Wednesday, 31 December 2014

NY Eve Masked Ball: Lucy Carmichael by Margaret Kennedy

published 1951

[A masked party is being held for New Year’s Eve]

THE glass forest glittered very prettily, with lights among its branches, and by ten o’clock the upper floor of the Club was crowded with masked dancers. The only member to refuse disguise was the sombre McIntyre, who stood by the radiogram and changed the dance records. The women took the occasion more seriously than the men, who had mostly dressed up under protest and refused to disguise their voices…

“I wanna skate and I’m gonna skate,” said a cowboy to the Venetian lady with whom he danced, “and I’m gonna skate with you, baby.”

Lasciate ogni speranza” said the lady severely.

“Ah, but I’m coming. Who’s the boyo in the blue coat?”

“How should I know? …Is that Mrs. Fothergill?”

“Sure it is. Didn’t you know she was coming as Nell Gwyn? Will ye stop turning to look at the man!” …

The tune changed to a lively gallop and all couples spun apart for a Paul Jones. The Venetian subsided into the arms of a cardinal. “I see you’ve brought Charles,” she said. “Where did he get those clothes?”

“They’re some Melissa has for a Regency charade she’s getting up. They fit very well, don’t they?”

“They’re magnificent.”…

McIntyre had removed the dance records and turned on the radio. The Westminster bells rang out through the clamour and exclamations as everybody took off their masks. Not much surprise was felt, for most disguises had been thin, but Charles was scrutinised with considerable curiosity and Captain Quinn had a bad moment when he realised that Nell Gwyn was not Mrs. Fothergill.

Ding-dong, ding-dong! went the bells, as husbands and wives drew together and a circle was formed. Charles, abandoned, looked round for Lucy and saw her at the other side of the room between Cobb and Brett. Ding-dong, ding-dong … the bells faded and the voices sank and silence fell upon the Club, as they waited for Big Ben. John took Melissa’s hand. They thought of what the new year would bring to them.



There’ve been several earlier entries on this book, but I couldn’t resist one last one, to celebrate the New Year. I love any kind of fancy dress/ costume party anyway, and featured one for last New Year too. For other mentions and discussions, click on the labels below.

Sometimes I complain that an author doesn’t make enough of these events, but Margaret Kennedy certainly does, with genuine misapprehensions and tactless remarks. Above, some of the characters mention going skating: this will happen the next day, New Year’s Day, and all the plot strands will tie together nicely with a predictable but charming end. The skating scene is nearly as lovely as the one in Tom’s Midnight Garden, for which we found this excellent picture.

The top picture is a fashion illustration from Paris, from the NY Public Library. For previous New Year's Eve entries click on the label below. 

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Xmas Visitors: The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West

published 1930, set at Christmas 1906

[Teresa and her husband John, a doctor, are visiting Sebastian, the young Duke of Chevron, at his country house for Christmas]

Snow had ceased to fall; it was freezing hard; the lying snow was in admirable condition. Sebastian, John and Teresa went out in hearty spirits. Teresa, moreover, was looking deliciously pretty, dressed in a tight bolero of stamped velvet, a sealskin cap on her head, and her hands buried in a little sealskin muff. She tripped gaily between them, chattering, and turning her happy face from one to the other. This was better than London, she said…

[Later that day, Sebastian wants to be alone with Teresa]

“Mrs Spedding, do come and talk to me. You don’t play Bridge, neither do I – at least, not when I can do anything better. Let’s go and wqander through the house. We’ll take a candle. Look – they’re all settled down. No one will notice. Let’s creep away. Shall you be cold?” Impetuous, he caught up a cloak thrown down on the back of a sofa.

“But that is your mother’s cloak.”

“Never mind.” He put it round her shoulders. It was of gold tissue lined with sable.

observations: Should be read in conjunction with earlier entries on this book.

This is not, on the whole, a surprising book, but respect to Sackville-West for the character of Teresa – who is shown as silly and snobbish and a bit of a social climber, but who turns out to have some strength of character and more morals than almost anyone else in the book.

Sebastian has everything the world can offer, but is young, bored and restless. He invites the very middle-class John and Teresa – awkward for everyone concerned – for the celebration, and is hoping for some entertainment to ease his discontentment.

The second scene above will end with the cloak lying on the floor in a ‘pool of moonlight… its lining as dark as the shadows within the great bed… as empty and as crumpled as everything that [Sebastian] had ever desired.’ VS-W is never averse to some heavy-handed symbolism, which she then spells out in case you missed it.

The house, Chevron, is very much the author’s childhood home of Knole, and the Christmas house-party is very well done: this and a summer party are assumed to be an exact and authentic description of how it would have been in her youth, down to quite small details.

For example, in between the two extracts above, Teresa helps out with the Christmas party for the tenants’ children, and the distribution of presents to them. There is a very similar scene in Nancy Mitford’s Pursuit of Love, one that featured in a previous special Christmas blog entry.

The top picture is an autumnal ensemble from the fashion house of Cheruit in 1912.

The woman in the black and gold cloak is a picture by Francis Cadell.

