May Bank Holiday: Garden Hats

the book: No Name by Wilkie Collins

published 1862

[examples taken from throughout the book]

…Magdalen drew back a little, and mechanically dusted the parasol with the end of her garden cloak.

….Instead of following her sister, Norah pulled down the veil of her garden hat, turned in the opposite direction, and hurried back to the house.

….Early in the morning, after making tea by herself as usual, Miss Garth took her parasol and strolled into the garden.

…Mr. Vanstone took his garden hat from the hall table… and led the way resignedly into the garden.

….."You have nothing on your head, my dear," he said. "If you want to be in the garden, don't forget how hot the sun is—don't come out without your hat."

…After taking a plain white muslin scarf, a pair of light gray kid gloves, and a garden-hat of Tuscan straw, from the drawers of the wardrobe, she locked it, and put the key carefully in her pocket.

…For the first time in her life she shrank from meeting the reflection of herself—except for a moment, when she arranged her hair under her garden-hat, leaving the glass again immediately.

…She took a few steps hastily toward the gate, stopped and pulled down the veil of her garden hat as if she felt the clear morning light too much for her.

observations: It's the MayDay bank holiday in the UK today, so it might be warm, and we might be going out into the garden.

There are many fascinating things about this book (see previous entries), and one of them is that every character seems to possess a garden hat, along with quite a few other items for the garden wardrobe. At one point someone says ‘Do you remember leaving anything on the little table by the garden-seat?’, and you fully expect the answer to be ‘a hat’ whereas in fact it is a letter, and a copy of one of the several all-important wills featuring in the plot.

For comparison purposes, in the extensive works of Collins’s great friend Charles Dickens, there seem to be only two garden hats, in Edwin Drood and Little Dorrit. It’s interesting to compare the two writers in other ways – sometimes, as in the case of Mrs Wragge, Collins tries to create a Dickensian grotesque, but fails, and in general he is an inferior writer to Dickens. But the Collins women (as we keep saying) are very different from the Dickens harem, and much the better for it. Magdalen takes charge of her destiny in a startling, no-nonsense way – a way that some Victorian readers thought was deeply immoral. There is a most unexpected connection with the My Friend books by Jane Duncan that I have been reading recently – a rather unlikely person deciding it is fine to live together outside marriage. Collins lived a fairly immoral life (by the standards of the times) himself, and unlike his friend Dickens didn’t seem to need endless self-justification, so perhaps he had a fellow-feeling.

In No Name it is hard to keep track of the legal ramifications; and t
he ponderous complications of wills and inheritance laws – always a favourite trope in Victorian novels – reach what must be record levels. Half the time you think Collins hasn’t quite worked it out right, but you can’t be bothered to check – as someone in the book says in another context, it’s not just a house of cards, it’s a pagoda of cards, and we don’t wish to knock it over. 

One character is obliged by a will to find himself a bride within 6 months (don’t ask, don’t even try to work it out): his uncle the Admiral quite despises him because any Navy man ‘would have got her, bag and baggage, in six days’.

For other entries, and for more by Wilkie Collins, click on the labels below. In the recent entry for Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, we were complaining of the difficulties of finding pictures of women in straw hats.

The man in the garden hat is a picture by Mykola Pymonenko from Wikimedia Commons.

Garden hat photo is from George Eastman House


  1. These hats don't do much for me, but over here it's Kentucky Derby crazy hat season. TV anchors are wearing big hats, and footage is shown of women with big-brimmed hats, and some rather wild. Have you seen these?

    1. Oh my goodness, I just went and looked them up on Google images - there are some corkers there. The same think happens here in the UK around the Ascot horse races and the Derby.

  2. Moira - It's so interesting how many mentions there are of garden hats and parasols here. There are a few Agatha Christie novels too that mention garden hats. I've never had one, but they look like fun hats to wear.

    Oh, and thank you for that mention of the way Collins writes about women v the way Dickens does. Interesting how the two men had different perspectives on women and on female characters.

    1. I'm going to start noticing/collecting garden hats everywhere now, thanks for the Christie tipoff, I'm sure you're right!

  3. There is a calotype photograph by Hill and Adamson taken in the 1840's (when the action of "No Name" is set) of a young woman in a garden hat. She has a knowing look on her face and I'm SURE she's plotting a way to get her hands on a fortune...

    Her hat has no veil, but at that time a veil was a thing that looked rather like a lace apron. The string was tied around the crown of the hat or bonnet and could be pulled forward or draped back at will.

    1. Oh blimey, I just took a look, and I strongly recommend all readers to do the same, she has the best expression ever on her face: I'm sure you are right, Ken, about her motives. If the photo wasn't in copyright I would add it to the entry. Thank you!

  4. You have one UK May Day gardener here. Could possibly have used a hat to protect the receding hairline, but it's nice to get a bit of sun, something we aren't always guaranteed. Re the book - I'm sticking with my one Collins.

    1. Quite right - read the short one, and then we'll see. I hope you achieved a lot in your garden - here it was bright and pleasant, but didn't actually lure me to enter the jungle which is our garden.

  5. Love Collins and that Pymonenko painting is wonderful - thanks Moira!


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