Up The Attic Stairs by Angela Bull

published 1989

Up the Attic Stairs 2

[Gabriel] opened the photograph album and found a family group, dated 1909, and posed at Springfield.

Mary Flood, seated in an oak chair and wearing a high-necked dress and a hat piled with roses, was the centre and focus of the picture. On one side her husband displayed his dignified profile.

UP the Attic Stairs[Gabriel] opened the trunk marked ‘Lettice’. 

Its contents reflected a dream of Edwardian girlhood. There were pretty silk blouses, chiffon and taffeta evening dresses, and something heavy in white satin, which Gabriel guessed might be a wedding dress. The colours – misty greens and greys, rose pinks – seemed ideally chosen for the fair girl in the photograph.

D 12269

[October 1940: Enid owns a shop:] ‘It would be frightful if the shop was bombed now,’ she remarked over supper…. ‘I’ve had such a stroke of luck! My suppliers have got me a consignment of French silk dresses. Don’t ask me how, but they’ll cheer my customers wonderfully.’

commentary:    Daniel Milford Cottam is a good friend to this blog, and this was one of his suggestions – a while back, when we were discussing children/books/time-travelling/costumes. This is what he said:
Another book I just remembered was "Up the Attic Stairs" by Angela Bull, about a girl who finds trunks of clothes in the attic that belonged to previous generations of women in her family and a diary and she reads about the stories of her aunts, grandmother, etc.
I ordered a copy straight away, and that’s nearly a year ago, but have only just got round to reading it (despite the odd gentle nudge from Daniel!) and my goodness it’s a treasure. Daniel and I have been agreeing that it was hard to find just one or two items to illustrate – I could’ve done a week’s worth of posts, and my copy is awash with post-it notes. There will be another entry later…

The book opens with a group of students in a shared house, who are asked to help with fund-raising for a hospital in Sudan: the woman who founded the hospital once lived in their house. We follow the story of the student sharers – one of whom has a connection with a big house in the town. Via their attempts to do a fund-raiser we hear the past story of the house, and the women connected with it, from early in the 20th century to the date of writing in the late 1980s. So the story starts with suffragettes, goes on to WW1, the increased freedoms for women in the 20s and 30s, the changes and dangers brought by WW2, and the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 70s. It is all very keyed to women’s rights and lives. Refreshingly, not everyone is brave, or perfect, or committed to the cause. One of the modern young women doesn’t really understand why her mother broke up the nuclear home to join a women’s collective. Another character is quite horrible, but you can also sympathize with her slightly – her mother was so committed to the cause and to the women she was helping, in what was virtually a commune, that the daughter felt unloved and neglected.

And I haven’t even mentioned the clothes yet: the link among these different strands is that there are trunks and boxes full of clothes and hats in the attic, and Gabriel, one of the modern students, is particularly interested in them – she has designer skills, and becomes obsessed with the garments. (The book is always teetering over the edge into something supernatural, and ghosts, but stays just on the rationalist side.)

All of it is very well-done – the 1980s students with their women’s groups and horrible parties and student journalism are particularly convincing. Gabriel likes to wear black to ‘express her feeling of alienation’. Francis is tall and thin with a ‘long loose coat’ and spidery hands. And here they are, I venture to suggest:

Up attic stairs 4 Honey 86 couple
-- from a late 80s copy of the revered and fondly-remembered  fashion magazine Honey.

Family group is from Northern Ireland Records office.

The shop picture is from the ever-wonderful Imperial War Museum collection – those dresses don’t look like French silk, tbh, but the pic does show a wartime department store and its offerings.

More suffragettes all over the blog – click on the label below. The House of Arden by E Nesbit was the book leading to the original discussions.

YA classics dealing with WW2 include Lydia Syson’s Burning Summer and Jill Paton Walsh’s Fireweed.

And thanks again to Daniel for a solid-gold tipoff.


  1. I've been thinking about this recently - I would love to put together a charity anthology of hat tales (short stories, etc...) just to have an excuse to use the wonderful self-contained excerpt about the rose-trimmed hat with the hidden note which is practically a short story in the middle of the narrative.

    It IS an amazing book - I remembered reading it for the clothes when I was younger, I loved all the clothes stuff. But when I revisited it last year for the first time in nearly 20 years, I was just stunned to realise that it was a wonderful book on other levels. It's not really dated much, has it?

    I've never consciously read anything else by Angela Bull - everything else she's written does appear to be aimed for young children, or historical figure biographies for slightly older children. I can't shake the feeling though that "Up The Attic Stairs" is her masterpiece and anything else would feel a bit lacking in comparison. Maybe I should give "The Winter Phantoms" a go though. that looked quite interesting.

    1. Love the idea of the hat anthology, you should SO do that!
      Yes it is an excellent book by any standards, such a shame it's been forgotten. I haven't come across the author anywhere, but it would be interesting to see what else she wrote.
      Another entry coming on Sunday ...

  2. Didn't Angela Bull write a book about Noel Streatfeild? I'll look it up in a minute. And Honey was much more than a fashion magazine, it had everything for the older teenage girl; I'm of an age
    to have taken it from its launch and I remember a huge fuss because the illustration to an episode of its serial showed the boy and the girl sitting on the same bed!
    Anyway, I love the sound of this book and am now going hunting

    1. Oh that would be so interesting if she wrote about Streatfeild, I would love to read that. And yes, Honey was a great magazine, my favourite for years. My first published piece of writing was in Honey in fact. And yes, they were controversial - I remember a fuss because they did an article on contraception possibilities for unmarried women. Times have changed.

  3. What a great way to tell a story, Moira! You see the progression through the generations, and it's all tied in with the 'modern' stories of the various characters, too. Love it. And all that great clothes information, too. Little wonder you liked it.

  4. Hmm, glad you enjoyed but no thanks.

  5. All fascinating. This had better go on my TBR list. A hat anthology, yes please! There is a good hat story by Sylvia Townsend Warner, I seem to recall. I am tempted to write one myself. And is there any more evocative a period than a woman's magazine?

    1. Yes, it really is worth pursuing I think - it's not perfect, but different from so much that is on offer, and a real strong book about real strong women. And yes, hat anthology... I can think of a few.

  6. You know, it's a very Kate Atkinson kind of book isn't it? Although obviously it predates Kate Atkinson - when you said about the almost-but-not-quite supernatural elements, it just joggled that in my brain and made me make the connection.

    1. Yes, very good point that hadn't occurred to me.
      You're getting some support for the hat anthology idea...

  7. This book sounds fascinating and I will let you read it for me.

    1. With my doing two entries on it, you practically will have read it...


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