Monday, 29 December 2014

Xmas Television: Miss Mapp by EF Benson

published 1922

After the bills were paid and business was done, there was pleasure to follow, for there was a fitting-on at the dressmaker’s, the fitting-on of a teagown, to be worn at winter-evening bridge parties, which, unless Miss Mapp was sadly mistaken, would astound and agonize by its magnificence all who set eyes on it. She had

found a description of it, as worn by Mrs Titus W Trout, in an American fashion paper; it was of what was described as kingfisher blue, and had lumps and wedges of lace round the edge of the skirt, and orange chiffon round the neck. As she set off with her basket full of tradesmen’s books, she pictured to herself with watering mouth the fury, the jealousy, the madness of envy which it would raise in all properly-constituted breasts.

observations: A series called Mapp and Lucia is one of the big features of the BBC’s Christmas lineup this year, and (it’s so with any favourite books) fans will be clearing the decks, booking the sofa and planning to both watch and record it – while at the same time nervously wondering if the dramatization will be up to scratch. The fans include me - Mapp and Lucia were on my list of books that made me laugh recently:
Au Reservoir, darlings, time for some Moonlight Sonata - uno duo tre - a chota peg, and some homard a la Riseholme.
I haven’t seen the programmes as I write this, so there will be no judgement. There was a Mapp and Lucia series back in the 1980s, with Geraldine McEwan, Prunella Scales and Nigel Hawthorne doing great work (it never seems to be repeated, which is a shame) and I’ve always remembered the costume designer saying in an interview that when making pageant costumes she looked for curtain material of the 1920s, rather than authentic-looking brocades, because that is what the residents of Tilling would actually have used. The books are, of course, an absolute goldmine for clothes descriptions. In the past we have shown Lucia getting a special suit for Georgie, and Quaint Irene as one of our early trouser-wearing women.

The series is almost unique, I think, in one important consideration: EVERYONE who reads them must wish that Mapp and Lucia met earlier, and thus that the books were combined, and that they both lived in Tilling all along. Benson invented them separately, then combined them – this is usually a really terrible idea for authors, but not this time. Lucia starts out living in Riseholme, encounters Mapp during a holiday let, and later moves to Tilling. But really, it is sad that they weren’t there together all along, competing Queen Bees. I’m sure the TV series will simply change the inconvenient facts to suit the drama.

Benson wrote more than 100 books, and was part of a very productive family of siblings with strange lives, children of an Archbishop of Canterbury – he is well worth a look on Wikipedia.

He is very good at names: Mapp’s great rival is splendidly called Godiva Plaistow, Diva for short, and there is Daisy Quantock and Captain Puffin.

In case you haven’t guessed, someone else is going to turn up at a party wearing the same dress…. (the same thing happens in Cover her Face and The Fashion in Shrouds…)

A choice of two teagowns here (the point of the teagown, btw, was that it was loose so you didn’t HAVE to wear stays or corsets, but it was smart enough for an informal party). The first one, from an early 20th century French fashion magazine, looks far too lovely, so I have also chosen one that is out of era and doesn’t really fit the description, but I feel is channelling the spirit of Mapp and the obviously-meant-to-be-hideous dress. This one is from the 70s, designed by John Bates, from Christine’s photostream here.

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Xmas Dress Down Sunday: Envious Casca by Georgette Heyer

published 1941


[A young playwright is reading his latest work to a family party at Christmas: here he is reading the opening stage directions, setting the scene]

'A pair of soiled pink corsets are flung across the only armchair.’ He looked round in a challenging kind of way as he enunciated this, and appeared to wait for comment.

‘Ah yes, I see!’ said Joseph, with a deprecating glance at the assembled company. ‘You wish to convey an atmosphere of sordidness.’

‘And let us admit freely that you have succeeded,’ said Stephen cordially.

‘I always think there’s something frightfully sordid about corsets, don’t you?’ said Valerie. ‘Those satin ones, I mean, with millions of bones and laces and things. Of course, nowadays one simply wears an elastic belt, if one wears anything at all, which generally one doesn’t.’

‘You’ll come to it, my girl,’ prophesied Mathilda.

‘When I was young,’ remarked Maud, ‘no one thought of not wearing corsets. It would have been quite unheard-of.’

‘You corseted your minds as well as your bodies,’ interpolated Paula scornfully. ‘Thank God I live in an untrammelled age!’

‘When I was young,’ exploded Nathaniel, ‘no decent woman would have mentioned such things in public!’

‘How quaint!’ said Valerie. ‘Stephen, darling, give me a cigarette!’

Roydon ignored this, and read aloud in an angry voice; ‘Lucetta May is discovered, seated before her dressing -table. She is wearing a shoddy pink négligée, which imperfectly conceals –’

‘Careful!’ Stephen warned him.

It is grimy round the edge, and the lace is torn!’ said Roydon defiantly.

‘I think that’s a marvellous touch!’ said Valerie.

‘It’s surprising what a lot of dirt you can pick up from carpets, even where there’s a vacuum-cleaner, which I don’t suppose there would be in a place like that,’ said Maud. ‘I know those cheap theatrical lodging-houses, none better!’

‘It is not a theatrical lodging-house!’ said Roydon, goaded to madness. ‘It is, as you will shortly perceive, a bawdy lodging-house!’

Maud’s placid voice broke the stunned silence. ‘I expect they’re just as dirty,’ she said.

observations: See earlier entry on this book for more about the plot and the Xmas setting.

