LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
[Set in early 1900s. The Cathedral choirboys are having a party… ]
How fitting it was, said those who never came into close contact with the choirboys, that the party should take place on Holy Innocents’ Day … All those sweet little boys with their round cherubic faces, guileless eyes and clean white collars … It was noticeable that those who did come into contact with the cherubs, never expressed an opinion on the matter…
The party began soon after three o’clock and lasted for five hours.
Henrietta and Hugh Anthony began dressing for it at twelve o’clock. They wrestled with underclothes from twelve till one, when they had lunch with overalls over the underclothes, and from two onwards, with the assistance of the entire household, they coped with the parts that show.
The underclothes of the young at that period were no light matter. The amazing amount of heat that is stored within the bodies of little children was not perhaps realized, and it was considered that they must be kept warm. Henrietta wore immensely thick woollen combinations, a woollen liberty-bodice, a woollen vest, a flannel petticoat, a silk petticoat and finally her winter party frock of blue velvet trimmed with fur.
commentary: Someone asked recently what was the most English thing I could think of – something I missed when living abroad – and one of my answers would be ‘an English Cathedral city in the depths of winter, the back streets and lights and small shops and wet pavements as you walk around, with the hulk of the Cathedral rising above you.’ Elizabeth Goudge reproduces that feeling wonderfully in this book:
It was nice in the Market Place. The chimneys and roofs were sharp and black against the orange sky, but below them purple veils had been drawn over unsightly things like dustbins and paper in the gutter, so that the Market Place looked mysteriously beautiful. Here and there a light had been lit in a window, orange to match the sky, and overhead a few stars were like pinholes pricked in the swinging Chinese lantern. The gas was lit in the bookshop, but it was empty….City of Bells is set in a small Cathedral city in the West of England – resembling the real-life Wells - at the beginning of the 20th century, and so the Dean, the Bishop and the Canons (and their families) are key characters. The choirboys’ party is a big event in this book, and is most enjoyable – although it doesn’t have much relevance to the plot.
Cathedral closes feature in a couple of Michael Gilbert books, and I added a helpful explanation in my blogpost:
I live in a Cathedral town like the one in the two books, and after a long time I finally have an idea about how it works - the key is always that the Bishop is very senior, but the Dean has all the power IN the Cathedral, and the Archdeacon annoys everyone.
All Cathedrals in the UK have a 'close', and I live very near to the Close in my home town - it's the area around the Cathedral, would probably have been walled originally, and contains the houses where the Dean and senior clergy live. It is usually a very attractive, pretty, green area, and anyone can walk freely through it.The plot of A City of Bells involves Jocelyn, a soldier injured in the Boer War who has to find a new purpose in life because of his disability. He comes to stay with his grandparents in the Close at Torminster, and meets his young relation Hugh Anthony and the adopted girl Henrietta. He discovers a lovely house in the town, empty and neglected, and decides to open a bookshop. He hears about the previous tenant, an Italian poet called Gabriel Ferranti, who has gone missing. He takes up with a famous actress called Felicity, and they try to discover more about Ferranti.
Nicely set in motion, the plot jogs on its whimsical way. It’s not exactly full of surprises, but the whole thing is very enjoyable - it was one of the books recommended for convalescents when I did a reader-led list of suitable books last year. And yes, it is a nice comfort read book.
For more Elizabeth Goudge on the blog, click on the link below.
The b/w drawings are from the NYPL collection, always an excellent source of clothes pictures.
Girl in blue with doll by Isaac Israels from the Athenaeum website.