Wednesday, 29 February 2012

An arrow to the heart for leap year day: Daniel Deronda

the book:

Daniel Deronda by George Eliot

published 1876     Chapter 10 and chapter 22

[An archery contest for the gentry, including Gwendolen Harleth and Catherine Arrowpoint. Gwendolen is speaking:]

“How remarkably well Miss Arrowpoint looks to-day! She would make quite a fine picture in that gold-colored dress."

"Too splendid, don't you think?"

"Well, perhaps a little too symbolical—too much like the figure of Wealth in an allegory."

This speech of Gwendolen's had rather a malicious sound, but it was not really more than a bubble of fun…

[the spectators discuss the contest] "It seems to me that Miss Harleth is likely to win the gold arrow."

"Gad, I think she will, if she carries it on! Catherine is not up to her usual mark," continued his lordship, turning to the heiress's mother who sat near. "But she got the gold arrow last time.”

‘Catherine will be very glad for others to win,’ said Mrs. Arrowpoint, ‘she is so magnanimous. It was entirely her considerateness that made us bring Herr Klesmer instead of Canon Stopley, who had expressed a wish to come…’


Later in the book Herr Klesmer tells Catherine he must go away because of his feelings for her.]

“…I shall go now and pack. I shall make my excuses to Mrs. Arrowpoint." Klesmer rose as he ended, and walked quickly toward the door…

"Why should I not marry the man who loves me, if I love him?" said Catherine. To her the effort was something like the leap of a woman from the deck into the lifeboat.

"It would be too hard—impossible—you could not carry it through. I am not worth what you would have to encounter. I will not accept the sacrifice. It would be thought a mĂ©salliance for you and I should be liable to the worst accusations."

"Is it the accusations you are afraid of? I am afraid of nothing but that we should miss the passing of our lives together."

The decisive word had been spoken: there was no doubt concerning the end willed by each: there only remained the way of arriving at it, and Catherine determined to take the straightest possible. She went to her father and mother in the library, and told them that she had promised to marry Klesmer.


Today is Leap Year Day, when traditionally women can ask men to marry them. Catherine is called Arrowpoint, and she’s good at archery. Cupid’s arrows seem as though they might be rather below George Eliot’s notice, but the symbolism does shout out. The future husbands of both young women are at the archery contest. Catherine loses the contest, but the marriage stakes are something else…

Gwendolen and Catherine: something like Wings of the Dove, blog entry here, one is poor and the other rich, and at first they are set up to be in competition. Gwendolen needs a rich husband, Catherine doesn’t. What Gwendolen wants from Herr Klesmer is his good opinion, not his love: and she is shown up as a talented amateur rather than a real musician.

When Catherine thinks the love of her life might hold back, she bravely tells him what she wants from him. Her family will be outraged, but she will go ahead, though she is rather lost from the book from then on.

The photograph is from the Library of Congress, and is featured on Flickr.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

The divine Lucia buys her husband a suit

the book:

Trouble for Lucia by E.F.Benson

published 1939    Chapter 1

[Georgie Pillson is getting ready for dinner at home with his wife, Lucia.]

A parcel had arrived for him… "It must be my new dinner suit," he said to himself…He cut the string and there it was: jacket and waistcoat and trousers of ruby-coloured velvet, with synthetic-onyx buttons, quite superb…He was thrilled with its audacious beauty.

"Now let me think," he meditated. "One of my pleated shirts, and a black butterfly tie, and my garnet solitaire. And my pink vest. Nobody will see it, but I shall know it's there. And red socks. Or daren't I?"

He swiftly invested himself in this striking creation [then] rang the bell for Foljambe [the parlour-maid valet]…

"Lor!" she said. "Something fancy-dress, sir?"

"Not at all," said Georgie. "My new evening suit. Isn't it smart, Foljambe? Don't you like it?"

"Well, a bit of a shock, sir. I hope you won't spill things on it, for it would be a rare job to get anything sticky out of the velvet, and you do throw your food about sometimes. But it is pretty now I begin to take it in."

Georgie went into his sitting-room next door, where there was a big mirror over the fireplace, and turned on all the electric lights. He got up on a chair, so that he could get a more comprehensive view of himself, and revolved slowly in the brilliant light. He was so absorbed in his Narcissism that he did not hear Lucia come out of her bedroom. The door was ajar, and she peeped in. She gave a strangled scream at the sight of a large man in a glaring red suit standing on a chair with his back to her. It was unusual. Georgie whisked round at her cry.

"Look!" he said. "Your delicious present. There it was when I came from my bath. Isn't it lovely?"

Lucia recovered from her shock.

"Positively Venetian, Georgie," she said. "Real Titian."


Lucia is the queen of the social scene in a couple of southern English towns in the years between the two world wars. The six books in the series relate in close and hilarious detail her fights with her rivals – Miss Mapp being the most important – the jealousies, the gossip, the music parties and seances, the strict social hierarchy of the town. A favourite character is Quaint Irene – a Bohemian artist who dresses like a man and adores Lucia in a rather hearty way. Georgie is Lucia’s comrade in many adventures, and eventually marries her after she is widowed, even though he seems not to be the marrying kind (like his creator, EF Benson). Later in the book, Georgie fears the presence of the Duchess of Sheffield who may make advances to him – but it is essential for Lucia’s standing in their community that the Duchess is an overnight guest. So Lucia says ‘if you’re nervous you may sleep in my room. Just while she’s here of course.’ Georgie replies ‘Oh I don’t think either of us would like that, and Foljambe would think it so odd.'

Lucia’s house in the town of Tilling is based on EF Benson’s own home in the town of Rye in East Sussex – the house had earlier been the home of Henry James, author of yesterday’s entry.

The picture is of Oscar Wilde (don’t think Georgie would mind) and is from George Eastman House and featured on Flickr.