The knockabout scene with the play-reading is completely hilarious: the playwright, Roydon, says:
‘If I’ve succeeded in making you think, I shall be satisfied.’

‘A noble ideal,’ commented Stephen. ‘But you shouldn’t say it as though you thought it unattainable. Not polite.’
Earlier two characters have been ‘drawn momentarily together by a bond of mutual misfortune’ just at the idea of a play-reading, and when Mathilda tries to explain that the old man doesn’t approve of his niece being on the stage at all, Roydon tells her of the big part:
‘She’s a prostitute’ said the author simply.

Mathilda spilt her tea.
After the murder, the Chief Constable makes his views clear:
There was a general sort of a row. Well, I’m a fair-minded man, and, after all, you can’t be surprised, can you? I mean, coming down to stay with a man, and then reading stuff aloud to him! Never heard of such a thing!
The general feeling is that play-reading is possibly worse than murder, and that the surprise is that the author wasn’t the victim.

A great achievement by Heyer is to make Maud – the lady who knows about dirt, above – completely thrilling. Everyone treats her as dim, and she is dull and lower class, (a great Heyer crime) – perhaps from the second line of the chorus. But we await her every entrance because she always gets great lines. She doesn’t think the murder should be investigated
‘as he is dead there is nothing to be done about it, and it will only create a great deal of unpleasantness to pry into the affair. Like Hamlet,’ she added. ‘Simply upsetting things.’

You want more of her: she is the best character in the book, and that is even more surprising when she is up against the wonderful Mrs Dean – see this entry - with her girlies and childies.

There’s a sudden venture into foreign affairs late in the book:
‘They do that kind of thing abroad,’ said the Sergeant. ‘Look at that King of Yugo-Slavia, for instance, at Marseilles ! Bad police-work.’
-- this is the assassination of King Alexander of Yugoslavia, and there are details of it in this blog entry on Matthew Sweet’s excellent book, The West End Front.

The corset adverts are from the NY Public Library.

Saturday, 27 December 2014

Guardian Books Blog: Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

published 1945

Detail of fresco in the chapel at Madresfield Court

Today’s entry appeared on the Guardian Books Blog: part of a series called Families in Literature. I chose to write about Brideshead because the relation between narrator Charles Ryder and the Flyte/Marchmain family is so fascinating, and also because the book is one of the masterpieces of 20th century literature. When I started to re-read the book to write about it, I was awed by it all over again.

Evelyn Waugh in 1940

This is how the article begins:

If you read Brideshead Revisited for the first time in your teens (as so many of us do) you can come away with the idea of a Cinderella story: middle-class Charles is scooped up by the happy aristocracy – the deserving poor boy looking longingly through the window is allowed in, gawps at the magnificence, is grateful for the attention, and of course falls in love with Sebastian.

But when you read it again, you see that Brideshead is not a book about Oxford, or homoerotic love, or social climbing: it’s a book about religion – and about families. It is Sebastian who is in love with Charles, jealously wanting to keep him to himself:

I’m not going to have you get mixed up with my family. They’re so madly charming. All my life they’ve been taking things away from me. If they once got hold of you with their charm, they’d make you their friend not mine, and I won’t let them.

Charles has no idea of family life – he lost his mother in an absurd Waugh manner during the first world war, and while his father is occasionally kind he is vague and not very paternal. Then he discovers the Flytes. “That summer term with Sebastian,” he says, “it seemed as though I was being given a brief spell of what I had never known, a happy childhood.”

The sadness is that Sebastian wants to grab on to Charles in order to get away, while Charles wants to belong.

the private chapel at Madresfield Court

Brideshead has featured on the blog before – here, explaining how Nancy Mitford corrected Waugh on a detail of women’s dress, and here I look at his descriptions of Julia and other aspects of the book. 

The chapel at Brideshead is a key feature of the book: Madresfield Court is generally assumed to be the real-life original of both Brideshead and chapel. The two marvellous pictures of the chapel above came from the Little Augury blog written by P Gaye Tapp, as did the picture below. There is a fascinating entry on the family, the house and Waugh's connection with them, explaining the scandal connected with them.  But the whole blog is well worth a visit - anyone who likes Clothes in Books  will love Little Augury, which features books, pictures, interiors, clothes, films - all presented in the most beautiful manner. 

The Lygon family in 1925 before scandal hit

Plenty of other Waugh books on this blog too – click on the label below. 

Picture of Evelyn Waugh is from the Library of Congress.

Maimie Lygon popped up in an entry on Matthew Sweet's book The West End Front. 

Friday, 26 December 2014

Xmas Reading: The Book for Boxing Day

the book: The Slype by Russell Thorndike

published 1927

Another person who did not live in the [Cathedral] Precincts, but was always in and out of the Precincts, was Miss Tackle, who associated herself with bees, sold honey to the Minor Canons’ wives, and attended all the services in the Cathedral in a large hat fitted with green anti-bee netting. From the hives to the Cathedral, from Cathedral to the hives, with no time to change her hat, was Miss Tackle’s mode of life….

