Saturday, 30 June 2012

The world of a Chinese childhood

the book:

Cries in the Drizzle by Yu Hua

First published in China in 1991

[ Sun Guanglin’s grandfather shares his time between the homes of his two sons. After a month away he would return to the narrator's house]

At such moments, my big brother and I would race exuberantly towards him. Our little brother could only stand at the edge of the village and watch us as we ran, a smile of vicarious excitement on his face. Sun Youyuan’s eyes would brim with tears, and his hands would tremble as he ruffled our hair. In reality, our mad dash was inspired by sibling rivalry, not by any great delight at Granddad’s return. The umbrella in his hand and the bundle on his back were what triggered our enthusiasm: whoever was first to grab the umbrella was undisputed champion. There was once, I remember, when my brother seized the bundle as well as the umbrella, and them marched along at Granddad’s right side, proud as a peacock. I, on the other hand, was heartbroken to be completely empty-handed. On the short walk home, I kept complaining to Granddad about how unreasonable my brother was. “He’s got the bundle too!” I sobbed. “He took the umbrella, and then he took the bundle!”

observations: Yu Hua sounds like a lovely man. He says he became a writer because he was a dentist and noticed that people at the Cultural Center didn’t work nearly as hard as he did, though he must work quite hard still because he has produced a fair amount. The book has a young man (apparently of Yu Hua’s age) recounting his memories of childhood in a small Chinese village. Many of the anecdotes are familiar childhood tropes, but written in a fresh and fascinating way, especially for those of us who know little of Chinese life in those years – and who are probably missing layers of meaning, and references to Chinese politics. All the family relations in the book are shown as harsh, and the grandfather above has a particularly bad time with his son, although the book is strangely bouncy and cheerful for all that. The writer Ha Jin says Yu Hua has a cold eye but a warm heart, which is about right. And then, how dumbed down would it be to suggest that drizzle is not a good word for the English title? - as it summons up a comfy lemon cake to most people, not a slightly miserable rainshower.

Yu Hua’s most famous book is
To Live, a huge bestseller all over the world, which was made into an award-winning and stunning film. Asked what he thought of the film, Yu Hua said that Zhang Yimou was a wonderful director, because he paid for the rights to the book on time.

Links up with: childhood point of view
here and here. The Casson children loved their grandfather, and umbrellas are important here and here.

The photograph is from the
Smithsonian Institute.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Books of 1952: Smart girls work in fashion

Because it was Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee in the UK, we did a weeksworth of books with a first publication date of 1952. As these entries were so popular, we've found a few more to feature.

the book:

In the Mink by Anne Scott James

published 1952 chapter 3

[the narrator is working at a London fashion magazine, Venus in the 1930s, and is about to attend her first fashion show]

[Mrs Van Elder] told me to wear one of my less Bohemian outfits (I was still addicted to large plaids and striking colours) – a black dress if I had one. I had not been a year on Venus without acquiring a little black dress, so I wore this to the office with a pearl necklace, a fur jacket and… a black hat with a veil….

I realized it was a Venus uniform. Every one of us had a black dress and pearls and a small black hat with a veil, and we looked a little like the daughters of the clergy dressed for a social.

If we looked a bit genteel, the Couture [rival fashion magazine] staff had gone definitely ‘county’. No black or pearls on their side. Every one had a tweed suit, a cashmere sweater and crocodile or brogued leather shoes, and they looked as though they had left their country houses for a day’s jaunt to town.

observations: Anyone interested in fashion - or social history - should read this book, which is a lightly-fictionalized memoir of the author’s experiences working in the magazine world in the 30s and 40s, with a brief interval in straight news during WW2. It is a light-hearted romp, with endless good anecdotes and strange stories - and a very odd digression into the love lives of gay men. There are some nice bits of social observation along the way: actresses and movie stars always claim to be ‘a small 12’ (those were the days, hmm?) and are actually much bigger than that. The author satirizes ‘anti-fashion’ letters to the paper that claim “I have managed with two dresses and one apron for the past four years, and my husband says I am the best-dressed woman he knows… My husband likes dowdy old me the way I am.” There is a feature in the magazine known to the staff (but NOT the sitters) as Bitches in Tiaras. The Devil Wears Prada transported back in time to the 1930s – and much better-written.

Links up with: Black dresses, it turns out, have given us some of the most beautiful pictures on the blog. There’s a 
very gorgeous bad girl in a black dress on her way to Tiffanys, and a dress that cost $40. This Muriel Spark heroine needs her dress altering, and the pearls and dress combination can produce a very different look. The Excellent Woman Mildred is the daughter of a clergyman.

The photo can be found on
Wikimedia Commons.

Books of 1952: the policeman is a gentleman...

Because it was Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee in the UK, we did a weeksworth of books with a first publication date of 1952. As these entries were so popular, we've found a few more to feature.
the book:

The Singing Sands by Josephine Tey

published 1952   chapter 2

[Top policeman Inspector Alan Grant is in Scotland, visiting a cousin and meeting her 9-year old son]

Pat had red hair, and a bleak and intimidating grey eye. He was wearing a tattered green tartan kilt, smoke-blue stockings, and a much-darned grey jersey. His greeting to Grant was off-hand but reassuringly uncouth. Pat spoke from choice what his mother called 'clotted Perthshire', his bosom friend at the village school being the shepherd's son, who hailed from Killin. He could, of course, when he had a mind, speak faultless English, but it was always a bad sign. When Pat was 'not speaking' to you he was always not speaking in the best English.