Monday, 27 February 2012

What would you do for money? Wings of the Dove

the book:

The Wings of the Dove by Henry James

published 1902     Book 1 chapter 1

[Kate Croy is visiting her father, a man about whom her mother has said 'If you hear anything against your father--anything I mean except that he's odious and vile--remember it's perfectly false.']

“… She re-adjusted the poise of her black, closely-feathered hat; retouched, beneath it, the thick fall of her dusky hair; kept her eyes aslant, no less on her beautiful averted than on her beautiful presented oval. She was dressed altogether in black, which gave an even tone, by contrast, to her clear face and made her hair more harmoniously dark…

She had stature without height, grace without motion, presence without mass. Slender and simple, frequently soundless, she was somehow always in the line of the eye – she counted singularly for its pleasure. More ‘dressed’, often, with fewer accessories, than other women, or less dressed, should occasion require, with more, she probably could not have given the key to these felicities..."


How brilliant are Henry James’s names? Kate Croy and Milly Theale – one’s the scheming poor girl and one’s the high-minded heiress, and isn’t it obvious which name is which? But even that description is too simplistic. This is a book with an incredible moral drive,  and yet the story is told in a bizarrely allusive way, so that quite often you’re not sure what people are talking about, or who knows what at any given time. It is one of his later books, and James is said to have dictated them, and that seems to make sense. Some of his sentences are extraordinary - try this one from book 6: “He had no more money just as he was than he had had just as he had been, or than he should have, probably, when it came to that, just as he always would be; whereas she, on her side, in comparison with her state of some months before, had measureably more to relinquish.” It sounds like one of those made-up language expert sentences to include as many ‘had’s as possible.
But – the book is a supreme work of art, with a compelling and memorable plotline. Millie is not expected to live long, and Kate and her secret fiancĂ©e, Merton Densher, plot to gain her fortune. But of course it is not that simple.
Similar plotlines – getting your love to marry someone who is going to die – turn up in Agatha Christie novels (can’t spoiler by saying which) and in the 1978 Terrence Malick film Days of Heaven (the other half of the plot comes from the Book of Genesis, surprisingly). There is a reverse version in Mrs Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters (this blog entry) – a penniless potential suitor has been firmly discouraged by a scheming mother, but then she finds out confidential medical info about his elder brother the heir, and suddenly he looks more attractive….
The book (1902) contains a surprising reference to ‘the social scene’ – a scriptwriter putting that into Downton Abbey (set 10-20 years later) would probably be criticized for using an anachronism.
The mother's defence of the father is one of a number of  unexpectedly funny lines in the book: James has more humour in him than people expect.

The photo is from the Library of Congress collection, and is featured on Flickr.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

"You're welcome, black people": The Help

the book:

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

published 2009 chapter 11       events in the early 1960s

[Skeeter, a young southern white woman, is visiting a black maid at home to try to gather copy for a book she is writing.]

“…I have on my darkest dress, dark stockings. The black scarf over my hair probably makes me look more like Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia than Marlene Dietrich… I knock softly.. Aibileen opens the door. ‘Come on in’ she whispers and quickly shuts it behind me and locks it.

I’ve never seen Aibileen in anything but her whites. Tonight she has on a green dress with black piping. I can’t help but notice, she stands a little taller in her own house.

‘Make yourself comfortable. I be back real quick.’

Even with the single lamp on, the front room is dark, full of browns and shadows. The curtains are pulled and pinned together so there’s no gap. I don’t know if they’re like that all the time, or just for me. I lower myself onto the narrow sofa. There’s a wooden coffee table with hand-tatted lace draped over the top. The floors are bare. I wish I hadn’t worn such an expensive-looking dress…”


It’s Oscar day today, and the film of The Help is up for four of the top awards. The shiznit website has a page entitled ‘If 2012's Oscar-nominated movie posters told the truth’, which is possibly the funniest thing on the internet right now. Once you have seen its taglines for this film – ‘White People solve racism. You’re welcome, black people’ – it is difficult to see it any other way. But at least the film gave us a chance to see black women in major roles, and it is a film about women. The book is a mixed bag – it’s very readable, the story gallops along. But the tone is very odd and uncomfortable. The story it tells is dark and sad, but the trappings are weird: black voices talking in dialect (through the white author), a white woman ‘helping’ them, a white woman who is shown as being frightened and endangered when it doesn’t seem she’s risking much more than losing the boyfriend. And she can always leave, and does. There are some strange slapstick and farcical scenes, and some of it is quite funny. It is not a book that you would ever for one second think had been written by a black person.

The picture is from a collection of 'Artworks by Negro Artists', held by the US National Archives and Records Administration. The artist is unknown.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Dressing up for the big city: American Wife

the book:

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

published 2008    Part 1 - set at the end of 1962

[Alice Blackwell, 16, is accompanying her grandmother on a visit to Chicago. They are to meet up with the grandmother’s old friend, Dr Gladys Wycomb.]

“…They seemed to me an unlikely pair of friends, at least with regard to appearance. Dr Wycomb was a bit heavy in a way that suggested strength, and her handshake had almost hurt. She had short grey hair and wore white cat’s-eye glasses and a black gabardine coat over a grey tweed suit; her shoes were black patent-leather pumps with low heels and perfunctory bows. My grandmother, meanwhile, always proud of her style and slimness (her tiny wrists and ankles were a particular source of pleasure to her), was especially decked out for our city visit. We’d given ourselves manicures the day before, and she’d gone to Vera’s in downtown Riley to have her hair dyed and set. Under a tan cashmere coat, she wore a chocolate-brown wool suit – the collar was velvet, the skirt fell just below her knee – complemented by matching brown crocodile pumps and a brown crocodile handbag…. To meet Dr Wycomb I also was dressed up, outfitted in a kilt, green tights, saddle shoes, and a green wool sweater over a blouse; on the collar, I wore a circle pin, even though Dena had recently told me it was a sign of being a virgin…”


Curtis Sittenfeld is very specific about clothes in this book, and they are very much of their time. Poor Alice has her young single years during the 1970s, when a certain hideousness prevailed. “I was wearing my denim skirt and a maroon tunic with orange and pink flowers” – yes, people did dress like that in the 1970s. This is Alice’s wedding outfit: “white cotton, a blousy v-necked top with a cinched waist and a calf-length skirt that I wore with my white pumps. Priscilla Blackwell [groom’s mother]… exclaimed, ‘Isn’t that a sweet little frock! Why you look like a pioneer preparing to cross the Great Plains.’”