If one happened to meet Miss Tackle in the Precincts on her way to Cathedral or the hives, there was no point in saying “How bonny you look” or “It seems to me that you want a holiday”, because you could not see her face, for this same green veil was impenetrable and looked capable of withstanding an aerial torpedo, let alone a bee. So nobody ever knew Miss Tackle, but everybody knew the veil. It was a thing that had to be reckoned with…

[Later in the book Miss Tackle disappears]

The startling disappearance of Miss Tackle awoke the general interest. Here was a lady in the case, a veiled lady. Poor Miss Tackle, in reality the most old-maidish of spinsters, busy all day with her bees, so that she never remembered to remove her be-netted bonnet, became in newspaper fiction the beveiled beauty of an Eastern harem. Fleet Street would have taken no interest in Miss Tackle if she had not worn a veil. There was just the necessary flair in the veil. A slick journalist can do more with a veil than the most skilful milliner – for no milliner could have arranged butterfly-net to look anything else but a meat-cover. However by a few dainty words the pressmen pictured the old buzzer – Boyce’s Boy called her this – as a young butterfly within the net, and hey presto! The coarse anti-insect veil became the softest ninon yashmak of romance. Clergyman and Veiled Beauty. What a line for a jaded caption writer. That sort of stuff makes any newspaper sell. Wouldn’t you read details of such headings? Of course, and so would any other respectably-bored citizen.

observations: Last year at this time I described a certain kind of post-Christmas read: ‘if you have a few hours to spare and a comfortable sofa, then draw the curtains, light the fire, prepare some suitable snacks, and dive into this book.’ That was Charles Palliser’s Rustication. This year’s is a considerably older work of fiction, but definitely a book to get lost in as the world outside gets darker. Some snow would be even better as a background.

The Slype is set in Dullchester in Kent (plainly meant to be Rochester), in and around the Cathedral Close, where there are nefarious goings-on – disappearing Deans, mechanical toys, and a man who cuts out silhouettes of a gallows. There is also a mysterious stained glass window – what does that face in the middle represent?

The book is full of life and vigour, and does an excellent job of creating a sinister atmosphere, with a hint of supernatural activity and ghosts. The Slype itself is a narrow, closed-in passageway that is very likely haunted.

It’s all reminiscent of the unfinished Dickens, The Mystery of Edwin Drood – same setting, more Minor Canons. And also the Michael David Anthony mysteries set in Canterbury Cathedral in the same county.

And you’ve got to like a book where a chapter ends like this: ‘From the garden, in the direction of the Slype, rose a scream, loud and piercing, ending in a blood-curdling gurgle.’

Interesting point about the press and their interests in the passage above - there's always a theory about some past Golden Age of responsible journalism and serious newspapers, but in fact some things have stayed the same...

Russell Thorndike - brother of the actress Sybil T - was a well-known crime author in his time: the family grew up in exactly the Cathedral in the book, the father a canon.

I first came across The Slype on the Passing Tramp website – there’s a full and intriguing review there – and Curt makes a point that I absolutely agreed with: this would make a fabulous film or TV series, with many wonderful parts for actors. The BBC should make a Christmas special of it – in time for next year would be nice. Let's start a campaign.

This is one of the cases where the picture fits so exactly that I almost forget it is not an illustration. It is Lady with Hat and Veil, Viewed from Behind by Adolph von Menzel, and comes from the Athenaeum website

Thursday, 25 December 2014

Christmas Day: The Nativity

The Oxen: A poem by Thomas Hardy

published 1915

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
"Now they are all on their knees,"
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
"Come; see the oxen kneel,

"In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,"
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.


Hardy’s beautiful poem refers to a folk myth that at midnight on Christmas Eve the animals in the stable kneel down to honour the baby Jesus, marking their alleged presence at the original nativity scene in Bethlehem.

The picture is by Meister Francke, and was painted in 1424. It came from the Athenaeum website.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Xmas Eve: Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier

published 1936,  set in the early 1800s

[Mary Yellan, a young woman living at Jamaica Inn, has gone to the fair at Launceston on Christmas Eve, with Jem Merlyn]

Launceston itself seemed to rock in merriment as peal after peal of gaiety echoed in the street, mingling with the bustle and clatter of the fair; and with it all there was shouting, and callings, and a song from somewhere. The torches and the flares cast strangle lights on the faces of the people, and there was colour, and shadow, and the hum of voices, and a ripple of excitement in the air.

Jem caught at her hand and crumpled the fingers. ‘You’re glad you came now, aren’t you?’ he said, and ‘Yes,’ she said recklessly, and did not mind.

They plunged into the thick of the fair, with all the warmth and the suggestion of packed humanity about them. Jem bought Mary a crimson shawl, and gold rings for her ears. They sucked oranges beneath a striped tent, and had their fortunes told by a wrinkled gypsy woman. ‘ Beware of a dark stranger,’ she said to Mary, and they looked at one another and laughed again.

observations: The visit to the fair is the happy moment in the middle of the book, before the melodrama goes into overdrive, and it is a really great few pages -  a very lively description of a country town full of interest and excitement and activity, convincingly done. Jem is a rogue and a charmer, and although both he and Mary are romantic and dramatic figureheads for the plot, neither of them is 2-dimensional. Du Maurier is a much better writer than she is sometimes given credit for.

It’s just as well Christmas Eve is such fun, because Christmas Day is going to be very, very bleak.

