Tuesday, 31 July 2012

There are many different kinds of uniform

the book:

Rupture by Simon Lelic

published 2010

Price was smoking. Lucia stood closer to him than she needed to. ‘Some weather, huh?’ They were on the top floor, on the terrace behind the canteen. They called it the terrace but really it was a balcony and a bench and an overflowing ashtray. Price gestured to the sky, to the unrelenting blue. ‘Thirty-eight at the weekend, that’s what they’re saying.’ He coughed out a laugh and sucked at his cigarette. ‘You’re lucky you don’t have to wear uniform no more. These trousers don’t breathe. Might as well be made of rubber.’ Lucia considered her own outfit: dark trousers, white blouse. The only difference between Price’s clothes and hers was that she had had to pay for hers herself. ‘Tell me about the Samson boy,’ said Lucia. ‘Elliot Samson.’ Price frowned, puffed smoke.

observations: A smart and absorbing thriller, although not one where you are guessing whodunit or what happened – the setup is a dreadful school shooting, and there is never any doubt about who did it. But Detective Inspector Lucia May wants to find out what led up to it, what was going on in the school. Chapters detailing her investigation alternate with other people’s first person testimony about the incident, the school, and the participants. This is very cleverly done – you have to work out through these ‘transcripts’ who exactly is speaking, and there is a lot of humour and irony in them.

A really impressive first novel, and he does a great job with his female protagonist, no complaints there. And this simple apercu – that women’s office clothes resemble men’s uniforms – is one of many head-nod moments.

Links up with:
This heroine wears black trousers too, but leather ones. What women wear in the office matters here and here, and this man is writing in the first person as a woman in an office.

The picture is a detail from a view of office workers sitting out in the lunchtime sun in Sydney: the photo was taken by Nick-D and can be found
here on Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, 30 July 2012

Jane Austen on women, men and clothes

the book:

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

published 1817 chapter 10

[Catherine Morland is hoping to see a certain young man at a cotillion ball]

What gown and what head-dress she should wear on the occasion became her chief concern. She cannot be justified in it. Dress is at all times a frivolous distinction, and excessive solicitude about it often destroys its own aim. Catherine knew all this very well; her great aunt had read her a lecture on the subject only the Christmas before; and yet she lay awake ten minutes on Wednesday night debating between her spotted and her tamboured muslin, and nothing but the shortness of the time prevented her buying a new one for the evening. This would have been an error in judgment, great though not uncommon, from which one of the other sex rather than her own, a brother rather than a great aunt, might have warned her, for man only can be aware of the insensibility of man towards a new gown. It would be mortifying to the feelings of many ladies, could they be made to understand how little the heart of man is affected by what is costly or new in their attire; how little it is biased by the texture of their muslin, and how unsusceptible of peculiar tenderness towards the spotted, the sprigged, the mull, or the jackonet. Woman is fine for her own satisfaction alone. No man will admire her the more, no woman will like her the better for it. Neatness and fashion are enough for the former, and a something of shabbiness or impropriety will be most endearing to the latter. But not one of these grave reflections troubled the tranquillity of Catherine.

observations: Not much has changed in the intervening 200 years – who women dress for is still a subject up for grabs, and surely it is still true that most men don’t notice all that much, and certainly can’t distinguish between different outfits, or styles, or levels of smartness or fashionableness. This idea about men and their muslin-uselessness is repeated elsewhere in the book – in fact hero Henry Tilney is bizarrely knowledgeable, what can this mean? – and there are many references to muslins and their types. More blog entries to come. 

Jackonet and mull are (who’d’ve guessed?) light muslin-esque cotton fabrics. Tamboured muslin has an embroidered pattern on it.

One surprise in the book: Henry Tilney accuses Catherine Morland of ‘this delightful habit of journaling’ a verb that many people would think of much more recent invention.

Links up with: Virginia Woolf considers
men, women and clothes in this International Women’s Day entry, accompanied by a truly fabulous picture. The Woman in White wore muslin, as did the Little Princess’s doll, the Fossil sisters, and Molly Gibson in Wives and Daughters.

picture is of the recently discovered ‘Rice Portrait’ which some people believe to be a likeness of the young Jane Austen herself.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Dress Down Sunday: Take off those wet things...

