Monday, 30 November 2015

Advent: Starlight by Stella Gibbons

published 1967

Advent - Starlight violets

The Reverend Gerald Corliss associated the season of Advent with the scent of violets. This was the hour before the dawn of the Church’s year, when the end of the nave was in darkness by four o’clock, and Evensong was said under a night sky. To him, it always seemed darker, more patient, and more a time of waiting than the three days following Good Friday. Born and brought up in the country, he knew well that English violets did not appear until the spring, but the flowers that haunted this season for him were not country ones; they belonged to London, and were sold in bunches made up with an alien leaf; sometimes at street corners, but most often in expensive flower-shops, and their faint scent was blent with that of the London smoke. He thought of this idea about violets as a weakness in himself, and faced it resignedly. Nevertheless, he always bought a bunch of violets in the first week in December and put them in his room.

commentary: Yesterday was the First Sunday of Advent.

Starlight gave the blog an Easter entry, and I said then that it roughly follows the church year – I’m going to come back to it at Xmas too. But I also loved this (completely un-clothes-related) moment. The book is quite dark at times, and has some very dysfunctional people and relationships in it. But there are some lovely moments of kindness and goodness in it, and this was one of them. The Reverend Corliss, the curate in a deprived part of London, is shown as a rather uninspired, difficult man, but here he shows his nicer side. And we all need a bunch of flowers at this time of the year.

This one is by Raoul de Longpre, from The Athenaeum website.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Dress Down Sunday: Up The Attic Stairs by Angela Bull

published 1989


Up the Attic Stairs

[A young woman in the 1980s is looking at trunks of clothes in the attic of her family  home]

Beneath the dresses were underclothes. Instead of the stays and flounced petticoats worn by the Floods, Enid had had wispy chemises and cobweb camiknickers.

Gabriel carried one of Enid’s chemises to the window to study it more closely. But it hardly needed more examining. It was just a brief silk tunic, with inset bands of embroidered net and narrow shoulder-straps. Compared with Iona’s and Lettice’s things it seemed absurdly, frivolously scanty, as if it came from a different world….

Gabriel stood by the rain-spattered window, frowning at Enid’s chemise. Previously the attic had seemed haunted by the romantic, tragic days of Iona and Lettice, when banners were sewn secretly and Miss Johnson hid treasonable papers under a mattress. Enid Ashwell’s clothes signalled a startling change of mood; even, it seemed to Gabriel, a devaluation of ideals. Did emancipation merely mean short skirts and flimsy chemises? Had Ida Johnson gone to prison and [another woman] died so that Enid could dance the Charleston?

commentary: It’s a perfectly good question, and one Bull isn’t going to ignore or shirk. I explained in Friday’s entry how I came to read this book (thanks again Daniel Milford Cottam) and how it is the perfect Clothes in Books book. Bull is clear on the importance of clothes, and the intertwining of clothes history and women’s history.

As well as all the other ways in which clothes are important, it is very nice that an interest in clothes is not seen as anti-feminist or frivolous or irrelevant – Bull makes it clear that the story of the women’s lives is tied up in the story of the clothes, and in the way the restrictive clothes of the early years give way to something more comfortable and free. Also, there is a slight but charming love affair for one of the students, which is given due importance.

My only complaint about the book is that the relationships among the women, and the ways their stories were told, were very complex, and I had a hard time keeping track of them – there are diaries and reports from the living and dead, and the point of view switches frequently and suddenly. Any regular readers of this blog will know that I NEVER wish that books were longer – but this one I think could easily have worked as a big fat family saga, told in a linear narrative and with more of the details and clothes that the author obviously had at her fingertips. (And with a couple of family trees at the beginning.)

Daniel reminded me of the story of a note hidden in a hat – the word ‘Liberty!’ a secret symbol for the Bolshy young milliner. It’s a lovely side issue, and you long to see the hat:
black lace with crimson satin roses heaped over the wired brim…
At the time feminist publishers Virago were obviously trying to create a YA list: there are some very interesting-looking other books mentioned at the back, but the idea obviously didn’t take – you wonder if now there might be another chance for someone to launch something similar. My main thought on reading this was how much I would have loved this book as a teenager, how much my daughter would have liked it, and what a shame it isn’t available to young (and older!) women now.

The suffragette theme is important in the early part of the book, and I liked this:
The frothy petticoat had given her a new angle on the Crosthwaite suffragettes. She had thought of them as plainly dressed, in coats and skirts of brown or navy serge…
Up the Attic Stairs 1

This picture of a suffragette was first used for this entry.

Top picture is an advert for stockings from the 1920s.

More suffragettes all over the blog – click on label below, and particularly see Miss Rivers and Miss Bridges here.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks

published 2015

secret chord

[The prophet Natan has gone to talk to Mikhal, one of King David’s wives. Her father was Saul, her brother was Jonathan.]

She received me without warmth, but more civilly than I had expected. Her apartment was a small cell, dim and chilly, set off at the very edge of the women’s quarters.

The years had not told on her in the usual ways – she remained tall and lithe, as I remembered her, and the shawl that she wore against the damp chill of the room revealed a glimpse of hair, still thick and lustrous. Her features were the image of her brother’s cast into a gentler female mold. Both of them had their father’s height, his high, intelligent brow, the chiselled chin and long, regal neck.

