Xmas Gifts: Feather boas and misery

Every year I do a series of Xmas entries on the blog, helped and encouraged by suggestions and recommendations from my lovely readers. You can see some of the pictures in this entry, and find (endless!) more Xmas books via the tags at the bottom of the page. 

Penny plain by O Douglas

published 1920

Penny Plain

[At the end of the Xmas party at the Jardines]

“Well,” said Miss Watson, “it’s been a very pleasant evening, though I wouldn’t wonder if I had a nightmare about that funeral pyre ... I always think, don’t you, that there’s something awful pathetic about Christmas?  You never know where you may be before another.”

One of the guests, a little music-teacher, said: “The worst of Christmas is that it brings back to one’s mind all the other Christmasses and the people who were with us then....”

Bella Bathgate’s voice was heard talking to Mrs. M’Cosh at the door:  “I dinna believe in keeping Christmas; it’s a popish festival.  New Year’s the time.  Ye can eat yer currant-bun wi’ a relish then.  Guid-nicht, then, and see ye lick that ill laddie for near settin’ the hoose on fire.  It’s no’ safe, I tell ye, to live onywhere near him noo that he’s begun thae tricks.  Baith Peter an’ him are fair Bolsheviks ...  Did I tell ye that Miss Reston sent me a grand feather-boa—­grey, in a present?  I’ve aye had a notion o’ a feather-boa, but I dinna ken how she kent that.  And this is no’ yin o’ the skimpy kind; it’s fine and fussy and soft ...  Here, did the Lord send Miss Jean a present?...  I doot he’s aff for guid.  Weel, weel, guid-nicht.”

With a heightened colour Jean said good-night to her guests, separated Mhor from his train, and sent him with Jock to bed.

As she went upstairs, Bella Bathgate’s words rang in her ears dismally: “I doot he’s aff for guid.”

commentary: For all I said in a previous entry that I wasn’t enamoured of this book, the Christmas chapters are very good. This passage contains a lot that is admirable: the guests are funny and absurd with their whining complaints – but on the other hand, throughout the book you never forget that this is 1920, and the Great War is stuck in everyone’s memories, and everyone has lost someone.

I was confused by the phrase ‘I doot he’s aff for guid’, which I at first thought meant ‘I doubt he’s gone for good’ ie ‘I’m sure he’ll be back’ – but it’s clear from the context that it means the opposite: ‘I don’t doubt that he’s gone for good.’

(In case you were worried for poor Jean: he hasn’t gone for good.)

Then, I was very interested in the feather boa – I’d have thought it was rather a flighty item, indicating a good-time girl (too many images of 1920s flappers) – the picture above is from a 1919 silent film called The Brat, and the young woman on the right in the boa, the lovely Alla Nazimova, is meant to be a very nice girl, but one with a past.

But Bella Bathgate is the height of respectability, and this present is from her lodger, an Honourable.

And – more evidence - earlier on there is a discussion of how the minister’s wife should look:
“What would you call ’ladylike’?” Pamela asked.
“Well, a good height, you know, and a nice figure and a pleasant face and tidy hair.  The sort of person that looks well in a grey coat and skirt and a feather boa.”
So a very proper accessory – and what a great gift, in all its non-skimpy glory, ‘fine and fussy and soft’. We should all be so lucky.

The picture is from Wikimedia Commons. I was interested to see that Alla Nazimova, the star, was a producer on the film, which may have been rare for a woman in 1919. The film was remade several times.


  1. Oh, there's definitely something about a feather boa, isn't there, Moira? I'm glad you found that this one at least had some chapters in it that you liked, even if the whole thing wasn't to your liking. Interesting about that expression, too. Funny how things sometimes mean the exact opposite of how they sound.

    1. Yes, I guess it's a rare book that's so bad there's nothing good in it! And I did very much enjoy finding out about feather boas...

  2. "Ostrich, marabou, chandelle, and turkey are the most common feathers used" says Wikipedia. Called "boas" after the snake. Heyday in the 1880s? Stayed on as stripper's prop, like Edwardian button boots and corsets.

    1. Just reading a book set in Paris 1890s with plenty featuring. There was a little sub-trope of ostrich farms wasn't there? People were going to make their fortune, off to South Africa to raise the valuable blighters. But then presumably fashions changed, no more ostrich feathers in hats and boas, and the farms failed.

    2. There was a pretty big ostrich farm in Pasadena (California) in the early 20th century. I imagine they "harvested" the feathers, but my understanding was that it was mostly a tourist attraction -- complete with ostrich rides!

    3. Yes, I can imagine that. A good combination for making money both ways.

  3. Replies
    1. Like computer startups in the late 90s...

    2. I think there was a vogue for chicken farming in the 20s as well. Vera Findlater in Unnatural Death thinks she and Mary Whittaker might try running a poultry farm (till MW bashes her over the head).

    3. Oh yes, I don't know of any descriptions in real life, but we can certainly come up with examples in books! Great one Susanna.


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