I do have one worry about Jem: he’s a horse-thief, and he sells a small pony for £30 guineas - back to its original owner in fact. Now, the buyer is meant to be rather foolish, but still. My favourite toy the currency converter tells me that’s more than £1000 in today’s money – unlikely surely? For comparison purposes, in the economic primer which is Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate, set 120 years later (around the time this book was written), Cedric buys a broken-down old horse for £40, to the horror of those around him - that’s far too much, they say, ‘You could get a hunter for less than that.’

One more thing about the book: Mary has strong feelings and worries and guilt about various things that happen, and fears about who else might be to blame, but never seems to realize that in the end it is her actions that directly bring about her beloved aunt’s death, because she can’t keep her mouth shut.

The young woman with the red shawl and gold earrings is by Alexei Harmaloff, and the picture is from the Athenaeum website.

Daphne du Maurier has featured on the blog before: an earlier entry on this book (at the time of the mumbling TV version) , Don't Look Now, and The Scapegoat, and this short story last week for my 1971 book.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Xmas Travel Arrangements: Mystery in White by J Jefferson Farjeon

published  1937

Mr Maltby turned towards the staircase. “Here comes Miss Strange, and the next thing we need is her story.”

There was a general movement as Nora Strange came down the stairs, and David jumped quickly to his feet. Without her heavy coat – she was wearing a white silk blouse and light brown skirt – some ethereal quality in her seemed to be accentuated, but it was not the ghostly quality that lay around Valley House like a dank mist. It was something delicately fragile, that gave her a human luminosity. 

“Come and sit down and get warm.” 

“Yes, sit here,” added Jessie, moving her legs to make room on the couch. “This is the best place, I mustn’t hog it.”

The two other men were regarding [Nora] silently. Her type of beauty, as Lydia’s, was beyond the reach of such sensualists as Mr Hopkins, and although he would have awarded both Lydia and Nora higher marks than Jessie in a Beauty Contest, he infinitely preferred the chorus girl’s prettiness because his experience had proved it more accessible.

observations: This is just what you need over Christmas: a very traditional mystery story, written in the 1930s, with a disparate group of strangers trapped together by the weather. There’s murder in someone’s past and future. Not only that, but the participants got there by train… it was immobilized by the snow, so one group of passengers got off it to walk to safety. Ironic, because in fact they got lost and ended up at an empty house. Empty NOW, though the fire is lit, the kettle is boiling, everything is ready for tea. Who has left the house and why? What is going on here?

The group – “we must all show the team spirit” - includes a platinum blonde chorus girl, and a nice upmarket young lady and her brother, and a member of the Society for Psychical Research, and a clerk, and a bore. So, again, just what you need for an expansive plot.

The book is an easy read and good fun – Jessie’s diary entries are very funny, and if things look like calming down there’ll be a sentence like this one: “A terrified shriek pierced the darkness, lending it a new horror.”

The group use up the food from the pantry, making careful note of what they must owe their unknown hosts, and I was surprised to find that spaghetti was on the menu – it’s not clear if this was dried or tinned.

The book has been reprinted in an initiative by the British Library, and with help and an introduction from blogfriend Martin Edwards, who always does a great job championing forgotten classics – he is a consultant to the series of reprints. And, this one is doing amazingly well: you may well have seen the distinctive cover on bookshop tables, and I’m not surprised people found it irresistible. What a great Christmas present or stocking filler.

The two women are from the lovely Clover Vintage tumblr. I couldn’t resist finding a picture of a snowy train, like the cover, even though  very little of the book actually happens on the train (apart, I should say, from one murder), and the train is never moving during the action. The photo is actually a 1937 steam engine, being used in 2009 for a Christmas special trip. One can only hope – it was the Christmas Carol Special – that it was less incident-filled and at the same time less stationary than the journey in the book. The photo was taken by Evelyn Simak.

Curt at The Passing Tramp blog points us in the direction of his blogposts on Farjeon, and his review of this book, several years ago - well worth a look, this is the link.

Monday, 22 December 2014

Xmas Tree: Envious Casca by Georgette Heyer

published 1941

Joseph spent the days immediately preceding Christmas in decorating the house. He bought paper-chains, and festooned them across the ceilings; he pricked himself grievously in countless attempts to fix sprigs of holly over all the pictures; and he hung up bunches of mistletoe at all strategic points. He was engaged on this work when Mathilda Clare arrived. As she entered the house, he was erecting an infirm step-ladder in the middle of the hall, preparatory to securing a bunch of mistletoe to the chandelier….

Joseph [said] could he not persuade Maud to lay aside the book and help him with the tree? He could not. In the end, only Mathilda responded to his appeal for assistance. She asserted her undying love for tinsel decorations, and professed her eagerness to hang innumerable coloured balls and icicles on to the tree

Roydon was at first inclined to lecture the company on the childishness of keeping up old customs, and Teutonic ones at that, but when he saw Mathilda clipping candlesticks on to the branches, he forgot that it was all very much beneath him, and said: ‘Here, you’d better let me do that! If you put it there, it’ll set light to the whole thing.’

observations: The top photo is quite a good version of Joseph, though it actually shows a Dutch salt miner in 1933. But I can tell you one thing – it is quite hard to find pictures of tree-decoration that don’t involve children, because we all know that the festive season is about little ones and their innocence. So Christmas murder stories, traditional ones set at a family gathering, tend to make sure there are no kids around. You’d say they were 'ruthlessly disposed of for plot purposes', but we can keep that phrase for the victim - in this case a fairly unloved old man, the kind who holds the purse-strings and rules the family. So the plot is a straight combination of Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, and Georgette Heyer’s own splendid (non-murder) romance, The Unknown Ajax – my favourite of her books.

