the book: The Spinster’s Secret by Anthony Gilbert
[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.
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.
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.)
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.