But if age had not ravaged her, life had. Her face was drawn, and her eyes, once lively and compelling, were as dead as a deep well in which the water has long been poisoned…

She had always been uncommonly direct for a woman, and I soon discovered that this was still true.

“I loved him. You know that, I suppose?”
commentary: If you’re wondering why the expression ‘secret chord’ is familiar, it might be from the Leonard Cohen song Hallelujah:
I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
.. and that’s where the title comes from: the book is historical fiction, the story of David made into a novel. Natan/Nathan is a figure from the Biblical story, and the novel is narrated by him as he tries to write down David's story - a narrative mentioned in the Old Testament.

It’s one of the best stories in the Bible – how David is chosen from an unpromising background, how he kills Goliath and becomes companion to a King. But the King, Saul, turns against him, although his son Jonathan, who might think he was the heir, allies himself with David.

David becomes king, but suffers losses that wrench the heart 3000 years later. He has problems with women and with his children and with his soldiers. He is often a fine and upstanding man, but he also makes mistakes and misjudgements. Although there is little historical evidence of his existence, there is an idea that he must have been real, because nobody would have invented such a flawed hero.

So his story is a riveting one, and Brooks tells it well. She is best known for her Year of Wonders, the story of a village in Derbyshire during a plague year, but has also written non-fiction about the Middle East, and a novel called People of the Book.

I loved The Secret Chord, but in part because I know and love the story of David so well. I was slowed down reading the new book because I read the Biblical version in parallel, in the terrific translation by Robert Alter. Alter’s version is mentioned in two previous blog entries, on the black cap and on The Garden of the Finzi-Continis – that second post features the story of Mikhal ‘the only woman in the entire Hebrew Bible explicitly reported to love a man’ – the point made by Mikhal in the novel above.

The story within the Bible is sad enough – Mikhal is married off to David, and is a strong and important companion. Then she is taken away and sent to someone else. Then David wants her back, but her new husband doesn’t want her to go, and follows her, wailing. Later she manages to insult and outrage David by criticizing his ‘dancing and whirling before the Ark’ – this sounds rather laughable, but isn’t in either Samuel or The Secret Chord.

Brooks gives this strange, very individual tale its full worth – along with the stories of other voiceless women from the books of Samuel: Abigail, Tamar, Bathsheba. It is a brave and worthwhile venture. I'll need another post to look at the story of Bathsheba and Uriah the Hittite. 

The format curiously reminded me of two quite different books – Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy is the story of Alexander told through the eyes of his young male companion. And Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave tells of Merlin trying to make sure King Arthur does the right thing. (Both those books are long-time favourite, top 20, desert island books of mine.) And Brooks does bravely resist the temptation of putting modern-day views into Biblical mouths. So all in all I was very taken with The Secret Chord – even though I knew the plot, I found it hard to put down.

The picture shows David and Mikhal in happier times: it is by Virginio Grana.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Up The Attic Stairs by Angela Bull

published 1989

Up the Attic Stairs 2

[Gabriel] opened the photograph album and found a family group, dated 1909, and posed at Springfield.

Mary Flood, seated in an oak chair and wearing a high-necked dress and a hat piled with roses, was the centre and focus of the picture. On one side her husband displayed his dignified profile.

UP the Attic Stairs[Gabriel] opened the trunk marked ‘Lettice’. 

Its contents reflected a dream of Edwardian girlhood. There were pretty silk blouses, chiffon and taffeta evening dresses, and something heavy in white satin, which Gabriel guessed might be a wedding dress. The colours – misty greens and greys, rose pinks – seemed ideally chosen for the fair girl in the photograph.

D 12269

[October 1940: Enid owns a shop:] ‘It would be frightful if the shop was bombed now,’ she remarked over supper…. ‘I’ve had such a stroke of luck! My suppliers have got me a consignment of French silk dresses. Don’t ask me how, but they’ll cheer my customers wonderfully.’

commentary:    Daniel Milford Cottam is a good friend to this blog, and this was one of his suggestions – a while back, when we were discussing children/books/time-travelling/costumes. This is what he said:
Another book I just remembered was "Up the Attic Stairs" by Angela Bull, about a girl who finds trunks of clothes in the attic that belonged to previous generations of women in her family and a diary and she reads about the stories of her aunts, grandmother, etc.
I ordered a copy straight away, and that’s nearly a year ago, but have only just got round to reading it (despite the odd gentle nudge from Daniel!) and my goodness it’s a treasure. Daniel and I have been agreeing that it was hard to find just one or two items to illustrate – I could’ve done a week’s worth of posts, and my copy is awash with post-it notes. There will be another entry later…

The book opens with a group of students in a shared house, who are asked to help with fund-raising for a hospital in Sudan: the woman who founded the hospital once lived in their house. We follow the story of the student sharers – one of whom has a connection with a big house in the town. Via their attempts to do a fund-raiser we hear the past story of the house, and the women connected with it, from early in the 20th century to the date of writing in the late 1980s. So the story starts with suffragettes, goes on to WW1, the increased freedoms for women in the 20s and 30s, the changes and dangers brought by WW2, and the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 70s. It is all very keyed to women’s rights and lives. Refreshingly, not everyone is brave, or perfect, or committed to the cause. One of the modern young women doesn’t really understand why her mother broke up the nuclear home to join a women’s collective. Another character is quite horrible, but you can also sympathize with her slightly – her mother was so committed to the cause and to the women she was helping, in what was virtually a commune, that the daughter felt unloved and neglected.

