

sex on TV, sex among the viewers?

Today’s entry appeared on the Guardian books blog, and takes the line that although we all know that television is lowbrow and probably bad for us and the world, it is possible that the lives of some people in books might have been improved if only they had had some extra entertainment.

These are the opening paragraphs:

Sometimes, when reading the great classics, the books that teach us about relationships and the world and love, the lives lived and the situations dealt with – well, I can’t help feeling that some of them could have benefited hugely from TV. And those wonderful characters – mightn’t they have improved their lot as participants in those shows we dislike so much? Or at least had more fun…

In Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley there’s a scene where three of the main characters are spending the evening together, and Robert generously decides to read Shakespeare aloud to the ladies. Hortense says:

“When the gentleman of a family reads, the ladies should always sew. Caroline, dear child, take your embroidery. You may get three sprigs done tonight.” Caroline looked dismayed.

YES, of course she did. In what world is that preferable to their all settling in to bond over Educating Yorkshire? They would have loved it, given that they live in Yorkshire and Robert is keen on educating Caroline, so it would count as serious telly rather than entertainment. 

Dorothea, the good wife, dusts the TV

Then, take George Eliot’s Middlemarch, and the miserable marriage of Dorothea and Casaubon. Suppose they had been able to watch Mastermind together, and she’d let him congratulate himself on how well he did, listened perhaps to his pedantic criticism of wording of questions: ‘I think you’ll find that actually…’ Might they have been happier together?


Junior Jockey - the audition

It can be noted from the comments under the piece that some Guardian readers found this concept rather shocking and did NOT approve. Unsurprisingly, I disagree, and think it was an entertaining and possibly even illuminating idea…. Please comment below to tell me what you think.

The Girls of Slender Means and The Group have both featured on the blog, along with Brideshead Revisited, Dickens, Noel Streatfeild auditions and National Velvet.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Parker Pyne Investigates by Agatha Christie

The House at Shiraz

published 1934

A house all tiled in blue and rose and yellow, set in a green garden with water and orange trees and roses. It was, he felt, the house of a dream. [The consul tells him:] “An Englishwoman’s got it now. You must have heard of her. Lady Esther Carr. Mad as a hatter. Gone completely native. Won’t have anything to do with anything or anyone British.”

[But she agrees to see Parker Pyne]

He was taken through the dark garden and up an outside staircase that led round to the back of the house. From there a door was opened and he passed through into the central court or balcony, which was open to the night. A big divan was placed against the wall and on it reclined a striking figure.

Lady Esther was attired in Eastern robes, and it might have been suspected that one reason for her preference lay in the fact that they suited her rich, Oriental style of beauty. Imperious, the consul had called her, and indeed imperious she looked. Her chin was held high and her brows were arrogant.

observations: After yesterday’s look at the Agony Column, and a recent piece about advertizing in crime fiction at Margot Kinberg’s lovely blog, Confessions of a Mystery Novelist, it seems only right to revisit the king of the personal ad, the wonderful Mr Parker Pyne, who puts out this advert every day:

In an earlier entry on this collection of short stories, I said that in general I preferred the ones where Mr PP sits in his office in London and solves people’s problems. That is true, but still, this is my favourite of all the stories. He is travelling in Iran (called Persia then), comes to the city of Shiraz, hears about Lady Esther Carr and takes a hand. There are familiar Christie themes here – the eyes, ladies, foreigners, madness – but still it’s a touching and unusual story, sentimental but in a good way. Mr PP talks of London at length to Lady Esther, and the conclusion he draws from her responses is the key to the story, even if we don’t exactly have an equal opportunity to guess the truth.

Christie herself travelled extensively in the Middle East and what was then known as the Near East with her second husband, the archaeologist Max Mallowan: she used the exotic locations for many of her stories and her books.

Another PP story is here, other Agatha Christie all over the blog: click on the label below.