The visuals are great, men’s clothes too described in a few words. It’s a terrific book all round, a quite extraordinary achievement. Questions of taste and appropriateness can trip you up – yes, it’s hard to think what Laura Bush might think of it, and whether she deserved this…

A repeated motif throughout American Wife is the Shel Silverstein book
The Giving Tree - I had never come across it, but looked it up because it is mentioned so often. It is a story for children, and seems to divide its readers into those who love it and those who hate it (definitely in the second camp here). It is VERY interesting to try to think what Curtis Sittenfeld wanted readers to take from the repeated mentions.

The picture is from the
State Library of Queensland’s collection, and is featured on Flickr.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Toffs and their sisters: Rachel Cusk

the book:

In the Fold by Rachel Cusk

published 2005 chapter 1 (events in the 1980s)

[The scene is Caris’s 18th birthday party, being held in the family home, watched by outsider Michael, a university friend of Caris’s brother]

"...At that moment Caris emerged from the house. She came out of a door at the back and stood alone. She looked more extraordinary than any person I had seen before, although it is hard to say exactly why she gave this impression. She was wearing a simple white dress that left her arms and shoulders bare and she had her brown hair loose. A wreath of ivy sat on the top of her head. She wore no shoes or jewellery. Her pale face was very beautiful. She looked like a goddess. Everyone turned, and when they saw her they applauded riotously..."


Rachel Cusk is in the news in UK literary circles at the moment, because of her memoir of marital breakdown, published around now. An extract from the book in the Guardian newspaper (which Cusk seems to claim – also in the Guardian - was unfairly edited) was the subject of much mirth and criticism, and a truly brilliant, very mean, parody here. She is not a writer who makes any attempt to be likeable (though she seems to be terribly surprised that she is unpopular). Her non-fiction book about having babies A Life’s work, divides readers: some hate it (and, of course, her), but round here we think it is a terrifying, honest and brilliant piece of work. She wrote about moving to Italy, about her marriage, and a memorably rude article about her bookgroup, of all things. What was she thinking of? You don’t diss your bookgroup. Though the immediate thought on reading it was ‘totally on the side of the bookgroup here, would love to hear their version.’

Then there’s her fiction: her characters live on the unloveable to hatable spectrum, it’s hard to feel much sympathy. The books all feel like excerpts from some much longer roman fleuve, they seem to stop and start abruptly, for no special reason. But they are readable enough, and with some great phrases and descriptions dotted about to keep you going through the frequent annoying patches. This one is a refreshingly sour take on the mesmerized lower class friend who meets toffs and their sisters while at uni (see also: Brideshead in this blog entry, and toffs and reverse toffs – posh boy visits the middle classes - in Alan Hollinghurst), though the structure of the book is very strange. It’s a book that’s good in glimpses.

The photo is of Lady Lavery, wife and frequent subject of one of Ireland’s leading portrait painters, Sir John Lavery. She also painted herself, and was a leading socialite of her day, friend to the famous. She is dressed as Botticelli's Primavera. The picture is part of the
Bain collection at the Library of Congress, and can be seen on Flickr.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Anne Shirley's best dress: how it really is

the book:

Anne of Green Gables by L.M.Montgomery

published 1908  chapter 25

[following on from yesterday's entry]

"...Matthew had sheepishly unfolded the dress from its paper swathings and held it out with a deprecatory glance at Marilla, who feigned to be contemptuously filling the teapot, but nevertheless watched the scene out of the corner of her eye with a rather interested air.

Anne took the dress and looked at it in reverent silence. Oh, how pretty it was--a lovely soft brown gloria with all the gloss of silk; a skirt with dainty frills and shirrings; a waist elaborately pintucked in the most fashionable way, with a little ruffle of filmy lace at the neck. But the sleeves--they were the crowning glory! Long elbow cuffs, and above them two beautiful puffs divided by rows of shirring and bows of brown-silk ribbon.

"That's a Christmas present for you, Anne," said Matthew shyly. "Why--why--Anne, don't you like it? Well now--well now."

For Anne's eyes had suddenly filled with tears.

"Like it! Oh, Matthew!" Anne laid the dress over a chair and clasped her hands. "Matthew, it's perfectly exquisite. Oh, I can never thank you enough. Look at those sleeves! Oh, it seems to me this must be a happy dream."

"Well, well, let us have breakfast," interrupted Marilla. "I must say, Anne, I don't think you needed the dress; but since Matthew has got it for you, see that you take good care of it. There's a hair ribbon Mrs. Lynde left for you. It's brown, to match the dress. Come now, sit in…"


Well!! The dress was brown??? Not in my memory it wasn’t, and not in most people’s I’d guess, though it must have gone nicely with Anne’s red hair. ‘Gloria’ turns out to be a tiny bit of a disappointment for a fabric with such a splendid name: it is defined in Funk and Wagnall’s dictionary as ‘a mixture of wool and silk or similar material, used as a substitute for silk in covering umbrellas and dressmaking.’ Hmmm.

