published 1954, set 1946
I enjoy a Clemence Dane book – several of them have appeared on the blog, including the scandalous Regiment of Women, two entries in 2019. Two of her books on the blog feature special connections with Dorothy L Sayers, that great favourite of Clothes in Books. (Regiment, and Enter Sir John).
My friend the writer Sarah Rayne is a persuasive advocate for one of Dane’s books, Broome Stages, and she both introduced me to it and did a guest post on it. The Flower Girls is very much in a similar mode to Broome Stages, but with less history.
In fact it is the apotheosis of Dane-ness: It’s as if you took all her books and mashed them up in a processor and turned the result into a book. It is tremendous fun, and just very slightly less than the sum of its parts. It is a long post-war saga about a theatrical family of great fame and importance, and features old theatres in London, and complex relationships and love affairs that go right and go wrong. Earlier splits in the family mean there is that splendid character – the naive American boy come to visit his rellies. Endless expository conversation (‘she’s one of your cousins, and what happened in 1938 was…’ ‘He must have moved up to the attic in 1919’) is thus built in, along with chances for over-quick judgements and strange linkups.
Well I for one will ALWAYS read a book with those themes.
In fact it rather reads (in a good way) like a children’s book of the 1950s – there are goody-goodys and rough children, visits out to the country and to Stratford (very Pamela Brown & Blue Door). Everybody is very certain and definite about everything, and people in the wrong just have to be convinced to change their minds.
Of course there are loyal and lovable servants who may have been theatricals and dressers in a past life - see this post for my narky discussions on this trope: ‘You quite long for a book where the dresser is not this lovely old loyal retainer, but some vicious undermining shop steward for the dressers’ union.’
I absolutely loved the descriptions of London just after the war, the alleys and small shops, the decaying theatres, the bomb-damaged buildings, the cluster of unlikely trades in a street, from bead-sellers to greengrocers. There was discussion of royalty and tiaras. There was an unexpected tape-recording meaning we could hear from a dead man. (The kind of thing that seems like an anachronism, although never forget that a dictation machine plays a key role in an early Agatha Christie book.)
And the illustration opportunities were unmatched – this blog could virtually be a catalogue of pictures for the story, with our love of theatricals, beautiful art portraits, and women’s clothes of the mid 20th Century.
So let’s have a lot of pictures and not that many more words…
‘The Flower Girls’ of the title are from a picture by real-life artist John Singer Sargent, one of the greats. The painting, obviously is imaginary, but I have picked out some of his works to stand in: at the top of the page is The Wyndham Sisters by JSS, Athenaeum website. That’s the right sort of picture, ‘apple shoulders, mulberry mouth, curls and pearls’ - but the ‘girls’ themselves (theatrical minxes) may well have looked more like Ena and Betty Wertheimer in this picture:
And surely Sargent’s Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose is the ultimate in flower girls…
But the setting of the book is post-WW2, and the women now are heading for Christian Dior’s New Look, launched in 1947. (Although the book ranges freely over the past, the contemporary setting is very much 1946 and takes place over a short time.)
‘She was loosening her mink coat. The black suit which she wore under it had artificially broad shoulders and was buttoned up to the throat. A scarf of stiff material was twisted round her sleek head and tied in a bow.’ (pics from Kristine.)
Or just looking unobtrusively elegant:
[she was wearing] a grey linen two piece. She listened patiently to the waiter’s suggestions, all the while removing her gloves and loosening her coat.
Then there’s the costumes:
‘What colour do you call it? Not quite scarlet is it? Not quite cherry?’
‘I remember when Beerbohm Tree played Cardinal Wolsey in the 1910 revival he used just that shade for his robes and how he blazed across the play! Cardinal Wolsey? Cardinal Lucifer! Even so, cunning devil, he had the other cardinal toned down to near-puce.’
[Memories of the indelible Cardinal Wolsey of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. ‘Right, Master Cromwell, price me by the yard!’]
‘I’ve always wanted to see a Bakst ballet.'
‘If you saw Bakst décor tonight it would seem tame to you, old-fashioned, parental.’
Oh it’s a strange old book, full of long descriptions that could’ve been cut, and guessable plot twists. But I will forgive a lot when a writer can do a description like this:
It was the morella-cherry accent, tart and sweet. It was the tat-tap typewriter manner. It was the ruffling gait of the royal Pekinese advancing upon a Hyde Park dog-club. It was Lily, gowned, hatted, gloved, fresh as a lettuce.---and obviously about to cause trouble.
If you like the sound of that, then it’s worth trying to track down this book.
Cardinal Wolsey in a portrait hanging in the college he founded, Christchurch in Oxford.
The sketch is a design for a ballet costume by L. Bakst.
Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose by John Singer Sargent from The Athenaeum website.
Mink coat, 1953, from Harpers and Queen via Kristine’s photostream
Two piece with gloves and coat, same source..