She found herself staring hard at Desmond and wondering why, when it was a party and she and Anthea had bothered to put on frocks, he was dressed more oddly than ever… Taking her cue, Anthea said: ‘You didn’t tell us it was fancy dress, Des.’…
Peter Wildgoose… was so immaculately turned out that he and Desmond might have stepped from the advertisement in which the well-dressed man and the badly-dressed man debate which 50-shilling tailor to try… Peter dragged a chair out into the centre of the room and sat miserably on it. He said: ‘Anthea. Cynthia. You must think I didn’t notice, but those are very elegant dresses you’re wearing. It was very good of you to make the effort.’
observations: I really enjoyed this book: but it's possibly DJ Taylor wouldn't like my reasons. It's an alternative-history thriller, imagining that Edward VIII was on the throne during the Second World War, that Wallis Simpson died before she could cause too much trouble, and that those who wanted to make peace with Hitler are gaining power. But in fact I liked it because it was more Stella Gibbons than CJ Sansom or Robert Harris - which is meant as a massive compliment. The thriller aspects weren’t all that exciting, but the picture of life in wartime London was excellent (in fact I kept forgetting that Edward VIII was the King – in truth it doesn’t seem as though it would have been that different a book if it had gone with factual history).
DJ Taylor is very witty, with some great descriptions – Desmond, above, looked ‘as if he ought to be standing in the market square in Ennis on a Sunday morning after Mass waiting for the pubs to open’ – and perceptive comments: ‘Upper-class girls usually liked the boarding school atmosphere of a women’s prison and appreciated the discipline. It was the rectors’ daughters who were made miserable.’
The book has quite an adventurous style, going round the thoughts and journals of a number of different people: the best is undoubtedly Cynthia, working at a wartime literary magazine (Duration) and with high hopes of flat sharing:
Stockings hung up to dry in front of the gas fire, Sunday afternoon tea parties, taxis hooting in the street outside and liberty hall-- Clothes in Books has written several times about this, most recently for the Guardian books blog.
Cynthia gets pulled in to some light spying, and faces considerable jeopardy, although, honestly, the stakes in this particular game don’t seem very high, and it’s not clear why she is seen as such a threat. (This is a complaint I made about William Boyd’s Restless recently – these chaps could learn a thing or two from film-makers, who deal convincingly in Letters of Transit, world supply of uranium ore, vitally-important tungsten mines…. even if entirely made-up.)
But that doesn’t really matter. It’s a very entertaining novel, with some very clever insights, and gives you a feeling that it’s an authentic picture of wartime London life.
The top picture shows the fashion designer Norman Hartnell, mentioned frequently in the book, and a model wearing one of his dresses. The lower one shows women on a rooftop in Bloomsbury (where the fictional magazine has its offices). The woman on the right wears ‘an emerald green woollen frock with a matching jacket, designed by Norman Hartnell, costing 22 coupons. A barrage balloon can be seen in the sky behind them.’
Both pictures are from the wonderful Imperial War Museum collection.