LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
Aupres de Ma Blonde by Nicholas Freeling
aka A Long Silence
[Arlette Van der Valk goes to talk with her neighbour]
Arlette found herself pouring out her whole tale, and most of her heart.
‘Well,’ said Bates at the end, with great common sense, ‘that has done you a great deal of good my dear, and that’s a fact, just like taking off one’s stays; girls don’t wear stays any more and don’t know what they miss.’
Arlette felt inclined to argue that it was a good thing to be no longer obliged to wear stays.
‘Of course, dear, don’t think I don’t agree with you, healthy girls with good stomach muscles playing tennis, and no more of that fainting and vapouring. But I maintain that it was a good thing for a girl to know constraint. Sex education and women’s lib, all dreadful cant. Girls who married without knowing the meaning of the word ‘sex’ were sometimes happy and sometimes very unhappy, and I don’t believe they are any happier now. I married a sailor, dear, and learned how to go without.’
commentary: There was something very strange and unexpected about Aupres de ma Blonde.
I read, and very much liked, a lot of Nicolas Freeling back in the 70s and 80s (another of his books is on the blog here). Came across this one, unfamiliar title, decided to give it a go. It is one of his Van der Valk series, so must be one I missed along the way, I thought. [Diversion: remember how easy it was to miss one in the olden days, pre-internet? No quick way to look up a series, or put them in order - all we had was an unreliable list of ‘other books by’ at the beginning - often incomplete and not in order. We live in happier times now…]
And so I laid myself open for something of a shock. Getting on for halfway through I had a sudden inkling of familiarity, and so had about two pages’ mental warning of a major plot turn. Aupres DMB, as it turns out, is the American title of a book called A Long Silence in the UK. When I read Long Silence years ago I knew what was coming because the book had been much discussed at the time. I am trying not to spoiler this, so will say no more about that aspect, except that it was a big surprise.
It’s a winding, intriguing, atmospheric book, with a clever setup: a young man gets a casual job in a jewellers’ shop, and something odd happens. Is it worrying or not? It is very hard to predict where the story is going. VdV’s wife Arlette is well to the fore in this one - that’s her above, and there is this splendid description of her from a new neighbour:
I know all about you: you are French, you smell delicious, you used to keep the whole neighbourhood in gales of laughter, and you had dreadful fights with the butcher, whom you detested…We find out a lot more about the neighbours and neighbourhood, and Arlette herself. I always expected to be irritated by her in this series, because she was so much a certain kind of male author’s fantasy figure - as in this passage later in the book when she visits a contact, who says this to her:
‘My dear girl – a real Chanel. Don’t talk nonsense, I can tell by the cutting. I hope and trust that your knickers are black crepe de Chine.’
‘White cotton with Swiss embroidery.’
‘Detestable.’- that kind of thing could go either way, but she and the author always managed to confound me and I really like her, she is a terrific character.
There are some meta-moments: Van der Valk gets a promotion ‘for literary reasons’, which I’m guessing is a reference to the books, and the author himself appears in a short sequence, a glancing first person character.
I liked the complaints in the extract above, because I think older women of all ages and all times have always said those things about younger women. (The character is called Bates, incidentally, as a nickname, after the character in Jane Austen’s Emma.)
It’s a strange book – tough and sentimental, affecting and ridiculous, completely unbelievable and yet very gripping, a police procedural with a touch of Scooby Doo - at one point the investigation is actually compared to Swallows and Amazons. I’m so glad I read it again.
And, at first I couldn’t understand why the changed title, it seemed a strange choice: but now I think it a better title for this particular book. At the beginning, the author gives the lyrics of the French 17th century marching song called Aupres de Ma Blonde, with a short paragraph about its provenance. And later it all makes sense…
Quite separately, all good fans of Dorothy L Sayers know that Lord Peter sings the song Aupres de ma Blonde in Busman’s Honeymoon as a mark of his great pleasure at getting married to Harriet D Vane. (It is difficult, for me anyway, to contemplate the fact that the Freeling book is nearer in time to the Sayers than to the present day.)
Top picture from NYPL collection of corset pictures. I have looked at (and featured on the blog – click on the tag below) many and many a corset picture, but this is one of the strangest.
Chanel suit from Kristine’s photostream.