And I haven’t even mentioned the clothes yet: the link among these different strands is that there are trunks and boxes full of clothes and hats in the attic, and Gabriel, one of the modern students, is particularly interested in them – she has designer skills, and becomes obsessed with the garments. (The book is always teetering over the edge into something supernatural, and ghosts, but stays just on the rationalist side.)

All of it is very well-done – the 1980s students with their women’s groups and horrible parties and student journalism are particularly convincing. Gabriel likes to wear black to ‘express her feeling of alienation’. Francis is tall and thin with a ‘long loose coat’ and spidery hands. And here they are, I venture to suggest:

Up attic stairs 4 Honey 86 couple
-- from a late 80s copy of the revered and fondly-remembered  fashion magazine Honey.

Family group is from Northern Ireland Records office.

The shop picture is from the ever-wonderful Imperial War Museum collection – those dresses don’t look like French silk, tbh, but the pic does show a wartime department store and its offerings.

More suffragettes all over the blog – click on the label below. The House of Arden by E Nesbit was the book leading to the original discussions.

YA classics dealing with WW2 include Lydia Syson’s Burning Summer and Jill Paton Walsh’s Fireweed.

And thanks again to Daniel for a solid-gold tipoff.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Thanksgiving: American Families & Anne Tyler

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

published 2015

spool of blue thread 2

But the surprise was, on Thanksgiving morning – and Denny most often avoided Thanksgiving with its larger-than-ever component of orphans – he phoned to say he and Susan were boarding at train to Baltimore and could somebody come meet him. He arrived with Susan strapped to his front in a canvas sling arrangements. A three-week-old baby! Or not even that, actually….

[Asked how he will manage without the baby’s mother:] “Oh Susan’s a bottle baby,” Denny said.

Abby had been reading books on how to be a good grandmother. The main thing was, don’t interfere. Don’t criticize, don’t offer advice. So all she said was, “Oh.”

“What do you expect? Carla has a full-time job,” Denny said. Not everyone can afford to stay home and loll around breast-feeding.”

“I didn’t say a word,” Abby said.

There had been times in the past when Denny’s visits had lasted just about this long. One little question too many and he was out the door. Perhaps remembering that Abby tightened her hold on the baby. “Anyhow,” she said, “it’s good to have you here.”

“Good to be here,” Denny said, and everyone relaxed.

It was possible he had made some sort of resolution on the train trip down, because he was so easygoing on that visit, so uncritical even with the orphans. When BJ Autry gave one of her magpie laughs and startled the baby awake, all he said was “Okay, folks, you can check out Susan’s eyes now.”

spool of blue thread 3


Thanksgiving is a great American celebration, and one of the things I am thankful for is the writing of Anne Tyler, so she makes for the ideal seasonal entry.

The ‘orphans’ mentioned above are not children – they are people that the matriarch Abby fears will have nowhere to go on Thanksgiving, so she invites them over, rather to the disgust of her children. But that is part of the great tradition of the day – no-one should be alone, and you just do invite people whom you barely know.

The book follows three generations of the Whitshank family, and the house they live in – in Baltimore, of course, where all Tyler’s books are set. It has a complicated structure, going backwards and forwards in time, explaining people’s histories, with occasional shocks exploding in front of you.

I wasn’t easy with the way it moved around, and often had no idea even roughly what year it was, and the plot meanders along with nothing much happening then suddenly bursts into life. But on the other hand, no-one writes about families the way Tyler does, and her dialogue is both exact and hilarious. So in the end I decided to just enjoy it.

Denny as the unsatisfactory brother was both affecting and annoying, exactly as he would be in real life, and I loved his sister’s long diatribe that ended:
“…But most of all, Denny, most of all: I will never forgive you for consuming every last little drop of our parents’ attention and leaving nothing for the rest of us.”
Specially for today, there is the son-in-law Hugh who ‘owned a restaurant called Thanksgiving that served only turkey dinners.’ Later he is going to sell the business and has to keep explaining patiently that whoever buys it could serve other things. His new business is called Do Not Pass Go and is a service for anxious travellers - ‘nothing to do with jail’. Taking us back to the days of both Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and The Accidental Tourist, earlier books from Tyler.

As ever she manages to get your sympathy for everyone – horrible Merrick telling uncomfortable truths; Junior behaving appallingly but stuck: ‘caught in strands of taffy: pull her off the the fingers of one hand and then she was sticking to the other’; even the teenage daughter inappropriately dressed for a funeral.

Tyler says that reports that this will be her last novel are not quite correct. She should go on forever to delight her fans, but at least we have a solid list of her books to re-read.

More about Thanksgiving in last year’s special entry.

Tyler’s Digging to America is on the blog here.

The family and pies are from the Library of Congress.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Tuesday Night Club: Ellery Queen & a late entry

The Tuesday Club Queen

Our group of crime story fans, the Tuesday Night Bloggers, is doing Ellery Queen in November – check out Noah’s Archives for this month’s roundups, and click on the Ellery Queen tab below for more entries.

My final entry is on a book I came to via blogging friends -  so that seemed appropriate – explanation below. It’s one of the late EQ books.