Anne is a brilliant creation, because it is perfectly clear to readers of any age how annoying she must have been, with her self-dramatization, her over-reactions, and her non-stop talking. And yet, she is our kindred spirit, our bosom friend. The books, the author, and Anne herself are seen by Canadians as national treasures, and who can blame them? Well done Canada!

See also yesterday's entry.
The photo with its gigantic puffed sleeves is from the UK’s National Media Museum in Bradford, and is on Flickr.
Thanks again to Riona…

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Anne Shirley's best dress and how we picture it

the book:

Anne of Green Gables by L.M.Montgomery

published 1908    chapter 25

[Matthew and Marilla are guardians to the orphan Anne Shirley: Green Gables is where they all live.]

The more Matthew thought about the matter the more he was convinced that Anne never had been dressed like the other girls--never since she had come to Green Gables. Marilla kept her clothed in plain, dark dresses, all made after the same unvarying pattern. If Matthew knew there was such a thing as fashion in dress it was as much as he did; but he was quite sure that Anne's sleeves did not look at all like the sleeves the other girls wore. He recalled the cluster of little girls he had seen around her that evening--all gay in waists of red and blue and pink and white--and he wondered why Marilla always kept her so plainly and soberly gowned.

Of course, it must be all right. Marilla knew best and Marilla was bringing her up. Probably some wise, inscrutable motive was to be served thereby. But surely it would do no harm to let the child have one pretty dress... Matthew decided that he would give her one; that surely could not be objected to as an unwarranted putting in of his oar. Christmas was only a fortnight off. A nice new dress would be the very thing for a present. Matthew, with a sigh of satisfaction, put away his pipe and went to bed…

[A neighbour, Mrs Lynde, agrees to make the dress.]

"Well now, I'm much obliged," said Matthew, "and--and--I dunno--but I'd like--I think they make the sleeves different nowadays to what they used to be. If it wouldn't be asking too much I--I'd like them made in the new way."

"Puffs? Of course. You needn't worry a speck more about it, Matthew. I'll make it up in the very latest fashion," said Mrs. Lynde…"


It would take a heart of stone not to be charmed by quiet Matthew’s project to get a new and fancy dress for Anne Shirley, surely our favourite orphan in the whole of children’s literature. Her relationship with brother and sister Matthew and Marilla is wonderfully portrayed, and Matthew is a hero for the ages. There is a very funny scene in this chapter where he tries to buy the dress himself, but is far too bashful to tell the young lady assistant what he wants, and ends up buying all kinds of things he doesn’t need at all.

This would have been a 10 year old’s idea of Anne’s perfect dress: see tomorrow’s entry for another view….

The picture is from the
Powerhouse Museum’s collection, and is featured on Flickr.

With thanks to Riona for the suggestion.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Murder, masks and Venice: Carnevale today, Lent tomorrow

the book:

Death in a Serene City by Edward Sklepowich

published 1990   Part 4 chapter 12

[American ex-pat Urbino is investigating a murder in Venice just before the start of carnevale]
"...The shop was dark even at the brightest time of the day. Cavatorta had wisely taken advantage of this drawback by positioning a battery of lamps to illuminate the masks on the walls and shelves. It was an eerie effect, with masks of various colours, shapes, sizes, materials and designs glowing and staring out with hollow eyes and casting bizarre shadows. There were silvery crescent moons and glowing suns with rays streaming from around their edges; court jesters; large lion faces with thick golden manes; masks of the plague doctor with his cone-shaped nose and of Arlecchino, Pulcinella, Pantalone, Brighella, and other commedia dell’arte figures; three-quarter volti designed to allow their wearers to eat and drink without removing them, and delicate oval morette worn by women or by men disguised as women during the bacchanal of carnevale. There was a shelf of dainty porcelain masks that brought a touch of the Orient to the shop and a whole wall of primitive masks in the African style interspersed with ones on ancient Roman models. Many masks were adorned with feathers, lace, sequins, false jewels, and artificial hair, some of them expressing a whimsy that Urbino was surprised to find playful and pleasantly childlike…"


Today is the last day before Lent begins, which means the end of carnevale in those Catholic cities famous for celebrating it. The Venice carnevale features in literature surprisingly little. (It is well to beware having seen it in a film adaptation – film-makers can’t resist it, but seem unaware, or uncaring, that it happens at a specific time of year, which would be February or at best early March, so may not fit in to the rest of the plot.) But, as it turns out, there’s good reason for its absence in books: the current incarnation of carnevale is a very recent invention, started up in 1979. It had been banned by Mussolini in the 1930s, but by all accounts had not been very important for a long time before then.

There are many detective stories by English-speaking authors set in Italy and more particularly Venice: it has an attraction for British and American writers. Edward Sklepowich is one of the less well-known ones, but well worth investigating.

This beautiful photograph is from Perry Photography: you can see more of her pictures at Flickr.

Monday, 20 February 2012

How to make a wedding miserable: Graham Greene

the book:

Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

published 1938   Part 6  chapter 2

[Rose and Pinkie are about to get married.]

"...She had tricked herself up for the wedding, discarding the hat he hadn’t liked: a new mackintosh, a touch of powder and cheap lipstick. She looked like one of the small gaudy statues in an ugly church: a paper crown wouldn’t have looked odd on her or a painted heart: you could pray to her but wouldn’t expect an answer.

‘Where’ve you been?’ the Boy said. ‘Don’t you know you’re late?’

They didn’t even touch hands. An awful formality fell between them..."