Dress Down Sunday:
what goes on under the clothes

the book:

The Town in Bloom by Dodie Smith

published 1965 set in the 1920s

[Mouse and her friends are caught in the rain, and find their way into an empty house to dry off]

The girls instantly took off their wet dresses and stockings, and practically forced me to take mine off too…

The nursery blinds were pink, and all the furniture was pink. With the electric fire on, the room was cosy. We wandered round looking at old toys and pictures. The girls, having found their crepe de chine cami-knickers as wet as their dresses, had taken them off and were wearing only the tight silk brassieres that coerced their busts into fashionable flatness, and pink girdles from which suspenders dangled and jangled. My underwear was still childish and there was a good deal of it. Had I been as scantily clad as Molly and Lilian were I could not have behaved with the complete unself-consciousness they had probably learned in the theatre dressing-room.

observations: That first line sounds like some man (Joey from Friends, as it might be) having a fantasy light porn dream. The three young women are about to meet Zelle for the first time, the fourth of their little group. In Valley of the Dolls, in The Best of Everything, in the film How to Marry a Millionaire, there are three girls together in the big city and getting going on the world, but in this book there are four, though Zelle never quite cuts it as one of the group. They all have nicknames – including Moll Byblow and Madam Lily de Luxe, so they’re all set should they ever need stripper or drag queen names – though their real names are either never mentioned or dismissed. The book has got a structure, but still it feels like a collection of autobiographical anecdotes from Dodie Smith’s own early days in London – the events leading up to their finding themselves in this house are strange, and so un-plot-like that you think it must have been a real situation she found herself in at some time.

Links up with: this book has
featured before, and in the entry you can find the connections with the other, similar, girls-getting-going-in-the-city books. Sylvia Plath’s Esther also lived in a group with other women.

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.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Gentlemen Prefer Bergdorf Blondes

the book:

Bergdorf Blondes by Plum Sykes

published 2004    chapter 10

When Jazz Conassey called me a few days later to say she’d been asked to be a muse for Valentino, I wasn’t surprised. I mean he hires a new one every five minutes. Still, I was thrilled for Jazz. She worships Valentino dresses more than life itself. Now she wouldn’t have to pay retail for them….

The bar at the Plaza Athenee feels like a 1930s boudoir. Whenever I’m there I half expect to see Jean Harlow appear from behind a pillar smoking a bright purple Sobranie cigarette. Jolene, Lara and Jazz – all in their “Vals” as they call their Valentino frocks – were sitting at a corner table like the chicest trio you can imagine when I arrived. Jazz looked spectacularly high-end in a simple black lace shift. It had a satin bow under the bust and splits at each side. Lara’s and Jolene’s dresses were pretty as well, but not a patch on Jazz’s. It’s protocol that the muse gets the best outfit and their friends have to look slightly less gorgeous, like ladies-in-waiting.

observations: What a very strange book this is. It is most certainly not chicklit, nor is it a takedown of New York/fashion life in the manner of Sex and the City or Devil Wears Prada (not as good as the former, much much better than the latter). It has, of all things in a frothy beach read, an unreliable narrator, and seems to be a combination of two separate novels. The book it is most clearly emulating is Anita Loos’s masterpiece, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, except that the heroine/author keeps backing off and trying to give her character a little heart, a little less ruthlessness. There are bits straight out of Bridget Jones’s Diary, and surely the strangest suicide attempt in all literature. It is entertaining enough to pass the time, but cried out for a bit more editing – it’s very repetitious, and harmless word play and key phrases become very wearing at the 50th reading. It’s fairly obvious how the plot is going to play out, and that the weird, silly heroine is going to find a man who really appreciates her charms, but the trouble is that the charms remain much less visible to the reader.

Links up with:
Bridget Jones’s Diary. Henry James has a very different kind of rich fashionable female with a New York connection here, and there is a real Princess as opposed to a Park Avenue one in this entry.

The photos, taken by
Loquax & Annalisa Califano, are of dresses at a Valentino exhibition in Rome.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Heroine has seen it all before, and so has the reader

the book:

Salmon in the Soup by Meg O'Brien

published 1990    chapter 11

A couple of well-placed calls located Paulie for me… in Atlantic City where he owned a small casino… I picked up a budget rental, then headed out on the Atlantic City Expressway. The drive took another hour.

Somewhere after Pleasantville, I switched on a local radio station and rolled down the windows, letting dinner jazz fill my ears and the briny air hit my face. I could see myself dancing in the Whatever Ballroom, high atop Atlantic City’s own Tropi-cana-dero-schmero-Fountain-Bleu Hotel – swirling in a black chiffon dress and sporting a long creamy string of pearls. It was in that frame of mind that I meandered into town in my rumpled white jeans and shirt, letting the casino tour buses whiz on by.

