[The newly-widowed Mrs Brandon meets her husband’s aunt for the first time]
‘A posthumous child?’ [Miss Brandon] said with sudden interest, looking piercingly at her niece’s white dress.
‘Oh no,’ said Mrs Brandon. ‘Mamma and Papa are still alive.’
‘Tut, tut, not you,’ said Miss Brandon. ‘What is your name?’
Mrs Brandon said apologetically that it was Lavinia.
‘A pretty name,’ said Miss Brandon. ‘When last I saw your husband Henry Brandon, he mentioned you to me as Pet. It was before his marriage and he was spending a weekend with me. I had to say to him, “Henry Brandon, a man who can call his future wife Pet and speak of the Government as you have spoken can hardly make a good husband and is certainly not a good nephew.”’
[the conversation continues] ‘I see you are determined not to give Henry away,’ said Miss Brandon, not disapprovingly. ‘But when is it? I see no other reason for wearing white so soon.’
Her gaze was again so meaningly fixed upon her niece’s white dress that Mrs Brandon began to blush violently.
‘I don’t think I understand,’ she faltered, ‘but if that is what you mean of course it isn’t. I just thought white was less depressing for the children.’
‘I am glad to hear it. That I could not have forgiven Henry,’ said the disconcerting Miss Brandon… ‘Now you can ring for my second chauffeur, Lavinia.’
observations: In an entry earlier this week we embarked on this story of the clashing mourning styles, and I explained how I came to read the book. (Thank you again to Amy Towle.) The passage above is typical of the book, which I found hilarious. Even the fact of Miss Brandon bringing two chauffeurs around with her made me laugh.
This is another of the horrible-aunt descriptions that Amy meant:
When in bed she preferred to discard the wig, and wore white bonnets, exquisitely hand-sewn by Sparks, frilled, plaited and goffered, in which she looked like an elderly Caligula disguised as Elizabeth Fry. Round her shoulders she had a white cashmere shawl, fine enough to draw through a wedding ring, and about her throat swathes of rich, yellowing lace, pinned with hideous and valuable diamond brooches. Diamonds, rubies, sapphires, emeralds sparkled in the creases of her swollen fingers, and in the watch pocket above her head was the cheap steel-framed watch that her father had bought as a young man with his first earnings.Like this perhaps?:
I had never heard of the custom of white being worn by a pregnant mourning widow: what an interesting detail!
There is a lot more about mourning later in the book: three women keep swapping round their frocks for daywear and the funeral. Is the black-and-white foulard quite right? What about the black georgette with the pleats (cost 20 guineas when new)? Nurse – who was nanny to the children, and now lives on doing sewing and mending for the family - is in her element making alterations, and all the staff enjoy a good gloomy death as much as the Brandons do.
By the time the Village Fete comes along – the climax of the book, and wonderfully well-described – there is time for a last swap: ‘Mrs Brandon gave in and with considerable heroism said she would wear the foulard, so that Delia would be free to wear her green frock.’ – which Nurse thinks isn’t quite suitable.
There is an excellent character called Sir Edmund – very useful and practical, a man to lean on. Thirkell draws him very cleverly, as he is very good and kind, and good fun, but she resists the temptation to make him hero material (as seems at first to be the case), and shows him as a flawed and slightly difficult man.
The top picture, Woman in a White Dress by Henri Lebasque, is from the Athenaeum website.