The murder plot isn’t of the best – it is a locked room mystery with a solution that seemed to leave a lot of questions, and deciding on the villain didn’t slow me down. But none of that matters: this is a very funny book, with great mean characters and very little sentiment about Christmas:
Nathaniel, regarding him with a contemptuous eye, said that a real English Christmas meant, in his experience, a series of quarrels between inimical persons bound to one another only by the accident of relationship, and thrown together by a worn-out convention which decreed that at Christmas families should forgather.
And don’t we all recognize the character above who has no time for all the nonsense, but can still jump in and start interfering and doing it better.

The investigation into the murder seems to go at a leisurely pace: I kept thinking several days had passed, but it was still 25th December. Policemen and lawyers can, apparently, be summoned and come down on the train on The Day – the 11.15 from Waterloo.

There is the usual unabashed snobbery from Heyer: a visiting fiancée, Valerie is obviously a very common young woman indeed. But all is forgiven because of the magnificence of her mother, who arrives to protect her ‘girlie’: Mrs Dean is ‘a figure in a Persian lamb coat and a skittish hat, perched over elaborately curled golden hair’ who later reveals ‘a formidable bust, covered by a tightly fitting lace blouse and supporting a large paste brooch.’

She is a wonderful character, almost the equal of Mrs Dillington-Black in Ngaio Marsh’s Singing in the Shrouds – see blog entry here. I loved the moment when her daughter almost decides to share a room with her – to dramatize her fears – but ‘reflected in time that she would not, in this event, be allowed to smoke in bed, or to read into the small hours.’

Mrs Dean is not over-impressed by the company. Posh, arty, full-of-herself Paula says - tossing back her hair:

‘No-one has ever yet succeeded in organising me!’

‘If you were one of my girlies,’ said Mrs Dean archly, ‘I should tell you not to be a silly child.’
The expression on Paula’s face was murderous.
This may not be the best murder story ever written, but it is an excellent Christmas read.

In the second picture, the other child-free man adding candles is of course Father Christmas (from the New York Public Library ) – a Christmas card from the 1900s, so before the days of a defining red-coat. Coca Cola has a nice FAQ here about the way Santa is portrayed, and their role in that.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Dress Down Sunday: Xmas Gifts of Nylons

the book: Black Banner Players by Geoffrey Trease

published 1952


[Two families have joined forces for Christmas in a small town in the Lake District]

“I’m dying to get to the real presents,” Sue whispered… “I do hope Penny will like her nylons.”

Both girls had just reached a stage in their lives when stockings – until recently a tedious bore, only to be worn under compulsion – had suddenly become one of the most important elements in their existence. I had heard about these blessed nylons until I was sick of them. For some reason which I could never fathom, the great thing was to have stockings so fine that nobody could tell you had any one at all, except by looking at an ugly line up the back of your leg which was specially provided to prove that you had. These were in such demand, apparently, that the shop would sell only one pair to each customer. It showed the nobility of Sue’s nature that she was giving Penny her own allocation.

[Later] A few moments later Sue let out such a scream that we paused in our unpacking to inquire what had bitten her. “Penny! You angel!” She was flaunting a pair of almost invisible stockings. I suppose the result would have been the same if each girl had kept the pair she had bought – but they certainly wouldn’t have been beaming on each other with such starry-eyed benevolence.

observations: How I wish I’d found this before writing my recent Guardian article on stockings and nylons in books: it would have fitted in perfectly.

I have been searching these books (a YA series from the 1950s) for an elusive mention of tangerine slacks (thanks to Lydia Syson and see this entry): they didn’t turn up in this book, but no complaints **, it was still a joy to read, even apart from the nylons reference. The young people we are following in the series form an amateur dramatic group, and there is a real joy in reading about their taking their show to the far reaches of the Lake District, remote places in a time when TV was in its infancy and cinemas far–distant, where the whole village will turn out for the show. And it might be hard to get back late at night across fells, mountains and rivers. There is an adventure concerning a historic notebook, and narrator Bill gets caught up in a vanity publishing scam.

I mentioned before that the books can be surprising. Trease was trying to pitch it in a middle ground that many of his readers might expect to recognize: not boarding school and young toffs, and not slumming it with the Family from One End Street. For sure, I can still remember my utter surprise when I read the first one many years ago – in which the narrator explains that their father has left the family, the mother is bringing them up alone, and no Dad’s not going to be coming back in the final chapter. That, hard though it may be to believe, was completely unprecedented in the books of the time.

I was also surprised that a waffle iron is given as a Xmas present.

**The entry on the tangerine trousers is here

More Xmas entries all over the blog - click on the labels below. 