I found Paulie’s place on the boardwalk, a good distance way from either Trump’s or Harrah’s higher-priced locations.

observations: Jess James is an investigative reporter in upstate New York, she’s a reformed alcoholic, she knows all the bad boys in her town, she’s in trouble with her boss, she’s not sure about her clothes, she is looking into a crime but gets warned off …. Feel you’ve heard it all before? She is something of a Me-Too heroine, popping up after Kinsey Milhone and V I Warshawski. This book isn’t bad, but doesn’t feel distinctive enough. If you read a lot of detective fiction, sometimes you feel that there’s a central list of attributes, events and plot devices, and that the writer has made a random selection. The title, by the way, is pretty much meaningless. When I picked up this book secondhand – published in the UK in 1993 by the very feminist Women’s Press – I thought it was unusual to find an author, series and protagonist that I had never heard of. But maybe not so surprising after all.

Links up with: George Eliot seems like a bit of a leap, but Gwendolen Harleth visits a casino in
Daniel Deronda. There are plenty of black frocks and pearls all over the blog, but this bad girl in a black dress is particularly fabulous.

**For an excellent overview of 1980s mysteries in another blog, go to Margot Kinberg's Confessions of a Mystery Novelist.

Adolph de Meyer took the photo
– he was Vogue’s first fashion photographer, and has featured before.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Clothes to play the piano in 2

the book:

The Book against God by James Wood

published 2003   chapter 4 - should be read with yesterday's entry

From that first ecstatic year [together] , I see vividly the moment I decided that Jane had to have a new concert dress. We were sitting in the Islington flat, London beneath and beyond us. She mentioned a forthcoming concert and I told her that she looked fabulous in everything except what she wore on stage. Why not get something black and slinky, instead of blue and puffy? Jane responded with laughter. Then she became serious.

‘It’s very important, darling’ she said ‘if you are a woman in classical music, not to get a reputation for frivolity and lack of seriousness. Look how all the record companies are marketing these new attractive female violinists. And sometimes pianists too. These baby dolls have two years in the sunlight, and then they completely disappear.’

‘So you’re saying to me that it is advantageous in the world of classical music to look dowdy.’

‘Oh Tommy that’s a mite brutal of you.’…

But I wasn’t going to listen to Jane’s objections, and I forced her to look for another dress…. We found a long Valentino dress in grey silk barely embossed with tiny lozenges of white. Jane, of course, was horrified by the price… I borrowed the money and bought the lovely airy silky distraction. Jane has worn it ever since, and her career, at least, has not suffered.

observations: Follows on from the last entry, and needs to be read in conjunction with it. This is a strange incident in the book, if for no other reason than that the narrator, Tommy, is shown as having disastrously bad judgment in most areas of life. But the descriptions are straightforward enough: Jane’s original dress sounds hideous, while the new one sounds lovely. But would Jane really have been content to wear a horrible dress? – in the previous entry we found she could look very very nice in real life. It’s a mystery.

The photograph is from the Library of Congress.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Clothes to play the piano in 1

the book:

The book against God by James Wood

published 2003   chapter 4

I thought that Jane was not very attractive as she came on to the stage; she was heavily involved in one of those large parachute-like concert dresses made of puffy blue raw silk, the kind that only female musicians wear. As she passed the piano she patted its black hood – which was raised as if to catch the sun – bowed, sat on the red, buttoned-leather seat, scratched her cheek and began a quiet piece which I didn’t know. Her neck and back were thin, her hair was gripped in a severe pony-tail. The short sleeves of her bunched and hilly dress throttled her thin upper arms, whose white skin caught the light as she lifted her hands – lifted them gently, in paddling movements, as if trying to calm the piano. Her face was lovely; I could see that, and I was beginning to find rather an erotic contrast between the angular arms and wrists, probably as thin as they had been when she was a teenager, and the more rounded, certainly adult deposit on which she sat…. By the end of the concert I wanted to meet her…

Roger proposed a drink somewhere. ‘Not in this…party dress’ Jane said firmly. ‘I feel ten years old in this thing, and as if the clown were about to turn up and keep us happy. Give me a moment.’ She disappeared to change…

I was astounded by the transformation. The ugly concert dress had compiled a superfluous commentary of silk around her, and obscured the truth. But in tight-fitting black jeans and a white blouse with oversize buttons she was closely revealed – slim, tall, elegant. She had exchanged her pony-tail for a brilliant crimson hairband that glowed as if painted there.

observations: James Wood is a leading literary critic, and this is his only novel to date. He is a brilliant critic, his essays are thoughtful and riveting and make you think you understand literature. He has a really wonderful essay on something he calls ‘hysterical realism’, a description of exactly what it is one might find annoying about a certain kind of novel – it’s available online here, as well as in his book The Irresponsible Self.