Over tea, Grant asked him if he had yet made up his mind what he was going to be; Pat's invariable answer to the question from the age of four having been: 'A'm taking it into avizandum.' A phrase borrowed from his JP father.

'Ay,' said Pat, spreading jam with a liberal hand. 'A've made up muh mind.'

'You have? That's fine. What are you going to be?'

'A revolutionary.'

'I hope I never have to arrest you.'

'Yu couldna,' said Pat simply.

'Why not?'

'A'll be good, man,' said Pat, dipping the spoon again.

observations: As a murder story, this book, unlike Pat, isn’t much good. It describes in detail Alan Grant’s rest-cure in Scotland, lots of details and opinions (boy is Josephine Tey opinionated - see also the comments on Miss Pym Disposes). There is a dead body at the beginning (officially an accident) and later on Grant will try to track down what happened. It will turn out that Scotland is a complete irrelevancy, and the real solution – which could be fascinating, dealing as it does with lost lands, and treasures, and Arabian deserts – is dealt with in a very distanced way.

Alan Grant is close to being insufferable, and it seems that Ms Tey fell in love with him, always an embarrassing disaster [See also: Lord Peter Wimsey, and the blog’s mean comments on him
here and here]. But although this book makes the reader wince frequently, it is, like all her books, very readable, and you want to know what will happen.

Pat is a very upmarket posh child, living with servants and soon to go to public school – the Scottish accent won’t last. Tey is very aware of class distinctions, in a not particularly nice way. JP means Justice of the Peace – local dignitary in court – and presumably Pat is taking his decision ‘under advisement’.

Links up with: Alice wears a very different kind of kilt in
this entry. Josephine Tey has featured before, in the much superior Miss Pym Disposes, as noted above. This heroine not only talks with a Scottish accent, but narrates in it too. Lord Peter Wimsey here and other entries – click on the label below to see them all.

Picture of a rather smarter young boy from the
State Library of Queensland.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Midsummer: 'Ready! And I!' - Ballet Shoes again

We have some Midsummer-themed entries to mark the days around the summer solstice

the book:
Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild
published 1936  chapter 14

[The Fossil sisters have parts in Shakespeare's Midsummer Night Dream - following on from this audition]

[Pauline and Petrova] were sent to a famous stage costume-makers and designers. As soon as [they] said who they were, large coloured pictures were produced, one marked ‘Pease-blossom’ and the other ‘Mustard-seed’. Pauline had hope their dresses would be the real fairy sort, with wings sticking up behind; but they were not a bit like that. They both had skin tights all over, Pauline’s in flesh colour and Petrova’s mustard, with queer turn-up-toed shoes to match. Round Pauline’s waist and over one shoulder were pink flowers; she had a wreath of the same flowers round her head. Petrova had nothing on beyond her tights, except a funny little hat. They both had silk wings that fastened to their shoulders and wrists, and and were so long that when they were walking they trailed on the floor like a train. Nana, who had taken them to the fitting, was disgusted and said so.

‘Fairies! Might just as well send them on stage in their combies!’

The dressmaker laughed. ‘Would you have liked frills, and tinsel, and wired wings, and wands?’

observations: Yes is obviously the answer here, for Nana and for the other domestic staff, who, when they see the play, think Petrova’s hat is ‘like the hat charabanc [= coach] parties wear on outings.’ Most of us, even if not lower-class, probably expect 1930s fairies to be very traditional, and even as a child I was surprised by this ‘modern’ costuming. Meanwhile the Royal Shakespeare Company has recently had punk fairies in Doc Marten boots, striped tights and ragged skirts Perhaps there is a secret sociological survey to be made in looking at the ways the fairies are dressed over the years, and how it reflects the society of the time – ‘Midsummer Night Dream Fairies’ makes for a fascinating Google Images search, as does a similar search for RSC MND.

Links up with: The girls auditioned in pretty white dresses
, and there are no costume issues for Puck. Stephen Greenblatt looks at Shakespearean costumes here.

The photograph (from the
State Library of New South Wales) is of two dancers in a Sydney Park – one fears poor Petrova (who almost loses the part during rehearsals) was never quite so perfectly elegant in her moves.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

MIdsummer - tennis but not Wimbledon

We have some Midsummer-themed entries to mark the days around the summer solstice

the book:

The Diary of a Provincial Lady by EM Delafield

published 1930

[the diarist has been trying to sell some of her old clothes]

March 14th.--Rather inadequate Postal Order arrives, together with white tennis coat trimmed with rabbit, which--says accompanying letter--is returned as being unsaleable. Should like to know why…(Mem: See whether tennis coat could be dyed and transformed into evening cloak.)

March 21st.-- We go to a Sale in order to cheer ourselves up, and I buy yellow linen tennis-frock--£1 9s. 6d.--on strength of newly-arranged overdraft, but subsequently suffer from the conviction that I am taking the bread out of the mouths of [children] Robin and Vicky.

June 23rd – Tennis-party at wealthy and elaborate house, to which [husband] Robert and I now bidden for the first time. (Also, probably, the last). Am introduced to youngish lady in yellow, and serious young man with horn-rimmed spectacles. Lady in yellow says at once that she is sure I have a lovely garden. (Why?)

