Last week I was lucky enough to go to a talk on Eva Ibbotson, part of Jewish Book Week. The talk was chaired by blogfriend Amanda Craig, and was blissfully enjoyable.
Eva Ibbotson is the classic woman author who is undervalued, treated as a romantic novelist, or a children’s author – as if there were anything wrong with either of those headings, but they are usually used as a putdown, a lesser categorization.
My favourite line from Ibbotson comes in my favourite of her books, Madensky Square:
She wants a better world for the poor and oppressed — and she wants to look pretty while she’s getting it — and don’t we all?
I like to think this is my motto, and the Clothes in Books call to action, but also the perfect quote for International Women’s Day.
And so today I am featuring a wonderful book which could totally fly under the radar, and seem slight or unimportant, but takes women and their concerns very seriously… while making you laugh endlessly.
Women in Black by Madeleine St Johnaka Ladies in Black
‘You will come and see some French evening frocks, en tout cas,’ said Magda, ‘which will interest you I dare say more than the costumes or the day frocks. For a jeune fille, the romantic. And we have some English ones too of course, they are not bad, see what you think. Here is Hartnell, he is the dressmaker of the Queen as you know, Amies again, also he makes for the Queen, and a Charles James – magnifique. Now some French, you see – Jacques Fath, ravissante, a little Chanel, she has such wit that woman, and the great Dior. Who can touch him.’
Lisa stared, more bemused than ever; her head began to swim. She had lately come to see that clothing might be something beyond a more or less fashionable covering: that it might have other meanings: what she now but dimly and very oddly, very suddenly, saw was a meaning she could not before have suspected: what she now but dimly, oddly, and so suddenly, saw was that clothing might be – so to speak – art.
comments: I had never heard of this book until Hilary Mantel (so what could be more appopriate in the week in which The Mirror and the Light is published) cited it as the novel she most often gives as a present, to cheer people up. That would be tempting enough, but then I realized it is about a department store, one of my favourite settings… loads of examples on the blog. This shop is in Sydney Australia.
My edition has a fascinating and hilarious introduction by the Australian film director Bruce Beresford (he directed Driving Miss Daisy, Breaker Morant, Tender Mercies… ) who knew the author at university, and tried for a long time to make a film of this book. The intro ends with his saying he has not yet succeeded… but now he has. You can read an updated version of his intro here, with details of how he finally got the film made. It came out last year, and may just be propelling the book into having a moment – it has already been relaunched in Australia. The film, and tie-in book, have been renamed Ladies in Black, presumably in order to avoid confusion with Susan Hill’s Victorian ghost story, The Woman in Black – highly successful from when it was first published as a book in 1983, and subsequently a long-running play and then a film. (From the way Beresford writes about her, you would imagine it would never occur to St John NOT to choose a title so close to another work of fiction…)
Beresford says the book is clearly set in a real Sydney shop called David Jones – shown here in the 1950s:
Though it is called Goode’s in the book. It is set in 1960, and is almost unique in my long reading experience in that if I didn’t know for certain that she wrote it in the 1990s I would be convinced it was contemporary to its setting. It is insanely convincing as something written back then. It tells the story of a young girl, waiting for exam results and hoping she just might get to university, taking a temporary job in a fashion department – where, of course, all the vendeuses wear black. The book follows the lives of her and her co-workers over the course of the summer. The rivalry between departments is a key feature. The book is charming, funny, touching, and just lovely.
And of course the clothes in it are splendid, including a dress that Lisa longs and longs for,
‘Lisette’ was the quintessential evening frock for a young girl: a froth of red pin-spotted white organza with a low neck, a tight bodice, a few deep ruffles over the shoulders, artful red silk piping edging these ruffles and the three tiers of the gathered skirts whose deepest tier would have cleared the floor by some eight inches, to leave a good view of a slender leg, a delicate ankle.
and a black nylon nightie that is going to be very significant for one woman.
And of course the women all get a staff discount:
The coming Thursday was pay-day: she would have her fortnight’s wages plus the bonus, and she would pay for her nightdress, and she might get a new swimming costume as well, and never mind the Bank of New South Wales.
The serious importance of clothes is never underestimated.
Anyone who was ever 16, or worked in a shop waiting for their future to begin, will love this book. Lisa goes to a splendid dinner party with the haute couture but somehow Bohemian Magda (who could totally come from an Eva Ibbotson book), and meets the unsuitable Rudi. Magda is planning a party for Rudi:
‘Lisa here is of course not only too young but too clever and too nice for you. But I hope she will come to the party nevertheless, if she is permitted.’
Lisa looked eager. ‘Oh, I’d love to,’ she said.
‘Do you like parties?’ asked Rudi. ‘I hope you will dance once at least with me, even if I am too old, too stupid and not nice enough.’ Lisa laughed and agreed. Oh, she thought, this was real life!
Everything! Unsuitable man, new social circle, upcoming party, cake. The event we all wanted to go to at that age. Magda is the ideal older friend, and gives Lisa good advice on clothes and makeup. Magda reads ‘Vogue and Agatha Christie’, which would make her very at home on this blog, I feel.
‘We have forgotten the cake!’ cried Magda. ‘Let us eat it, now.’
And, I have now managed to see the film, which is completely marvellous – light and romantic and very funny, and the perfect comfort watch. Julia Ormond is more than perfect as Magda, she lights up the film, but everyone is excellent in it. Highly recommended.
I love the photos of Sam Hood – he was working as a photographer in Australia in the middle of the 20th Century – and I use his work on the blog a lot. So as soon as I started reading this book I was pretty certain I would be able to find something of his… The second picture (of the Festive and Feminine dress section) is Winn's Department Store in Newcastle in 1953, from the State Library of New South Wales.
Other photos from Gervais Purcell, who did fashion photography for David Jones and other Sydney fashion specialists – they are (weirdly) from the Australian National Maritime Museum.
There are other entries for International Women's Day on the blog - click on the label below. And cannot mention Eva Ibbotson without trailing again her wonderful piece about the importance of libraries (but also about life, love, hope, refugees - everything) which is here at the Guardian. It is very short - she knows how to tell a story - and you will have something in your eye by the time you get to the end.
Or, as I said last time, when it became my most RT-ed Tweet ever:
AND, IF YOU ARE GOING TO READ ONE THING BY EVA IBBOTSON, MAKE IT THIS ONE: AN ARTICLE IN THE GUARDIAN THAT POINTS UP THE IMPORTANCE OF LIBRARIES, while being intensely charming. (And thanks also to Susanna Tayler, who first pointed it out to me.)