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.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Her by Harriet Lane

published 2014

It’s her. I’m almost sure of it.

It’s late afternoon, a Friday towards the end of July…

Quickly I change course, walking over to the community noticeboard and standing in front of it, as if I’m taking an interest in yoga workshops and French conversation classes, and all the time, while the scene unfolds right there in front of me, I’m watching her, nothing the thin matelot top and the rolled-up jeans, the ugly German toe-post sandals they all wear around here, the hair hooked behind her ears.

I watch as she takes something out of her pocket, a tissue or a cloth, and spits on it and bends over the child, wiping its face…

I walk away across the square towards the high street, not looking back… and I’m thinking: Emma. It’s you. I’ve found you. And when I pay for the olives and cheese at the deli, my hands are trembling, just a little.

observations: Alys, Always by the same author was a very very good book indeed: a compelling and chilling yet funny novel, which I described as having a heroine to make your blood run cold. This new one is equally engrossing and beautifully written, though with a smaller compass. Alys showed a whole world in its description of the rise and rise of Frances: this one is more confined, often a good thing in a thriller.

It tells the story of two women: Nina (on her second husband, successful artist, has a teenage daughter) and Emma (given up her job in TV to look after her children, and struggling a bit). They are of similar age, and only Nina realizes that they have met before. They meet and build an apparent friendship: but the reader is getting the story in alternating narratives from the two women, so knows that Nina is up to something very nasty indeed. She wants her revenge for something Emma did, and she is sidling into her life in order to inflict some petty and secret nastinesses, but is she also building up to something more horrific? Well of course she is, this is a thriller. And an absolutely unputdownable one – by the end I was racing through it, late for an appointment, unable to stop reading till I found out what the original triggering incident was, and what was going to happen.

But at the same time, this book is also an acute social comedy about a certain kind of British middle-class life, observed to perfection. There’s the ‘approved techniques for describing summer holidays (imply it was heaven without going into too much tedious detail; make a joke out of … the lack of mixer taps, and the dread anticipation of the next credit-card statement).’ 

There is a wince-making trip to the in-laws, all too convincing; there is the lack of privacy and solitude for a new mother, so much so that she is grateful when a painful medical condition means she gets to go to see the doctor on his own; there is the feeling of a league table of friends – ‘why are they bothering with her?’

I have seen complaints that Nina’s motivation isn’t strong enough for what she does – but I thought that was one of the cleverest aspects of the book. We are used to revenge stories of a certain kind – this one showed something else, and yes, you had to think again about Nina and her life, but I thought that was very satisfying.

I also recently looked at Celia Fremlin, an unfairly forgotten author of great suspenseful novels with domestic settings. Lane’s book is a worthy successor to her. The book is so full of interest that it will need another entry….

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling) - Part 2

published 2014

He was met on the top landing by a slight, dandyish and bespectacled man of around thirty. He had wavy, shoulder-length hair and wore jeans, a waistcoat and a paisley shirt with a touch of frill around the cuffs.

‘Hi there,’ he said. ‘I’m Christian Fisher. Cameron, isn’t it?’

‘Cormoran,’ Strike corrected him automatically, ‘but—’

He had been about to say that he answered to Cameron, a stock response to years of the mistake, but Christian Fisher came back at once: ‘Cormoran – Cornish giant.’ 

‘That’s right,’ said Strike, surprised. 

‘We published a kids’ book on English folklore last year,’ said Fisher, pushing open white double doors and leading Strike into a cluttered, open-plan space with walls plastered in posters and many untidy bookshelves. A scruffy young woman with dark hair looked up curiously at Strike as he walked past.

observations: Should be read with earlier entry on the book.

This book was one of the sparks for my Guardian piece on disastrous dinner parties. Amongst the many featured meals, the one in this book was unusual in that the blame for the direness of the event could be laid entirely on one person: the hero, Cormoran Strike.

I complained about him before: He is completely selfish. The dinner party has been organized for him by his sister, for his birthday. Strike behaves appallingly from start to finish, but still feels hard done by, and says his sister is ‘fundamentally unimaginative’. Yes, and compared to whom? Even Galbraith mentions the possibility of Strike’s being viewed as arrogant and deluded.

But still, this is an enjoyable book.

Rowling is a very good writer – there was a rather snooty attitude to her from some people in the Harry Potter days, apparently just because she was a best-seller. But you would rarely catch her out in grammatical mistakes, weird punctuation, linguistic infelicities: then and now. And that is vanishingly rare these days – at all levels. Whenever I either praise or criticize such matters, there is a lot of ‘well it’s the editors’ in response. But I’m not at all convinced – there is so little evidence of any editing or correcting going on, and in the end I think you can tell if a writer has an ear for language and grammar. Rowling sooo definitely does.

There is a nice phrase when the central writer is described as producing 'magical-brutalism', and then there's this:
If you want life-long friendship and selfless camaraderie, join the army and learn to kill. If you want a lifetime of temporary alliances with peers who will glory in your every failure, write novels.
There is a neat discussion of modern morals:  ‘A sleek leather messenger bag was slung diagonally across his chest, large enough for a clean shirt and a toothbrush. Strike had seen these so frequently of late that he had come to think of them as Adulterer’s Overnight Bags.’

There is a short look at the world of blogging - very well-done, more of that would have been good. I thought Galbraith's earlier book (The Cuckoo's Calling) read like a book about the 1970s - not in a bad way - but that accusation couldn't be made about this one.

The picture is from the Library of Congress, of a publishing office in Detroit at the beginning of the 20th century.

You can reach entries on the previous Galbraith book, and on Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, by clicking on the labels below.