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Xmas in Wartime: Northbridge Rectory by Angela Thirkell

published 1941

[Mr Downing has been invited to a Christmas tea-party]

The drawing-room was a blaze of comfort. The blackout had already been done, a wood and coal fire was throwing out grateful heat, all the lights were on and the room was full of laughter, smoke and noise. Mrs Turner, sitting on a sofa before a low table, was pouring out tea. Her other niece and Mr Greaves were sitting side by side at the piano with a large plate of cake and two cups of tea by the music stand, singing a duet and sharing the accompaniment

[Two others] were sitting cross-legged on the bearskin hearthrug and toasting scones. Mrs Paxon, in a red coat and skirt and a bright green halo hat, was near the tea table having a violent flirtation with Colonel Passmore, and Mrs Turner’s two good little evacuee boys, Derrick Pumper and Derrick Farker, were sitting under the piano dressed as Red Indians, with a third little boy, wearing a mask with a dog’s face, whom Mr Downing subsequently discovered to be their cousin who has been invited for Christmas because his mother had a new baby. All three little boys were gently playing mouth-organs, [and] someone had left the wireless on at full blast in the dining-room…

observations: Although the party is shown as being delightful, Thirkell has prefaced this social event with some more cynical sentences:
No one has ever yet described with sufficient hatred and venom this Joyous and Festive Season. As the Rector when off his guard so truly said, the war was little but an intensification of Christmas in that it either separated families that wanted to be together, or far worse, herded together families for whom normally 12 counties were not large enough.

This is the early days of the war – the whole of the book is set in the period – and people are making the best of it. One of the characters above is never given a name: Mrs Turner has a niece called Betty, and then there is someone who is referred to throughout the entire book as ‘Mrs Turner’s other niece’ or sometimes just ‘the other niece’ when being informal.

One interesting thing about the book is that no-one dies in it – not even in the normal run of things, let alone because there is a massive conflict raging not that many miles away. And also there are people who are figures of fun in it – as mentioned in this earlier entry on the book  – but no real villains, no-one behaves horribly badly.

The lovely photos of a wartime Christmas party come from the ever-excellent Imperial War Museum collection.

Friday, 19 December 2014

The Ghost Rider by Ismail Kadare

first published in Albanian in 1980

this edition translated from the French of Jusuf Vrioni by Jon Rothschild, then updated, with new sections added, by Ismail Kadare and David Bellos

From the four corners of the principality people flocked to the funeral of the Lady Mother and her daughter. Since time immemorial, events have always been one of two kinds: those that bring people together, and those that tear them asunder. The first kind can be experienced and appreciated at market days, crossroads or coaching inns. As for the second, each of us takes them in, or is consumed by them, in solitude. It soon became apparent that the funeral belonged to both categories at once. Although at first sight it seemed to belong to the crowd and the street, what people said about it brought to the surface all that had been whispered or imagined within the walls of every house, and brought confusion to everyone’s mind.

Like any disquiet that gestates at first in solitary pain before coming out into the open, rumours about Doruntine grew and swelled up, changing in the most unforeseeable ways. An endless stream of people dragged the story behind them but were yet drawn forward by it. As they sought to give it a shape they found acceptable, they were themselves altered, bruised or crushed by it.

observations: Ismail Kadare is Albania’s greatest writer, and when I featured his book The Siege on the blog I just really wanted to run the whole book, with pictures – see endless entries by clicking here. I find his style mesmerizing and fascinating – even in translation he has something very charismatic about him, I think shown in some of the sentences above. The Ghost Rider is a novella or long story, and can be read in one eerie sitting. The story is apparently a traditional folkmyth found all over Eastern and Balkan Europe in differing versions: the young woman Doruntine – married away from home - is brought back to her mother by her brother Kostandin. They turn up late at night on horseback, and then the rider departs. But her brother died long before – so what is really going on? As the title suggests, this might be a really creepy ghost story – it is very atmospheric and quite scarey. But then perhaps there is a more straightforward explanation for what happened – I went back and forward on whether there was going to be a truly supernatural element or not. Does the young woman have a lover? Did she know [all] her brother(s) was/were dead? Is she happy living with her new husband so far away from her friends and family? What about the sacred promise that the dead brother made to his mother – that he would always bring Doruntine home if she was needed… would he do this from beyond the grave?

The introduction tells us that the tale has a huge political meaning also, revolving round the much-repeated word besa - a promise or an oath, but representing much more than that in Albanian society. It was most interesting to read that, and it adds to the story, though you can certainly read it without knowing anything about the background.

The story is set in some unspecified long-ago time, but the policeman who investigates the case, Captain Stres, could come from any European crime novel of today as he thinks about the case, talks things over with his wife, and has a rather unexpected sex scene.

This is a fantastic story, one of the most unsettling I’ve read in a long time.

Pictures of Albania (taken there earlier this year) come from my favourite source, Perry Photography, and are used with her kind permission. You can see more of her pictures at Flickr, or at her website weddingsinitalytuscany. Her wonderful photos have featured on the blog many times before.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Thursday List: Christmas Books - Reader Recommendations

Last week I did a list of some Christmas-y books for the festive season: blog readers always come up with great additions to any list I do, but this time they excelled themselves. As I noted them down, they just looked like the perfect Xmas reading list – Mark 2.

1) Christmas with the Savages by Mary Clive – suggested by Lissa Evans (writer of one of my favourite books this year, The Crooked Heart, and new blogfriend.) She says: ‘it's perfect in every way (the story of a prim little girl at an Edwardian house party - funny, orginal, touching), and also perfect for Clothes in Books.' I ordered it straight away.