Elderly, but efficient-looking, partner is assigned to me, and we play against the horn-rimmed spectacles and agile young creature in expensive crepe-de-chine...

Play worse than ever, and am not unprepared for subsequent enquiry from hostess as to whether I think I have really quite got over the measles, as she has heard that it often takes a full year.

Conversation turns upon Lady B. and everyone says she is really very kindhearted, and follows this up by anecdotes illustrating all her less attractive qualities. Youngish lady in yellow declares that she met Lady B. last week in London, face three inches thick in new sunburn-tan. Can quite believe it. Feel much more at home after this, and conscious of new bond of union cementing entire party. Sidelight thus thrown upon human nature regrettable, but not to be denied.

observations: As Wimbledon gets under way, the mind boggles at the tennis-coat: what kind of sports garment is this that is trimmed with fur and can double as an evening cloak? Also interesting that the tennis party by no means feels it should wear white – it is a bit of a shibboleth in the UK that the white clothes tradition was of enormous importance and that it is an example of how the world is degenerating that the white is no longer pure. Yet the Provincial Lady is the height of respectability and good form, and yellow and fur do sound fun…

Links up with: Tennis at the Finzi Continis a few years later,
here and here. ‘Scrubby friends’ playing tennis are being put in their place (‘my dear!’) in this extract. Someone who plays tennis AND has a fur-trimmed coat: Gwen Raverat’s mother. The Provincial Lady has featured before, here and here and here. For more Midsummer entries click on label below.

Photo from
George Eastman House via Flickr.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Midsummer - the Dream goes to San Francisco

We have some Midsummer-themed entries to mark the days around the summer solstice

the book:

The Great Night by Chris Adrian

published 2011  Part 1 Chapter 1

[Puck is being described]

What you saw depended on how you were feeling; he was often the image of one’s worst fear or most troubling anxiety. To some of the faeries he looked like a naked boy with a luxurious Afro, and only the height of the boy or the width of the Afro changed from eye to eye. But some saw him as a sliver of flame, or a blackness heavier and darker than the black air, or a fluttering pair of dark wings, and some saw him as an image of their Queen only even more depressed, dishevelled and defeated-looking. In every form he wore a chain, sometimes made of tiny silver acorns or leaves of twisted silver grass. Sometimes the chain was made of thick links of silver manacle, and sometimes it was just silver glints upon the air or the fire. The chain had been placed there by Oberon a very long time ago, so long ago that no-one but the Queen remembered the true particulars of the binding, though the battle was a story they all had once sung under the hill and one they celebrated every Midsummer’s Eve.

observations: This is the perfect Midsummer book, taking the plot of Shakespeare’s Midsummer’s Night Dream, mangling it, then rebuilding it in an utterly compelling way – fairies and humans wandering around a park in San Francisco (Buena Vista Park, which really exists), slowly revealing everyone’s backstories. It has that air of mystery and magic pertaining to a night when you stay up till dawn, it reminds you of being young and thinking anything could happen. It is quite a harsh book in some ways, and not all the strands work equally well. There is an absolutely extraordinary section about a couple (who happen to be Titania and Oberon) with a terminally ill child – Chris Adrian is a paediatrician – which is so real and moving that it is hard for the rest of the book to live up to it. But it’s still highly recommended, and the hardback edition is very beautiful.

Links up with: more midsummer books, such as this one and this one - or click on the label below.

The description sounded more like a vicious Ariel than Puck, and
this illustration is from The Tempest in a 19th Century edition of Shakespeare.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Dress Down Sunday - Bridget Jones and her teddy

Today we are launching a new Clothes in Books feature:

Dress Down Sunday

--- looking at what goes on under the clothes. And we could think of no-one better to start us off than the Queen of the Big Pants, Bridget Jones, who is also, as it happens, in Midsummer mood – two themes in one!

the book:
Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding
published 1996

[Young London Singleton Bridget has gone for a mini-break to a country house hotel with caddish boyfriend Daniel]

Sunday 25th June 8st 11, alcohol units 7, cigarettes 2, calories 4587 (oops).Oh dear. Daniel decided the place was nouveau from the moment we arrived, because there were three Rolls Royces parked outside, and one of them yellow. I was fighting a sinking realization that it was suddenly freezing cold and I had packed for 90 degree heat. This was my packing:

Swimsuits 2

Bikinis 1

Long floaty white dress 1

Sundress 1

Trailer-park trash pink jelly mules 1 pair

Tea-rose-pink suede mini dress 1

Black silk teddyBras, pants, stockings, suspenders, (various)

There was a crack of thunder as I teetered, shivering, after Daniel to find the foyer stuffed with bridesmaids and men in cream suits and to discover that we were the only guests staying in the hotel who were not in the wedding party.

observations: Bridget Jones was the first, the original, the best. To categorize her as ChickLit is just wrong – this book is extremely clever, extremely funny, and a true satirical comedy of manners. It’s as if Edith Wharton re-wrote House of Mirth for the 1990s, with Lily Bart allowed a modicum of happiness in an unforgiving society. In fact Bridget takes getting married, or at least pairing up, just as seriously as Lily does, and Helen Fielding has as exact and careful an eye for the social niceties and snobberies of modern England as Wharton did for turn-of-the-century New York. Poor Bridget – she still remembers seeing her A Level results and realizing she would have to go to Bangor, an idea that the hideous Daniel – Cambridge-educated – finds utterly hilarious. And it matters not a whit that Bangor is a perfectly respectable academic university: what matters is perception and the class system.

