Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Post-War Books: Spinster’s Secret part 2– The Hats



the book: The Spinster’s Secret by Anthony Gilbert

published 1946



Spinster hat 2

[Miss Martin wants to sneak out from the old people’s home where she lives]

If the hat remained on the bed, where it could be seen by Matron through the open door, it would naturally be assumed that she herself was in the house. Nothing would have induced Miss Martin to go into the street without a hat, and everybody knew it. But Mrs Mount [Miss Martin’s roommate] kept what she called her garden hat – a floppy black crinoline affair with red roses on it – in the hall, and Miss Martin was guilefully forming a plan by which she could escape from the house wearing the garden hat, by which trick she would, if seen, be mistaken for its owner, the two ladies being not unlike from behind, and wearing much the same sort of clothes. Though, come to that, most old ladies in homes dress very much alike.

 
Spinster's Secret


observations: Should be read in conjunction with earlier entry on the book.


So much of clothes interest here – not being able to go outside hatless was certainly true for a lady of her generation who wanted to keep her respectability, and that continued for quite a time. In this case she wants to go out detecting, so goes up to her room to get her hat. She is caught, and has to pretend she is doing some mending, but is forced to leave the hat on her bed. And now she has the great idea above…

There’s not much in the way of sweet old ladies and solidarity in the home: Mrs Mount doesn’t take the borrowing of her hat lightly. There is a most unnerving scene where she destroys Miss Martin’s hat in revenge, and you fear she may be going even further.


Spinster hat 3


A crinoline hat has turned up on the blog before, in a Josephine Tey entry. The phrase is very hard to pin down – the best I can do is that it is a large hat with a wide brim. ‘Crinoline’ wasn’t originally the petticoat, or the framework a skirt sat on: it was a very stiff material made of horsehair – so I’m guessing the hat is made of it too. Also hoping one of my expert blogfriends might be able to tell me more.

The question of garden hats is one we looked at before, in the works of Wilkie Collins.

Miss Martin sends a telegram arranging a meeting, and for recognition purposes says she will be ‘wearing parsley’. I assumed this was going to be a mis-transcription, and she would be wearing paisley, but I was quite wrong: she has a ‘green nosegay pinned to the shabby coat.’

Writing about another Anthony Gilbert book I complained that there are ends left loose,and it was exactly the same here.  There are 12 pages of explanation at the end, but – and this is completely bizarre - the ultimate fate of one of the key characters is not revealed to us. The whole book is about this person’s future, so it is both puzzling, and inexplicable, and somewhat insulting to the reader, not to tell us.

As with Agatha Christie (and very much not with Josephine Tey, always happy to give us her own opinions) characters are given strong opinions, and it is not at all clear whether the writer would agree with them or not:
At 40 it was ridiculous for a woman to talk of wanting to live her own life. .. True, she talked a lot of nonsense about her work, but it transpired that she only ran an art shop…
The 40-year-old is a most unsympathetic character who won’t help out Miss Martin, so it really is not clear whether Gilbert thinks this herself…

There is also the frequent post-War idea that being in domestic service was going to be a splendid fate: ‘plummy jobs – home helps practically rule the roost.’ Again, it’s not clear if Gilbert thinks this, but the trope in books is always from people who will never have to do it themselves. (eg in Christie’s 4.50 From Paddington: Lucy Eyelesbarrow is quite splendid and we all love her, but still the whole thing is a fairy-tale, surely.)


Spinster hat 4

The second picture down is from the Library of Congress, and seems the most likely fit for the actual hat. But as in the previous entry, I wanted to cheer Miss M up, so found two more great hat pics from The Athenaeum website – by Lovis Corinth, by Maurice Prendergast – and brought back an old favourite by William Orpen, featured several times on the site, most recently for Mrs ‘Arris – it is an all-purpose hat picture.













14 comments:

  1. I'll bear this one in mind, should I ever suffer a bout of insomnia, might be just the job!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Oh I am definitely going to track this one down Moira...I was tempted after the first post but am smitten now. I do so love hats. I am generally grateful when reading older books that I wasn't around then but I do lament the loss of hat-wearing culture.

    Having spent a fair bit of time in nusing homes of late I can confirm that sweet little old ladies in solidarity are thin on the ground. \

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I loved the real specificity of this particular dilemma for Miss Martin, and the glimpse of another life. I feel perhaps a modern writer doing historical fiction - however well-researched - might not think of this particular situation. And yes, I agree with you about sweet old ladies....

      Delete
  3. What a great discussion of the importance of wearing hats, Moira! And of course, it always used to be that way. You simply didn't go out without one. And it's interesting how personalities interact in care homes and old age homes. There's lots under the surface there sometimes, and that scene where the hat is destroyed really doesn't shock me on that level. Disturbing, but one can envision it (or perhaps that's just me). Oh, and I'm with you: I like major questions answered in a novel - like the fate of one of the major characters. Still, I am interested in this book. May have to find a copy.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Not a perfect book, but those details make it well worth a read....

      Delete
  4. Have just read Martin's wonderful book, The Golden Age of Murder, and there was a famous murder when a man called Rouse tried to fake his own death by setting fire to his car with someone else in it and in part was given away by the fact when he was seen escaping from the scene, though he was smartly dressed, he wasn't wearing a hat. This was 1930. I wonder when it stopped being de rigeur?
    Love these hats. In fact, I love hats anyway and will wear one at the drop of a . . .

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's such a good question. When you look at old pictures of sporting events, everyone in the crowd is wearing a hat... it would be so interesting to get an idea for dates, both for men and for women.
      Yep me too, hats in fiction and hats in real life and hats in art....

      Delete
  5. Crinoline is a kind of horsehair/nylon woven fabric which would have been used for stiffening petticoats - same purpose as the underwear. So yes, it's a stiff type of hat.

    There's a LOVELY hat story in "Up The Attic Stairs" that I was delighted to rediscover (I really don't envy you trying to cover this one when you get round to it - so much in it that you would be spoilt for choice!)

    Joanne Harris also wrote a FABULOUS short story about two old ladies escaping from a care home to go to London and buy highly inappropriate red shoes - it's in "Jigs and Reels" and it's just lovely. I think you'd enjoy this collection!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Daniel - I guessed you might be able to tell me about crinolines. I do have Up The Attic Stairs, in the pile, waiting to get to it. You do a good job selling it. I love hats in books, and hats any old way really....

      Delete
  6. I never realized that hats were so important in 1946. Very interesting. And nice images to go with the topic.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. My mother and grandmother used to talk about it - a respectable woman just could not go out unless she was wearing a hat. I wonder if it was different in the USA?

      Delete
  7. I wonder if there were Lucy Eyelesbarrows out there to give AC the idea -- it sounds a wholly exhausting career, especially given how old-fashioned so many of the facilities would have been, not to mention the rationing, etc.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes indeed - I know all that, and still get entranced with Lucy E, I don't know why, goes against every socialist bone in my body. Christie never lived without servants, but at her holiday house in Devon complains that when she had it refurbished (just post-war) she would have done it quite differently if she'd known how few servants she would have in future. (distance from kitchen to dining-room etc.)

      Delete