Next month, December, we are going on to Ngaio Marsh, so keep checking back here on Tuesdays… I’ll be collecting the links from the other bloggers too.

The Last Woman in His Life by Ellery Queen

published 1970

last Woman 5

Last Woman 3[A very rich man has invited his 3 ex-wives to visit]
Two of the ex-wives seemed dressed for a race, in evening getups that evoked the yachtsman’s starting gun.

Audrey Weston’s blond beauty was offset by black evening pajamas and a black crepe tunic, and needle-heeled shoes that added inches to her mainmast height; she wore a bracelet of gold links that looked heavy enough to secure an anchor, and gold coil earrings.

Marcia Kemp, the expatriate from Las Vegas, had trimmed down to the bare poles; her turquoise evening sheath was so painted to her body that Ellery wondered how she was able to sit down without cracking her hull…

By contrast, Alice Tierney’s coloring showed Last woman 4darker against the whiteness of her gown and accessories; she looked pure and chaste in it, and very nearly striking.

commentary: This book starts literally seconds after a previous one (Face to Face) finishes – EQ is seeing someone off at the airport, and his father joins him there. They meet an old acquaintance, who invites them to spend some time at his guest cottage in a small town – Wrightsville, a place that the Queens, father and son, know well. They go up for a break. Their very rich friend Johnny is in the main house with guests – his former wives primarily. Over the weekend SOMEONE is murdered, but manages to gasp out a dying message by phone before he goes – this is, apparently, a classic Queen trope. (Nobody mentions it in this book till the very end, when the explanation is forthcoming – it is never really seen as a clue.)

My choice of this book is something of a perfect storm: no-one seems to think it was the very best one, but 2 sets of my expert friends talked about it – for completely different reasons.

Curtis Evans and Noah Stewart both mentioned the clothes in it – there is a very specific and very important outfit. This cover does its best to sum it up.

Last Woman in his life 1

Meanwhile, my good friend Margot mentioned it on her blog, Confessions of a Mystery Novelist, and then discussed it with Sergio (of Tipping My Fedora) – here’s the post in question. Now, they were NOT actually recommending it that strongly – Margot is always polite and kind, but even she said it ‘has not done as well over time as some of Queen’s other work.’ But she went on: ‘Still, it’s such a great example of the dying verbal clue.’

What really intrigued me was this: Sergio explained that he first read the book in Italian, and so the dying-last-word had to be not just directly translated, but changed to reflect the reality of the murder plot. He very carefully explained this in a non-spoiler way! But I was hooked with this idea, and between that and the bizarre clothes (wig, evening gown and long gloves) had to read it.

It’s not bad, entertaining enough, but the final solution is tied up in the reason Sergio and Margot agree that ‘time has not been kind’ to it – and I can’t say more than that. It was most interesting to come back to Sergio’s comment after I’d finished it.

The book has its moments: I liked the nurse who – when someone else tries to blame her – says
“I’ll remember that, Audrey” … in a hypodermic voice.
And someone else has a ‘dark, intimate voice suitable for a sex movie.’ Perhaps the Queens have seen a lot of them - I’d always assumed that voices were the last thing anyone worried about in such productions. A hatcheck girl is mentioned with the excellent name of Vincentine Astor – as if she had chosen it via one of those stripper name generators.

So although this isn’t finest Ellery Queen book – and I have been making a list of the recommendations from my fellow bloggers, so will pursue them in future – it was a suitable final one for the month. I feel I know EQ, writer and hero, somewhat better than I did, and I am full of admiration for his clothes descriptions.


And now we move on to Ngaio Marsh – look out for Tuesday Night Club entries throughout December.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Dead in the Morning by Margaret Yorke

published 1970

Dead in the Morning 2
He went into the chemist’s shop and stood patiently waiting to be served among a cluster of mothers and two middle-aged women.

“Mrs Ludow’s tablets, please,” said one of these older women briskly when her turn came. The name caught Patrick’s attention… He looked at her more sharply while she made some other purchases. She was a tall, striking woman wearing a green jersey suit; her ash-coloured hair was swept up round her head in a becoming manner; she wore glasses and had plain pearl studs in her ears.

Dead in the Morning

[Later that day] “Who was that?” asked Patrick Grant, coming out of the door of Reynard’s to speak to his sister. Jane, in faded jeans and a tartan shirt, stood in the vegetable patch waving at a young girl on a cycle who had just passed the cottage.

“It’s Cathy Ludlow. A nice child, refreshingly old-fashioned,” said Jane, stooping to pick some chives. “The big house at the end of the lane belongs to her grandmother.”  

commentary: Yet again, Tracy at Bitter Tea and Mystery is to blame. She reviewed this book recently, and I found it on my shelves and polished it off in a day. This was the first of Yorke’s Patrick Grant novels, and is light-hearted and agreeable. Grant is an Oxford don: visiting his sister, he gets tied up in the world of the Ludlow family – those are his first encounters above. It is a very classic crime novel of a certain kind: the family are rich, with a great sense of entitlement, and some of them are nice and some of them are not-so-nice. A new wife is about to be introduced. There will be a death – and it’s not certain who was meant to die. Absolutely everyone in the family is slowly revealed as having had motive and opportunity. I had to draw a family-tree to work out the relationships, which seemed unnecessarily complex.

