Thursday, 31 July 2014

Her Brilliant Career: Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties by Rachel Cooke

published 2013


But how had [Nancy Spain] hidden her pregnancy from her friends? With great difficulty, probably, though since those who knew her were in no doubt about her sexuality they would perhaps have seen only what they expected to see. There is a story that when Angus McBean came to photograph her for the cover of one of her detective novels, her pregnancy was so noticeable that he had to ask her to lie down so he could shoot her from above.


At Pinewood’s restaurant every head would turn when Betty walked in. And in a room full of movie stars! She was immaculate in Dior and Courreges and Balenciaga. Her jewellery jangled. Her honey blonde hair shone. There she would sit, surrounded by her coterie: [Dirk] Bogarde, [Kenneth] More…

observations: Where to begin with this wonderful book? Rachel Cooke herself suggested I might be interested in in it, and that turned out to be a wild understatement – I loved it. She picked ten high-achieving women to write about, including an archaeologist, a judge, a gardener and a cookery writer. She looked at their lives in enormous detail, talked to people who knew them, and then wrote this completely beguiling book, full of the fascination of gossip but the careful facts of scholarly research. 

The women are modern, real, characterful, determined. The difficulties they face are shocking and outrageous, but not quite as unimaginable as you would hope all these years later. They all sound like role models and poster girls – not by any means in every detail of their lives, but in the fact that they got on with it, they knew what they wanted. And, as Cooke emphasizes, if you ever thought complex love lives, dysfunctional families and Bohemian arrangements all arrived in the 1960s, then this book provides a valuable corrective. Cooke is a balanced and very funny writer, you respect her insights, and I like the way she is witty without being mean. I loved her little asides – such as her explanation of why cookbooks don’t really represent current life. 

[And so I am sure Rachel Cooke will like my favourite line from any cookbook or recipe ever:
Add the flour, salt, paprika and mushrooms, stir, and let it cook five minutes while you light a cigarette and stare sullenly at the sink.

-- see the relevant blog entry here. Peg Bracken published it in 1960, but surely was an honorary 1950s feminist and working woman.]

Her Brilliant Career is also, through and through, a feminist tract ( that is a huge compliment from me, and it annoys me that still this idea might be off-putting to others). These women were talented people with something to offer, and the fact that they had to fight harder than men for their achievements was ridiculous then and now, and that’s all that feminism means.

Also, many Clothes in Books favourite books and people are mentioned in this book – click on the links, or go to the labels below the entry:

Stella Gibbons  Westwood

Anne Scott-James In the Mink

Margery Allingham

Vita Sackville-West – as a writer and also a gardening picture

Richard Gordon’s Doctor in the House

Dirk Bogarde

Nancy Spain lying down is from my own Virago reprint of one of her books, though the photo was taken for a different title.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

The Red Right Hand by Joel Townley Rogers

published 1945

It certainly was the damnedest-looking hat. Its brim had been cut away in saw-tooth scallops all around, and crescent and star-shaped holes had been cut in its crown, in the way boys and boy-witted men sometimes do to old hats. It was just lying there, with no one around that it might belong to, while in the woods and weedy fields on either side insects creaked and sang. I don’t know what impelled me to stoop and pick it up…

This cut-up hat had the texture of what had once been a good piece of felt, in spite of its dirt, when I picked it up. And no wonder , since it had the colophon of Haxler’s on Fifth Avenue, where I bought my own hats. I pulled down the sweatband —a 7 3/8. Looking more closely, I could see where paper initials had been pasted on the band. They had peeled off; but the stained and darkened leather was still a little lighter where they had been, and I could make their shape out: “H.N.R., Jr.”

This is one of the moments where the proprietor of Col’s Criminal Library and I collide – he reviewed the book last week. And it is also yet another recommendation from crime writer Martin Edwards on his Do You Write Under Your Own Name blog – Martin  wrote the introduction to this new ebook edition. 

I’d never heard of Rogers, though apparently he was one of the great short story writers of the pulp era. He is best known for this short book. It’s a strange eerie story, best read breathlessly in one or two sittings, which is not difficult – it grabs you and takes you along for the ride. Which is what has happened to the main characters: rich young oilman Inis St Erme has run off with Elinor Darrie, and they are on a road trip to find a state where they can get married. They pick up a hitchhiker, a very strange-looking tramp, the wearer of the hat above, and continue on, but then something very nasty happens. And the mysteries get more involved: why didn’t the narrator, NY doctor Harry Riddle, see the death car, which surely must have passed him? Where is Corkscrew, the tramp, now? What happened to the right hand missing from the body, and why would anyone cut it off? Who are all the strange neighbours – I particularly liked the ‘refugee painter-musician-scene-designer Unistaire, half monkey half faun.. devising a surrealistic dance….dressed in a leopard skin, a feather duster and a chiffon nightgown.’ Hard to find that picture, but this (from one of the many Nina Hamnett entries on the blog) gets part way:

You start to suspect everyone, and you are meant to - the initials in the hat above, by the way, are those of the narrator himself. The explanation when it comes is complex and involved and very clever, and does leave you nodding in satisfaction. Rogers is a very good writer, adept at setting the scene and creating characters quickly – though I never did get the hang of the geography of the place, with Swamp Lane and Dead Bridegroom’s Pond and Whippleville, and I had to take it on trust that the car couldn’t have got past without Riddle seeing it.