Trying really hard not to say ‘Only a man could have written this description’. Anyone could write anything, such distinctions aren’t helpful. But really – this sounds like one of those Graham Greene parodies that GG himself did so well, as British intellectuals love to tell you. (Though he’s supposed only to have been runner-up in a contest for such parodies.) She doesn’t look like any old statue, she looks like ‘you could pray to her but wouldn’t expect an answer.’ Doesn’t sound much like the Rose described everywhere else in the book. She is about to get married to wicked Pinkie, who is worried she could testify against him. They are two guilt-ridden Catholics about to have a short marriage made in hell. It's a cheerless story, and calling Pinkie ‘the Boy’ is a rather unloveable affectation. And yet, and yet – it’s a book that sticks in the mind, and makes you believe that Brighton on a bank holiday in 1938 really was like that.

The photo is from the National Postal Museum collection at the Smithsonian Institution, and is featured on Flickr.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

"You are still at the centre of the world": Frida Kahlo

the book:

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

publishes 2009   Part 3

[A party in Mexico in 1937]

“..The Riveras made the largest-ever fiesta, hired marimbas, the patio and house filled entirely. The security men nearly exploded from nerves. The guests are not artistic Communists any more but peasants, white-trousered men in huaraches, unionists who support Lev. The women entered shyly with their heads down, braids nearly sweeping the courtyard stones. A few brought live chickens as gifts, their feet tied nicely with henequen ribbon. But the cooking for this fiesta started a week ago.

Senora Frida was especially extravagant in a gold Tehuana blouse, green skirt, and blue shawl. She arrived with a large parcel wrapped up in in paper: a portrait of herself, a birthday gift for Lev. Somehow it did not get presented, in the middle of so much celebration…

[At a later event] And Frida: if anything can get her out of bed it’s a party. She showed up in a wild tehuana dress with a bodice of ribbons, and her hair brushed out in a wave like a motion picture star…”


Frida is the artist Frida Kahlo, her husband is the artist Diego Rivera, Lev is Leon Trotsky: this is a book about real people, a novelization of history, though the facts of her life are more extraordinary than most novels. Reading this book, or seeing the excellent film biography directed by Julie Taymor and starring Selma Hayek, you keep thinking ‘well this can’t be true’ and going to check the facts of her life. By some bizarre mistake, Amazon & Kindle refer to The Lacuna as 'A Novel of Lake Wobegon' - it's hard to think of a less likely combination.

‘Tehuana’ refers to a Mexican city, Tehuantepec, the centre of Zapotec culture, known for its women and their matriarchal culture, as well as their traditional dress, according to Wikipedia. Henequen is a fibre produced from the agave plant.

In the book a character later writes to Frida: “However badly broken, you still stand up. In your Tehuana dresses in your garden with the pomegranate trees bending toward you to open their red flowers. No matter what happens, you will still be at the centre of the world.”

The photographs (which are of Tehuana women, not of Frida Kahlo) are from the DeGolyer library of Southern Methodist University, and can be found on Flickr. You can see a 1943 Frida Kahlo picture called ‘Self-portrait as a Tehuana, Diego in my thoughts’ here.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

What would you think if you read it not at age 16?: Holden Caulfield

the book:

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D.Salinger

published 1951   chapter 3

 [Holden Caulfield, aged 16, is in his dorm room at a private boys’ school in Pennsylvania. He is about to leave the school for good.]

“… It was pretty nice to get back to my room, after I left old Spencer, because everybody was down at the game, and the heat was on in our room, for a change. It felt sort of cosy. I took off my coat and my tie and unbuttoned my shirt collar and then I put on this hat that I’d bought in New York that morning. It was this red hunting hat, with one of those very long peaks. I saw it in the window of this sports store when we got out of the subway... It only cost me a buck. The way I wore it, I swung the old peak way around to the back – very corny, I’ll admit, but I liked it that way. I looked good in it that way….

[His classmate Ackley comes in] Sometimes I horse around quite a lot, just to keep from getting bored. What I did was, I pulled the old peak of my hunting hat around to the front, then pulled it way down over my eyes. That way, I couldn’t see a goddam thing. ‘I think I’m going blind’ I said in this very hoarse voice. ‘Mother darling, everything’s getting so dark in here.’ … I started groping around in front of me, like a blind guy, but without getting up or anything. I kept saying ‘Mother darling, why won’t you give me your hand?’ I was only horsing around, naturally…

‘Where the hellja get that hat?’ [Ackley] said.

‘New York.’

‘How much?’

‘A buck.’

‘You got robbed.’


There’s nothing new to be said about J D Salinger – it’s all been gone through endlessly: his reclusiveness, the courtcases to guard his privacy, the stories that leaked out, the fact that he published nothing after 1965, the connection with the murder of John Lennon. About the book – it’s not his best writing, and it’s a lot less spontaneous than it seems: He was no Bret Easton Ellis, a teenage prodigy producing a book about his own generation. That isn’t intrinsically either good or bad – but it is relevant that Salinger was twice Holden’s age, ie 32, when the book was published, and had been writing about him in short stories since 1945. If you read those stories, you can see how the character and the plot develop. And the hat too – in Slight Rebellion off Madison, he is wearing ‘a hat with a cutting edge at the V in the crown’, whatever that means. (By 1951 it sounds like the original baseball hat worn back-to-front.) That story is available on the New Yorker website to subscribers, along with Hapworth 16, 1924, a long story about the Glass family (and one that would make you finally despair of actually liking any aspect of Seymour) that JDS nearly allowed to be published again in the late 1990s. An apparently unofficial bootleg collection of the other lost stories was circulating in two volumes in the 1980s, when Clothes in Books obtained its treasured copies.

Is there any relevance in his pretending to be blind, asking for help, and apparently being ignored by his mother? Probably not.

With thanks to Tony for being Holden and Emma for the hat.