The perpetrator and the motive were both easily guessable AND ludicrous, which was quite an achievement – but I still enjoyed the book enormously. The tense family conversations were well done, and Grant is always teetering on the edge of being annoying without falling in. It is very much of its time – the clothes, the food, the attitudes. And also the charity ‘flagday’ (never called that now) which enables Patrick Grant to gatecrash a family party to ask for money. This collection is relevant to the murder, but I found it even more interesting that the ‘new wife’ character is gently teased for not realizing that she doesn’t have to give money to charity – her husband will take care of that now. 

When I looked up Yorke after reading this, I found she had written a huge number of books – novels and crime stories. Martin Edwards has written about her several times on his blog – he knew her well. She died in 2012.

Green suit lady from the Vivat Vintage archive. Tartan-shirted gardener from the State Library of Queensland – used previously for this entry.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Dress Down Sunday: Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

published 2009


Brooklyn 1a

[Eilis, a recent immigrant to the US, is working in a department store in Brooklyn]

She was surprised by some of the items of clothing for sale. The cups of some of the brassieres seemed much more pointed than anything she had seen before, and an item called a two-way stretch, which looked as though it had plastic bones in the middle, was new to her. The first thing she sold was called a brasalette, and she decided that, when she knew the other boarders at Mrs Kehoe’s well enough, she would ask one of them to take her through these items of American women’s underwear.

The work was easy. Miss Fortini was interested only in timekeeping and tidiness and making sure that the slightest complaint or query was immediately conveyed to her.

She was not hard to locate, Eilis discovered, as she was always watching, and if you seemed to be having the smallest difficulty with a customer and if you were not seen to be smiling, Miss Fortini would notice and begin to move towards you, signalling to you, stopping only if she saw that you looked both busy and pleasant.

Brooklyn 1

commentary: I read this book when it first came out, and was underwhelmed by it. The recent film – written by blog favourite Nick Hornby, starring Saoirse Ronan – is highly enjoyable, and made me think I should re-read the book. I liked it better this time, though still find it very flat and passive. When writing about Ford Madox Ford a while back, I contrasted Ford with Toibin and Jane Austen:
Colm Toibin, talking about his plan for his book Brooklyn, said he’d noticed that Jane Austen’s novels were very linear – no going back, just descriptions of what happened, one event after another. A few hours spent in Ford’s company and you are longing for that simplicity.
--- but in the long run I’d rather read Ford, and prefer his style.

The book tells the story of Eilis, a young woman in Ireland in the early 1950s. There is not much future for her in her small hometown in Wexford (Enniscorthy, a place I know well). So off she goes to America, leaving behind her much-loved sister Rose and her mother. At first she is miserable and homesick, but gradually life improves. A family tragedy brings her back to Ireland for a visit, and now it looks as though there could be a future for her in her old home. How can she decide what to do?

There is a lot about clothes and Toibin is careful and convincing on the subject – from the fellow-lodger who looks ‘like a horse-dealer’s wife in Enniscorthy on a fair day’, to the acquired trick of putting your swimsuit on under your clothes before going to the beach – an American habit.

There are very funny scenes, particularly in the boarding-house with Mrs Kehoe the landlady and the other young women lodgers. There are no extremes in the book: on the whole people have good motives and behave well, they are nice.

Toibin’s high-quality writing, and the clever structure, stood out more on a second reading, though I still don’t quite know why people are so enthusiastic about it. The ending of the book is much less definite than the film – screenwriter Hornby explained that very clearly in an interview, and although the book does leave you uncertain, I gather that to some extent this is resolved in Toibin’s more recent book, Nora Webster. (NW is a fleeting minor character in this one.) I like an equivocal ending myself.

I am always particularly interested in books about the immigrant experience – like the somewhat similar Nell Freudenberger’s The Newlyweds.  This one dealt with the topic well, and was a good read. And I can really recommend the film.

Top picture is a fashion advert of 1951, the lower one is a picture of Burdine’s department store’s lingerie section in 1953, from the Library of Congress

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Death on the Agenda by Patricia Moyes

published 1962

Death on the Agenda 1

[Henry and Emmy Tibbett have been invited to a very fancy party during a trip to Geneva]

The Villa Trounex was en fete. Every downstairs window of the great, beautiful house glowed and glittered with the dancing light of crystal chandeliers.

Paul and Natasha Hampton were famous for their parties, so their heavily embossed invitation cards were prized trophies on the mantelpieces of Geneva. The lucky recipient of such a card could look forward confidently to an evening of unostentatious luxury, of impeccable service, of elegance without stiffness, and of stimulating company…

Natasha Hampton was the sort of woman who turns heads wherever she goes – tiny and blonde, with a face whose exquisite bone structure takes the breath. This evening she was wearing a short, slim dress of pale grey sating, utterly simple and quite faultless. The diamonds at her wrist and the pearls at her neck seemed to have grown there naturally…

Emmy let her attention wander over the general scene. It was, she reflected, exactly like an episode from a film: an early Orson Welles or a middle-period Fellini, where, in a setting of great opulence, the camera moves leisurely but with deadly observation, picking up a gesture here, a snatch of conversation there, a smile, a moment of anger. Pleased with this conceit, Emmy set her own eye to roving at random, like a searchlight beam. It was rewarding.

commentary: Patricia Moyes started her series about Henry Tibbett in 1958, and continued for another 35 years: this is an early entry – and comes just before Murder a La Mode, a mystery set in the fashion world which we greatly enjoyed on the blog last year.

