One day my mother told me that Mrs Jardine had asked us to pick primroses on her hill, and then, when we had picked as many as we wanted, to come in and have tea with her….
Next Thursday was fine. We wore our sailor blouses and skirts… and set off after lunch accompanied by Mademoiselle. She wore her best off-mustard flannel skirt, cream satin blouse with tucks, net yoke and whaleboned neck…
As we crossed the lawn, a french window in the front of the long, low, creeper-covered house opened, and a woman’s figure appeared. She waved. She gave the impression of arms outstretched, so welcomingly did she surge forward to meet ups.
She was dressed in a long gown… she had a white fleecy wrap round her shoulders and on her head, with its pile of fringed puffed, curled hair, a large Panama hat trimmed with a blue liberty scarf artistically knotted, the ends hanging down behind.
observations: Should be read in conjunction with the first entry on this book.
The edited extract above is from the opening pages of The Ballad and the Source, and to me is an enticing and very promising setup.
It is set around 1910-12: Mrs Jardine meets the narrator, 10-year-old Rebecca, daughter of a family Mrs J feels close to - though Rebecca’s father doesn’t feel close to Mrs J at all: there is obviously scandal rolling around in the background, and he discourages the relationship. Mrs Jardine makes Rebecca the recipient of a long involved recounting of her family history, full of troubles. Rebecca is clearly too young for most of this (and leaves the reader to draw his or her own conclusions quite often), and spends hilarious amounts of time seizing the opportunity to eat as much as possible of whatever is on offer – this is a continuing theme. The book is, perhaps surprisingly, very funny, full of a deep sense of the absurd.
Sometimes Rebecca is trying to learn. When Mrs J makes sweeping comments on Frenchwomen and how they ‘put a natural value on themselves as women’ she thinks about the French governess above:
Perhaps, I thought, that accounted for her. Perhaps I ought to view her in a more reverent light.Rebecca’s sister Jess dislikes Mademoiselle very much, forming the theme of another running joke, with an admirably heartless ending with the governess caught in Belgium at the start of WW1.
I recently re-read this book after a gap of many years, and here are some of the books & writers it made me think of:
Sybille Bedford (very much)Occasionally in Ballad there is a quite unexpected and intriguing throwaway remark, as this one about a woman whose life goes badly wrong:
Ford Madox Ford
Les Liaisons Dangereuses
She sounded rather proud of it all. I think it’s only in books that women are ashamed of being prostitutes. Her idea was to make herself interesting [to a man] - dramatic, important.--- and it is this kind of almost-incidental upsetting of the moral norm that reminded me of the other authors.
The Ballad and the Source is delightfully full of clothes and clothes descriptions. Take the statuesque Mrs Jardine in her cloaks, for example, wearing:
A dove-grey cloak lined with lilac silk, long grey gloves and a shallow wide-brimmed silvery straw hat girdled with blue and mauve ostrich feathers.While Tilly the trusted retainer and sewing woman has her dolman cape – Mrs J sees it as ‘singular’ where the reader sees that the two women are two of a kind, at opposite ends of the social scale.
Rebecca and her sister Jess have ‘our long-sleeved velvets…cut by local Miss Midgley with more optimism, fitted and finished with more complacency than the results warranted.’
There is a woman in an Indian-based outfit, perhaps made from a sari:
a queer dress: a dark yellow bodice and a long, bright-coloured skirt, sort of magenta, not an English colour, and edged with a gold band.The colours of the picture above do not match up exactly with Lehmann’s descriptions (‘off-mustard’! how I wish I had been able to find something that fitted that description…), but the image still seemed to perfectly represent the occasion. It is from a lovely collection of illustrations from fashion mag Gazette du Bon Ton – this one from 1913, and called Le gouter au Jardin.
Rosamond Lehmann’s wonderful The Echoing Grove has also featured on the blog.
Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.