You know it’s a noir story, and the setup is clear from the opening lines, and still you can enjoy sentences like these, in a flashback about the young couple:
For a moment they stood smiling at each other, out of sheer happiness over nothing. That she thought 50 dollars was much money. That he didn’t even know the cost of women’s hats.

- the writing could come from what would be seen as a much more literary novel. Great stuff.

The hat somewhat defeated me. At first I thought it was ‘sawtooth’ because it had bits cut out of it, but now I think not. There is a kind of hat called a sawtooth made by Stetson, but I can’t establish whether that is just the style name, or if it refers to the way the crown is punched into shape. Anyway, the hat in the top picture is a Stetson sawtooth hat on sale from the good people at Quality Hats.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Agatha Christie Top 5s - Round-Up Post

Sitting in judgement in And Then There Were None

Last week crime writer and blogger Christine Poulson and I agreed to each share a list of our top 5 Agatha Christie novels – mine is here, and hers is on her blog here.

Our lists provoked a lot of interest and – as we hoped – many people joined in and posted their Top 5. Also there was considerable discussion, and more lists, on the Facebook Golden Age Detection discussion board (a closed group, but one that always welcomes new members with an interest in the genre).

Leading light Curtis Evans, of The Passing Tramp website, is now suggesting Top 10 lists, which he will then tabulate, and that sounds like a great idea – so do visit either his webpage or the Facebook page to find him if you want to pass on yours.

In the meantime, I thought it would be interesting to take a more impressionistic look at which books were mentioned a lot, and which weren’t. So I went through everyone’s lists and mentions taking notes – and these are my conclusions (if I seem to have missed your list, let me know):

1) Everybody loves Poirot best. No surprises there. There was a run from 1926 (Roger Ackroyd) to 1953 (After the Funeral) where almost all the full-length novels were mentioned at least once. The exceptions were Dumb Witness and Appointment with Death – does no-one have a word for these? Even Big Four got one shoutout! Curtain – the last Poirot book published, but written in this era - was a surprisingly frequent choice too.

Dressing for dinner in Curtain

2) Marple's earlier cases were the favoured ones – from Murder at the Vicarage (1930) to They Do it With Mirrors (1952) – and again Sleeping Murder (published 1976 but written during WW2) was popular. 

3) The early adventure stories – what Vicki/Skiourophile splendidly calls the flapper crime novels – had their advocates. Secret of Chimneys got the most plugs, with Man in a Brown Suit as runnerup. 

4) A couple of short-story collections got the odd vote – Labours of Hercules and Thirteen Problems.
5) I know I’m prejudiced against Tommy and Tuppence but I’m not the only one, and Robert Barnard did call them ‘everyone’s least favourite Christie sleuths’. Only N or M? got any mention at all.

would that be Major Bletchley?

6) Of the non-sleuth classics (not elegant but the best way to describe them), And Then There Were None, Crooked House, Pale Horse and Endless Night all came up. No interest in Sittaford Mystery (Murder at Hazelmoor) which I would have added to that list, nor in Ordeal By Innocence, which Christie liked herself. 

My summing-up would be: The popular choices didn’t surprise me, but some of the omissions did.

It was a really interesting exercise – thanks to so many people for joining in, and all your comments and lists and arguments were highly enjoyable.

It’s not too late to add a Top 5 or a comment below…

Monday, 28 July 2014

The Swish of the Curtain by Pamela Brown

published 1941

Sandra had very positive ideas about stage costumes. ‘It doesn’t matter how bad the material is or how bad the sewing; all they need is colour and line.’

They asked to see some materials suitable for a party frock, and spent a quarter of an hour inspecting bales of all kinds of light and silky materials, but could see nothing that would be suitable. Then Sandra caught sight of some material at the back of a shelf. She pointed at it. ‘I’d like to see that, please.’

‘But, miss, that’s not dress material,’ objected the draper, wooffling his moustache.

‘I’d like to look at it,’ repeated Sandra, and he brought it down.

She fingered it, looked at it from a distance, and then held it up to the light. It was very thin, but had a fine silvery sheen.

‘I’ll have as much of this as I can for a couple of pounds,’ Sandra told him.

‘But this stuff is only cheap, and there is no wear in it.’

Sandra insisted that she wanted a couple of pounds’ worth of it. When they were outside again Lyn said doubtfully, ‘Do you think it was wise to get such poor stuff?’

‘Yes. Very wise. You see, if I’d got good stuff there would not have been enough, and then the skirt wouldn’t have been full enough, and I might just as well have worn the old floral dress of Mummy’s.’

The other two were not reassured until the next day…

[At the rehearsal, Sandra steps into the spotlight] She stood in the arc of light in a ravishing dress of silvery-blue. The bodice was tight-fitting and unobtrusive, but the skirt – they could not believe their eyes! Although prepared for a full skirt, they were astounded at this cloud of shimmering silk that seemed to fill the entire stage. Sandra, smiling excitedly, made a low curtsey, and the skirt fell like a lake around her.

‘You should see how dreadful it looks in daylight! All anaemic and uninteresting. It’s the electric light that does it.’

observations: I had and have absolutely no stage talent, and no interest in sewing, but to this day my heart beats a little faster when I read a description of penniless young theatricals skimping and striving to make a costume or an audition dress: This scene, and the comparable fairy audition scene in Ballet Shoes are two of my favourite and best-remembered moments from all my childhood books.