Friday, 17 February 2012

An unlikely chronicler of women's fashions: Arnold Bennett

the book:

The Old Wives' Tale by Arnold Bennett

published 1908  Part 1 Chapter 3  set in the 1860s

"...On the Sunday afternoon Mrs. Baines was trying to repose a little in the drawing-room, where she had caused a fire to be lighted. Constance was in the adjacent bedroom with her father. Sophia lay between blankets in the room overhead with a feverish cold. This cold and her new dress were Mrs. Baines's sole consolation at the moment. She had prophesied a cold for Sophia, refuser of castor-oil, and it had come. Sophia had received, for standing in her nightdress at a draughty window of a May morning, what Mrs. Baines called 'nature's slap in the face.' As for the dress, she had worshipped God in it, and prayed for Sophia in it, before dinner; and its four double rows of gimp on the skirt had been accounted a great success. With her lace-bordered mantle and her low, stringed bonnet she had assuredly given a unique lustre to the congregation at chapel. She was stout; but the fashions, prescribing vague outlines, broad downward slopes, and vast amplitudes, were favourable to her shape. It must not be supposed that stout women of a certain age never seek to seduce the eye and trouble the meditations of man by other than moral charms. Mrs. Baines knew that she was comely, natty, imposing, and elegant; and the knowledge gave her real pleasure. She would look over her shoulder in the glass as anxious as a girl: make no mistake..."


In general, it is female writers who describe clothes in books, and so the blog is heavy on them. But Arnold Bennett (not Alan Bennett, but yes the man with the omelette) is an exception: this book is packed full of descriptions of clothes - he could provide a week's worth of entries, and will feature again. Bennett, a middlebrow, prolific writer who lived from 1867 to 1931, has a reputation which goes up and down, and maybe he is coming back into fashion again. He certainly sounds like a nice man: his own introduction to this book is fascinating, self-deprecating, and very funny. ‘Old Wives Tale’ is slightly misleading: he aims to tell the story of how Constance and Sophia Baines eventually become old wives, and in fact the most entertaining section is the first, where they are young women. The book is long, and a bit variable, but it is a wonderful attempt to capture the whole of life, and to think about a woman you see in old age, and think that she wasn’t always like that – it is sympathetic and understanding, clever and funny, with sentences of lovely observation. Like Somerset Maugham, on the blog here,  his female characters are alive and real. Mrs Baines, above, the mother of the two girls, is at odds with Sophia about a potential young man: “why should a young girl be permitted any interest in any young man whatsoever? The everlasting purpose had made use of Mrs Baines and cast her off, and, like most persons in a similar situation, she was, unconsciously and quite honestly, at odds with the everlasting purpose.” But young people are no better: later, Sophia looks at an aging woman she is living with: “she had no right to expose herself picturesquely beneath a crimson glow in all the panoply of ribboned garters and lacy seductiveness. It was silly; it was disgraceful. She ought to have known that only youth and slimness have the right to appeal to the feelings by indecent abandonments.”
The photograph is from the National Library of Ireland, and is featured on Flickr.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

The groom's gift to the bride 2: Jane Eyre

the book:

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

published 1847   chapter 24

[Jane Eyre is about to marry her employer, Mr Rochester. Or at least she thinks she is. She is preparing for the most famous interrupted wedding in literature.]

“…Mr Rochester obliged me to go to a certain silk warehouse: there I was ordered to choose half-a-dozen dresses. I hated the business, I begged leave to defer it: no--it should be gone through with now. By dint of entreaties expressed in energetic whispers, I reduced the half-dozen to two: these however, he vowed he would select himself. With anxiety I watched his eye rove over the gay stores: he fixed on a rich silk of the most brilliant amethyst dye, and a superb pink satin. I told him in a new series of whispers, that he might as well buy me a gold gown and a silver bonnet at once: I should certainly never venture to wear his choice. With infinite difficulty, for he was stubborn as a stone, I persuaded him to make an exchange in favour of a sober black satin and pearl-grey silk. ‘It might pass for the present,’ he said; ‘but he would yet see me glittering like a parterre.’

Glad was I to get him out of the silk warehouse, and then out of a jewellers shop: the more he bought me, the more my cheek burned with a sense of annoyance and degradation. …. He smiled; and I thought his smile was such as a sultan might, in a blissful and fond moment, bestow on a slave his gold and gems had enriched: I crushed his hand, which was ever hunting mine, vigorously, and thrust it back to him red with the passionate pressure.
"You need not look in that way," I said; "if you do, I'll wear nothing but my old Lowood frocks to the end of the chapter. I'll be married in this lilac gingham: you may make a dressing-gown for yourself out of the pearl-grey silk, and an infinite series of waistcoats out of the black satin."


Following on from the Duchess of Denver and Lord Peter Wimsey – yesterday’s entryJane Eyre showing that at least it was grey satin. But a remarkably similar situation to Harriet Vane’s – the idealized rich man, who loves the poor girl for her brain, for her ungrasping independence, for her witty ripostes - but does still find her hypnotically attractive. Fine writers and great books, but was it not a bit transparent? Neither author seems to have found the kind of relationship she would have liked in life, but then if Bronte (approx. 30 when she wrote J.Eyre) and Sayers (44 at the time of Busman’s Honeymoon) still thought the Rochester/Wimsey model was the right one, then perhaps that is not surprising.
The wonderful literary critic Patricia Beer – discussing C Bronte’s fondness for teachers - says “Mr Rochester teaches Jane nothing at all, except the inadvisability of accepting a proposal from a man who immediately adds, ‘God pardon me.’”
Clothes in Books  revolts from showing a severe Victorian portrait of the governess in grey, so the photo shows the lovely Annette del Sur, an office worker, promoting salvage in the 1940s, dressed in a handsome grey outfit: an early recycler, looking fabulous, and an outfit good enough to marry anyone in.
The photo is from the Library of Congress, featured on Flickr.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

The groom's gift to the bride: Dorothy L Sayers

the book:

Busman's Honeymoon by Dorothy L Sayers

Published 1937   From the Prothalamion (anyone else would call it the prologue, but DLS used an obscure term for a song celebrating a wedding)