Her capsule wardrobe sounds perfect, even though the black silk teddy couldn’t be worn under the floaty white dress without showing through. An old dictionary definition of teddy reads ‘a short undergarment combining chemise and drawers in one’.

Links up with: The Provincial Lady has a dress that
doesn’t work out. The Fossil sisters know about lists of clothes. Other Midsummer entries over the past few days, eg here, or click the label below.

The picture was a front cover from the Queenslander magazine, and comes from the
State Library of Queensland archive.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Midsummer - alone and summoning up her future

We have some Midsummer-themed entries to mark the days around the summer solstice

the book:

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

published 1949    set in the 1930s

[Cassandra Mortmain is writing her diary]

[When I woke] I instantly remembered that it was Midsummer Eve, my very favourite day, and lay awake looking forward to it and planning my rites on the mound. They seemed all the more valuable because I wondered if it might not be my last year for them… it would be dreadful to perform them just as an affected pose… We first held the rites when I was nine – I got the idea from a book on folklore. Mother thought them unsuitable for Christian little girls (I remember my astonishment at being called a Christian) and she was worried in case our dresses caught alight when we danced round our votive fire….

[Later that day]

[The flowers for the rite] have to be wild flowers… mallow, campion and bluebells for the garland to hang round our necks, foxgloves to carry, and we always wore wild roses in our hair… I gave the flowers a long drink – wild ones die so quickly without water that I never make my garland before 7 o’clock. By then I had collected enough twigs to start the fire – Stephen always takes the logs up for me – and packed my basket. When I finished my garland, it was nearly eight and a pale moon was coming up though the sky was still blue. I changed into my green linen frock and put on my garland and wild roses; then, at the very last minute, I opened Rose’s scent.

observations: This extract does not show Cassandra to best effect – she is a lot less twee and cute than it makes her sound. But in the context of the book, the whole day of the rites is beautifully done, and leads to a key scene in the plot. The description of a summer's day, as the temperature rises and the other residents of the castle leave one by one, and what she does on her own, is strange and memorable. Her rites are going to be interrupted by someone, and everyone’s future will change dramatically – eventually.

This is a desert island book for a lot of people, mostly (but not only) women – a book they can read over and over – see more discussion

Links up with: I Capture the Castle has featured
before, as has the same author’s The Town in Bloom. Dodie Smith is best-known for her children’s book, 101 Dalmatians; the picture happens to be of another children’s author – PL Travers, creator of Mary Poppins – playing Titania in Midsummer’s Night Dream. It comes from the State Library of New South Wales.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Midsummer - May Week in June, and in pink

We have some Midsummer-themed entries to mark the days around the summer solstice

the book:

Giant's Bread by Mary Westmacott (Agatha Christie)
Published 1930    set pre- 1st World War  Book 2 chapter 1

[Vernon Deyre is enjoying the May Balls – but see note below - at Cambridge]

He raised his head a little, looked along the river bank. There was a punt tied up under some trees. Four people in it – but Vernon saw only one. A girl in a pink evening-frock with hair like spun gold standing under a tree laden with pink blossom. He looked and looked. … Inside him a riotous voice was saying ‘She’s lovely. She’s the most lovely girl in the world. I’m going to get to know her. I’ve got to know her. I’m going to marry her.’

[a day later]

He was dancing with her. Never had he imagined that he could be so happy. She was like a feather, a rose leaf in his arms. She was wearing a pink dress again – a different one. It floated out all round her. If life could only go on like this for ever – for ever.

But of course life never did.

observations: Agatha Christie writing as Mary Westmacott again, see earlier entry, and a much more rambling book with various strange elements: the protagonist is a man, and one who could be a talented composer of experimental music. His works, and what he is trying to achieve, are described in some detail – Agatha Christie herself was very musical, and trained quite seriously before marrying and taking to writing. Not only is the music surprisingly adventurous, the Bohemian artists surrounding him are quite free-living, with a lot of unmarried sex, apparently with the author’s approval. But this lady in the pink dress is to provide the opposing force: she is pretty, and he falls madly in love, but she is also materialistic and as conventional as the emphasis on pink suggests, and he will end up taking a job in his uncle’s business and leaving behind the Bohemian life. She is about as substantial a character as you would expect from the description above.

The plot is so outrageously melodramatic as to warrant considerable admiration: there is the Bohemian sex life, there is the first world war, there is a soldier suffering from amnesia, there is a wife who has remarried because she thinks her husband dead, and there is an ending on a sinking ship which defies all belief and common sense – James Cameron should have read it before he made Titanic. So loads of rattling good fun, but what a good thing AC on the whole stuck to murder stories.

May Balls and May Week originally took place when you would expect, but the dates (though not the names) were changed in the 1880s, and so these events take place in June.

Links up with: another
Westmacott book, and an Agatha Christie story in which the victim should have been wearing a pink dress.

The picture is by Hungarian painter Janos Thorma, and can be found on
Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Midsummer - dream dresses for an audition

We have some Midsummer-themed entries to mark the days around the summer solstice

the book:

Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild
published 1936     Chapter 13

[Stage school sisters Petrova and Pauline have an audition, but don’t have the right clothes ]

Nana sounded cross, as she always did when she was worried. ‘Well, what will you wear, then? I can’t make clothes out of the air.’

