Friday, 17 April 2015

A Deputy Was King by GB Stern


published 1926



Deputy Chinese Coat


For the first moment they were all startled by the flare and whirl of colour which beat out on their eyes. The jade and blue and anemone pink were like three distinct shocks; then Loraine, with a cry of joy, plunged her hands into the brocade and embroidery, and shook it out before all of them, so that they could see that it was a Chinese coat – even before they heard the clank of the little gold Mandarin buttons, three at the throat and three at the hem.
 


Deputy Chinese Coat 4


Gazing at it, you might think that you had never seen embroidery before, for it was the very climax of all that was brilliant and exotic. The flower-petals were worked in a flaming pattern around the broad bands of kingfisher blue embroidery; and again round each oval plaque that was woven of a silvery heron with a long green beak, and behind his outstretched wings a rainbow. All among the silken arabesques, butterflies were delicately poised, golden butterflies and black butterflies, and butterflies that were gold and black. The closer you looked, the more there was to see; intricate markings on the butterfly wings, purple and grass-green and apricot…

And when you had looked closely, you looked again, from a distance, to exult in the perfection of the whole coat, stiff and gleaming folds of anemone pink, lining that was a flash of green lightning, bands of blue so intense that for very depth of colour it appeared to stir and shift and shudder, as the depths of the sea will stir while you look down into it.


Deputy Chinese Coat 2


observations: When this book, the second of the Rakonitz Chronicles, gave the blog a Mother’s Day entry, I promised or threatened the Chinese Coat entry. This is a central section of the book, and the coat has huge importance in the family life of the Rakonitz family. Two of the cousins, Val and Loraine, are together in Italy. A man who has recently been visiting them sends out this beautiful coat. Everyone assumes it is for Val. But he hasn’t actually specified – might it be for Loraine? Loraine thinks it is for Loraine, and she is in agonies over it. Stern gives equal importance to the subsequent events as she does to other life-changers – businesses collapsing, marriages breaking up. And she keeps the reader in curious suspense as to the facts of the matter. Loraine is a true horror of a person, but Stern makes it wholly convincing that many people adore her. The tension mounts. Loraine confides individually in the varied household that the coat is really hers, but she doesn’t want to upset Val. Each person thinks he or she alone has been trusted with this secret.

The ultimate fate of the coat (once the truth has been ascertained) is surprising, and sad, but satisfying.

This is such an enjoyable book (and thanks yet again to Hilary McKay for the recommendation). Stern is a clever writer, and her characters are real and complex and not black and white, and the same is true of their relationships. She makes you realize how simplistic many novels are in that respect.

And now, what an excuse to show wonderful pictures of Chinese coats. It’s not clear to me what the base colour of the coat is, or if it is multi-coloured. At another point, cyclamen, blue and emerald are mentioned. I don’t know if anemone pink is the same as cyclamen…

Deputy Chinese Coat 3

The top picture, from The Athenaeum website, is Lady in Chinese Silk Jacket by Bernhard Gutmann.

The other pictures have been used for past entries on the blog, sometimes more than once – I do like a Chinese coat, and they were obviously very popular in the first half of the 20th century. The authors mentioning them include Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford Monica Dickens and Daphne du Maurier.










12 comments:

  1. I remember your mentioning this coat before, Moira. I'm happy you share the 'photos, so I could see what one looks like. The description is really quite vivid in and of itself, but the 'photos always help. Interesting that it becomes in its way a point of conflict in the story. And even more interesting that it's used to show the relationships among the characters.

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    1. It's good writing isn't it Margot, when someone can use what might be something minor, a side issue, and a) make you feel it's of great importance and b) use it to build characters....

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  2. More you than me, Moira. I think I will steer clear.

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  3. Ha! The Chinese Coat! The author must have had one in mind to write about it so vividly (and so borderline bonkersly- in fact at some points there is nothing to choose between the writer and awful-Lorraine.) But I am glad you like these stories, their colours are so bright. I get a bit cross at the final fate of the thing though, how long would it have taken to whip it off? It only had six buttons...

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    1. You see I was trying to be understanding about its fate, but you are of course right. And yes, you suspect Stern had traits from all her female characters, including the bad ones, and I do love that she makes them so understandable. Lorraine is a wonderful creation. On to the next book....

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  4. Moira: Seeing the vivid blue Chinese coat reminded me of red Mandarin dresses. What a blaze of colours they would make if a group of ladies were split between the coats and dresses.

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    1. What a lovely image, thanks Bill. That's what an artist could paint....

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  5. I bet it's made of shot silk, which would explain why the coat can be both cyclamen/anemone pink and blue/emerald green.

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    1. Oh that's interesting, thanks Daniel - is that what shot silk is, incorporating two colours? I know the phrase without being able to define it.

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  6. The book is still a maybe, but I love the images. Lovely coats.

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    1. I very much enjoy reading the books, but I do also relish them because I know they will require me to find fabulous images.

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