His own novel seems rather unexpected – I don’t think you’d guess it was him on a blind reading. A fairly unsatisfactory protagonist – a failing PhD student writing the eponymous book – describes in the first person his disintegrating marriage, his relationship with his father, and his struggles with concepts of God and belief. It’s a very enjoyable read in fact, smart and intelligent without being inaccessible. There is a lot about music too, and he is extremely good at explaining what might make the difference between good performances and bad – as well as a very funny riff on why it is a bad idea for a composer to live to exactly the age of 50 (it’s the anniversaries you see), and the views above on classical musicians’ dress. Look at tomorrow’s entry to see what Tommy (although not a man of sound judgement) thinks a pianist should wear.

Links up with: Piano-playing features in
this entry and this one. What you wear to work is an issue in this entry and this one.

picture is from the New York Public Library’s collection.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

In the know about literary London

the book:

A Vicious Circle by Amanda Craig

published 1996

[Writer Adam is about to have his first novel published]

He wore tweed suits because he could buy them cheaply from the Sue Ryder shop. His Mayfair flat was rent-controlled, and had been acquired by pure luck. Yet these superficial details of his life were interpreted as the stuff of grandeur. The photograph they had chosen, of Adam in a silk dressing-gown (borrowed from Mabel downstairs), emphasized this. ‘It doesn’t look anything like you,’ Tom Viner remarked, when Adam showed him the results of the photographer’s wizardry with airbrush and lens. ‘I know. Nice if it did, though.’ ‘You should tell them you’re gay,’ Mary said. ‘Look, my mother doesn’t know that. Why should strangers?’ said Adam, waspishly. ‘Besides, if I come out now, I’ll sink into the ghetto. It’s like declaring yourself a feminist, or a Catholic or whatever because it means that everything you write becomes specific to that one aspect. There’s so much crap about coming out, and what they really do is shove you into an even smaller closet, full of blokes with loo-brushes on their upper lips. What I am is private.’

observations: Poor Adam – no good will come from any of this. He likes to think he writes like Fournier crossed with Huxley, while his agent says he’s more like Evelyn Waugh crossed with Nancy Mitford (which would be a much stronger recommendation on this blog). It’s not entirely clear how good a writer he’s meant to be.

This wonderful novel has just been reissued as an ebook, and if that in itself wasn’t enough of a good thing, it also features an afterword by Amanda Craig giving the full lowdown on the mysterious threatened libel action which almost scuppered the book just after it was written. No doubt everyone in literary London knew exactly what that was all about already, but those of us outside the charmed (or vicious) circle have always longed to know. The explanation is worth the money alone – but you’ll also get a really satisfying, engrossing book, following the lives of a large group of characters over several years in London. And then – oh happy day – you can find out that there is also 2009’s Hearts and Minds, just as good.

Links up with: Women in dressing gowns of various kinds,
here and Miss Marple here, and Jane Eyre has a suggestion for a dressing gown for Mr Rochester here.

The picture is by BM Kustodiev, is of a Russian architect called Isidore Samoilovich Zolotarevsky, and came from
Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Lost children come in different forms

the book:

The Child in Time by Ian McEwan

published 1987 chapter 1

The girl was brown-skinned from sunny days on the street. She wore a grubby yellow cotton frock and her hair was severely cropped. Perhaps she had been deloused. As he distance closed he saw she was pretty, impish and freckled with a pointed chin. She was no more than twenty feet away when she ran forward and took from the pavement a lump of still glistening chewing gum. She popped it in her mouth and began to chew. The little head tilted back defiantly as she looked again in his direction.

Then she was before him, the standard-issue bowl held out before her. She had chosen him minutes ago, it was a trick they had. Appalled, he had reached into his back pocket for a five-pound note. She looked on with neutral expression as he set it down on top of the coins.

As soon as his hand was clear, the girl picked the note out, rolled it tight into her fist, and said, "Fuck you, mister." She was edging round him.

Stephen put his hand on the hard, narrow shoulder and gripped. "What was that you said?"

The girl turned and pulled away. The eyes had shrunk, the voice was reedy. "I said, Fank you, mister." She was out of reach when she added, "Rich creep!"

observations: Several years after it came out I bought The Child in Time, but was told by a friend ‘you absolutely can’t read that: you have young children, no-one with young children can read that book’ – in which a 3-year-old is abducted from a supermarket. But when I eventually dared, it left me cold. It’s well-written, it just about holds your interest, and it has something to say about a few different topics. But as with other McEwan books (with the exception of Enduring Love) you can see the workings too clearly. The themes, childhood and time, are hammered home – as in the above passage. The beggar girl will turn up again later in the book.

