LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
Peter and Paul by Susan Scarlett (Noel Streatfeild)
[Petronalla and her twin sister Pauline have come to work at a dress shop: Petronella is a model]
Petronella was enchanted to work at ‘Reboux’. For a girl who all her life has wanted to try on clothes, to be paid to do it seemed like a miracle…. No trouble about anything. Everything given to you to put on. Even the underclothes she wore.
‘I’m designing and providing underclothes for my models,’ David explained to Moira. ‘Otherwise the little wretches will have bumps from suspenders and things ruining my frocks.’
Shell pink satin brassieres and panties he designed, which fitted like skin. He ordered stockings which held themselves up. He provided beige satin shoes.
The girls’ sets of underthings were made in the workroom. Petronella, the first time she put on hers, knew that satin was one of her natural elements.
‘Goodness’ she sighed, kicking aside the garments of inexpensive flowered material which Catherine [her mother] had provided. ‘Me for silk always. I’ve always thought I was that sort of person.’
commentary: I have mentioned several times the delights of Greyladies Press - Well-Mannered Books by Ladies Long Gone. As well as their non-threatening murder stories, they also have uncovered a treasure trove of lost romances by Noel Streatfeild, written under the name Susan Scarlett.
All the ones I have read so far have been almost identical, but in the best possible way – so when you pick one up you know it will be a safe, silly comfort read. They are all about young women making and selling dresses, in either a department store (Babbacombes) or a select dress shop, as above and in Clothes Pegs. The background is extremely authentic - you would guess Streatfeild worked in the industry, and then lived off the proceeds for some time by churning out stories – this one was a magazine serial first. The plots are fairly preposterous but highly enjoyable, and you don’t much doubt there’ll be a happy ending.
Peter and Paul are daughters of the vicarage, like NS herself, and so more upmarket than the cheery Cockney families in the other two I have read. I thought this was better as there was a faintly patronizing note in regard to the ‘blimey, we have no money but we’re warm-hearted and good’ families in the other books. The twin girls have been found a job, because they have no money and no other prospects: David the dress designer is the son of family friends. One twin is the most beautiful person anyone has ever seen, the other is quite normal (=quite normal plot device for NS). David falls at first sight for pretty Peter. Paul(ine), who has fallen for him at first sight, is devastated, and also has to put up with a much inferior job at the shop, while Petronella becomes a model.
It seems unnecessary to explain how all this is going to be put right, but there is a beauty contest, a lot of evening engagements in white and black dresses,
in borrowed dresses and torn dresses.
There are moments when the sharper side of the author comes out. I liked the vicar worrying that Petronella has been led astray by the job, and has her mind on the wrong things. Pauline says ‘It’s the same things it’s always been on.’ The girls’ mother says:
‘I know, darling. But fathers are like that. They think anything in their daughters they don’t care about must have been picked up outside the house.’And there’s a splendid admonitory story at the beginning, about the dangers of the girls living in Sodom - in Gomorrah - in London, and why they must come home every weekend:
‘I had a niece who was away every Sunday and that was why, I am sure, things turned out as they did. Sundays can be so dull, especially in the winter, and you must do something. Anyway, it was a very nice baby and they’re married now.’I’m happy to read any more of these that Greyladies can find. I’m sure in six months I won’t know which book was which, but all the better in terms of a future comfort re-read.
30s pic of brassiere from Clover Vintage tumbler as also are white dress, and black dress.
I first used the second picture in a post for Dodie Smith’s marvellous The Town in Bloom – which has its similarities to this book, set ten years earlier, but more girls on the loose. I said then:
The picture is from the State Library of New South Wales via Flickr . These women are mannequins for a Sydney department store called Grace Bros – an eye-catching name for UK readers, who remember a camp classic sitcom called Are You Being Served?, set in an apparently imaginary shop called Grace Brothers.