[Extract from the diary of the Dowager Duchess of Denver, the mother of the groom in the forthcoming wedding of supersleuth Lord Peter Wimsey to detective story writer Harriet Vane.]
"...5 October   Worth has made magnificent effort and delivered dress. Few select friends invited to see trousseau – including Miss Climpson, miraculously reduced to speechlessness by Peter’s gift [to Harriet, bride-to-be] of mink coat – 950 guineas admittedly perhaps a trifle extravagant, but his sole contribution, and he looked as scared and guilty when he presented it as he did when he was a small boy and his father caught him with his pocked full of rabbits after a night out with that rascally old poacher Merryweather he took such a fancy to – and how that man’s cottage did smell! But it is a lovely cloak, and H. hadn’t the heart to say more than ‘Oh Mr Rochester!’ – in fun, and meaning Jane Eyre, who I always think behaved so ungraciously to that poor man – so gloomy to have your bride, however bigamous, insisting on grey alpaca or merino or whatever it was, and damping to a lover’s feelings..."

There seems a lot of wish fulfilment in Sayers’ description of the wedding of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. For a sophisticated Bohemian with academic pretensions, she certainly had an eye for a lord, a fairy-tale wedding, and – above all – a wonderful man who sees the inner glory of a plain poor girl. A man who could have anyone, but chooses an older lady with whom he can have an intellectual conversation. Even though DLS is at slightly embarrassing pains to point out that both Peter and Harriet are very sexy. And even though Lord Peter does not seem that wonderful to anyone else over the age of about 22. The word ‘insufferable’ comes to mind. The bride's gift to the groom, by the way, is a very valuable letter about love, hand-written by the poet John Donne.  A sister-in-law is reported as thinking  "a gold cigarette lighter  would be much more suitable", and after too much of the wedding preparations, one can start to agree with her, and long for a bit of honest flashy showing off. And what does the lovely bride wear in the end? Gold lame. Not so much in a position to criticize Jane Eyre. 
All this is, of course, without prejudice to Clothes in Books great love for the entire oeuvre of Dorothy L Sayers.
See tomorrow's entry for more on Jane Eyre.

Photo is from the Florida State archives, featured on Flickr.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Not romantic, not a makeover, but still a Valentine: The Eye of Love

the book:

The Eye of Love by Margery Sharp

published 1957   chapter 27  set in the 1920s
"...It was very late when Miss [Dolores] Diver entered [the party]; but when she did, nothing could have given Miranda greater satisfaction than, in every sense, her appearance. It was to a certain degree fashionable. Gay jumpers were in fashion, and Dolores’ was a gay as a Spanish shawl. In fact it was made from a Spanish shawl; she had made it herself.

Tiny tilted hats were in fashion, and she had bought a new one. Black fox was still a fashionable fur, all women were wearing a good deal of make-up: Miranda was still well satisfied by Miss Diver’s appearance.
She caught sight of her at once, across the length of the room; not for an instant, in the thickest of the party, had she forgotten to watch the door. Dolores paused just within, as it happened beside Miss Harris and Miss Molyneux, momentarily converging to compare notes. (‘I believe it will be the movies, dear’ murmured the latter philosophically. ‘So far I’ve just given my telephone-number…’)

Harry didn’t see her… ‘There’s someone you know, Harry!’ whispered Miranda playfully. ‘See, an old friend!’ – and pointed Miss Diver out to him.

Thus to Miss Diver’s moment of defeat succeeded Miranda’s moment of triumph. Watching Harry’s face, she saw her plan so successful, she almost laughed with pleasure… it was hard to say which was the most grotesque, the ill-cut garish jumper, or the ropy old black fox, or the fashionable hat perched uneasily on such coils of ropy hair, or the long bedaubed countenance beneath..."


Romance (for Valentine’s Day) comes in many forms, and this is a pretty unusual one. Miranda is about to get her come-uppance: she is engaged to Harry, and has invited his former mistress – whom she considers risible - to a party. Big mistake. Any experienced novel-reader can predict what will happen. But not one writer in a hundred (and no screenplay writer) would do what Margery Sharp does – which is, NOT give Dolores a makeover. It would have been the easy way out – get her a friend who will do her up (Kitty from the
Laurels are Poison blog entry), make her somehow become beautiful and attractive and a belle, or just striking or well-dressed even. But no, Dolores appears as she always does, a scarecrow-like figure. What the foolish Miranda has not taken into account is Harry’s feelings, and Harry’s way of looking at Dolores. The Eye of Love indeed. It’s a most satisfying revenge scene, in a really great - and in many ways very unromantic - book. Miss Harris and Miss Molyneux are extra joys in the story, as they roam the party, hoping for something better but prepared to stick together if nothing turns up.

Margery Sharp is remembered now mostly for The Rescuers –
children’s books turned into Disney films – but well done Virago for re-publishing this splendid book, one of many she wrote for adults.

The picture sees Dolores’ transformed shawl through the eye of love. It is from the collection of the
National Library of Ireland and it was, hilariously, thought necessary to emphasize that the lady concerned would have been wearing a strapless evening dress under the shawl.

