LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
[Two young women, Lally and Nicandra, getting ready for a ball in 1920s Ireland]
“Oh, you’ve got a Kestos brassiere – quel absolute chic,” Lally plucked the bust-bodice out of the pile of underclothes Lizzie [the maid] had folded and laid, a picture of precision, on Nicandra’s bed. She stretched its modest cups on her hands.
“Aunt Tossie,” Nicandra explained. “It worries me rather. Still I know she knows.”
“May I try it on?” Without waiting for an answer, Lally stripped off the accepted bandaging of the day. “Oh, m’dear, too naughty for words.” She screamed with laughter.
Nicandra looked disconcerted and prim before a great light of kindness broke, telling her to spread a little happiness at any cost to herself. “I’ll lend it to you, Lally,” she said, “just for tonight.”
“Oh, Nico, I wouldn’t dream,” Lally fastened a button more securely on its elastic strap. The mild uplift of her breasts was frightening in its unexplored possibilities.
commentary: Given enough time, we will slowly track the Kestos through 20th century literature. There is a whole discussion of the word in this entry on a Christianna Brand book. (Kestos was the first bra with separated cups, and briefly was so popular it became the generic name for a bra.) The young women in Mary Wesley’s Camomile Lawn wear them, as opposed to Aunt Helena, whose ‘breasts were packed into a garment called a bust bodice which made Calypso and Polly laugh’. (Above, ‘bust bodice’ is used as an all-purpose term… )
One of the odd things about this book is that Molly Keane lived through the times she writes about – most of her books are highly autobiographical – but in this one some of the details have that feel of careful research when a conscientious writer looks things up fifty years after the book’s setting and puts in all the details she finds, and gets it slightly wrong.
The bra conversation is followed by a discussion of deodorants, but again with a feel of research dropped in. Lally says the advertising slogan was ‘Are your armpits charmpits?’ which I think is a phrase from a much later era. There is a mention of dress preservers, ‘sewn into everything’, to avoid underarm odour - they came up on the blog in this entry on Margaret Kennedy’s book Lucy Carmichael.
Another odd thing is that the timings in the book never quite work out – Nicandra is 8 in 1914. She is being launched into society in the section above, so it should be 1924, at latest, and it’s not, and there was no Kestos in 1924: the company was founded in 1925, and proper Kestos bras with separated cups came later, in the 1930s. And then, not enough time passes before it is 1939…
More: In the American edition of the book, the opening section is said to be in 1904, though that is clearly a mistake – and would have made those events happen just a few weeks before Bloomsday: it is hard to think of two more different Irish writers than Molly Keane and James Joyce.
And then, the book was called Queen Lear in the US, which is quite incomprehensible: I have been thinking hard about this, and I cannot come up with one shard of explanation for calling it that.
The other odd thing – to me – is that people say it was Keane’s best book. I hard disagree. Good Behaviour is far better. There are certainly worse books by Keane than this one, but it seemed to be created from stirred-up fragments of her other books, and her own story (even more apparent since her daughter’s biography of Keane has been published). Oh goodness, Robert and Andrew, can I even be bothered distinguishing between the two young male suitors? Oh the careless and uncaring parents, the badly-treated child, the loyal servants, the decaying house – seen it all before. Not done particularly well this time. There is a famously shocking ending to this one – but I was beyond caring by that time. May have been a kinder outcome anyway…
The characters are thoughtless, selfish, lacking in empathy and full of entitlement. All of them. That is bad enough, but it also seems that Molly Keane finds them charming: and that is the problem I have with all her books.
But – despite the gobbets of research and mis-dating, I do always like Keane’s clothes. Sometimes, you just get a feel that she is describing an actual dress from her own life. In this one I liked the black feather boa which may have been bought for Black Ascot – the time the race meeting was run just after the death of Edward VII in 1910 ‘because that’s what he would have wanted’, but everyone wore mourning. Though yet another question: are they all stuck in the Big House with nothing more than a trip to the local point-to-point, or maybe the Dublin horseshow, to look forward to? Or are they flitting around going to Ascot and buying very up-to-the-minute lingerie items in London? It is never clear.
There are a few Molly Keane books on the blog, and this entry looked at the trope of the Big House in Anglo-Irish literature, with particular reference to her books.
The pictures are of slightly later Kestos bras, because I think that is what the book is referencing, even though the dates don’t work out.