There are a few incidental pleasures – a (quite prescient) look at pre-Harry Potter children’s literature, a time when a ‘book club’ meant a commercial venture selling books by post, the man who thinks he is dying who dictates notes to a variety of loved ones. And the ghosts are quite spooky. But not a great book.

Links up with: The Little Princess is rich in
this entry, but will end up poor, cold and hungry. Martha is out on the streets but not begging. This book is about searching for a lost girl.

The picture is of Alice Liddell, the model for Alice in Wonderland, dressed up as a beggar girl in rags for a photographic session with her friend Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll. The image comes from
Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Dress Down Sunday: What Sam Spade wore under his suit

Dress Down Sunday
- looking at what goes on under the clothes

the book:

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

published 1930 2nd chapter

the book extract:

[PI Sam Spade has been woken up in the night with the news that his partner Miles Archer has been murdered]

He picked up the pigskin-and-nickel lighter that had fallen to the floor, manipulated it, and with the cigarette burning in a corner of his mouth stood up. He took off his pajamas. The smooth thickness of his arms, legs, and body, the sag of his big rounded shoulders, made his body like a bear's. It was like a shaved bear's: his chest was hairless. His skin was childishly soft and pink.

He scratched the back of his neck and began to dress. He put on a thin white union suit, grey socks, black garters, and dark brown shoes. When he had fastened his shoes he picked up the telephone, called Graystone 4500, and ordered a taxicab. He put on a green-striped white shirt, a soft white collar, a green necktie, the grey suit he had worn that day, a loose tweed overcoat, and a dark grey hat. The street-door bell rang as he stuffed tobacco, keys, and money into his pockets.

observations: It was all going so well, wasn’t it? Sam Spade, Mr Cool, epitomized by Humphrey Bogart in the film. But a union suit? An all-in-one pair of combis, to give them their English name? Doesn’t quite fit the image.

And who else wears union suits? Little girls. Scout in
To Kill a Mockingbird, and the Fossil Sisters in blog favourite Ballet Shoes. And we have a whole entry from Eight Cousins - though the words ‘union suit’ never come out of Louisa May Alcott’s pen, it seems pretty clear that that is what is liberating Rose here.

It is my belief that Dashiell Hammett is approved of and admired by a lot more people than actually read him. They are rattling good yarns, and (always a plus) he keeps it short. But the stories are very strange and the attitudes not attractive - the misogynistic all-guys-together aphorisms were very much of their time but come over badly these days. “When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him.” Really? That’s much-quoted, but it doesn’t seem to mean much, though Humph says it beautifully. But still, you could find worse books to waste an afternoon with. And we'll look at his fascinating private life in a future entry.

Links up with: the girls mentioned above. For more Dress Down Sunday entries, click on the link below. There’s been a wide variety of non-police investigators in the blog: try
here, here and here – all very different from Sam Spade.

The picture is an advert from the Sears Roebuck catalog, and can be found on
Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Comfort me with apples, faint with love: Cider with Rosie

the book:

Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee

published 1959 set in the 1920s

[The young Laurie meets Rosie in the fields at harvest-time]

I stumbled on Rosie behind a haycock, and she grinned up at me with the sly, glittering eyes of her mother. She wore her tartan frock and cheap brass necklace, and her bare legs were brown with hay-dust… Rosie had grown and was hefty now, and I was terrified of her. In her cat-like eyes and curling mouth I saw unnatural wisdoms more threatening than anything I could imagine. The last time we’d met I’d hit her with a cabbage stump. She bore me no grudge, just grinned…

We went a long way, to the bottom of the field, where a wagon stood half-loaded. Festoons of untrimmed grass hung down like curtains all around it. We crawled underneath, between the wheels, into a herb-scented cave of darkness. Rosie scratched about, turned over a sack, and revealed a stone jar of cider….

Then Rosie, with a remorseless, reedy strength, pulled me down… and it seemed that the wagon under which we lay went floating away like a barge, out over the valley where we rocked unseen, swinging on motionless tides…

observations: This beguiling memoir of a childhood in rural England is full of charm, and while it appears artless, Lee was a poet, artist and musician, and certainly knew what he was doing – this chapter is full of symbolism of apples, fertility and harvest. But it is also a gorgeous description of a first sexual experience, absolutely beautifully done, and in a manner which is more reminiscent of female writing on the subject – and none the worse for that. The book was being taught in British schools in the 1970s – very surprising for a book containing a sex scene (however tasteful), by a living author, first published so recently – and yes, everyone loved the sexy bits, though it is to be hoped that they stayed to enjoy the rest. Rosie ‘took off her boots and stuffed them with flowers …[and] did the same with mine’ and later walks out from their hiding-place, carrying her boots and smiling. What an image.

