An Avenue of Stone by Pamela Hansford Johnson

published 1947

‘Lovely frock, Jane,’ said Charmian. This was successful. Jane’s attention was diverted to the thought of her own beauty, a thought which never failed to make that beauty more brilliant. ‘Oh, do you think so? Do you know what it is? My dear, it’s half my last year’s second-best black, and half Aunt Sarah’s bridge coat, all merged together by me—believe it or not’—I believed it; she was an accomplished needlewoman—‘at one of those Make-Do-and-Mend classes! I read about them and thought I’d try one, so I plucked up my courage and went along, and lo!’

‘Low is right,’ said Helena, poking a finger at the neck line.

‘Lady Archer, you are a dreadful woman. I shall cut you when next we meet in the highways and byways.’

commentary: Strangely enough, bridge-coats came up in the comments on an entry last week – my friend and blog favourite Christine Poulson mentioned Mrs Widmerpool’s bridge-coat from Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time novels: you can scroll through this bridge-related entry to the comments at the end to read our conversation, and glory in Chrissie’s splendidly helpful gloss:
Mrs Widmerpool’s ‘was of flowered velvet, with a fringe, and combined many colours in its pattern.' It is Miss Walpole-Wilson who is wearing the Chinese one ('orange, black and gold silk').
I was thinking what a great blog topic it would be – and perhaps I ought to start a fashion line. I already have an idea for designer bed jackets, and feel bridge coats would be a nice companion piece.

And then up comes the bridge coat in this already splendid novel. And not only that but Make-do-and-mend – a friend gave me a 1943 booklet on the topic (threepence from the Board of Trade when first published) as a truly wonderful Christmas present.

I will have to look at bridge-coats separately, because I don’t want to lose Avenue of Stone in the velvet and fringing. It is a marvellous novel, very much of its time but somehow unpindownable: I enjoyed it hugely. It is part of a loose series featuring the same characters, and has a male narrator, Claud. This is his helpful bit of exposition concerning the character Helena above:
She had been a fine handsome termagant, hair dyed a fantastic yellow above her dark and burning face, tongue rough as pumice-stone and tart as a lemon; I detested her then. As my father’s widow, and the mother of Charmian, I saw her mellowed to a crude good humour, a crude and practical wisdom; I had begun to like her, next to love her, and at last to need her. And then she had married Archer, bleached her hair white, bought dresses with little lace vests down the front of them, and matched herself resolutely to her new responsibilities. I should have felt her lost to me had it not been for an evocative glance, now and then, or some vaguely off-colour remark made in an undertone for my ears alone.
I can’t imagine a more tempting come-on for a novel, a series of novels, or a character. And she really is splendid. As the blurb says,
for Helena command of money has only ever been a minor consideration. It is people that count
- but money does feature a lot.
‘You must remember,’ she said, ‘that I am no longer a wealthy woman.’ She made this announcement as if it were the first sentence of a very long novel established in classical literature, and for a second I felt that spasm of awful boredom some people feel when they are about to have something read to them.
I enjoyed sentences like those so much, the book made me laugh throughout. But I also liked that it was about love, and relationships, and older people and their entourages. It is set in London in the very final days of WW2, and then immediately afterwards, and has a splendid raffish atmosphere. Although Helena is shown as often being absurd, PHJ takes her character seriously, she is allowed her emotions, her neediness, her longing for more love. I would say the writer is clear-sighted and forensic in her examination of the emotions, but has a good heart – the combination I most like in an author. (Like Lissa Evans, as it might be.)

Chatting cozily after a social event, Helena says ‘Don’t you love talking people over? It makes them seem so much more interesting than they are.’ I think we’ve all felt that.

And there is yet more talk of bridge coats:
On the day we went into the new flat she appeared defiantly at dinner-time in a bridge coat criss-crossed with rambler roses, a terrible garment which Daniel had long ago banished with a little, Christmassy, chilly jest.
(so going to have to do a blogpost on this).

And more make-do-and-mend, following on from the incident above:
I called out, ‘Helena!’ 

She came in, holding up against herself a black dress into which she had pinned sleeves of red and white satin- cut from some abandoned curtains. ‘Yes, what is it?—I say, do you think this is going to look smart, or is it a bit daring? I got the idea from Jane.…Oh, Claud! you know that old silk dressing-gown of yours, the blue and green one. You’ve done with it, haven’t you? Could I have that to cut up?’
‘No, you can’t. I’m still wearing it.’

I enjoyed every bit of this book, and could have done many more blogposts on the clothes in it. Here is Charmian:
The ATS uniform was deplorably contrived, and most women soldiers looked as though they had been sewn into it for the winter. Charmian looked even worse than was necessary; indeed, it appeared quite talented for so pretty a young woman to make herself look so shoddy.
And I will have to seek out more of Pamela Hansford Johnson’s books.