Death on the Agenda has an intriguing and authentic setting: policeman Henry has been sent to Geneva for an international conference on the drugs trade, and takes his wife Emmy with him. Moyes herself was married to someone deeply involved in the world of European international organizations, and obviously knew Geneva well. The plot concerns a leak at the conference – vital info is being passed to the drug smugglers – and when a murder happens, the number of possible suspects is tiny, and the time constraints important. I kept hoping the answer to the time problem wasn’t going to be quite as simple as it seemed to be.

Henry is viewed as a suspect for a time (though the reader is never in any doubt of his innocence) and behaves in a very unexpected way in another area as well, and I was quite taken aback.

But I enjoyed the book anyway – such a great description of a certain way of life and milieu.

I liked the backstory of Natasha (above) – after WW2, living in aching poverty, she gets herself to a smart party:
A girl friend of mine worked for a couturier, and she sneaked a dress and a mink stole out of the collection for me to wear. I spent the whole evening in a state of panic in case somebody spilled wine on the dress or burned a cigarette hole in the mink. When Paul asked me to lunch with him the next day, I nearly cried… I couldn’t tell him that I couldn’t accept because I had nothing to wear.
And there’s a wonderfully-1962-moment where Henry says to a young woman out and about ‘put your gloves on and put this back’ and she says ‘I haven’t got any. I never wear them in the summer.’ We are on the cusp between a world where a respectable young woman can be assumed to have gloves, and one where she no longer needs to…

Crime writer and expert Martin Edwards, a big fan of Patricia Moyes, reviewed this one on his Do You Write Under Your Own Name blog here.

The picture is of a Ball in 1961, from Kristine’s photostream.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Pomfret Towers by Angela Thirkell

published 1938

Pomfret Towers 2

[Young Alice is very nervous about her first country-house weekend: a new friend, Phoebe, is helping her]

‘And what will you wear tonight?’ [the maid] asked Alice, as Phoebe came back in a ravishing apricot-coloured Shetland dressing-gown.

‘Hi, Wheeler, let’s look,’ said Phoebe. ‘What’s she got? Red, white, black. Red’s your colour, so we’ll have that tomorrow. White tonight, and black on Sunday.’…

Alice got into her bath…. On the whole much happier than she head ever hoped to be. Miss Rivers had approved her evening dresses and perhaps she would have Roddy, or someone kind, next to her [at dinner]. The white frock and gold shoes would make her feel safe. She had remembered her gold belt and her gold bag….

[Alice’s mother has sent a package with her] Alice fell upon the parcel. What was in it but a charming rabbit-skin cape, lined with very soft apricot velvet.

commentary: Another Thirkell book, the second this month, with some very specific areas of interest.

First of all, that apricot-coloured Shetland dressing-gown – yes, it does sound ravishing.

Secondly, about two-thirds of the book covers the Friday to Monday visit of a group of young people to Lord Pomfret’s very grand house. We see it mostly through nervous Alice’s eyes (she is worried about nightgowns, housemaids and tips) but also via some other guests, staff and hosts and permanent residents – and it gives the fullest picture I have ever read of exactly what such a weekend would be like. I can see this might be a specialist interest, but I have read any number of books covering such events – novels, and also olde-worlde etiquette books - but never one that gave such detail: the billiard room fire, why Sundays are the difficult bit, how to decide whether to have breakfast in bed. If there is dancing after dinner, a young man is supposed to first of all ask the young women who sat near him at dinner. I ate up every detail: anyone writing a novel or script about such a 1930s weekend would find a treasure trove in this book.

And about that breakfast in bed: Alice is asked if she would like a fire in her room in the morning, and in a most un-Thirkell-like outburst of consideration she thinks:
Wasn’t it rather awful to be snug under soft blankets and silk eiderdowns while Wheeler, who was quite old enough to be her mother, and even her mother and a half, was down on her knees in the cold, sweeping up ashes, laying paper and sticks, putting on logs, kindling the warm fire from which she would get no benefit? And Wheeler was wearing a cotton dress.
Indeed, a perfectly good question, but practically Socialism, if not Bolshevism, from Thirkell.

The other great piece of interest is this: Angela Thirkell was a very popular writer of lightweight social romance and comedy books in the 1930s. Another very popular middlebrow author was Ann Bridge – and in fact blogfriend Lucy Fisher mentioned Ann Bridge after reading one of my entries on Thirkell.

So. In this book there is a character called Mrs Rivers (Bridge/River, you see?) who writes very popular romance books – which are described in some detail, repeatedly throughout the book, and are instantly recognizable as Bridge-style plots. Mrs Rivers is absolutely vile. She has virtually no redeeming features: she is a pushy, snobbish, ambitious woman. Her books are horrible and tasteless, and her readers are ‘middle-aged women of no particular charm or interest’. Her children dislike her because she is so embarrassing. Her publishers hate her, even though she is a best-seller. I don’t expect to be shocked by an Angela Thirkell (except by her snobbery) but there was a definite frisson round here when she referred to Mrs Rivers, several times, as “the Baedeker Bitch”. (Baedeker were the popular travel guides of the time: the novels of both Rivers and Bridge were always set in exotic locations.)

