[Clothes descriptions from different parts of the book]
Mrs Shearsby [wore] a green coat and skirt, tailored to reveal a good figure, set off by too many clips and bracelets. Her little green hat was an exaggeration of a current mode, and her high-heeled shoes of patent leather were too smart for the costume and the occasion. Under her arm she carried an enormous green bag.
Vivien Ardmore had perhaps no claim to beauty; [but] her admirable figure was admirably set off by a tailor-made coat and skirt of light grey flannel. On her pale gold hair, elaborately waved, perched a tiny grey hat with white flowers. White gloves, a white handbag, and stockings and shoes which suggested neither economy nor utility complete an ensemble upon which Mrs Tuke cast an approving eye.
When Mrs Shearsby herself opened the front door, wearing the becoming costume of the WVS (returned from the cleaners), she was also wearing hat and gloves, and her green and mauve uniform bag hung from her shoulder.
[hosting a drinks party] Miss Ardmore was tall and slender and surprisingly unruffled in green corduroy slacks and a yellow top.
commentary: The trouble with this book is that there are simultaneously too many cousins, and also too few.
Crime fiction aficionados do love a tontine: an inheritance plan whereby there are a number of potential beneficiaries, and the last person left alive scoops the lot. Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Wrong Box is a good example of a tontine-plotted book. The whole idea of a tontine is plainly bonkers, ridiculous, apart from asking for a crime plot to be wrapped round it. They are now illegal in, for example, the US and the UK (because of the temptation they posed…) and although the name survives in some countries, it doesn’t exactly have the original meaning: more a saving scheme or even a Christmas Club.
Now, Too Many Cousins doesn’t contain a tontine – the term is used loosely (not in the book, I should say) for a scheme by which in effect some members benefitting from a trust will benefit even more if other beneficiaries die. A subtle distinction but an important one.
In this particular case there is a very complicated family tree. A later wife of the original patriarch has inherited his estate in trust: when she dies it will be split equally among the rest of his family. So clearly – the fewer there are of them, the more people will inherit.
But the trouble is, the family story is complex but rather boring – I object to the waste of my time trying to follow it, when all I really needed was a two-sentence summary. Too many cousins. And then, by the time a few people have died off in suspicious circumstances there aren’t many suspects left – too few cousins.
All that said, I enjoyed the book very much because of the detailed picture of life in the later days of the war. The lab which might be producing artificial silk or maybe something more keyed to the war effort, and the sinister chemicals therein. (see also: the Frances Crane book, The Applegreen Cat) The woman helping out with the Women’s Voluntary Service, above, and the younger ladies racketing around London with their Ministry jobs and edgy brittle drinks parties, their makeshift flats and their attempts to look good. I found some of Browne’s excruciating snobbery hard to take: he was very sneery about the suburban cousins, as opposed to the effortlessly upmarket young London women.
But the introduction of a possible lost relation come back to life was highly enjoyable, and of course I did love those clothes, and am delighted to have an opportunity to feature some great pictures of wartime outfits.
I came to this book via two of my blogging friends: Noah Stewart and Kate Jackson (who was actually reviewing a different book by Douglas G Browne) and I highly recommend both their posts.
I am very keen on the portraits of the artist William Orpen, and this is another of his: Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan, from the Athenaeum website. She is in a different uniform I think – that of the ATS – but gives a fair impression I think.
First photo, 1943, from the Imperial War Museum collection – ‘how a British woman dresses in wartime’.
Second photo from Kristine’s photostream.
Colour photo is from the Library of Congress photostream.