Oh how I loved this book when I was a child. Nothing could ever match Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes (all over the blog, click on the labels below – and Pauline Fossil plays the fairy godmother in Cinderella) in my stageschool heart, but this one came close. A group of seven young people in 1930s England, living in suburban splendour, decide to put on amateur performances in their school holidays. They get hold of a tiny, unused church hall, and use their talents to impress all around them. It almost all seemed possible.

I knew that Pamela Brown was 16 when she finished this book, and that made it even more exciting to read. It does have the feel of a school composition at times, ‘What I did in my holidays’, but in a good way – she includes random inconsequential conversations among the children having no relevance to the plot but very real-sounding. I also knew that Brown had (of course) grown up to be an actress, and I had always assumed she was the Pamela Brown who played stalwart supporting roles in films such as Cleopatra, Becket and I Know Where I’m Going. Only on researching this entry did I find out that sadly she is not the same person, and the writer’s acting career (under the name Mela Brown) was even less stellar. Alas.

The rather unsettling picture (from the New York Public Library) shows the film actress Gloria Swanson presenting a shoe to the winner of a Cinderella contest at the New York World’s Fair in 1939-40. But it might as well have been called: ‘Moviestar 101 – how to totally upstage a beauty contest winner in a glamorous gown, while just wearing a spotty dress and some strange gloves’. Swanson nails it.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Dress Down Sunday: Aren't We Sisters? by Patricia Ferguson

published 2014


She put the hand mirror back and got up to unbutton her uniform dress. Beneath it she was wearing her nicest underwear, a gleaming close-fitting rose-pink crepe de chine. Pity about the stockings, workaday lisle; but anything better might be noticed. AT least they were a decent fit, and didn’t matter much. Her dress mattered more and would stay hidden until –unless – it was needed. She opened the cupboard and took out her raincoat: she had hung the dress behind it, smuggled it into the office that morning folded into tissue paper in her nurse’s bag. She took it out now on its special padded hanger and gave it a little shake.

The dress was of plain black jersey, and its skirt had a dancing swing, as if it had a life of its own. There were three small buttons at the neck, on a neat little placket, and the black silk label hand-sewn into the collar read Gabrielle Chanel Paris, embroidered in gold; it was Lettie’s dearest favourite, had been so ever since she had unobtrusively removed it from the dressing room of a grateful patient the year before.

observations: The Booker Prize longlist has just been announced: 10 men and 3 women. Pity they didn’t find room for Patricia Ferguson on it – this is one of the best new books I have read this year.

The marvellous Amanda Craig (see her Vicious Circle here on the blog) recommended it to me – I’d listen to her reco’s anyway, but her exact words on Twitter were ‘fab description of evil blackmailer’s lust for couture’ so it would have been impossible to resist in any circumstances.

And I am so grateful: what a terrific book. I liked a previous novel by Ferguson – Peripheral Vision, here on the blog - well enough, but this one was a tour de force. (Apparently it’s a sequel to her book The Midwife’s Daughter, but can be read as a standalone.)

Ferguson is not looking to make Aren’t We Sisters? instantly likeable or an easy read: it starts with a rather grim description of an internal examination, and there’s a lot more in similar mode to come. The themes of the book are childbirth, sex, family planning and above all women’s sovereignty over their own bodies. I think Ferguson is staking a claim, laying out a thesis that men’s doings are automatically allowed in fiction, but that women’s concerns can be dismissed more easily – ‘Now, says Dickens, now we can get on to the really important stuff, the proper story, the real story. Now we’ve got those dead mothers out of the way.’

It probably doesn’t make it an easy sell, but the book is much more readable and entertaining than that sounds: it is very gripping – you really do want to know what is going to happen to these characters – and also very very funny. The class consciousness in the small town in Cornwall in the 1930s is hilarious, and Ferguson gives a convincing voice to three very different women: a family planning nurse on the make, a come-down-in-the-world spinster, and a film star hiding her secrets from the world.

More to come on this book.

The underwear is from a magazine advert: the other picture is Coco Chanel herself in one of her little black dresses, and is from Dovima is devine.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Inspiring Blog Award

I was really delighted to be nominated for this award by Barb at Leaves and Pages, because it is one of my favourite blogs. It’s a lovely combination of brilliant book reviews, occasional snippets of personal life, and beautiful photographs of the countryside around her in Canada. We share a lot of literary tastes, so any recommendations are likely to have me out looking for her obscure choices from second hand dealers. And, Barb is the only person I think is actually a bigger Margery Sharp fan than I am, and that’s saying something. (Sample Sharp on my blog, and on Leaves and Pages.)

So: Here are the rules of the award:

  • Thank and link to the person who nominated you. 
  • List the rules and display the award. 
  • Share seven facts about yourself. 
  • Nominate other amazing blogs and comment on their posts to let them know they have been nominated (originally specified 15 blogs, but I think it’s better to leave it to the blogger) 
  • Optional: display the award logo on your blog and follow the blogger who nominated you

Seven Facts about me: 
1) I am very fond of coffee and chocolate.

2) I lived in America for 6 years, just outside Seattle, but now am back in England. 

3) One of my favourite places in the world is Agatha
boathouse at Greenway
Christie’s holiday home at Greenway in Devon – I have stayed there five times, and hope to do so many times more. And not just because I love her books.

4) In 2000 I started working on the comments section of a website: at that time no-one understood what my job was or what comments were or what blogs were, I had to explain it to people one by one, item by item. 

