Sunday, 31 May 2015

Dress Down Sunday: The Holiday by Stevie Smith


published 1949



LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES






Lopez was standing by the table with a worried look, the table had the usual typewriter on it and a lot of crumbs, also a half-eaten melon, a jug of burnt cocoa and some pieces of bread and butter and a tin of Australian plum jam with the jam in a splodge on the tumbled tablecloth, you know? She was singing, too, what an irritating girl. ‘I don’t know which to put on,’ she said, turning to me, she had a red turban twisted round her head. She had on her bustbodice, a rucked-up vest, some aertex drawers. (So I built up the picture, I was getting quite warmed to it by now, oh, how I relish this picture.) What goes well with Lopez, I said, is that sort of underwear. A glance at the high-class ladies’ papers with their headache captions— each caption is a headache, I knew a girl who worked on ’em— puts one off the other sort, my word it does. One fancies honest underclothes. Lopez was looking rather comical— which one shall I put on? You know, Tiny, I hate the fashion girl with her famous old fashion slant. It is fashion, fashion, fashion all the way. Evidently a person of discrimination, ahem. Oh, leave it, leave it, you horrible fashion girl, be careless, lively, negligent and dirty. I love grubby girls, Tiny, with the hair in their eyes, and the pastel-coloured features screwed in absurd concentration. The fashion slant is smug, careful, sly, furtive and withholding.



observations: There’s a lot to look at with this one.

Important blogfriend Lucy Fisher, after reading the recent list of post-war books on the blog, said
in the comments:
Stevie Smith just crossed out "war" and replaced with "postwar" in one of her books - The Holiday - wd love your opinion. Very strange. Middle-class people sitting around a dining table for one of those interminable meals and they all start quietly weeping...
… so naturally I had to download and read the book straightaway.

You think Lucy can’t mean exactly what that sounds like re dates? Think again. Hard to credit, but obviously true: The introduction to my edition explains:
It took Stevie Smith some years to find a publisher for this novel, which she wrote and set in the England of the Second World War. When it was finally published in 1949, she was obliged to alter all its references to the current war to a more topical phenomenon she called ‘the post-war’; and the book’s original typescript shows how, by a few changes in the wording, she gave political discussions like the ones on India a new validity for 1949.
‘Strange’ is really inadequate as a description. It’s a bizarre mixture of literary novel and diary and memoir. The details of the heroine’s life resemble Smith’s to a close-ish degree. Celia works in London, has many rather Bohemian friends and goes to the sort of parties familiar to anyone reading books of that era. She writes poems, which are reproduced throughout the book.

Then she goes on holiday to her uncle’s house, with her cousin Casmilus. She loves him, but they fear they are half-brother and sister. Other people turn up – they all eat rough-and-ready meals, and, as Lucy says, they cry a lot.

On the train journey they have a nicely-described picnic:
We had cress and spam sandwiches, ginger biscuits, a large whale-oil cake from Benthun’s, a tea kettle and some tea in mesh bags. I gave Tiny the mesh bags. A rich mean relation in Seattle, State of Washington, had sent them to Auntie for a Christmas present instead of candies.
Everyone discusses politics endlessly. Basil (who seems to be based on George Orwell) is given these views:
Eventually England would have to choose between money and kids, because under capitalism people would not have kids, it was too much to ask... He said that America would be the ruin of the moral order, he said that the more gadgets women had and the more they thought about their faces and their figures, the less they wanted to have children, he said that he happened to see an article in an American woman’s magazine about scanty panties, he said women who thought about scanty panties never had a comfortable fire burning in the fire-place, or a baby in the house, or a dog or cat or a parrot…
My favourite bit in the book was probably this -
Captain Maulay began to talk about a lady Pythoness he frequents in the King’s Road. She is called Madame Sopa.
-- I was astonished to find that ‘pythoness’ is a real word, and means a woman who practises divination. Perhaps looking something like this:



I was helpless before this book – it was annoying, simultaneously trivial and portentous, sub-Joycean, and didn’t (for the most part) use quotation marks. I wanted to say to Smith ‘how dare you assume I will be fascinated your dreary thoughts?’ – but in fact I was. I read the book almost straight through on two train journeys (no-one brought me whale-oil cake) – I just wanted to carry on reading. The vague, modernist, stream of consciousness style – the passage above is a fair sample - should have been off-putting, but kept my interest. I had been reading quite a few war and post-war murder stories, and it made a bracing change to be offered something with a difficult and demanding writing style.

Stevie Smith is most famous for her poetry, and really for one line: ‘Not waving but drowning’. She also, apparently, popularized the phrase ‘A good time was had by all’, which she said she took from church magazines and pushed into common currency.

Top pictures from Grace’s guide to British Industrial History. Aertex – a cellular fabric with little holes – means school sportswear to many of us. It has been described as ‘the first performance fabric’ – it was invented in 1888. Pythoness from the Library of Congress.

12 comments:

  1. Oh, this is one of my recent acquisitions (a lovely old Virago which is on the floor by my armchair even as I write this)), because I loved Novel on Yellow Paper, which is the first of Smith's trilogy, and is utterly compelling, and totally unlike anything else I have ever read. I'm only a few pages iin with The Holiday, but I'll look out for underwear!

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    1. I will be interested to hear what you make of it, Christine, because as I try to explain above I had a love-hate relationship with it.

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  2. "whale-oil cake". I had to google that, of course - used in post-war margarine. Cannot imagine how horrid that would have been.

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    1. I know. A definite yuk-factor, I mean it might have been nice but it just sounds horrid. And goodness knows what else was in margarine. I liked the (obviously new and unusual) teabags, and the fact that sweets/candy would have been better.

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  3. Wow, I'm curious to read this one. Love the description of 'the fashion slant'. And 'pythoness' - brilliant, going to try and find a reason to work that into conversation soon...

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    1. Oh yes! I'll have to try that - 'you're such a pythoness' I shall say to a friend who is predicting disaster....

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  4. This does sound like an unusual and interesting book, Moira. I'm not usually one for the stream-of-consciousness approach, myself, although I know it can work. Not sure I'd care much for the self-involvement, either, but I'm glad you got caught up in the story enough to finish it.

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    1. Definite curiosity value for me, but I am not recommending everyone to read it Margot!

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  5. What about her strange visions of crashed pilots? Why does she fall to the floor in the office lavatory and say "Oh, it tears! It tears!"?

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    1. No idea. At least a quarter of it was wholly inexplicable.

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    2. Sounds like her period to me. I haven't read this one, but I did acquire a nice early Penguin of Novel on Yellow Paper, just to read the first stream of consciosness novel. I liked it, but there was a lot of 'poor me, poor me' (though don't we all think like that some of the time?

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    3. I read Yellow Paper a long time ago, Sarah, and couldn't make much sense of it - I might be more patient with it if I read it now.

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