Petrova put her arms around her neck. ‘Nana darling, could my birthday money make us organdie frocks like we used to have?’

‘What, those white dresses with the frills?... How much money have you got?’

Nana got a pencil and paper and made calculations. ‘We could get a nice organdie for two and eleven. Four and a half yards those dresses take – that’s nine yards.’ She passed the paper to Petrova. ‘You’re good at figures; how much is nine yards at two and eleven?’

Petrova worked it out in her head; it came to one pound six and threepence… Pauline and Petrova heaved sighs of relief; but Nana shook her head.

‘You’re going too fast. What about linings? See straight through you in organdie. You can wear the knickers of your practice dresses, but you must have slips even if it’s only jap… Get something good enough for one and six-three,’ Nana thought, but she’d need two yards for each of them.

observations: The girls are auditioning to be fairies in Shakespeare's Midsummer Night’s Dream, and their audition clothes sound more traditionally fairy-like than what they will wear when they (spoiler!) get the parts – we’ll look at their costumes in a future entry. Organdie is a very fine and translucent kind of muslin, jap seems to mean jap-silk, a thin silk obviously used for linings. The calculations are in old money (including farthings) and using non-metric units, but are correct – the sums are small, but the joy of this book is always the details, the thinking, the adding up and sorting out of clothes, the penny-pinching background to the glamour of the theatre.

Links up with: More Noel Streatfeild and more clothes panics all over the blog – click on the labels below to see them. Dodie Smith’s heroine wore an outrageous outfit for her
audition. Guess what colour the Woman in White wears.

The image is part of a collection from the Builth Wells Historical Pageant of 1909 – archived by the
National Library of Wales, and well worth a look.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Swapping crimes - Strangers on a Train

Rich Westwood, blogging as Past Offences, (and who guest-blogged for us here) invited Clothes in Books to do a guest review of Strangers on a Train – in keeping with the concept of the book. So you can see that review at his excellent blog, and read more about the clothes in the book below…

the book:

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

published 1950    chapter 40

[Architect Guy has just left an important business meeting]

Guy nodded a greeting to a smiling foreman. He detected the smallest glow of self-esteem. Or maybe it was nothing but his new suit, he thought, only the third suit in his life he had ever had made for him. Anne had chosen the grey-blue glen plaid material. Anne had chosen the tomato-coloured woollen tie this morning to go with it, an old tie but one that he liked….

[His good mood is challenged by a phonecall from Bruno, discussing the trouble they are in]

Momentarily, as he came out into the sunlight, he was conscious again of the new suit, and he clenched his fist in frustrated anger with himself… Guy went over the fabrication Bruno had just given him as if it were something that didn’t belong to him, as if it were a swatch of material he indifferently considered for a suit, he thought. No, there were no holes in it, but it wouldn’t necessarily wear…

Anne protected him. His work protected him. The new suit, the stupid new suit. He felt suddenly inadequate and dull-witted, helpless. Death had insinuated itself into his brain…

Guy sipped his martini thoughtfully, holding the surface perfectly steady.

observations: Well Highsmith’s not frightened to put a serious meaning on a slight framework is she? From the new suit to death on the brain in a handful of words. And the sentence about the martini, a chapter ending, is terrific, although can you really drink anything while holding it steady?

The third custom-made suit is another Highsmith-ian detail. Is it meant to show his exact social position? He is very obviously going up in the world by marrying Anne, but not that far – most writers would surely have made it his first good suit.

It can be hard to get to grips with Highsmith, she’s a bit of a take-it-or-leave-it writer. A suitable jubilee anecdote: it is alleged that the Queen Elizabeth would be supplied with a bagful of detective stories every year before she went on holiday, and that one year the edict came through - No more Highsmith. Ever. It’s not often that we have (or would want) anything in common with Royalty, but maybe this is the time. PH was a very talented writer, had amazing abilities, but her characters and situations are very gloomy, there are no jokes.

Links up with: Georgie gets a new suit in this
Lucia book, and the men are dressing up for a wedding here.

The handsome chap in the plaid suit is a young Frank Sinatra: the photo is from the fabulous Gottlieb collection of jazz pictures at the
Library of Congress.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Books of 1952: Period Piece

the book:

Period Piece by Gwen Raverat

Because it was Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee in the UK, we did a weeksworth of books with a first publication date of 1952. As these entries were so popular, we've found a few more to feature.

Chapter 1, events in the late 19th Century

[The narrator is piecing together the story of her mother’s young single years, from her letters]

The gaieties, dinners and tennis continue all the summer, till in mid-September Maud went with Aunt Cara to pay some visits in Scotland. But first she bought a new coat:
‘After looking at lots of dowdy things, at last we were shown an exceedingly pretty brown brocaded velvet, a kind of coat and yet a mantle, trimmed with lovely fur – I think it was black fox which was brown. But the price was very extravagant – seven guineas. The fur cost a guinea a yard, the clerk said. There were about ten yards of fur on it.’
This kind of arithmetic puzzle - ten yards of guinea-a-yard fur on a seven-guinea coat – would never have troubled my mother at all. Aunt Cara evidently pressed her to buy it, but my mother remained firm. It was ‘too good’. So she bought a three-guinea coat, of ‘mixed red and blue cloth in stripes’ with ‘a feather trimming’ and ‘capey sleeves’ ‘as stylish as can be’.

