published 1951 set around 1930
LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
Evening frocks had suddenly changed. From being short, spangled, fringed, waistless, they now swept the ground. Instead of ostrich-feather fans, there were Spanish shawls to manage. Caroline and Lilian disapproved: long skirts, they feared, would threaten the status of women.
‘Oh God!’ said Kitty Vincent, when Harriet described the conversations to her. ‘I like to wear clothes , not talk about them. The same with sex,’ she added vaguely. ‘Talk, talk, talk.’ She was trimming a hat, for doing which she had a flair. ‘They must drive you well-nigh crazy at that shop. Don’t listen to them. What you wear’s your own private thing. Whom you love, too …’ Her glance was carefully for the hat she was trimming in her hand; sidelong and appraising.
‘Your frock,’ he insisted gently, pressing her hand.
‘It is grey velvet.’ Now the frock seemed wrong. She wished that she had not won that battle with her mother.
‘Speak up now! You have nothing to fear,’ he said. ‘A pink rose you must have, tucked in the waist.’ There were no waists that year, but somehow she would have one. ‘Or bosom,’ he added. She blushed. There were no bosoms either. Her own was flattened under a pink elastic bust-bodice.
observations: An earlier entry on this book explains how I came across it and some of the reasons I liked it so much. Another reason is that the women in it can take against each other, and behave as less than angels, but there is a lot of loyalty and mutual support shown too, in a non-cloying, believable way. They are nice to each other.
One section has Harriet working in a gown shop (nicer than a dress shop) and is completely delightful and hilarious. The women and their companionship is very well done, and the way they live their lives seems as though it must have been written from personal experience. They try out facial waxing, they heat up soup, they send the juniors out on personal errands. They ‘went up to elevenses at ten, were often missing while they cut out from paper-patterns, set their hair, washed stockings, drank tea. Nothing was done in their own time that could be done in the firm’s.’
When Harriet gets a date, the other young women she works with in the gown shop advise her which dress to borrow from stock. It’s the first time she meets Kitty, above, and Kitty knows Harriet has borrowed the dress, because she tried it on in the shop that day – but she says nothing.
The book is both comical and dismaying, and beautifully written. There are endless sentences I would like to quote.
The young Vesey, home alone, ‘would smoke with his head out of the bedroom window. In his mother’s room one day he put on her jewellery , sniffed at her scent, varnished his nails, read a book on birth control, took six aspirins, then lay down like Chatterton on the window-seat, his hand drooping to the floor.’
Hugo – a very minor character – is summed up in a paragraph including this: ‘He had gone on being Rupert Brooke all through the war – a tremendous achievement.’
The young Harriet: ‘Harriet put one hand to her blouse, the other to her hair; the gesture of a much older, much guiltier woman. She had never looked so grown-up.’
The days shortened, but only technically. The time it took to live them seemed endless.
He sat neatly on the little tip-up seat of the taxi, his eyes shut, his arms folded tidily across his chest. He looked like a collapsible model of a man, especially designed for carrying in taxis.
In all London there seemed to be no other people; yet when they entered a pub in a mews they found that it was full, and blue with smoke… The fog had enfolded their hours together, as if they were jewels in a box.
The ending is quite mysterious, I think each reader can decide for his or herself what they want it to mean. I was clear in my mind which way things went, but can see others might think differently.