5) I love all kinds of music, and always have something playing while I work, usually a mixed playlist of music from the past 30 years probably including some Bob Dylan, but also… 

6) ….the great delight of my later years is opera, and I go to see opera about once a month. 

Eugene Onegin at the Royal Opera House

7) As a child, my biggest ambitions were to see the Grand Canyon, 

and to drive through a redwood tree.

At the time they seemed as unlikely as flying to the moon, but I am happy to say I have achieved both these things.

Nominating other blogs - hard to choose, but here we go:

Margot Kinberg Confessions of a Mystery Novelist – I know she has already been awarded this at least twice, and she really doesn’t need it again, but I can’t miss her out because she is the most generous and inspiring blogger I know: always encouraging others and tirelessly commenting and visiting and making bloggers feel that little bit better about their day, with perfect blog etiquette. And I have never seen her write a mean word, ever. Margot: my gift to you is that you shouldn’t have to feel you have to do this again, I just wanted to recognize what you contribute to the blogosphere.

Sarah Ward Crimepieces

Christine Poulson A reading Life

TracyK Bitter Tea and Mystery

- my 3 best criminal lady blogging friends, whom I’ve particularly enjoyed getting to know over the past few years blogging

Col’s Criminal Library – sometimes our tastes seem an ocean apart, but we always have something to say to each other, and then will suddenly find we have a book in common.

Lucy Fisher’s The Art of Words – we have a lot of shared interests. I discovered Lucy via one of her splendid Amazon reviews - as I explained in this post. Lucy does lovely funny blogposts with sharp observations on what’s going on in the world.

Rich Westwood’s Past Offences – so knowledgeable about crime fiction, and so funny and clever. 

Bernadette’s Reactions to Readings Real insight, fascinating honest reviews – you think ‘yes, that was my reaction too, but I couldn’t have put it as well as she did.’

Karyn at A Penguin a Week Such a brilliant concept, so simple and so riveting, and her background picture is so beautiful. And, I can reduce my book mountain by sending her any vintage Penguins from my shelves.

Friday, 25 July 2014

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

published 2013

The music had begun. “Let’s dance?” he asked. She nodded. He took her hand and then smiled at Ginika, as though to a nice chaperone whose job was now done. Ifemelu thought Mills and Boon romances were silly , she and her friends sometimes enacted the stories, Ifemelu or Ranyinudo would play the man and Ginika or Priye would play the woman— the man would grab the woman, the woman would fight weakly, then collapse against him with shrill moans— and they would all burst out laughing. But in the filling-up dance floor of Kayode’s party, she was jolted by a small truth in those romances. It was indeed true that because of a male, your stomach could tighten up and refuse to unknot itself, your body’s joints could unhinge, your limbs fail to move to music, and all effortless things suddenly become leaden. As she moved stiffly, she saw Ginika in her side vision, watching them, her expression puzzled, mouth slightly slack, as though she did not quite believe what had happened.

observations: This is a phenomenally interesting and enjoyable book, achieving something very rare: it combines being a fascinating funny story, a page-turning read, and a polemic with something important and serious to say about race, immigration, culture and modern life.

The two young people above are students in Nigeria: they fall very much in love, but both feel they have to leave in order to achieve what they want in life. Ifemelu goes to the USA, Obinze to England, though they will both return. The book opens with Ifemelu getting her hair braided in a black salon in Trenton NJ (she can’t get it done in Princeton). As she sits for the hours it takes - observing the ways of the salon, talking to the staff – she thinks back on her life till now, and her future: she is about to go back to Nigeria.

Adichie writes fascinatingly about the immigrant experience, some of which would be familiar to anyone moving in from any part of the world: the ways in which Americans are different, the eternal question – do you have to fit in, change, to get on? One character says ‘You are in a country that is not your own. You do what you have to do if you want to succeed.’ Race comes up naturally in this context, and it is taken to a deep and engrossing level. But then, this is also – and to a very high level - a story about modern life, about dealing with your friends and your lovers and your parents. One really interesting strand is that Ifemelu becomes a very successful blogger, and the details and posts on this are particularly good: ‘She checked her blog e-mail too often, like a child eagerly tearing open a present she is not sure she wants’. The book makes you realize how little there is about this in modern fiction, it helps the book feel real. (Blogging, by coincidence, came up recently in The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith – but only briefly, a pity there wasn’t more, as the author did it very well.)

Adichie has marvellous turns of phrase. The couple who have had ‘three years free of crease, like a smoothly ironed sheet, until their only fight’; the moment where Ifemelu ‘knew that for a long time afterwards, she would not unwrap from herself the pashmina of the wounded.’ There are two brilliantly-observed dinner parties (as mentioned in my recent Guardian piece on the subject) – at one, a guest asks another about building work ‘Are they between you and the sunset?’ and there is mention of ‘a fantastic charity that’s trying to stop the UK from hiring so many African health workers.’

A character says ‘academics were not intellectuals; they were not curious, they built their stolid tents of specialized knowledge and stayed securely in them.’

Obama is elected President ‘And there was, at that moment, nothing that was more beautiful to her than America.’

Adichie is the real thing – such a talented writer, such a lot to say.

Her view of America, young people and educational establishments reminded me also of the work of Curtis Sittenfeld, Donna Tartt and Rebecca Harrington.

