aka The Mouse who Wouldn’t Play Ball
LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
[Dorothea is a quiet spinster who thinks she might get herself a makeover]
She turned with a firm and steady step in the direction of Piccadilly Circus. It had occurred to her that women who looked like Lucille Hope never bought their corsets, as Dorothea invariably did, at the summer sales in Kensington High Street. In fact they didn’t wear corsets at all, but foundation garments costing guineas and guineas and fitted on the person, instead of being picked out a great tossed pile on a bargain counter and thrust shamefacedly into an attache case now that the Government wouldn’t allow them to be wrapped.
Therefore, thought Dorothea, she would take the bull by the horns and copy their example. At the thought of the fitting-room she quivered with dismay, but what other people had done she could do. And assistants regarded you as that anonymity, a customer, not a person. Like doctors, thought Dorothea.
commentary: This is another of the Anthony Gilbert books recommended to me by John over at Pretty Sinister Books: this is his full and excellent review, which you should read to get the full lowdown on the book and plot. I, as usual, will be pursuing some odd and random corners of interest from it.
The story starts off in a traditional way: someone has fallen down the stairs and died, in his crumbling big house in the country, surrounded by his unloving relations. So we think we know what kind of book it is. But then there is a drastic and slightly awkward change of plot and tone: we find out that someone not present – Dorothea above – is going to inherit. But she needs to wait 30 days before she can claim the money, and if she dies before then the money goes elsewhere - given that this is such a major plotpoint, I never felt it was satisfactorily explained exactly what would happen.
The plot turns into a slightly farcical Ealing comedy: there do seem to be similarities between this and the film The Ladykillers. Someone might be out to kill of Dorothea – who is it? And will they succeed? The comedy is quite heavy-handed, and no-one could ever accuse Gilbert of being warm or sentimental; the words 'ruthless and callous' are more likely to come to mind.
Again, Gilbert (who is a woman – that’s a pen name) can be full of snobbish rubbish and knife-edge distinctions of class and honour and good taste: but at the same time she brings tremendous, vigorous vulgarity into her books. The splendid Arthur Crook – series sleuth and shady solicitor – turns up here in his usual endearing way.
But also there is a terrible scene where the horrible Julia Carbery is changing into her pyjamas and discussing her underwear – vulgar isn’t really strong enough for this, it is not for the faint of heart. (Too horrible for a Clothes in Books post!)
In some ways the writing could remind you of Barbara Pym – spinsters and their trains of thought – or Miss Pettigrew Lives for A Day – the makeover. But this is a much harsher book than either of these. Dorothea is meant to be look very dull before she takes herself in hand – she wears a brown dress, brown coat, brown hat. This picture I think is very nice, and actually shows the great Austrian physicist Lise Meitner - it is from the Smithsonian collection.
But then another harsh aspect of the book is that Dorothea’s makeover is meant to be a failure, to make her look ridiculous – Hugh’s heart sinks when he sees her turn up at the Berkeley – her clothes are ‘conspicuous, glaring and quite unforgettable’. I have chosen this photo (from the State Library of Queensland) – I think she looks splendid drinking her Grand Guignol cocktail, but it’s the kind of outfit that Gilbert would sneer at in her non-vulgar moments.
Dorothea certainly learns to fight back:
It was too much. For 38 years she had lived a life of drab virtue and where had it lander her? In this unromantic flat with a few oh so unromantic friends, the consolations of conscience, and the prospect if she lived long enough of one day being the oldest parishioner….At least let danger wear an attractive mien. Let it come as a wolf if it must…And there are some good moments – for example Dorothea’s unanswerable question:
“What’s a war for if it’s not going to make people feel more friendly?”One of the possibly wolf-like relations, Hugh, arranges to meet her and says ‘I’ll wear a green handkerchief Pan-fashion’. It then says ‘Hugh had known that she wouldn’t be able to resist the vision of him waiting for her at at the Berkeley, wearing a green handkerchief, Pan-fashion, whatever that might mean.’ And this is typical of Gilbert, intriguing and odd - but she never explains what ‘Pan-fashion’ might mean, and I have been able to find reference to it anywhere else. When Hugh turns up at the Berkeley he is described as being smart in uniform, but that is all.
When Dorothea meets another of the vulture-like relations, Cecil, there is this splendid exchange:
“My mother,” said Dorothea, tossing diplomacy to the winds, “used to say it was a mistake to fuss too much over children.”
Cecil bridled. “Perhaps your mother had no children,” he observed sharply. Then perceived the folly of his retort.What I dislike about Gilbert books is that they have strange loose ends and unexplained moments – she picks up ideas and people and then drops them – and that she is very mean about older unmarried ladies. (Even though – yes, Dorothea is 38, not 98). But still there is always great entertainment value in them. There are plenty more of Gilbert's books on the blog - click on the label below to summon them up.
1940s corset pictures from the Lela London blog, where there is a whole page-full of fascinating images, as well as many other clothes-minded items throughout the blog.