My goodness Angela Thirkell seems to have hated her fellow-author…

Apart from that, the book is the usual confection of romance and some very very funny scenes and perceptions – highly enjoyable.

For more from Thirkell click on the label below.

The picture – from 1930s Vogue – comes from the Clover Vintage Tumblr.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Relics of the Dead by Ariana Franklin

published 2009

Adelia’s first thought was of how unmercifully the sun shone on a blackened and Relics of the Dead Abbotwithered thing that shrank from the glare because it had once been beautiful.

It was still possible to see the former grace of an arch where only a half of it now stood; to mentally rebuild from those stumps of charred stone a long, elegant nave, a transept, a pillared cloister; to recognize the artistry of a master mason’s carving under the soot of a tumbled, broken capital…

A monk strode energetically towards them from somewhere on their right…To Mansur, he said: ‘ I give thanks to the King and to Almighty God for your coming. All the world knows of Arab skill in the sciences. I am Abbot Sigward.’ He bent his head to each of the women as Adelia introduced herself, then Gyltha… ‘Ladies, gentleman, God’s blessings on you.’

commentary: I am annoyed with myself for racing through these books, because I know there is only one more – the author sadly died a few years ago with only four Adelia books completed. But I enjoy them so much that I can’t slow down.

This one involves bodies discovered buried in the burnt-down Glastonbury Abbey: King Henry II employs Adelia to go and look at them. Are they Arthur and Guinevere? It would suit some people if they were, but others not so much. She – as ever – merely wants to find the truth. And also wants to sort out her relationship with the Bishop of St Albans, and look after her child and the rest of her entourage. She is also worried about Emma, Lady Wolvercote, left over from the previous book.

The crime plot wouldn’t slow you down much – it’s not a huge surprise how the principals are going to range themselves in the ranks of good and evil, and there’s plenty of hints as to what is going on. But I love Franklin’s free and easy style of writing – she points out that if she did authentic conversation you wouldn’t be able to understand a word of it, so she might as well give them a breezy modern idiom which is entertaining and enjoyable. There are some great characters here: the Welsh bard Rhys is hilarious, as are the men of the frankenpledge, who are beautifully drawn and delineated. At the same time, the book makes details of quite a number of legal procedures fascinatingly clear – the history is very well-done.

Relics of the Dead Henry 2

Henry II appears briefly at the beginning and at the end of the book: the author is plainly fascinated by him and his character and his actions and what he wanted to achieve, and she passes that fascination on. I can’t be the only reader who went and found out more about him as a result of reading these books…

Previous entries on Franklin books here and here.

Picture of ruins of Glastonbury Abbey by George Arnald via The Athenaeum. Representing the Abbot above is a picture of St Anthony Abbot by Fra Angelico from the same source.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Tuesday Night Club: Ellery Queen & the art of the short story

The Tuesday Club Queen

Our Tuesday Night Bloggers Club is featuring Ellery Queen this month, and the entries are being collected and collated over at Noah’s Archives. Today I am looking at a collection of his short stories.

The New Adventures of Ellery Queen by Ellery Queen
published 1940
‘A short story can aim either at atmosphere or at an anecdote’ – that’s Edmund Crispin, introducing his own book of short stories, Beware of the Trains. He goes on to explain that he likes his stories to embody the ‘increasingly neglected principle of fair play to the reader – which is to say that the reader is given all the clues needed to enable him to anticipate the solution by the exercise of his logic and his common sense.’

I’ve always remembered that paragraph as being, first, an interesting and useful distinction, and second, a good description of fair play. I often apply his criteria to stories, and the book The New Adventures of Ellery Queen gave me a good opportunity – I read it for the novella The Lamp of God featured in last week’s entry, and then carried on.

Many crime short stories – the anecdotes, roughly, according to Crispin’s division – are based on a single idea, a clever trick. You can almost see the writer thinking it out, and then deciding it wouldn’t support a whole novel, but would make a nice quick story, perhaps with not too many questions asked.

But I would say that Queen does very well in combining the two Crispin ideas. The writers plainly prided themselves on the fair play aspect, but were also very good at creating an atmosphere.

A number of these stories are set at sports events, which is always a disadvantage so far as I am concerned, because of having little idea of the rules. The boxing one was clever, and l liked the way we got the news that a boxer was dead: ‘the long count’. There was also horse-racing, college football and baseball. And despite my ignorance, I would say the feel of attending a sports event was used very carefully and well in the stories. (Incidentally, I am trying very hard not to use the word ‘atmosphere’ too much, get some elegant variation, but it is very hard to find a synonym…)

There were some nice phrases in the collection: someone says Ellery Queen (in a particular situation) shows ‘an air of omniscience covering a profound and desperate ignorance.’ A weird historical tradition is described as ‘Typical British symbolism, you know – mysteriously dull’ and you know exactly what he means.

I was left wondering who exactly Djuna was, and the nature of Queen’s relationship with Paula Paris.

I’ve picked on one story to illustrate, mostly because of the chance to show swimwear of the era (pictures below from fashion adverts of the late 1930s).

Queen week 3 b

The Adventure of the Treasure Hunt – first published 1935 - resembles the 1922 book I covered recently, The Vanishing of Betty Varian by Carolyn Wells. The setting – the house by the sea and on the rocks, with only one means of access – was very very similar.