Memoirs of childhood are a very chancy genre – the authors are often a lot too pleased with themselves (“we were mad in our family! Granny was so lovely! Uncle Arthur was a card!”) and the stories are cutesy and nostalgia-tipped. And there’s usually a lot about extraordinarily dull forebears whom even the author never knew. Gwen Raverat’s book looks as though it might have any of these faults, but it doesn’t, it is a fabulous book, guaranteed to amuse anyone. For a start she was Charles Darwin’s granddaughter, which does make her family a bit more interesting, though it is the charm of the stories which is so winning. Her mother is American and has come to Cambridge (UK) to visit: she will meet Gwen’s father and marry him.

Gwen Raverat, who was a professional artist, illustrated this book herself, so we can’t hope to better her splendid pictures – can only provide pictures where she didn’t. But we will certainly visit the book again, because there is a lot about clothes in it…

A guinea is £1.05p, approx. $1.60.

Links up with: Fur coats
here and here and fur trimmings here and here.

The illustration is of evening coats by the Paris designer Poiret, from
Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, 18 June 2012

The Woman in White, and a guest blogger – round 2

Today we have another guest entry from Rich Westwood, who runs the highly-recommended website Past Offences, with news and reviews of classic crime books. He has looked at The Woman in White for us, and Clothes in Books will be reviewing Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train for his blog in the near future – his idea of simple genius was that this would be in keeping with the concept of Strangers on a Train. Rich’s first entry was last week.

the book:
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collinspublished 1860

Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1859-60) tells of a dastardly plot against the innocent and beautiful Laura Fairlie by her cash-strapped husband Sir Percival Glyde, aided and abetted by his scheming friend Count Fosco. Collins seems to have had an eye for costume.

One of the book's lesser villains is Mr Fairlie, the highly strung, hypochondriac guardian of half-sisters Laura and Marian:

 He was dressed in a dark frock-coat, of some substance much thinner than cloth, and in waistcoat and trousers of spotless white. His feet were effeminately small, and were clad in buff-coloured silk stockings, and little womanish bronze-leather slippers. Two rings adorned his white delicate hands, the value of which even my inexperienced observation detected to be all but priceless. Upon the whole, he had a frail, languidly-fretful, over-refined look.

Count Fosco is the stand-out character in the novel. He is almost a cartoon villain - pompous, obese, and piratically dressed. Blofeld-like, he even has pets - in his case a gang of white mice that scamper around his waistcoat;
As we passed an open space among the trees in front of the house, there was Count Fosco, slowly walking backwards and forwards on the grass, sunning himself in the full blaze of the hot June afternoon. He had a broad straw hat on, with a violet coloured ribbon round it. A blue blouse, with profuse white fancy-work over the bosom, covered his prodigious body, and was girt about the place where his waist might once have been with a broad scarlet leather belt. Nankeen trousers, displaying more white fancy-work over the ankles, and purple morocco slippers, adorned his lower extremities.

The images are by John Lenan for Harper's Weekly.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Books of 1952: Everyone's Favourite Pig

the book:

Charlotte's Web by EB White

Because it was Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee in the UK, we did a weeksworth of books with a first publication date of 1952. As these entries were so popular, we've found a few more to feature.

chapter 16

[Wilbur the pig is being taken to the County Fair]
In the kitchen, Mrs. Zuckerman suddenly made an announcement.
“Homer” she said to her husband, "I am going to give that pig a buttermilk bath."
"A what?" said Mr. Zuckerman.
"A buttermilk bath. My grandmother used to bathe her pig with buttermilk when it got dirty--I just remembered."
"Wilbur's not dirty," said Mr. Zuckerman proudly.
"He's filthy behind the ears," said Mrs. Zuckerman… "and he's going to have a bath."
Mr. Zuckerman sat down weakly and ate a doughnut. His wife went to the woodshed. When she returned, she wore rubber boots and an old raincoat, and she carried a bucket of buttermilk and a small wooden paddle.
"Edith, you're crazy," mumbled Zuckerman.

But she paid no attention to him. Together they walked to the pigpen. Mrs. Zuckerman wasted no time. She climbed in with Wilbur and went to work. Dipping her paddle in the buttermilk, she rubbed him all over….Charlotte [the spider] got so interested, she lowered herself on a dragline so she could see better. Wilbur stood still and closed his eyes. He could feel the buttermilk trickling down his sides. He opened his mouth and some buttermilk ran in. it was delicious. He felt radiant and happy.

observations: Charlotte’s Web has one of the finest opening lines in children’s literature: “Where’s Papa going with that ax?”, (all set for one of those joke 2nd lines to short-circuit the plot: "Papa is on his way BACK from the hoghouse Fern dear") and though the rest of the book doesn’t really live up to that, it is one of the most popular and successful books ever. Perhaps you have to read it as a child – coming upon it later in life, its charms are harder to spot, and it seems a strange combination of animal and human threads, with the author rather losing interest in the horribly-named Fern after a bit. But we have to bow to popular opinion – everyone else loves it.

Links up with:
Cold Comfort Farm is a rather different kind of homestead. Anne of Green Gables lived on a farm too.

