Dress Down Sunday: The Brading Collection by Patricia Wentworth

 
published 1950
 

LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES


Brading Collection


She had got as far as that, when she heard a sound from below. Someone was walking along the passage from the glass door. She looked down over the railing and saw Hester Constantine come into the hall. Just for a moment Stacy did not recognise her.

She was in her nightdress, with bare feet in slippers and her hair loose on her shoulders. She held a gorgeous embroidered shawl about her. The colours of bright birds and flowers threw back the light, a scarlet fringe dripped to the floor. Stacy stared incredulously. The shawl, of course, was Myra’s. But this woman with the loosened hair and the dreaming face, was she really Hester? She was at any rate ten years younger, and twenty years better looking. She had a slow smile, and the air of a woman who is content. Stacy ran back to her room in a hurry and shut the door.
 


commentary: I have pointed out before that a distinctive shawl, especially one borrowed from someone else, is likely to be a very bad idea. This is what I said:
Here’s a tip, should you ever be visiting the strange and remarkable world of Patricia Wentworth. If someone has a very distinctive piece of clothing or accessory, something brightly-coloured and obvious, on no account borrow it. You will be murdered. It seems a particularly common idea in her books (or perhaps my choices have been coincidental.) The experienced crime fiction reader can see it coming a mile off.
But I have been confounded in this case: the shawl is purely metaphorical, suggesting a different life for Hester, and will play no part in the case. Remarkable. But it did remind me of the scene in Margery Sharp’s Eye of Love in which poor Dolores wears a
gay jumper… made from a Spanish shawl; she had made it herself.
And is meant to look laughably hideous. I said in my blog entry it was one of the most unusual and romantic scenes in all literature – I made it my first ever Valentine’s Day entry. And the photo above is the same one I used to illustrate the Sharp book – a haunting picture from the National Library of Ireland.

I looked at this book – and the multiple great outfits – in an earlier entry. It wasn’t a bad crime story, but as often with Wentworth the joy came in the details. It’s a relaxed enjoyable book with lines like this about a local businessman and philanthropist, memorialized in the town square :
It has been said that he wears the worst suit of any statue in Britain. He liked an easy fit, and the sculptor had rendered it with heroic realism.
And there is a funny scene where the angelic heroine, Stacey, goes on a disastrous date and finds herself in trouble with her friend’s aunt:
She wasn’t quite prepared to find herself cast as the vamp who had lured poor Tony from his bed, but one glance at the angry solicitous lady who opened the door to them was enough to tell her that this was, in fact, her role.
There’s one of Wentworth’s fierce old ladies – ugly, fascinating, youth in the chorus, common as muck etc etc – nothing new but still good fun. And another older woman called Dossie: her character is revealed by this comment:
her [name] Dossie should have been spelt with a B.
It took me ages to work out what this meant (bossy, for anyone as dim as I am).
The most troubling bit of the book was this about one of the characters:
Some red-haired women tan easily, and freckle too, but there are others upon whom the sun has no effect. Maida was one of them. She could bask the whole summer through upon the beach without acquiring a single freckle or the least shade of brown.
Modern readers wince at this, while being unbothered by the various immoralities, murders and thefts that feature elsewhere.

But definitely one of Wentworth’s higher-ranking books.















Comments

  1. Ah, the innocent shawl! I would've imagine it would have a significance, too, Moira. As you say, they so often do. That aside, I do like the wit Wentworth wove through some of her work. I think she could do that better than is generally believed about her.

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    1. Yes, Margot, I agree - Miss Silver can seem prim and prissy, but every so often she, and Patricia Wentworth, can surprise the reader.

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    2. I very much agree with Margot. I think Wentworth liked to poke gentle fun at Miss Silver. The many descriptions of her living room with all that loud blue is one example. Not to mention her choice of artwork: The Stag at Bay and Bubbles (although, truthfully, I've never been able to figure out which Bubbles Wentworth was referring to). I like to believe that Miss Silver, brilliant enquiry agent, had hideous taste in decor.

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    3. . But this woman with the loosened hair and the dreaming face, was she really Hester? She was at any rate ten years younger, and twenty years better looking. She had a slow smile, and the air of a woman who is content.

      Terrible old sinner that I am, when I read that paragraph I assumed Hester had just finished an enjoyable little roll in the hay.

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    4. Elizabeth, I am sure it is the Millais one here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bubbles_(painting)
      -- it was a byword for the kind of painting the governess would have. And yes, I agree, Wentworth knew what she was doing.
      Shay: I was too busy looking for murder victims, you are much closer to the truth. Just after reading your comment I read somewhere completely different a reference to 'to put it vulgarly, she looked just-shagged'. Which I think IS the vulgar idea you had! (Oh - shagged is UK talk for exactly what you think...)

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    5. ... and certainly not the Bubbles piece of modern art featuring Michael Jackson!

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  2. I'm still not convinced to return to Wentworth, Moira. So while you're trying to convince us that this tactic actually works in mysteries, I'll be hanging out at End House with the Buckley girls, trying to figure out what to wear for the fireworks display! Bright clothing indeed!

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    1. Ah yes indeed, Brad - whatever could have made you think of them! Make sure you take your hat.

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  3. This is a great post, and if I had not just picked up a Jill McGown book to reread, I might have picked a Wentworth as my next read. I am trying hard to read only books by women authors this month.

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    1. Now you are making me want to read another McGown - I am rationining myself though, there aren't enough of them. I'll see which one you write about...

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    2. I am reading Murder ... Now and Then and you have already posted on it. I did not read your post again yet because I have forgotten everything about the book and I am loving it.

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    3. oh that was good. I need to look at a list to see what the next one is - I am vaguely trying to read them in order this time.

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  4. If Maida neither tanned nor freckled in the sun, she probably burned and blistered (I have that skin).

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    1. I'm not saying whether she survives the book, but I think if she does she'd be a certainty for skin cancer by now...

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  5. Dossie with a 'B' -- was she calling her a cow? Of all the British insults that's the one I'd most resent being called. It's always spit out with such disdain.

    Re: freckles. I was reading an old People magazine at the hair dresser's on Saturday, and they showed several actresses sans any makeup at all. Minnie Driver has a ton of freckles, and I never knew. I think she looked glorious!

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    1. So Americans wouldn't call someone a cow then? Interesting. It has a long history here: it's vicious but it's not a swear word so I suppose can be used more freely.
      I always liked freckles, and had a few myself, but lately they've been reminding me of those scans people have done showing skin damage from the sun.
      But I do always think Minnie Driver looks good.

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  6. Yes, it's used, but not as often here. And the other 'c' word is used a lot in the UK, but is considered one of worst words here and would definitely not be heard in polite society.

    Before I retired I always word make-up with sunscreen (and now I just wear sunscreen), so I have no freckles on my face. My arms are speckled like crazy, though! I do like the look of freckles, but it's not worth the risk these days....

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    1. When we lived in the US I understood that 'bitch' was regarded as quite a serious word to use? Because that wouldn't be seen as too bad here in the UK. these nuances are fascinating, aren't they?
      We have to be so wary of the sun these days...

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    2. Oddly, 'bitch' doesn't seem all that bad anymore. Oh, it's still used as an insult, but I know a lot of people who use it playfully. As I sometimes do with my sister and close friends. Feminism "taking back" the word?

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    3. That's the way it has gone in the UK I would say, there's a cheeky quality, and women use it to each other as friends.

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  7. Unsurprisingly, not feeling it I'm afraid

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    1. I think you should steer well clear of Patricia Wentworth...

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