The picture is by William H Johnson from the Smithsonian.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Top Five Agatha Christie Novels

Five Little Pigs - nostalgia, childhood memories, and murder

I recently did a post on Sparkling Cyanide – yes, one of my favourites – and was idly saying that I should try to list my actual favourite, definitive, top 5 of Agatha Christie’s novels. Something I’ve been saying for ages. But this time my good blogging friend Christine Poulson took me up on it. Christine is the author of the marvellous Cassandra James novels, and the recent standalone Invisible – all of which have featured on Clothes in Books - as well as being a blogger and keen crime fiction fan.

Well, we decided we would both draw up our lists and publish them on the same day. So here’s mine, Christine’s list is here. And if you feel like making your own list, please tell me in the comments and I will link you in too

1) Five Little Pigs (1941)

A long-ago murder: Poirot is
The exact spot where the murder happened
asked to find out what really happened during the hot, tense houseparty that ended with the death of artist Amyas Crale. He interviews each of the main characters, and then gets them to write their own accounts of the days around the murder. It’s a strange dreamy story, full of regret and memory and realizations, and with very strong characterizations. I like it in part because it is very recognizably set at Christie’s holiday house at Greenway in Devon (one of my favourite places in the world, and where this photo, with Elsa's yellow jumper, was taken), and because there was a marvellous TV adaptation of it. Blog entries here and here.

2) The Moving Finger (1943) 

Poison pen letters in a small village: Miss Marple investigates. This has been one of my favourites since I first read it as a young teenager – it has a particularly satisfying plot, very well-worked-out, and Marple is sharp and has sensible things to say. But of course secretly, what really sold it to the very young me was the makeover scene, where Megan Hunter is whisked off to London by narrator Jerry, because he has recognized her inner beauty. This was one of the original scenes I wanted to illustrate on Clothes in Books (see more of them in this entry), and it is astonishing that I haven’t yet done it. Coming soon.

3) Sparkling Cyanide (1945)  
Adultery, robes and cigarettes

See this very recent blog entry: again I like the sad atmosphere and strong characters.

4) The Hollow (1946)

This should be the archetypal bland country house mystery - Poirot is invited over for lunch to join the houseparty, and finds a tableau-like murder scene. But it has much more going for it – great atmosphere, complex plot, and some wonderful characters. Henrietta Savernake might be the best of Christie’s women.

5) Death on the Nile (1937)  

What the richest woman in the world wears
In a blog entry here, I said about this one: the relation between Poirot and the murderer in this book is exceptionally well done. It’s hard to discuss without spoilering, but there is a depth and sadness to the ending of the story that hits home and lingers in the memory. The murder is good, an unguessable plot and good clueing, but it’s the psychology of the main characters (who at first glance might seem like total stock figures from central casting) that is striking. And there is a very compelling use of the story of David, Bathsheba and Uriah the Hittite – it is one of the most heart-stopping moments in the Old Testament (‘You are the man!’) and the effect is very similar here. ‘Do not open your heart to evil’, indeed.


So my favourites cover only nine years – nothing compared to Dame Agatha’s writing life – and 4 out of 5 are Poirot rather than Marple, which slightly surprised me. I might make a different list on another day: I just pulled up a complete list of Christie works, and had to look away quickly before I started tinkering with this list… (OK I just have to name two runners-up: Man in a Brown Suit - a very non-typical, very funny, early Christie - and Hercule Poirot's Christmas, or En Route to the House Party of Death as I called it in this blog entry.)

Just to whet your appetite:  Christine’s list has just one in common with mine, although it also features one of my runners up.  And as she points out, we're not saying '5 best' - or even that we'd have the same lists in a week's time. 

We would  be delighted to read anyone else’s, so please join in… Vicki (Skiourophile) has already added hers below. Col has a very individual list below (bless), and Sarah and Uriah posted full lists. Lucy Fisher posted hers on her blog here.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Violet to Vita: The Letters of Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville-West 1910-21 (part 2)

edited by Mitchell A Leaska and John Phillips

published 1989

25 January 1918

Once upon a time there lived an artist and a woman, and the artist and the woman were one. In the course of time the woman married; she married the prince of her dreams, and irrevocable, changeless contentment descended upon her. The artist was temporarily forgotten: wrapped in comfortable torpor, the artist slept, and the woman gloried in her womanhood and in the happiness she could give.

One day the artist awoke to find the chamber of her slumbers shrunken and distorted, the windows had become so small, she could scarcely see out of them, the brocades were faded; damasks and satins hung like limp ghosts on limp nails…. Stricken with panic she rushed to her window; she saw a woman playing on a smooth lawn with a laughing child. Presently, they met; they confronted each other, the woman serene, loving imperturbable, the artist defiant, jealous, irritated beyond endurance. And the artist stood and jeered at the woman. Poor artist: Dishevelled, irresponsible gypsy, it was more than she could bear – Now the woman belonged heart and soul to her husband and her children, but the artist belonged to no-one, or rather to humanity. Fancy one, she roams the earth, here today, gone tomorrow – the world is stuck with the useless flowers of her favour…

The combination of the woman and the artist had produced a species of mentality as rare as it is sublime; an artist whether it be in painting, in music or in literature, must necessarily belong to both sexes, his judgment is bisexual, it must be utterly impersonal, he must be able to put himself with impunity in the place of either sex.

observations: This is Violet Trefusis writing to her lover Vita Sackville-West, again - see another letter here

This week I looked at Harriet Lane's marvellous Her, and was very interested in what the book (which is primarily a thriller with excellent social observation and comedy) had to say about women's careers, and motherhood, and particularly about women artists. So that reminded me of this, which although it was written nearly 100 years ago still seems to have something to say,

Violet is very pro-women, although you don’t think of her as a great feminist. But this particular passage could have been written today, there is nothing in it that wouldn't make sense to a modern woman. She is of course rather sadly looking at Vita. Her concern about domesticity reflects her concern and fear that Vita will choose husband and children over Violet, as well as over art – and that is pretty much what Vita did in the end.