Links up with: More village life with
Miss Read, and with the widow Fran. Another sexy Rosie here. Two children in tartan here and here.

The picture is from
George Eastman House, via Flickr.

Friday, 20 July 2012

"I remember Marilyn in a dress like that"

the book:

Destiny by Sally Beauman

Published 1987   section set in LA in the 1960s

[Lewis is spending time with his mistress, before they both attend a party to celebrate his wife’s new movie]
They watched television together. Hours of afternoon soap operas, which Stephani loved, and Lewis found soothing. In the middle of one of these programmes, Stephani suddenly clasped his hand. She looked up at him, her eyes wide.
‘Oh, Lewis,’ she said. ‘The party. What shall I wear to the party?’
She wore a long white dress with a fish-tail skirt, covered in beads and sequins. She had washed the rinse out of her hair, and returned to the normal platinum. It blazed at Lewis across the room; he felt a simultaneous relief and disappointment: she had come as Stephani Sandrelli…
‘I remember Marilyn in a dress like that.’ [Top agent] Milton shook his head sadly. 'Tighter, even. She couldn’t go to the john. It was sewn on.’…
Lewis looked at Stephani uncertainly. Two months ago he would have said she looked like a tramp; two minutes ago, he would have said she looked wonderful; now he was not sure what he thought, but he felt distanced. He felt, possibly, that she was not the woman who should be seen on his arm that evening, regardless of gossip…

observations: James Joyce's Ulysses comes in at 930 pages, describing one day. Diarmuid McCullough took 1200 pages to cover the History of Christianity over, as he teasingly puts it, 3000 years. Destiny is 900 pages long and it covers some breach in the time-space continuum in which unreal people lead unreal lives, have impossible conversations, and take actions that defy belief.

Sally Beauman is a mysterious writer: it’s hard to believe that she wrote both this book, and her most recent, 2005’s The Landscape of Love (aka The Sisters Mortland). And why has she written nothing since then? Landscape is clever, literary, fascinating. Destiny has flashes of that, but most of it reads as though written to a plan – there is a lot of graphic sex (though that disappears in the final third or so), a lot of brand names, a lot of French words, and a lot of clothes. The character above could have been interesting – is she meant to be Marilyn Monroe or a substitute? Is there an Yves Montand/Simone Signoret meme in her relationship with the main couple? Is she meant to look good in this dress or not? You never really find out as the sweeping saga sweeps on. A book of missed opportunities.

Links up with: Trash classic
Valley of the Dolls is a good read. The book mentioned above, Landscape of Love, has frequent nods to I Capture the Castle. More movie stars: the incredible Louise Brooks, the handsome Gary Cooper, and the aptly-named Louise Lovely.

The picture is a publicity still from the 1957 film
The Prince and the Showgirl (the making of which formed the basis of the recent movie My Week with Marilyn) and can be found on Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Take a pair of sparkling earrings

the book:

Admiral’s Night by Machado de Assis

Translated from the Portuguese by John Gledson

First published in Brazil in the 1880s

[Deolindo is a sailor, back from a long voyage, looking forward to seeing his sweetheart again]

He thought only of Genoveva. Even her house, so tiny, with its rickety furniture, all old and not much of it either – he remembered it when he saw palaces in faraway lands. It was only by saving every penny that he’d bought a pair of earrings in Trieste, which he was carrying in his pocket with some other trinkets…

 [He finds her, but it is clear she has found a new lover. She asks him:] And as for him, so full of talk about being faithful, had he remembered her where he’d been?

His reply was to put his hand in his pocket and pull out the packet he’d brought for her. She opened it, looked at the trinkets one by one, and finally came across the earrings. They weren’t expensive, there was no chance of that; they were in bad taste, even, but they twinkled like nothing on earth. Genoveva picked them up, happy, dazzled, looked at them from both sides, close up and far off, and finally put them in her ears; then she went to the cheap mirror hanging on the wall between the door and the window, to see how they looked on her. She stood back, went closer, turned her head from left to right and from right to left.

observations: Like many of the stories by Machado de Assis, this resembles a fragment, you feel there should be more of it. Deolindo is hoping for an Admiral’s Night – what the sailors call a great night on shore – but is devastated by Genoveva’s betrayal, and threatens suicide. But he walks for a bit, and decides to live, and just smiles enigmatically when his shipmates ask him how his admiral’s night was. And that’s it.
This author very good on exact descriptions like that of Genoveva examining the earrings, and of memorable lines – a character in another story is ‘a mixture of devotion, irreligion and silk stockings. I never saw his stockings, be it said…’ while elsewhere hope is described a ‘a devil with green eyes.’

