Sunday, 29 November 2015

Dress Down Sunday: Up The Attic Stairs by Angela Bull


published 1989



LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES



Up the Attic Stairs



[A young woman in the 1980s is looking at trunks of clothes in the attic of her family  home]

Beneath the dresses were underclothes. Instead of the stays and flounced petticoats worn by the Floods, Enid had had wispy chemises and cobweb camiknickers.

Gabriel carried one of Enid’s chemises to the window to study it more closely. But it hardly needed more examining. It was just a brief silk tunic, with inset bands of embroidered net and narrow shoulder-straps. Compared with Iona’s and Lettice’s things it seemed absurdly, frivolously scanty, as if it came from a different world….

Gabriel stood by the rain-spattered window, frowning at Enid’s chemise. Previously the attic had seemed haunted by the romantic, tragic days of Iona and Lettice, when banners were sewn secretly and Miss Johnson hid treasonable papers under a mattress. Enid Ashwell’s clothes signalled a startling change of mood; even, it seemed to Gabriel, a devaluation of ideals. Did emancipation merely mean short skirts and flimsy chemises? Had Ida Johnson gone to prison and [another woman] died so that Enid could dance the Charleston?
 


commentary: It’s a perfectly good question, and one Bull isn’t going to ignore or shirk. I explained in Friday’s entry how I came to read this book (thanks again Daniel Milford Cottam) and how it is the perfect Clothes in Books book. Bull is clear on the importance of clothes, and the intertwining of clothes history and women’s history.

As well as all the other ways in which clothes are important, it is very nice that an interest in clothes is not seen as anti-feminist or frivolous or irrelevant – Bull makes it clear that the story of the women’s lives is tied up in the story of the clothes, and in the way the restrictive clothes of the early years give way to something more comfortable and free. Also, there is a slight but charming love affair for one of the students, which is given due importance.

My only complaint about the book is that the relationships among the women, and the ways their stories were told, were very complex, and I had a hard time keeping track of them – there are diaries and reports from the living and dead, and the point of view switches frequently and suddenly. Any regular readers of this blog will know that I NEVER wish that books were longer – but this one I think could easily have worked as a big fat family saga, told in a linear narrative and with more of the details and clothes that the author obviously had at her fingertips. (And with a couple of family trees at the beginning.)

Daniel reminded me of the story of a note hidden in a hat – the word ‘Liberty!’ a secret symbol for the Bolshy young milliner. It’s a lovely side issue, and you long to see the hat:
black lace with crimson satin roses heaped over the wired brim…
At the time feminist publishers Virago were obviously trying to create a YA list: there are some very interesting-looking other books mentioned at the back, but the idea obviously didn’t take – you wonder if now there might be another chance for someone to launch something similar. My main thought on reading this was how much I would have loved this book as a teenager, how much my daughter would have liked it, and what a shame it isn’t available to young (and older!) women now.

The suffragette theme is important in the early part of the book, and I liked this:
The frothy petticoat had given her a new angle on the Crosthwaite suffragettes. She had thought of them as plainly dressed, in coats and skirts of brown or navy serge…
Up the Attic Stairs 1

This picture of a suffragette was first used for this entry.

Top picture is an advert for stockings from the 1920s.

More suffragettes all over the blog – click on label below, and particularly see Miss Rivers and Miss Bridges here.












17 comments:

  1. I really do think this is a fascinating way to explore history, Moira. And I do like that question - very much. It's not easy to pull off a fictional story where the purpose is (at least in part) ti share some history. It's too easy to fall into the trap of too much focus on historical detail and not enough on the plot. But it sounds as though Bull has it right here.

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    1. Yes, Margot - we've all winced at those annoying moments in historical novels, I think. But Bull has approached it very cleverly.

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  2. One point I thought was well worth noting was that the love affair for the student you mention was important in how the guy is shown as respecting the girl's decisions, trying to understand without pushing the issue, but trying to understand her and why she is behaving the way she is. And I thought that was such an important aspect of the book, especially contrasted to other, less positive relationship portrayals - that this one was about the respect of a man for a woman and his trying to understand her, rather than only thinking about what he wanted from her. Very nice.

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    1. Yes, exactly to all you say. She did a great job of telling a proper story, and if you say she had an agenda that makes is sound rather dreary, but she managed to combine the two aspects so well.

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  3. Moira, complex subplot(s) and too many characters have often spoilt an otherwise engaging novel for me. It almost feels like the author has lost the plot.

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    1. It's hard to get it right, I think - some subplots are good, but not too many, or too complex....

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  4. Here's a hat that comes very close to the Liberty Cap - tulle rather than lace, and one crimson rose rather than masses, but... close enough? Definitely right date. ;)

    http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O142701/hat-unknown/

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  5. Although this one sounds even closer to the description, although again, only two roses - but what a beautiful detail shot!
    http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O142688/hat-woolland-brothers/

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    1. They are both stunning - the second one doesn't even look like a hat, it just looks like a rose. You so should be doing something about collecting hat references for your anthology....

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    2. The second one is just a detail shot showing the rose trimming on the tulle hat - not the whole hat itself!

      I've been keeping an eye out for possible stories for the anthology, not really found any apart from Angela Bull's liberty cap, but still thinking about it. Did find a good 1840s short story in old newspapers, but it has a moralising tone so I'm undecided about that one. But it works, so I'll keep it on my shortlist.

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    3. No I did realize that, I just thought it was a stunning pic of a rose!
      Chrissie, above, recommended a Sylvia Townsend Warner story which I am looking out for. The Provincial Lady has a great bit about buying hats, though it is just a short scene. I had a childhood favourite story about a hat that I have been unable to track down - little girl going to family wedding longs for dramatic black hat, but is told she must wear something neat and suitable. On the day the wrong hat arrives, and it IS black and sweeping - but it looks terrible on her and she is devastated. All gets sorted out and she is relieved to find her little round hat. Wish I could find it again, it made such a deep impression on me as a child. (The roots of Clothes in Books!)

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  6. Interesting, but I am still not tempted.

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  7. Have you seen "Suffragette" with Carey Mulligan, fantastic actor, etc.? I can't wait to see it.

    Saw her on TV here and a clip from the movie.

    I don't think it's doing well here. Do you know it was received in Britain?

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    1. I haven't seen it, though would like to. It was quite popular and successful here, and a lot of the women I know made a big effort to see it (I feel guilty that I didn't). A great and worthwhile project.

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