Phyllis thought she might look for a new pair of shoes for the ball.
Patricia had already devoted some energy to her dress for the night and had unearthed an ostrich feather fan that she planned to suspend from her waist with a rope of artificial pearls. They had both bought new evening gloves for the occasion.
They went up to see the dress that Sarita had had made for the ball. By luck, it had arrived that very morning. It was palest mauve velvet, with hundreds of little pearl buttons down the back and a scooped neck, trimmed with ermine. With it was a little evening cape in ermine, lined with glossy silk a shade darker than the dress itself.
‘It’s the colour of a shadow, yes?’ said Sarita. ‘like a shadow on the snow.'
commentary: Cressida Connolly wrote one of my favourite non-fiction books: the 2004 The Rare and the Beautiful, the story of the notorious and beautiful Garman sisters, who cut a swathe through literary and artistic circles in Great Britain in the first two-thirds of the 20th Century. Connolly told their story in a memorable and enchanting and ultimately melancholy way: rarely has a biography affected me so much.
So naturally I wanted to read her novel: and I was glad I knew nothing about it (her name alone had made me ask for a review copy). There is a feature of it that is widely disseminated in the publicity, it is no secret or spoiler, but I liked coming upon it for myself. When young(ish) married sisters and their husbands get involved in a political movement in England in the 1930s, my first guess would be that they were socialists or communists. But I realized very quickly (the name Cimmie….) that here it is Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts, and the British Union of Fascists.
It’s a brave move for an author to make. At first glance the book must seem as though it falls into a different genre: rich families, three sisters, secrets, something that wrenches them apart, the looming knowledge of WW2, a big party that is going to end in something bad. But the specifics in this book are very much not what you might be expecting, and the political content is harsh and dark.
Anyone well-read in the general area will recognize much of what is going on: the strong plot is linked in with the politics and the gossip of the time. On the blog before now I have often featured the Mitford sisters, and Diana Mitford, who married Oswald Mosley, has had her own blogposts.
The book is framed by an older woman, one of the key characters, remembering what happened in the past, and making it clear that she was in prison, and the she did a terrible wrong. It is possible that the different strands of the story don’t mesh perfectly, and some of the motivations for certain actions didn’t seem strong enough, but I very much admire Connolly’s efforts here: she is trying to understand what made so many perfectly nice people become part of the British Union of Fascists, and she also makes it clear how random and unfair the results could be, and how important, as ever, class and knowing the right people was. And she does make some things clear:
When war was declared, there was surge of women members; many of the new recruits were wives and mothers who didn’t want to see another generation of their young men slaughtered in Europe.Not so incomprehensible after all…
But still. I said about Diana Mitford Mosley:
Her politics were detestable and deluded. There is a way in which she doesn’t add up… She was simultaneously quite transparent and quite incomprehensible – those who knew her say she had great personal warmth and charm, but some of us (without the advantage of knowing her personally) wonder about the ice in her heart.
And that applies to the characters in this book, too. There is always much discussion about likeability and relatability in characters, and tbh there isn’t much of that here. And Connolly is very good on the annoyingness of the oldest sister, Patricia, the way she can’t resist a certain kind of dig at her siblings.
The book is beautifully-written. I loved Phyllis’s wariness about the house being built by her husband:
Phyllis felt a stab of envy that the children would not have to be rooted for ever within this constructed idea of his, but would over time be able to flit in when the weather was fair and then away as it suited them. Like swallows or bats. Growing up would bring freedom to [them], but in her own life the reverse had been the case.The conversations about politics, marvellously, manage to be witty, AND convincing, AND interesting:
‘I can’t see why anyone would want a war, whatever background they came from. Or religion, or whatever they are. And even if they did, Worthing hardly seems the place to stop them.’When one young woman takes up with an unsuitable young man and has an illicit and disastrous evening, her aunt says:
‘Oh dear. I’m sure this wouldn’t have happened if Phyllis had only got her a pony.’The book is full of references to other books about, set in, or written about the 1930s: with a particularly magical moment when the hotel dining-room in Paris seems to be full of the cast of a certain Agatha Christie book, lightly sketched in…
For contrast, Angela Thirkell’s Summer Half, published in 1937, and dealing with a similar milieu, had this to say about Blackshirts:
‘It was a man selling little books. One of those blackshirt fellows you know, like Puss in Boots in a polo jersey.’…
‘I’ll tell you another funny thing about those blackshirts,’ said Lydia. ‘No one knows who they are, or where they go. I mean, have you ever seen one, except standing on the pavement in waders, looking a bit seedy? You meet quite a lot of Communists and things in people’s houses… but you never go to tea with someone and find them sitting there in their boots.’
(You can see why I thought this book was going to be about Communists, given my previous reading. First time anyone has thought of Angela Thirkell as favouring socialism.)
In this blogpost (again, on Diana Mitford Mosley) I look at the ins and outs of detaining people in wartime without trial.
Worrying about Diana Mosley – with her account at Harrods – isn’t rising to the top of anyone’s list. And the question is this: what did she think was happening to people in her situation in Germany?
The ball has a white theme. I don’t think a white horse appeared, but the top photo (from Kristine’s photostream) seemed to give a good idea of white clothes for the 1930s. The clothes did not have to be entirely white, and the strikingly assymetric dress (same source) seemed very suitable.
The dress with a wrap – from 1930s Vogue – comes from the Clover Vintage Tumblr.
Ostrich fans plainly have an interesting history: it is far easier to find a risqué picture of someone with one than a straightforward image… The picture here is of Norma Shearer some years earlier (but then it is an old fan in the book… )
The final photo shows Oswald Mosley and the blackshirts.