But this time there is a swimming pool inside the enclave, and I very much enjoyed this description of the behaviour and clothes of the bright young things forming the houseparty (incidentally the Lieutenant below is not a policeman but an army officer - a distinction it's not necessary to make in the UK):

Ellery sauntered over to the pool, which churned with vigorous bodies, and sat down on a bench to watch.
 [Queen and Leonie are looking for a lost pearl necklace. Leonie says:]

‘That was a long, six-stranded rope. If you think Dorothy Nixon has it on her person now, in that bathing suit…’ Ellery glanced at Mrs Nixon.

‘I can’t say,’ he chuckled, ‘that any of you in your present costumes could conceal an object larger than a fly’s wing.’..

Mrs Nixon slapped Harkness’s face, brought up her naked leg, set her rosy heel against the man’s wide chin, and shoved. Harkness laughed and went under.

‘Swine,’ said Mrs Nixon pleasantly, climbing out.

‘It’s your own fault,’ said Leonie. ‘I told you not to wear that bathing suit.’

‘Look,’ said the Lieutenant darkly, ‘who’s talking.’

Queen week 3

Tremendous stuff.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Skeleton-in-Waiting by Peter Dickinson

published 1989

Grand Duchess Xenia of Russia

[Princess Louise is visiting her grandmother’s former lady-in-waiting when she first meets Mrs Walsh]

The strange woman turned at the voice, acknowledging for the first time that there might be someone else in the lobby. Her movement and attitude, as much as the face that now came into view, revealed the cause of Aunt Bea’s behaviour, which Louise had taken for characteristic fluster at finding a different caller on her doormat from the one she’d been told to expect. There was more to it than that. In this dim light, and seen with Aunt Bea’s vague vision, the woman was Granny.

The moment you looked at her properly, of course, she wasn’t. Granny wouldn’t have used a stick or worn a neat grey suit with a matching toque. The large brooch in the toque would have been more her line, if the diamonds were real. You couldn’t imagine this woman flinging an arm out in one of Granny’s whirling gestures, or calling you by absurd and largely invented Russian-sounding endearments, but she stood as straight and carried her head with the same challenge. Her face was from the same mould.

Skeleton in Waiting 2

commentary: This is the follow-up to the same author’s King and Joker, which I very much enjoyed recently: both books feature an alt-history view of the British Royal Family, and a different line of descent. King Victor and Queen Isabelle now reign, with their two children Prince Albert and Princess Louise – she is our point of entry into the books. More in the previous entry.

Although very much about the same people, this is a totally different book. There is a lot more connection with the actual time it was written – Mrs Thatcher and the Falklands and the IRA well to the fore. Tracy at Bitter Tea and Mystery – who set me on this track – didn’t like this one, but I liked it at least as much; it made more sense to me as a mystery and as a satirical picture of the UK. I liked the idea of investigating an old Romanov family, a history of the lost Royals of Central Europe. There was one plot shard which, weirdly, seemed so identical to the first one that I thought it couldn’t be right, but there it was. But I still enjoyed the characters and the gentle unravelling of Mrs Walsh’s story.

When it was published, Princess Diana was still apparently happily married to Prince Charles and – disregarding tabloid exaggerations – we commoners didn’t know there was anything wrong in the relationship. Reading this book is quite startling: no character is exactly Princess Di, but you would certainly say that Dickinson knew some real insider gossip…. Mind you, I don’t agree with his contention that the mothers of the UK would be influenced in their child-rearing practices by any Princess and her ways. And the book reminded me (tangentially) of one of the things that puzzles me: Diana was one of the most loved, most popular and most famous figures of the past 40 years. So where are all the young Dianas named after her? It’s not a name you come across often at all – the Louise of this book is a far more common name I would say – which somehow seems quite surprising.

I loved Louise’s lady-in-waiting Carrie: ‘street-cred accent, Laura Ashley clothes, cynico-anarchist politics, Filofax-organised days.’ I think we all knew her in London in the 1980s. And I liked the King’s theory that there always had to be a UMRF – Unpopular Member of the Royal Family – so when the current UMRF died, another one needed to be found.

Special Bizarre Theory probably only of interest to other Dickinson fans: I do like these books, and I don’t know if it’s my anti-Royalist sentiments that hold me back from the strongest praise. Dickinson specializes in getting inside the heads of his characters – he tries to describe their flow of thoughts in a remarkable and most unusual way. He puts thoughts and random decisions and observations into his books, which in most literary works would be the actual thoughts of the writer (not sure I’m explaining this very well), and they usually have a great ring of authenticity for the character. But then you know that he never was a Royal Princess in her 20s, so it IS a feat of imagination. So to make a comparison: I love and revere the Bridget Jones books, but the author was a woman of similar age who had lived that life, so they are an achievement in many ways, but not as an outstanding feat of imagination. But Peter Dickinson you could imagine writing a Jones-esque book just out of his head.

So I think my problem with these books is that he’s wasting his time doing this: he should have either done a much denser and longer series of books on this theme – he obviously had his alternate history ready in his head, the detail is astonishing - or spent more of his time on one of his other projects, eg imagining what it would be like to be a young woman who has changed her species (to take an actual example from his oeuvre).

Love to hear what any other Dickinson fans think.

The top picture is Grand Duchess Xenia, sister of the last Tsar of Russia. The lower one is Grand Duchess Tatiana, a Romanov daughter who died in the Russian Revolution.