It is also true that in my (important) opinion, Vita was not a great artist at all, and Violet is a much better writer. It is also true that neither of them was particularly burdened by domesticity, as there was plenty of money and a large number of servants cushioning both of them.

Claire Messud's 2013 The Woman Upstairs looked at women as artists, on the blog here - many people found the book very telling on the subject, though I didn't myself.

Virginia Woolf - another of Vita Sackville-West's lovers - had her own strong views about women and their place in the world. This blog entry from Orlando is particularly interesting. 

The picture is a portrait of Violet Trefusis by John Lavery.

I have been covering a lot of books by and about Trefusis and Sackvill-West on the blog this year: click on the labels below to summon the entries.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Books of 1939: No Wind of Blame by Georgette Heyer

published 1939

[A rather grand dinner at a country house]

Hugh… demanded to be told why the notorious Miss Fanshawe was not present.

‘She’s going to make an Entrance,’ replied Mary gloomily. ‘I had one or two things to see to after I’d changed, so I hadn’t time to find out what her role is for tonight. She was a femme fatale last night, but I shouldn’t think she’ll repeat herself quite so soon.’

She was right. Vicky, entering the room five minutes later, was dressed in a wispy frock of startling design, and still more startling abbreviations. She displayed, without reserve, a remarkably pretty back, her frock being suspended round her neck by a plait of the material of which it was made. Her curls stood out in a bunch in the nape of her neck, but were swept severely off her brow and temples. A diamond bracelet, begged from Ermyntrude’s collection, encircled one ankle under a filmy stocking, and her naturally longer lashes were ruthlessly tinted with blue.

‘One of the Younger Set,’ said Mary knowledgeably.

observations: For the second time this month: Rich Westwood, Mr Past Offences himself, does a roundup each month on his blog of Classic Crime in the Blogosphere, a meme in which Clothes in Books is proud to make regular appearances. In June, he suggested that prospective participants do a 1963 book – see the fascinating results here. The July year (chosen by ME) is 1939: I covered a John Dickson Carr book a week ago, and this is my second entry for the month.

This is a good, entertaining, Golden Age mystery – very funny and clever. It is not too difficult to guess who committed the murder (once a certain legal point has been cleared up) but the method would be much harder to guess, and seems extraordinarily unlikely. But never mind: the main reason to resurrect the book is the character above, Vicky Fanshawe, who is hilarious. She is the daughter of the big house, with an ex-actress mother, and a considerable fortune in her future. She is not the heroine: that is sensible nice Mary, who gets rather annoyed with Vicky, whose life, as you can see above, is one long succession of roles: Sonia the Spy, Tennis Girl, A Notorious Woman. Vicky enters into her roles with gusto, and it is pure joy for the reader. Heyer resisted the temptation of making her a nitwit – she is actually very clever, manages everything very well, and is a kind good person. She is a wonderful creation. The scene where she plots (three steps ahead of everyone else) to stop her mother considering a foreign Prince as her next husband is an epic masterpiece. As Vicky says, in one of her typically fabulous turns of phrase, she had to do it because ‘it would be fatal for [Mother] just to trickle away to some frightful person on the boundary.’

Heyer is best known for her Regency romances, and sometimes while reading this you half-expect the entire cast to move to Bath, have an attack of the vapours or give each other sharp set-downs. But what occurs to the reader of both her series, is that her romance books often had strong plots with crime, clues and jeopardy involved, while her murder stories (see another one here on the blog) contain romances. One can only hope that Vicky’s eventual partner will appreciate her many elaborate roles.

Highly recommended, but more for the cleverness and comedy than the detection. And there is nothing in the book, not one word, that relates or limits it to 1939. It could have been produced any time in the previous 20 years, has no political or international content at all, and you would never guess from reading it that the world was about to fall into a giant pit....

The picture is from Dovima is Devine.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Her by Harriet Lane: Part 2

published 2014

[Nina is babysitting for Emma]

[Emma] asks me to ensure Christopher doesn’t drink anything else tonight – he has recently dropped the night nappy – and after that she and Ben retreat to their room while I pop the baby down on the carpet and help Christopher out of the bath. For a moment or two Cecily is content to sit there unsteadily, but then she starts to grizzle, looking for her mother, threatening to build up to something, so I hurriedly help her brother into his pyjamas, biting my lip as the cotton jersey snags and wrinkles on his small damp limbs: an ancient, just-remembered frustration. Now I’m under pressure to silence Cecily, to show them I can cope, so I scoop her up, lifting and then – as Christopher leads me to her room – jokingly half-dropping her, trying to distract her with excitement, needing to make her forget her tiredness and hunger, and my unfamiliarity. She’s not convinced at first, but then I feel it, a fat bubble of laughter rising up inside her, and I think, bull’s eye.

observations: Second entry on this book – should be read in conjunction with this one.

