We couldn’t quite manage a Royal Wedding special post, but this is a very useful piece about making do and mending, and getting the most out of a bridesmaid’s dress
Murder While You Work by Susan Scarlett(pseudonym of Noel Streatfeild)
Mrs Former and Miss Rose were as excited about Judy’s dance as though they were going to it themselves. Judy had a yellow organdie frock, the result of being a bridesmaid to a fellow VAD. It was a pretty but, she had thought, almost useless dress, for yellow organdie with a bronze and orange twisted sash hardly seemed to have a place in the war. She had, in fact, brought it with her more with the idea of cutting up its slip for underclothes than with the intention of wearing it; but now that Shirley had assured her that a long frock would not be out of place, she was delighted that she owned such a garment, if only for the intense pleasure it gave to Mrs Former and Miss Rose.
Miss Rose insisted on being in charge of the ironing and pressing. “You give it to me, dear. Organdie has to look fresh as fresh or it’s nothing, I always say, and you haven’t time to do it. You give it to me and I’ll have it so you wouldn’t know it had ever been worn.”
Mrs Former stroked the organdie. “I do love to see young girls in pretty things. There are not nearly enough pretty things for young girls in this war.”
commentary: I’m pretty sure the excellent Sarra Manning recommended this to me – not that I needed much persuasion, as I love all Streatfeild books, and also very much enjoy any novel about the Home Front during WW2 (see this list).
As it happens, around the same time I watched an amazing Brit b/w film called Millions Like Us, after a forceful recommendation from Lissa Evans. She has special insight into wartime film-making – see Their Finest (aka Their Finest Hour and a Half) – and says Millions is one of her favourite films. After watching it – on the noble Talking Pictures TV channel which is loved by many though very much under the radar – I can quite see why. It is theoretically a propaganda film, meant to raise morale, but it is a lot more subtle and nuanced than that: great acting, great dialogue, great clothes – and an air of total conviction, you feel life in wartime Britain really was like that.
Both the film and the book feature young women being conscripted to go to work in munitions factories, setting off to unknown territory. In Murder While You Work, Judy travels there by train, encountering a nice young man along the way: there is a worry she will ladder her stockings while looking for a lost lipstick – just the kind of detail I like (see also this recent book on the blog, in which ‘she’d got on the wrong stockings for her dress, and her lipstick all crooked, so I think things are pretty grim’ is a key sentence.)
Judy has been billeted on a local family, and she hears some strange things about them. It becomes apparent that the crime plot is going to be in the house (I was rather disappointed, as I thought the title suggested it was going to be murder over the production line – didn’t they do that in Foyle’s War once?) and in fact the book is more of an old-fashioned domestic gothic, with nasty goings on, questions of inheritance and ownership, and not much doubt as to who is good and who bad.
But it is a compelling horrible plot by the baddies, and you can’t predict where the book is going at various points – there are some features that read oddly to modern eyes, and one might almost have some sympathy with the villain, though fortunately out and out wickedness cuts that short. And the details of life are marvellous: the rationing, the black market, the picnic with the smuggled chicken. The romance, though predictable, is nicely and lightly done, without too much silliness. I was interested that Judy had first worked as a volunteer nursing assistant (the VADs mentioned above) but had decided she hated nursing, “I’m not a Florence Nightingale girl”, and chose to make shells instead. In the film Millions Like Us there is a blissful sequence where the young girl imagines her wartime life as a succession of marvellous and unlikely moments where she is terribly brave, saves lives and meets rather wonderful men - it is hilarious. It’s good to be reminded that people were as self-aware, and fussy, and satirical as we are: it was not all overlaid with heroism and high principles in the war.
B/W photo of 1940s bridesmaid from the Auckland War Memorial Museum, probably the most realistic. But IF the yellow dress had been saved from before the war,it might have looked like the second set…
Both pictures of munitions girls from the marvellous IWM collection. The girls doing their ironing were living in a hostel, but obviously I had to use it. © IWM (L 149)
The second picture, also from the IWM collection, is of a hostel for war workers – the toothbrusher lives in a hostel with other similarly-placed young women, very much like the women in this book.