Friday, 24 April 2015

The Brandons by Angela Thirkell: Part 2


published 1939



Brandons mourning white dress




[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?:

 
Brandons bonnet 3



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.


















18 comments:

  1. I LOVE Dorothy Parker's "horrible aunt" description:

    "I think I knew first what side I was on when I was about five years old, at which time nobody was safe from buffaloes. It was in a brownstone house in New York, and there was a blizzard, and my rich aunt—a horrible woman then and now—had come to visit. I remember going to the window and seeing the street with the men shoveling snow; their hands were purple on their shovels, and their feet were wrapped with burlap. And my aunt, looking over her shoulder, said, ‘Now isn’t this nice that there’s this blizzard. Now all those men have work.’ And I knew then that it was not nice that men could work for their lives only in desperate weather, that there was no work for them in fair. That was when I became anti-fascist, at the silky tones of my rich and comfortable aunt."

    It's amazing how you can vividly visualise this dreadful woman from so little actual cues....

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    1. Yes, what an interesting and meaningful perception, thanks. Giving the reader clear moral perceptions is an undervalued art.

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  2. All of that about mourning and dress is really interesting, Moira. And not something you'd usually think of as a major topic for a novel. Actually, I know it may sound morbid, but I find mourning customs fascinating. They do vary so much over time and across different cultural groups. And I love those descriptions of Miss Brandon. What a great 'horrible aunt!'

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    1. I'm with you Margot, mourning is a fascinating subject. The Victorian customs were very rigid and rather hard on the survivors I think. And now I'm remembering - Scarlett in Gone with The Wind gets fed up with mourning doesn't she? I must see if there's an entry there....

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    2. Good call, Moira! I think she does indeed get fed up with mourning. And I think you have the potential there for a fantastic entry; I hope you'll do one.

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  3. The kind of book that has me longing for a washing line, I think

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    1. It's really not being your week is it? I will try to do better in future...

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    2. Sadly not - particularly when you factor in all the treats I've been serving you up over on mine this week...haha.

      Better fare tomorrow?

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    3. You also deserve better because you made me laugh so much with the line about the washing line! tomorrow I'll be pushing a Guardian piece, but it does start from a thriller....

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    4. Hope springs eternal....seeya tomorrow then!

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  4. In China white is the colour (or rather lack of colour) of mourning, which has rather put me off white flowers.
    Victorian mourning could be tough, I agree, but maybe we have gone too far the other way in not allowing ways of expressing bereavement and signalling one's vulnerable state.

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    1. You make a very good point Chrissie - mourning did have the advantage of letting everyone know that you might be fragile.
      I have a friend who was doing the flowers at church, and used beautiful white lilies, to be told by more experienced flower arrangers that this was 'very brave', as the lilies suggested death and funerals. I wouldn't have know that...

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  5. When George VI and Queen Elizabeth were getting ready for a state visit to France in 1938, the Queen's mother died suddenly. The court went into mourning and the visit was put off for three weeks. Norman Hartnell suggested that white was the traditional colour of mourning for queens in history and that instead of wearing black to Paris, she could wear white. All of the clothes he had made for her to wear in France were remade in shades of white in that three week period. Great one for setting an example, she was.

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    1. What an intriguing story, thanks Ken. The mind boggles at the project. It reminds me of a bizarre 19th Century oil painting I once saw in an exhibition, called something like 'the bride is prepared by her handmaids', showing a woman in white lying on a chair surrounded by other young women. The caption revealed that the artist had originally painted a dead girl being prepared for burial, but no-one wanted to buy that, so he painted over her dress to make it white, and re-named it. It gave a very creepy air to the picture to know that...

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    2. Could that be The Reluctant Bride by Auguste Toulmouche? Your description just seemed to match.... though I had never heard the dead girl story!

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    3. I had a look and I don't think it is, though it could be! Once you hear that story you look at all pictures of brides very suspiciously. I wish I could track down the artist - I definitely didn't make it up...

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  6. Still sounds interesting, so maybe someday, if I get interested Thirkell. You never know.

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    1. If you ever do get interested, this is definitely the one to read, my favourite of hers so far.

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