Her manages to be a page-turning thriller, as well as a great, and funny, piece of observational literary fiction.

There is a wonderful dinnerparty – not toxic, like the ones described in my recent Guardian article, but just embarrassing. I love the guest who 

refers to Audrey and Alfred as if they’re famous wits and sages, the key players in her social landscape. Often they are produced as trump cards, hijacking conversations, taking us off in unexpected directions, towards the things she really feels impassioned about: Ofsted reports, a column in the Guardian’s family section, the celebrated rudeness of the local butcher. 
Audrey and Alfred are her under-10 children.

Lane is just superb on the trials of motherhood – there are plenty of descriptions of this world out there, but I can’t remember any to match this. Going on holiday, ‘Emma’s candy-striped bag is packed with equipment for all evantualities including famine, sunstroke and plagues of insects, nappy changes and trips to the loo are counterbalanced by last-minute drinks of water.’

Emma’s commitment to the present, her past gone: ‘All those busy, healthy, confident years…the sense that it all must be leading, inexorably, to something. And now this. Was it always leading here, I wonder: to teetering piles of laundry, to teaching yourself to joint a chicken, to never running out of milk? Was it?’

And as we’re thinking about women’s lives: Last year I had a mixed reaction to Claire Messud’s book The Woman Upstairs – see blog entry here. In fact I find the picture of a woman artist (and her artist friend) in this book to be much more convincing and recognizable than in the Messud, as well as the picture of motherhood and women’s choices right now. I don’t suppose this book will be treated with half the seriousness of Messud’s, but I found it much more compelling, and with much more to say.

The picture is from Cornell University and shows a parenting class in the 1920s.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Dress Down Sunday: Murder a la Mode by Patricia Moyes

published 1963


[Inspector Henry Tibbett is investigating a murder at a fashion magazine, and visits a fashion designer’s salon]

Here, a yard away from his startled nose were – as far as he could make out – about 120 exquisitely lovely girls, dressed only in the briefest of panties and bras. It was only when he caught sight of an infinite series of Nicholas Knights diminishing down apparently endless corridors into the distance that Henry realised that the effect had been caused by the placing of two huge mirrors in such a way as to reflect each other. There were, in fact, only three scantily-clad girls, but that was quite enough.

Nicholas Knight was engaged in draping a swathe of green satin round the slim hips of a fourth model – a brunette with a head like Nefertiti, who stood like a resigned statue, regarding her purple fingernails with more interest than pleasure. She too was was naked from the waist up, except for a scrap of white bra….

[Henry] was fascinated by the fact that the girls showed absolutely no self-consciousness at the arrival of a strange man.

observations: Another visit to this old-style crime story: murder at a magazine called Style (for which read Vogue), and a highly-convincing picture of life at such a publication, along with photo shoots, designer studios, and the more low-rent side of the fashion business. See the earlier entry for more about the plot, where the question is: who put the cyanide in the thermos flask of tea?

Moyes’ regular policeman, Inspector Henry Tibbett investigates with a heavy hand, and apparently an expression of permanent surprise on his face at the excesses and excitements of the fashion business. In fact our sleuth Henry a) doesn’t listen to somebody trying to give him vital info early on, and b) is shown as rather dim in his deductions, I think most experienced readers will be way ahead of him. But the book is still great fun. A young woman is described as wearing shoes with ‘those dagger heels and pointed toes.’ A secretary is dismissively described as ‘the siren of Surbiton’.

Fashion magazines, and indeed Vogue, also featured in blog favourite In the Mink by Anne Scott-James – click on the labels below to see several entries. The two books share a rather curious attitude to homosexuality in the fashion business – those expecting early tolerance in this industry will be sadly disappointed.

And the book covers similar ground (in a completely different era) to Margery Allingham’s Fashion in Shrouds – down to the disaster of two women in the same dress. One of the fashion shoots in the book has the model posed with a live cheetah – quite the trope at the time, and one we saw in this entry for Margery Sharp’s Something Light:

Girls in lingerie feature in the dress shop in the play Nine till Sixthis entry, with some astonishing pictures:

Saturday, 19 July 2014

A Conversation about Happiness by Mikey Cuddihy

published 2014

[Mikey is a young American girl at Summerhill school in the UK in the 1960s: this is her memoir]

With Ulla helping me, I am realizing my dream. Like Scarlett in Gone With the Wind, I can fashion anything I want, luxurious and wonderful, from the most humble of materials. Life, I’ve come to see, is punctuated by dresses, each one chosen and worn for a special occasion, and then discarded. Dresses conjure up a sense of nurturing affection. Homemade dresses (made with assistance) are proof of love, attention focused on me: turning tucking, pinning, darting. When I’m older, my first darts in a new dress make me feel proud to be acknowledged as a woman.

Ena takes me to London during the Easter holidays – just the two of us… I buy some Finnish curtain material to make a dress with, bright colours which you can’t buy anywhere else – fuchsias, oranges, reds. We go to John Lewis on Oxford Street, and Ena buys me a bra, black cotton, patterned with little pink flowers. I have been making do with hand-me-downs from Vicky, who is more developed than I am, so it is thrilling to have something new, and not Playtex.

observations: Summerhill is an independent alternative ‘free’ school in Suffolk in the UK – it opened in 1921, and was for a long time synonymous with its founder and principal, AS Neill. It was famed for its ‘no rules’, democratic, child-centred approach to education. Opinions divided as to whether it was an anarchic disaster or a super-successful experiment whose aim (to wipe out unhappiness) was successful in alumni.