Wartime make-do-and-mend also features in the wonderful Henrietta books by Joyce Dennys, featured on the blog in the past

Top picture is a make-do-and-mend fashion show, © IWM (D 12897)

Second picture is a utility outfit © IWM (D 14780

Picture from a wartime dressmaking class © IWM (D 20550)

All from the Imperial War Museum and their wonderful collection of photographs, used with their permission and my thanks.

Cover and a page from my own booklet (see above).


  1. Replies
    1. Hope one of the contestants had a bridge coat at the ready to cannibalize.....

  2. I'd not been familiar with bridge coats before this, Moira. That's really interesting! I really like the description of Helena, too - very evocative, in my opinion. I'm not surprised you found the book engaging. And thanks for mentioning 'Make Do and Mend.' I've read about that push before, and it's such an interesting look at the way people coped during that war. I can see how there was a lot to appeal to you here.

    1. So many of the features I love in a book! Strong and intriguing female characters, wartime and post-war setting, great clothes - and make do and mend. Couldn't fail with me.

  3. Poor ATS girls! Especially since some of the other womens' services were wearing uniforms designed by the likes of Normal Hartnell.

    1. Exactly - women in uniform can look so wonderful or so lumpy, and I'm never sure what makes it so. It's not JUST great design or the woman's basic shape I think.

  4. How kind, Moira . . . Pamela Hansford Johnson is one of those writers who seems pretty much forgotten - undeservedly so, I think. Make do and mend! How useless I would have been at that. Many years ago I took in the seams of a skirt - I was so exhausted by the effort that I have never attempted anything like it again.

    1. I was the worst at needlework in my year at school, a role I toiled at throughout primary and secondary school. I dreaded the classes. BUT when I got much older, and realized that nothing had to be perfect, I actually managed to do some projects that suited me - covering chairs, and making fancy dress costumes for my children. I need some phrase, on the lines of 'shabby chic' to describe my sewing style - 'deliberately awkward'? 'Big bad stitches, big bad ideas'?

  5. Bridge coats/jackets are a VERY 1930s garment - they were designed specifically to keep women warm in their low-cut, backless and often sleeveless evening gowns, and were often designed to match with evening gowns. Very necessary if you were going to sit around playing cards in a chilly, poorly-heated house or castle, or just to keep warm in general.

    Of course, now it seems that a bridge coat/jacket is a particular type of man's coat or jacket, and that's blocking the search results.

    1. Yes, that makes perfect sense, I was intrigued in my researches to find that velvet was almost obligatory, but it is a lovely warm fabric.
      And YES exactly in my researches I kept getting men's bridge coats! For wearing on a ship's bridge, and then filtered down to modern man. I actually made a note of 'navy bridge coats' and then looked at it, puzzled, later, thinking 'I thought they were all black...?'

    2. I did wonder what a bridge coat was, but Daniel's expanation solved the problem. Makes perfect sense. Thank you!

  6. My mother-in-law was a sewing teacher and taught Make Do and Mend evening classes during the war. How to re-model your hats was a particularly popular lesson, and crucial apparently for those wanting to appear chic despite the rationing.

    1. Oh fantastic, I bet she had some great stories! There is a hat make-over story in one of the Joyce Dennis blogposts linked to above.

  7. Making something yourself, and especially making something new out of something old is incredibly satisfying. I'm NOT good at sewing, but I have more than once bought vintage dresses which seemed past their sell-by date for next to nothing and transformed them by washing them, ironing them, mending torn seams and putting in new buttons instead of lost and/or broken ones. At other times removing or replacing old and crumpled shoulder pads and/or adding a lace collar (saved from some other garment which was beyond repair) have worked wonders.

    I am religious about saving things like good buttons, belt-buckles and pretty collars from garments which have to be discarded. And needless to say I don't discard anything that has half a chance of survival. My latest feat was cutting off the lower part of a 1940's rayon dressing gown whose bodice was torn beyond repair and use it for a skirt. It didn't involve any sewing at all - I just cut off the bodice and tied the skirt part around my waist with the original dressing-gown ties. The wrap-around structure was already there. It doesn't have a proper waist band of course, but with a blouse or a T-shirt hanging loosely on top, covering the waist, it made a very cool, nice, swishy skirt for last year's hot summer. I felt like a genius, and 1940s rayon is like nothing else on this earth - "buttery" is the adjective of choice to describe it when it's for sale on Etsy or eBay, and that pretty well describes the coolness and slipperiness.

    1. This all sounds so fantastic! when I read descriptions like this, I think 'oh yes I could do that' - not sure that I could, but I so admire people who can. My daughter is brilliant at this - when a penny-pinching student she was forever altering and embellishing clothes. I lose confidence when I get going..

  8. Probably not one for me. Love the top photo though. Pretty sure they had the same chairs at my kid's schools when we watched the obligatory nativity plays. I get aches just looking at them.

    1. I know, such an atmospheric picture, we've all been in halls like that sitting through something or other... fashion show or nativity...


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