Another lady being consciously eccentric in Oriental clothes in this book, with this picture:

The top picture is by Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps, from the Athenaeum website.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

The Agony Column by Earl Derr Biggers

published 1916

The room was quite in order, despite those sounds of struggle. One or two odd matters met my eye. On the table stood a box from a florist in Bond Street. The lid had been removed and I saw that the box contained a number of white asters. Beside the box lay a scarf-pin—an emerald scarab. And not far from the captain's body lay what is known—owing to the German city where it is made—as a Homburg hat. I recalled that it is most important at such times that nothing be disturbed, and I turned to old Walters. His face was like this paper on which I write; his knees trembled beneath him…

[Later] The man from Rangoon learned that he was to wear a white aster in his button-hole, a scarab pin in his tie, a Homburg hat on his head, and meet Von der Herts at Ye Old Gambrinus Restaurant in Regent Street, last Thursday night at ten o'clock.

observations: A kind reader called Kate Walker mentioned this book to me: the edition she read had illustrations, and she was interested in the idea that this was once common, and wondering when the custom had stopped. I have no idea, and it’s quite a difficult topic to research – but in the meantime I read and greatly enjoyed The Agony Column, which is really a novella, and can be downloaded free to a Kindle (sadly no illos though). The author is most famous for his Charlie Chan stories – he was a highly successful author, and apparently Chan was very popular in China.

This story is a throwaway idea, but great fun. The hero, visiting London, is fascinated by the Agony Column in British papers: the collection of small personal adverts about anything at all. He’s from the USA, where apparently the concept of the agony column doesn’t exist. The young man gets involved with a young woman who is equally intrigued, and then gets caught up in the investigation of a murder in the flat above his…. The story rattles along, and has an unexpected ending.

The messages in the column apparently cost 10 cents a word (more likely 10 d, given it was London) so some writers used what we can only describe as premature textspeak to save money: 

‘—loveu dearly; wantocu; longing; missu --’
The action of the book takes place in the week before the First World War breaks out, so July 1914, and there is a very funny section where the young heroine’s father suddenly starts talking about what will happen next:
His daughter stared at him. She was unaware that it was the bootblack at the Carlton [Hotel] he was now quoting. She began to think he knew more about foreign affairs than she had given him credit for….[later] Her father was bursting with new diplomatic secrets recently extracted from his bootblack adviser. Later, in Washington, he was destined to be a marked man because of his grasp of the situation abroad. No one suspected the bootblack, the power behind the throne…
The whole story is full of the atmosphere of the time, and is clever and entertaining. Thanks to Ms Walker of Florida for the recommendation.

More about adverts and personal columns tomorrow.

The scarab is from the Smithsonian, the Homburg is from the National Media Museum.

The President's Hat, this entry, was also something of a Homburg:

Monday, 20 January 2014

Lytton Strachey and Carrington by Diana Mosley

From the collection Loved Ones

published 1985

[Mosley is describing the artist Carrington]

Yes, she was fascinating. To me, she looked like a little Beatrix Potter character in her unfashionable print cotton dresses, but Lady Ottoline Morrell describes her as a moorland pony. She had brown hair, cut straight and short with a fringe, as though she hoped to hide as much of her face as possible. It was no longer the ‘golden bell’ described by Aldous Huxley. Her deep-set eyes were blue, her hands worn with toil – gardening, cooking, working for her beloved Lytton. All summer she had bare legs, sunburnt, sandals and white socks. When she walked she turned her toes in, and her every gesture was that of a desperately shy and self-deprecating person. She was clever and perceptive and original; she had learnt a great deal from Lytton over the years. Gossip amused her, but she did not confide much to me.

observations: There are many extraordinary aspects to Diana Mosley, nee Mitford: one of them is that for someone who, to put it politely, was deluded about many things, she was also (like Carrington above) clever, perceptive and original. She has an enormous ability to create what she calls in this book pen portraits – she writes with great clarity and wit, and has a sure eye for picking out the right details. Her descriptions of people are, really, wonderful. This talent has already featured on the blog: her book on the Duchess of Windsor is illuminating, and like all her writing (when she’s not droning on about her suspect political views) very funny.