Mikey Cuddihy’s memoir – most of it is an account of her years at Summerhill – would leave you somewhere in the middle, but then there is a lot more to her story than a school where no lessons were compulsory, and the children’s voices were as important as teachers’.

She was one of a group of siblings who were left orphans, and then tossed around among their remaining relations. As was absolutely normal in those days – early 60s – in all kinds of families, the children had no idea what was going on most of the time, and were not even informed fully about what the plans were for their future. They were sent off to boarding schools in England, with apparently only vague plans made for their holiday arrangements. The Summerhill she describes was extraordinary, and some of the goings-on would leave you very uneasy. But then you would also not think her own extended (and very wealthy) family was the ideal environment. As an on-the-ground report of what it was like being at the school it is absolutely riveting, but the whole story is completely heart-breaking, you keep wincing at the casual neglect and cruelty, and the simple fact that there was no-one for whom these children’s welfare was paramount. The moral would be, don’t be born to alcoholic or difficult parents, and even then, hope they don’t die. The subtitle of the book is ‘The Story of a Lost Childhood.’ It is written in a very flat, affectless style which suits the story: although completely written as an adult, she successfully describes events as they happen, without judgement or hindsight.

Cuddihy herself suggested I might be interested in her grandmother in a mink coat and Chanel, a coat that Cuddihy herself later wears – and did the grandmother look like this? (from the Joanna Rakoff book here). I am glad she suggested it to me, because it was a gripping, affecting and thought-provoking read.

I was fascinated by the theme of sewing throughout the book - as she explains above, the young Mikey is trying to make sense of her life by making sense of her clothes (as we all do) and reshaping, re-creating - and also fixing relationships with the women who help her with the sewing.

Summerhill still exists, and I looked up the most recent OFSTED (ie Government) report on it – it gets a very positive write-up, and would almost convince you you should send your children there. (Mind you the report itself is not well-written at all – if you are judging other’s educational abilities then you shouldn’t be producing this sentence: ‘Most of the pupils come from a wide range of international backgrounds and a few of them are at an early stage of learning English’.)

The picture shows pupils at Summerhill around 1968 – it was taken by John Walmsley for a book about the school. 

Friday, 18 July 2014

Parade’s End Book 2: No More Parades by Ford Madox Ford

published 1925

[In a hotel in Rouen during the First World War: January 1918]

Nevertheless, three months ago, they had parted . . . Or he thought they had parted. Almost complete blankness had descended upon his home life. She appeared before him so extraordinarily bright and clear in the brown darkness that he shuddered: very tall, very fair, extraordinarily fit and clean even. Thoroughbred! In a sheath gown of gold tissue, all illuminated, and her mass of hair, like gold tissue too, coiled round and round in plaits over her ears. The features very clean-cut and thinnish; the teeth white and small; the breasts small; the arms thin, long and at attention at her sides. […]

He said: ‘I thought it might be rather dull . . . It’s six months since I danced . . . ’ She felt beauty flowing over all her limbs. She had a gown of gold tissue. Her matchless hair was coiled over her ears . . . She was humming Venusberg music: she knew music if she knew nothing else. […]

Tietjens said, ‘Hadn’t we better talk? . . . ’ She said: ‘In my room, then! I’m dog-tired . . . I haven’t slept for six nights . . . In spite of drugs . . . ’ He said: ‘Yes. Of course! Where else? . . . ’ Astonishingly . . . Her gown of gold tissue was like the colobium sindonis the King wore at the coronation.

observations: For more on these books, and the plot, click on the labels below.

These are 3 separate, and presumably deliberately repetitive, descriptions of what Sylvia Tietjens is wearing: every page is a mass of ellipses in these books, so it is difficult for me to use my usual method of indicating omission.

Christopher and Sylvia will go to her room, and all kinds of trouble will result. She is in France visiting her husband and perhaps others: he is fighting in the trenches of the Western Front but has come out to see her in Rouen.

As noted approvingly before, Ford gives us plenty of clothes detail, including, as Tietjens moves around the trenches:
McKechnie exclaimed: ‘Good God, man, you aren’t going out in nothing but your pyjamas. Put your slacks on under your British warm . . . ’
‘British warm’ is an overcoat. There is also a discussion on the difference between flannel and flannelette, and the importance thereof in the treatment of sick children.

Throughout the books, Ford employs a strange reverse structure – he will start a chapter with people reflecting on past events, but you’re quite likely not to know what they are yet. Then comes a complicated scheme in which he follows various different views of the same scene, and it seems as though there must be some great revelation or twist, but usually there isn’t. My favourite bit in this book comes when, with a scene well under way, a character says ‘You are aware, sir, that I am under arrest.’ It is not a surprise to sir, but it is a huge surprise to the reader.

Finding out about the colobium sindonis mentioned above was an interesting trail – it’s one of several garments worn by the new monarch at an English coronation, but because of the infrequency of these events, and the reverence felt towards them, there are virtually no pictures. (It is apparently a problem with many coronations that no-one organizing them remembers – or was alive for – the previous one). It does seem clear that there is no one design for the garment – some are fancy and some are not. Looking at the dresses of the time, simplicity was not much to be found. So this dress, by Poiret, photo from the Library of Congress, seems a compromise.