2) Lisa said ‘There is also Nancy Mitford's Christmas Pudding, set during two different Christmas house parties, & a lot of fun.’ I am a Nancy Mitford obsessive, but my re-reading generally starts with the later Pursuit of Love, so she’s right – I need to go back to this one.

3) Margot Kinberg – doyenne of crime fiction bloggers at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist - said ‘Have you read Ngaio Marsh's Tied Up in Tinsel? I think that's another that might fit on this sort of list.’ I have just resolved to read and re-read more of Marsh, so this one goes to the top of the list.

4) Margaret Jones had several great suggestions: ‘Maigret's Christmas is also really good, a great selection of short stories some of which genuinely have a Christmas theme; and of course I love ghost stories at Christmas too. John Masefield's Box of Delights is a fun Christmas-set read as is Arthur Ransome's Winter Holiday.’ Winter Holiday was my favourite of the Swallows and Amazons series, and now I want to read it NOW.

5) Another Antonia Forest fan! Nomey points out that her 'Peter's Room (also brilliant) takes place entirely in the Christmas holidays as does... her Runaway Home'. She says that ‘Forest's characterisation is far superior to many an award-winning fiction writer.’ And I totally agree with her. 

Santa settles down with a cup of coffee to read a good book

6) ‘One of the most entertaining Christmas stories I know’ says Cecilia. It is Stephen Leacock's Hoodoo McFiggins Christmas, and you can find it online here.

7) Another favourite writer, Christine Poulson gave a second vote for Maigret, and also mentioned ‘Arnuld Indridason's Voices, which is set at Christmas. And then there's Nicholas Blake's The Abominable Snowman.’

8) Audrey nominated Little Women ("Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents" grumbled Jo, lying on the rug) and James Joyce's wondrous The Dead. I should do a Twelfth Night list. 

9) TracyK (of Bitter Tea and Mystery) said 'My absolute favorite Christmas mystery is Jane Haddam's Not a Creature was Stirring, the first in the Gregor Demarkian series. I read it twice and could read it again. From last year's Christmas mysteries, I would recommend The Holiday Murders by Robert Gott, a historical mystery set in Australia during World War II. One mystery I read this month was Rest You Merry by Charlotte MacLeod. It is an old favorite of mine. Her first novel and an academic mystery. The other was A Season for Murder by Ann Granger, a fine mystery set among Christmas festivities. Both have skulls on the cover! I will be reviewing them this month.' Tracy's review of the Granger is here.

9) John H Rogers also recommended  Jane Haddam's Not A Creature Was Stirring (and I agree with him and Tracy) and added Cyril Hare's An English Murder. Then he said 'I highly recommend the Robert Benchley collection A Good Old- Fashioned Christmas, especially "Christmas Afternoon" ("God help us, everyone") and "Editha's Christmas Burglar".'

10) Steve Mitchell  -  the Opinionated Film Buff, currently reviewing the ten best Christmas films - said 'I like John Grisham's Skipping Christmas. But my favourite Christmas book ever ever ever is A Child's Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas.'

So there you go - some really excellent suggestions from the blogging community, making up a really perfect Christmas reading list. And more ideas still welcome - add your favourite Christmas book below.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle by Vladimir Nabokov

published 1969

A victoria had stopped at the porch. A lady, who resembled Van’s mother, and a dark-haired girl of 11 or 12, preceded by a fluid dackel, were getting out. Ada carried an untidy bunch of wild flowers. She wore a white frock with a black jacket and there was a white bow in her long hair. He never saw that dress again, and when he mentioned it in retrospective evocation she invariably retorted that he must have dreamt it, she never had one like that, never could have put on a dark blazer on such a hot day, but he stuck to his initial image of her to the last…

They now had tea in a prettily furnished corner of the otherwise very austere central hall from which rose the grand staircase. They sat on chairs upholstered in silk around a pretty table. Ada’s black jacket and a pink-yellow-blue nosegay she had composed of anemones, celandines and columbines lay on a stool of oak. The dog got more bits of cake than it did ordinarily.

observations: This is the first meeting of Van and Ada, in a book whose purpose is to trace their relationship. It reads well enough, doesn’t it? Sounds like a perfectly reasaonable early passage in a family saga.

I have read some very long and complex books in my time. I have read Ulysses and Proust (some of it in French) several times over, and loved them. I quite liked Moby Dick. I do not shy away from the difficult, the elaborate, the exciting new world. I have loved other books by Nabokov, including Pale Fire. I don’t love Lolita, but I admire and respect it. 

But this book pretty much defeated me. It is almost 500 pages of a story which is always just off, always just out of reach. It takes place in a parallel world, there is a science fiction side to it. Whenever you think there’s some normal narrative or world here, it will veer off in a different direction. There are 15 pages of notes by Vivian Darkbloom, which I assume (based on familiarity with the Nabokov oeuvre) are part of the book – translations and explanations of foreign phrases. There are constant references to real people eg writers, but with the names subtly changed. This book is exhausting to read.

If it sounds interesting, then I would recommend you look at the very helpful Wikipedia page on the book: it’s the only reason Ada made any sense at all to me.

A dackel is, it seems, a German term for a dachshund.
In support of Ada’s contention, there aren’t many pictures of young women of the era wearing a black jacket over a white dress. This page from a magazine might give some idea of how she would have looked – picture from the NYPublic Library.