My dear old mother-in-law once summed up the case for the traditional, and too often accurate, representation of a parson’s wife as a tired, plain, dowdy little lady, by saying: “Remember, my dear, what a congregation likes is that one should look as if one had seen better days!” … Luckily [I] got some really good tweeds for Dick’s last School Sports, so that the middle of me, at any rate, comes up to my mother-in-law’s standard, and looks as if I had seen Better Days.
[But she needs a new hat and goes shopping]
I insisted that I wanted something in the tone of my darkish blue-grey tweed, and if I couldn’t match it (as I knew I shouldn’t) probably black would be best, and size seven at least…I discarded a matron’s hat, with a high ruche of black velvet (15s. 6d.), a turquoise blue saucer, and a grey soup-plate, and saw to my horror that the time was already twenty to one, and that my hairpins were rapidly losing the battle with my last grey curls. It was with infinite relief that I saw Madame Burt appear, with the look of a conspirator, and announcing aloud that she had loved Mr. Lacely’s sermon on Tuesday, and how ever did he find time to read up all about those old monks, produced… a charming, sedate, little stitched corduroy velvet hat. It was almost exactly the colour of my tweed, though not, as Madame Burt flatteringly insisted, the colour of my eyes; it was big enough; it looked as if it was still seeing better days; and it was certainly becoming.
commentary: Also in consideration is a yellow beret and a leopard patterned porkpie hat – it’s good to be reminded that everything didn’t go completely dismal with the War. (Clothes rationing didn’t come in till a year later, in 1941.) Mrs Lacely is the vicar’s wife, and she needs a new hat to have lunch with the Archdeacon. As she and her husband arrive for this event:
“Do you like it, Arthur?” I whispered feverishlySome things don’t change.
“Your pretty new gown?” asked Arthur, affectionately. “It’s charming, my dear, and makes you look quite different. Now you must let me buy you a new hat!” I don’t know if women really dress for men or not, but they certainly should not bother about their husbands.
This is a light, easy read: written and published in 1940, and now rediscovered and republished by the wonderful Furrowed Middlebrow and Dean St Press, who are having a terrible effect on my TBR piles, but whom I forgive because they are bringing back all these marvellous lost joys. If you like these kinds of books, do yourself a favour and take a look at their list.
Mrs Lacely is struggling with the food and the shortage of servants, in a large house in the middle of an industrial town not far from Manchester. (Her house sounded very similar to mine, and I was interested to read how impossible it was without a staff of servants, and how no-one would ever want to buy it…)
It's a charmer, and pulls you in – I heard about it, downloaded it, and had read it in no time at all, when I had many other things that I ought to have been reading. It was a surprise afterwards to find out that Peck never had been a vicar’s wife in such a place. Her family background is intriguing: she was one of the Knoxes, so omnipresent in all kinds of aspects of British posh life in the 20th century – Ronald Knox, friend of Evelyn Waugh, was her brother. (He converted to Catholicism, but most of her family were devout Anglicans.)
So she knew whereof she wrote. The book is in the form of a diary – a week in the life of Mrs L, during Lent. It doesn’t hold back from discussing quite complex religious and philosophical matters, including pacifism, and whether it is acceptable to pray for victory, and free will. All this amid comments such as
the solitary advantage of the War has been to discourage the bigger Bazaars and Sales of Work which form so large a part of a clergy wife’s duties in ordinary days.and funny asides from the comic maidservant.
I always enjoy a homefront book, particularly ones written at the time, and there are many of them on the blog. Chrissie Poulson and I did one of our joint bloglists on the topic, so you can read a roundup here – including my favourite 21st century writer on the era, Lissa Evans. Chrissie introduced me to Joyce Dennis’s marvelous Henrietta books, and there is a scene outside a hatshop in my blogpost here.
A matron's hat (and I really do recommend that you go and look at the picture) features in an entry on Margery Sharp's The Nutmeg Tree. Nancy Mitford in The Pursuit of Love says your hand-knitted jumper should 'go with' but not match your tweeds, so the new hat sounds good.
Mrs Lacely reads aloud to the good ladies of the parish at a sewing party, and she chooses (rather than the suggested George Eliot) to read Angela Thirkell, and EM Delafield, both great blog favourites. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady is from 1932, but is almost the ur-text for such books - entertaining descriptions of life by observant, amusing, long-suffering women – and we have featured hat-buying from that book on the blog too. (For a long time, Delafield’s Diary and James Joyce’s Ulysses were the books most featured on the blog, a happy chance I thought, indicating our wide range and favoured era. I must count up and see if that has changed.)
The pictures of shopping for hats in 1942 (and allow me a boast - aren't they perfect for that extract?) were taken for the UK Ministry of Information: the Imperial War Museum now holds them and has kindly made them available.