Picture is from the UK’s National Archive and can be found on
Flickr. Mrs Z looks a lot like the UK actress Dawn French.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Bloomsday: Time to read Ulysses finally?

the book:

Ulysses by James Joyce

published 1922   Section 16

[Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus are together late at night in a cabman's shelter]

‘Do you consider, by the by,’ he said, thoughtfully selecting a faded photo which he laid on the table, ‘that a Spanish type?’

Stephen, obviously addressed, looked down on the photo showing a large sized lady, with her fleshy charms on evidence in an open fashion, as she was in the full bloom of womanhood, in evening dress cut ostentatiously low for the occasion to give a liberal display of bosom, with more than vision of breasts, her full lips parted, and some perfect teeth… Her (the lady’s) eyes, dark, large, looked at Stephen, about to smile about something to be admired, Lafayette of Westmoreland street, Dublin’s premier photographic artist, being responsible for the esthetic execution.

‘Mrs. Bloom, my wife the prima donna Madam Marion Tweedy’, Bloom indicated. ‘Taken a few years since. In or about ninety six. Very like her then.’

observations: June 16th is Bloomsday – the date in 1904 when the action of Ulysses takes place (give or take a late night). It was the day of Joyce’s first date with Nora Barnacle, who later became his wife. The book is long, and famously difficult – there is a tradition that aspiring intellectuals take it on holiday every year, but never read it. Joyce originally gave the sections of the book titles, then removed all these hints and helps – but it’s possible to find the plan online, for example here, and as you follow the parallels with Homer, the hours of the day, the parts of the body, the references to flowers – well it all becomes a lot easier. And it is brilliant, a work of true genius, still innovative and breath-taking and extraordinary so long after it was written. And you can read it again and again. The critic Edmund Wilson (in a very helpful chapter on Joyce in Axel’s Castle) says ‘we revisit it as we do a city, where we come more and more to recognize faces, to understand personalities, to grasp relations, currents and interests’, which is exactly right.

And my, Joyce is good on clothes. It is very clear at every stage what everyone is wearing, and he takes his clothes very seriously – wearing black for the funeral, where’s the best place in Dublin to get a suit, what a young girl’s underwear might look like, the dress that is 'mantailored with self-covered buttons' and braided frogging.

Links up with: The Dead from Dubliners featured
here – the heroine of that story is mentioned once in Ulysses, as Molly questions Bloom: ‘What had Gretta Conroy on?’ Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespeare scholar extraordinaire, says the Scylla and Charybdis chapter of Ulysses was useful in writing this book.

The picture is of the American painter Bianca Todd and can be found on

Friday, 15 June 2012

The Woman in White, and a guest blogger

Today we have a guest entry from Rich Westwood, who runs the highly-recommended website Past Offences, with news and reviews of classic crime books. He has looked at The Woman in White for us, and Clothes in Books will be reviewing Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train for his blog in the near future – his idea of simple genius was that this would be in keeping with the concept of Strangers on a Train. Look out for another entry from Rich next week.

the book:

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

published 1860

Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1859-60) tells of a dastardly plot against the innocent and beautiful Laura Fairlie by her cash-strapped husband Sir Percival Glyde, aided and abetted by his scheming friend Count Fosco. Collins seems to have had an eye for costume. First, we have the mysterious woman in white herself, Anne Catherick:
She held a small bag in her hand: and her dress -- bonnet, shawl, and gown all of white -- was, so far as I could guess, certainly not composed of very delicate or very expensive materials.

The white clothes stem from a childhood incident that made a lasting impression on Anne, which we find out about in an old letter:

So I arranged, yesterday, that some of our darling Laura's old white frocks and white hats should be altered for Anne Catherick, explaining to her that little girls of her complexion looked neater and better all in white than in anything else.

Marian and Laura dress differently, with the angelic but rich Laura dressing down to avoid making her poorer half-sister uncomfortable:

I was struck, on entering the drawing-room, by the curious contrast,rather in material than in colour, of the dresses which they now wore.While Mrs Vesey and Miss Halcombe were richly clad (each in the manner most becoming to her age), the first in silver-grey, and the second in that delicate primrose-yellow colour which matches so well with a dark complexion and black hair, Miss Fairlie was unpretendingly and almost poorly dressed in plain white muslin. It was spotlessly pure: it was beautifully put on; but still it was the sort of dress which the wife or daughter of a poor man might have worn, and it made her, so far as externals went, look less affluent in circumstances than her own governess.

The image is by John Lenan for Harper's Weekly.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Living the life dramatic in Seattle

the book:

Where'd You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple

published 2012  

[Audrey is describing an encounter with another Mom from school]

Naturally, I wanted to have a friendly chat with Bernadette. So I walked up to her car while she was in the pickup line. Mea culpa! But how else are you ever going to get a word with that woman? She’s like Franklin Delano Roosevelt. You see her only from the waist up, driving past. I don’t think she has once gotten out of her car to walk Bee into school.

I tried talking to her, but her windows were rolled up and she pretended not to see me. You’d think she was the first lady of France, with her silk scarf flung just so and huge dark glasses. I knocked on her windshield, but she drove off.

Over my foot!

observations: Can’t say too much about the plot of this book, as one of the fine things about reading it is that you have absolutely no idea what direction it is going in, not a clue what will happen next, or even, really, what genre of book it falls into. But we can say this: The first two-thirds of the book is composed largely of emails, reports, letters and other documents, explaining the complex dealings among a set of families living in (and sending their children to school in) a nice part of Seattle, leading eventually to the mysterious disappearance of Bernadette. The final third details the attempts of her young daughter, Bee, to find her.