Links up with: Another of his stories is here. This young woman
likes her earrings.

The picture, found on
Wikimedia Commons, is of Queen Amalie of Greece, so probably these earrings are not merely inexpensive trinkets.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Louise Brooks: just stare at her

the book:

The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty

published 2012 Part 3

It was soon discovered that Myra, riding the tide of Louise’s swelling fame, had landed a spot on the Redpath Chautauqua circuit, giving lectures on how she had nurtured her famous daughter’s poise and beauty – and how she had kept her own. The women of Wichita wondered aloud if Myra, when lecturing on her maternal wisdom, ever mentioned that she’d abandoned Louise’s younger brother and sister, or if, because only Louise’s name was lucrative, she didn’t mention her other children at all.

They could only guess what Louise herself thought about any of this. By then, she was truly famous and unreachable. Her name was on the screen with W C Fields’s, and the magazines were reporting that she was to marry her newest film’s young and handsome director. Soon the magazines were describing the newlyweds’ beautiful new home in California, and lavish parties with caviar, and picnics with famous friends at the Hearst castle. Louise was photographed with her new husband in evening gowns and, when she visited New York, various fur coats.

observations: This wonderful book is an unexpected treat, from a writer new to me. The initial concept is perfect and an instant come-on – Cora, a respectable but dissastisfied housewife in 1920s Wichita, travels to New York as chaperone to the beautiful young dancer Louise Brooks. The two women spend the summer there, then life takes them in different directions. Part of the joy of the book is not knowing too much about what is going to happen – not because there is any suspense or mystery, but because it is intriguingly open, it’s impossible to guess where the book is going next, even if you know the outlines of what happens to Brooks - a real-life silent movie star. Devastatingly beautiful and endlessly fascinating, her short memoir  Lulu in Hollywood  makes you wish she’d managed to write more, between the drink and the men.

Chautauquas (apart from being hard to spell) were educational or inspirational travelling shows – music, speakers, drama. The
Wikipedia entry is well worth a look.

With thanks to Riona for the suggestion.

Links up with: The book deals with the Denishawn Dance Company, pioneers of modern dance, and there exists a marvellous
collection of photos of the company, which we’ve used before on the blog. Brooks features in the comments on this entry here, and this photo of Ruth St Denis – to illustrate a relatively unknown book - is one of the most popular pictures to have appeared here. In fact she looks quite like Brooks in this image.

The photograph of Louise Brooks  above is from the US
Library of Congress collection.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

The Mystery of the Identical Dress

the book:

Cover Her Face by PD James

published 1962  chapter 3

[The village fete is taking place at the home of the Maxie family, local grandees. Deborah is the daughter of the house, Catherine is a friend, Sally is the hired help - the house parlour-maid.]

 The concentration of noise was so great that a sudden break in the clatter of voices seems to Catherine as if a total silence had fallen. Only afterwards did she realize that not everybody had stopped talking, that not every head was turned to where Sally had come into the [tea]tent by the opposite entrance, Sally in a white dress with a low boat-shaped neckline and a skirt of swirling pleats, identical with the one Deborah was wearing, Sally with a green cummerbund which was a replica of the one round Deborah’s waist, and with green ear-rings gleaming on each side of flushed cheeks.

 Catherine felt her own cheeks redden, and could not help her quick inquiring glance at Deborah… ‘How dare she?’ she muttered... ‘It’s a deliberate insult.’

 Deborah gave a slight shrug of her shoulders. ‘Oh I don’t know. What does it matter? Presumably the poor little devil is getting a kick out of her gesture and it isn’t hurting me.’

 ‘Where did she get the dress from?’

 ‘The same place as I did, I imagine. The name’s inside. It isn’t a model or anything like that. Anyone could buy it who took the trouble to find it. Sally must have thought it worth the trouble.’

observations: Back in 1962, PD James books were very different from the later versions. This, her first, was a classic village novel, set in a world that must have seemed a bit unreal even then: shortly after this the matriarchal Mrs Maxie is going to say ‘Sally you had better change back into your uniform.’ And Sally will say ‘Would that be appropriate, madam, for the girl your son has asked to marry him?’ Consternation. And murder will follow. But this is no Patricia Wentworth book. The setting is conventional, but the bitterness and hate in the book are very strange, and elitism and snobbery abound – not particularly with authorial disapproval.