When she was very young, and first married to Bryan Guinness, she was friendly with the writer Lytton Strachey (famous for Eminent Victorians, on the blog writing about Queen Elizabeth I) and his companion Carrington – an artist, who appears in this blog entry wearing odd shoes. The Guinness marriage broke down around the same time that Strachey died: Carrington subsequently committed suicide with a gun borrowed from Bryan Guinness. Mosley’s piece about them is thoughtful and convincing: she is looking back at her young self too, and explaining that there were things that she didn’t then understand about the strange relationship between Strachey and Carrington. Just before the extract above, she explains that for many years people would ask her mostly about Strachey, but as time has gone on they are more likely to be intrigued by Carrington.

There is a marvellous film about Carrington’s life, although it does not feature Guinness or Mosley.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Dress Down Sunday: The Ipcress File by Len Deighton

published 1962


Drums rolled, cymbals ‘zinged’, lights and gelatines clicked and clattered. Girls came on and went off. Girls thin, fat, tall and short. Girls in various stages of dress and undress; pink girls and green girls, little girls and old girls, and still more girls, relentlessly. ..

I looked around me; no one seemed to be watching. I walked up the stairs. It was all velveteen and tinsel stars…

I went down the corridor and opened the next door – there was a complex and fleshy array of about twenty semi-nude chorus girls, changing their tiny costumes. A loudspeaker brought the sound of the piano and drums from downstairs. No one screamed, one or two of the girls looked up and then continued with their conversation. I closed the door quietly and went to the last door. It was a large room devoid of any furniture; the windows were blocked up. From a loudspeaker came the same piano and drums.

observations: A second visit to this excellent book.

The scenes set in the nightclub come early on, and are quite splendid, and very visual, and set out the hero’s stall as not being James Bond – you can’t see JB in somewhere quite so low-rent and grubby.

Len Deighton was the anti-IanFleming. It wasn’t so much that his unnamed hero was chippy and working class and that his first person narration was a bit bolshy, a bit too clever for his own good. Yes, he objected to the Eton and Oxbridge men who ran the Army and the secret services, and you can guess that he wouldn’t have got on with James Bond - but he was definitely aspirational, and very keen on his Soho shopping for aubergines and andouilettes (though as I have grumpily pointed out before, HE DOESN’T COOK AND HE’S NOT CALLED HARRY).

But, the thing is, Len sounds like he’d be a laugh to go out for a drink with, while Ian sounds like a nasty piece of work. And roughly speaking, same for their spy heroes.
I was trying to do the most difficult job I’d ever heard about. To help me I had a rose-cultivator downstairs and a refugee from the Royal Enclosure. A fine team to pit against half the world in arms…
With the rose-cultivator he makes the obvious joke about Anna Olivier being laid out in the garden, the posh boy has a cousin with a private zoo. You just can’t imagine James Bond hacking it here.

The best bit in the book is where the hero breaks out from a terrifying mental health torture facility in Eastern Europe, and finds himself ‘entrapped in an intricate framework of slim wooden rods and wires that enmeshed head and limbs, the more I tried to free myself, the more tangled I was…’

Prizes for anyone who guesses in what fresh hell he has found himself. 

Food again - Len Deighton was himself a great foodie, and famously wrote a cookery comic strip for a newspaper. Blog friend Lucy Fisher told me a collection of the strips was available again, as the Action Cook Book, so I took a look: very much of its time (the 60s) and mostly of historical interest, but I was glad to have seen it, and can see why the strips were so popular and helpful in their day.

The picture is of a theatrical dressing-room in Sydney in the 1930s, from the collection of the splendid Sam Hood. Magnificently, the caption says it is not known if the women are part of the Ballet Russe, or the cast of a musical. I know what I think. But then, maybe….