The school, work and home descriptions are absolutely hilarious, a fine comic achievement. Anyone who knows Seattle and Microsoft will find it particularly telling, but that’s not essential – it’s hard to imagine who would not find the descriptions and writing very funny. It has to be said that the last part of the book is less satisfying, and a bit more YA. (What is with these narratives written by winsome over-clever teenagers, with whom you wouldn’t want to spend any time in real life?) But well worth it for the comic setpieces earlier.

Links up with: Jonathan Raban’s
Waxwings is a very different book, but also a great description of living in Seattle.

The picture is not the first lady of France, and comes, like this blog entry and this one, from Perry Photography: you can see more of her work at Flickr.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Books of1952: Anthony Powell

the book:

A Buyer's Market by Anthony Powell

Because it was Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee in the UK, we did a weeksworth of books with a first publication date of 1952. As these entries were so popular, we've found a few more to feature.

Part 1     set in London, 1928

Even Archie Gilbert, who had immediately preceded me in the hall – he had never been known to be late for dinner – looked that night as if he might be feeling the heat a little. His almost invisibly fair moustache suggested the same pique material as the surface of his stiff shirt; and, as usual, he shed about him an effect of such unnatural cleanliness that some secret chemical process seemed to have been applied, in preparation for the party, both to himself and his clothes: making body and its dazzling integument, sable and argent rather than merely black and white, proof against smuts and dust. Shirt, collar, tie, waistcoat, handkerchief and gloves were like snow: all these trappings, as always apparently assumed for the first time: even though he himself looked a shade pinker than usual in the face owing to the oppressively climatic conditions.

observations: Archie Gilbert is in non-ferrous metals, and goes to all the debutante dances – in fact he is such a socializer that narrator Nick Jenkins wonders if the job is perhaps a polite fiction, because how could he find the time to work as well? But a few pages later there is a gleam in Archie’s eye when mineral deposits are mentioned, so perhaps he does work after all. The book has – like many of Powell’s series (this is the second of the 12-volume Dance to the Music of Time sequence) – very long detailed descriptions of a number of social events, going on in real time, a bit like the film Titanic. The parties are greatly contrasted. There is a dinner to precede a dance, then the dance, both highly respectable, and then a much more louche affair at Milly Andriadis’s – but still with many of the guests in evening dress.

People either love these novels or are dismayed by them. They are elitist, snobbish and quite racist, but they present a picture of a certain sort of life in England from the 1920s through to the 1970s, and are very entertaining. Anthony Powell is excellent on gossip and analysing a social event, and on very real-sounding conversations and jokes, even if the milieu is totally unfamiliar. He is shameless about presenting these simple matters as an entertainment, but also finding something more meaningful in them.

Links up with:
The Great Gatsby features fancy shirts and evening clothes. Nancy Mitford’s Fanny and Polly go to dinners and dances. Lord Peter Wimsey is reputed to look good in evening dress.

The picture is from
Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Books of 1952: London Particular

the book:

London Particular by Christianna Brand

Because it was Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee in the UK, we did a weeksworth of books with a first publication date of 1952. Because these entries were so popular, we've found a few more to feature over the next week.

chapter 4

[18 year old Rosie lives with her brother and sister-in-law in London]

Rosie appeared in the kitchen doorway. She looked excessively smart in a gay little hat and bright scarlet coat and a pair of very high heels held on by a sliver of sole and a couple of thin leather straps. ‘Well hello and goodbye chaps, I’m off’

‘What, in this fog?’ said Thomas. ‘Where to?’

‘Just – out’ said Rosie, shrugging.

‘Aren’t you staying in to see this wonderful Frenchman?’

‘No thanks very much,’ said Rosie. ‘I’m not.… Now may I go, please, as I have an appointment and I’m late for it already.’ Tilda heard the bang of the front door as she flounced off down the steps. Thomas opened it again to call out after her… her [voice] floated back to them, muffled already by the fog. There was a rattle as she struggled with the little gate. The faint clip-clop of her high heels whispered of her uncertain progress through the impenetrable grey.

observations: Christianna Brand is now remembered (if at all) only for Green for Danger which was made into a fabulous film in 1946 – scenes of great tension in the operating theatre, and an array of colourful characters. But she wrote another half-dozen murder stories, which are all highly enjoyable period pieces (as is Green for Danger), and quite refreshing in their way. Posh young Rosie in this one is pregnant and is cheerfully trying to obtain an abortion, while admitting that she has no idea who the father of the child is, as she slept with so many men while at finishing school in Switzerland. No-one seems to think any of this is that terrible (well, almost no-one). She says she was ‘a bit of a basket’ which seems to mean something like slut, though even the other characters don’t recognize the phrase. One gathers that Ms Brand was well-dressed herself and liked her clothes, and one of her books is called Death in High Heels – she is sure to feature again in the blog.

Links up with: Themes of 1952. A London Particular is a heavy fog, it was a big year for them, and so it’s a key element of Tiger in the Smoke as well as this book. And, doctors (and their instruments) feature in this book as they do in Doctor in the House.

The picture is from
George Eastman House, and was a cover for McCall’s magazine.