But the really blessed thing about it is that it is a good, sour, short read. Later PD James books – and we know this is an unpopular opinion – are far too long, as she tries to show a whole world, and to give every passing dreary thought of Adam Dalgliesh a level of attention that James Joyce would have balked at. This book, and Shroud for a Nightingale, are much better.

Links up with: snobbish village life, and dresses, featured in
this entry. A murder story with toffs in the village here . White dresses feature here and here. The title comes from the play The Duchess of Malfi, a performance of which featured in this book.

The photograph is of Betty Ford in 1962, from the
US National Archives.

Monday, 16 July 2012

The best photo of the best caveboy

the book:

Stig of the Dump by Clive King

published 1963 chapter 1

[Barney is playing in a chalkpit, falls into a cave, and sees something moving in the corner]
Something, or Somebody, had a lot of shaggy black hair and two bright black eyes that were looking very hard at Barney.
‘Hullo!’ said Barney.
Something said nothing.
‘I fell down the cliff,’ said Barney.
Somebody grunted.
‘My name’s Barney.’
Somebody-Something made a noise that sounded like ‘Stig’….
It got up and moved towards Barney in the light. Barney was glad to see it was Somebody after all.  ‘Funny way to dress though,’ he thought, rabbit skins round the middle and no shoes or socks.’

observations: Isn’t this just the best photograph ever? Stig is everybody’s favourite Ancient Briton, and the book is a childhood classic in the UK, much-loved, and in print continually since 1963. Clive King wrote quite a few books, but everything else is completely forgotten, while Stig will live forever. Some of us can still remember the thrill of reading it for the first time. It is very much a book of its time – 8-year-old Barney goes off for the day playing without anybody really knowing where he is, and it is a bit mysterious – when exactly is Stig meant to date from? Does he live now AND then? How does he get back and forth? No offence, and nobody cares, but Mr King doesn’t seem to have worked out any real details here – he just had a jolly good story, and we are all the better for it.

Links up with: not much really, because Stig was a complete one-off. But there are plenty of entries about people wearing fur – click on the label below.

And these
midsummer fairies have a connection with the photograph – both pictures are from an album from the Builth Wells Historical Pageant of 1909. This has been put online by the National Library of Wales: they have our everlasting gratitude. (The blog is actually looking for books to match the pictures - that’s how good they are.)

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Dress Down Sunday: Sewing underwear for a trousseau

Dress Down Sunday -
looking at what goes on under the clothes

the book:

In the Mink by Anne Scott James

published 1952

[The narrator is starting work on a fashion magazine]

Behind an L-shaped ebony desk Rosie Biggs, the receptionist, held court. Rose had chestnut hair, a Clara Bow figure and infinite sex appeal. When I had come for my interview she was sewing some bright pink underclothes. This time she was sewing bright blue ones – sky-blue pants which she was holding conspicuously up the light as I came in. I never saw her at this desk without a piece of crepe-de-chine in her hands, part of the endless, enormous trousseau she was piling up in her bottom drawer…

 [Some time later, the magazine has an American visitor, Mr Slot, who is cutting a swathe through the staff] It was after my fourth evening occasion [date with Mr Slot] that I got together with Rosie. She was just finishing the second leg of a pair of peach-coloured knickers encrusted with lace, and she was in a confidential mood… “Mr Slot has taken a fancy to me and I’ve been out with him three nights…”

“Which nights…?”

 “Wednesday Friday and Sunday…”

 “Most interesting. I’ve been out with him Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday…”

observations:   Nobody seems to take this amiss or think the worse of any of the participants. The narrator, Elizabeth Gaskell (yes indeed…), gets the offer of a job out of it, and Rosie gets a blue fox fur. It is never spelled out whether Rosie has a real fiancĂ©, or is just sewing on spec.

Another enigma concerns what a ‘Clara Bow figure’ is, and our usual research resource (a quick look on Google images) doesn’t help much. She was an archetypal flapper, which might suggest a straight up and down look, but that doesn’t quite sound right for Rosie.

Anne Scott James worked on Harper’s Bazaar (not at all the same thing as US Harper’s magazine) and on Vogue. She was married to Macdonald Hastings and later to Osbert Lancaster – Max Hastings is her son, and writes about her life and career
here, excerpted from his memoirs and illustrated with some fabulous pictures of ASJ.

Links up with: this book has featured
before. Peter Dickinson’s Death of a Unicorn also stars a posh girl working on a magazine, and the Best of Everything is a similier milieu, though books rather than magazines.

The picture is The Trousseau by Charles W Hawthorne, and came from
Wikimedia Commons.