Today's book was suggested by Jackie, a follower.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Spoilt? Us?: A Little Princess

the book:

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

published 1905  Chapter 1

[Sara Crewe is getting ready for school in London: her father is about to return to India]
“…Captain Crewe was a rash, innocent young man, and wanted his little girl to have everything he admired himself, so between them they collected a wardrobe much too grand for a child of seven. There were velvet dresses trimmed with costly furs, and lace and dresses, and embroidered ones, and hats with great, soft, ostrich feathers, and ermine coats and muffs, and boxes of tiny gloves and handkerchiefs and silk stockings in such abundant supplies that the polite young women behind the counters whispered to each other that the odd little girl with the big solemn eyes must be at least some foreign princess - perhaps the little daughter of an Indian rajah.
[Then] they went to a number of toy-shops and looked at a great many dolls before they finally discovered [the right one]…She was a large doll, but not too large to carry about easily… ‘Of course,’ said Sara… ‘of course Papa, this is Emily.’
So Emily was bought and actually taken to a children’s outfitter’s shop, and measured for a wardrobe as grand as Sara’s own. She had lace frocks, too, and velvet and muslin ones and hats and coats and beautiful lace-trimmed underclothes, and gloves and handkerchiefs and furs…”


The Secret Garden is generally touted as Frances Hodgson Burnett’s best children’s book, and it is a fine story, but surely all girls prefer A Little Princess? It doesn’t seem as though FHB could have focus-grouped it, but the book has everything: wonderful clothes and luxury living to begin with, followed by descent into poverty and hard times, followed by a slow journey out of the pit of despond into ultimate happiness. Young girls live along with poor Sara through her difficult times (those diamond mines….). The scene where she is starving, and by magic chance gets some hot fresh buns, but gives them away to a child she considers worse off – this is seared into the minds of happy well-fed children who could imagine it very clearly, but were not convinced they would have been quite so unselfish.

Shirley Temple’s 1939 film version cannot be recommended, even though in general Clothes in Books is a massive fan. Alfonso Cuaron’s 1995 film was surprisingly good. It took liberties with the plot, but that’s to be expected: children’s books are much darker these days of course, but we don’t kill off parents so lightly – as the wonderful children’s writer Antonia Forest points out in The Attic Term. During a discussion of the book, a character asks: ‘when did Father turn up not dead after all, with the rajah’s diamond? ’- today one would confidently expect such an outcome…
The picture is from the National Library of Ireland collection, and is featured on Flickr.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Male authors getting the details right: Brideshead

the book:

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

published 1945  Book 1 ch 3 & 5 & Book 2 ch 2 -  events taking place around 1923

[Narrator Charles Ryder is talking about Lady Julia Flyte, glamorous sister of his best friend Sebastian]
[The first time we met] She wore a bangle of charms on her wrist and in her ears little gold rings. Her light coat revealed an inch or two of flowered silk; skirts were short in those days.
[Later that year] We met at Gunter’s in Berkeley Square. Julia, like most women then, wore a green hat pulled down to her eyes with a diamond arrow in it; she had a small dog under her arm, three-quarters buried in the fur of her coat. She greeted us with an unusual show of interest…
She was thin in those days, flat-chested, leggy; she seemed all limbs and neck, bodiless, spidery; thus far she conformed to the fashion, but the hair-cut and the hats of the period, and the blank stare and gape of the period, and the clownish dabs of rouge high on the cheekbones, could not reduce her to type.


Julia is the great heroine of the book and is beautiful, clever, infinitely desirable – ‘she outshone by far all the girls of her age’. Charles is going to fall in love with her, a relationship of enormous seriousness and importance: she is the love of his life. So it’s not much of a description is it? ‘bodiless, spidery’? Earlier he has said that her legs were spindly, her painted mouth unfriendly. One does not expect great romance from Waugh, but still…
Note the arrow in her cloche: in first editions of the book the hat was decorated with diamond clips. But then EW’s great friend Nancy Mitford saw an advance copy and wrote to him in December 1944: “A triumph… a great English classic… One dreadful error. Diamond clips were only invented about 1930, you wore a diamond arrow in your cloche. It’s the only one [mistake], which I call good – the only one I spotted at least.” So Waugh changed the sentence for (the many) subsequent editions. An unexpected identification comes up in the same letter: much has been made of who might be the originals of the characters in Brideshead, but I have never seen anywhere else NM’s suggestion that she saw a little of Lord Andrew Cavendish in Sebastian – Lord Andrew was married to Nancy’s sister Debo, became the Duke of Devonshire, and lived out his life as almost a parody of a kindly traditional English nobleman. About as far from Sebastian as could be, you might think…
The photograph is from the collection of the State Library of New South Wales, and is featured on Flickr. The 'arrow' in this case is a representation of Sydney Harbour Bridge.


Saturday, 11 February 2012

The Nut Tart: Miss Pym Disposes

the book:

Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey

published 1946  chapter 3

[Miss Lucy Pym, a psychologist, is visiting Leys, a ‘college of physical culture’]
“… ‘Desterrro doesn’t play games,” Henrietta had said, ‘so I’ll send her to keep you company.’ Lucy had not wanted anyone to keep her company… but the thought of a South American at an English college of physical training teased her.  And when Nash, running into her after lunch, had said: ‘I’m afraid you’re going to be deserted this afternoon, if you don’t care for cricket’, another Senior passing in the crush had said: ‘It’s all right, the Nut Tart is going to look after her.’…
Lucy looked forward to meeting a Nut Tart, and sitting in the sunlit garden… she pondered the name. ‘Nut’ was Brazil, perhaps. It was also the modern slang for ‘dippy’ or ‘daft’, she believed. But ‘tart’? Surely not!...
Round the corner of the house came a figure in a flowered silk dress and a plain, wide-brimmed shady hat. It was a slim, graceful figure, and watching it come Lucy realized that she had unconsciously pictured the South American plump and over-ripe. She also realized where the ‘tart’ came from, and smiled. The outdoor frocks of the austere young students of Leys would not be flowered: neither would they be cut so revealingly; and never oh never would their hats be broad-brimmed and shady…”


Miss Pym Disposes is rather a sinister book, because it is set in such wholesome surroundings. Everything is too perfect, the girls are healthy and clean-living. Something is sure to go wrong, and it does. Many detective story fans have a real penchant for murder stories set in educational establishments, and this is a classic of the genre. (The college is an all-female institution where women train, mostly, to be games mistresses at all-girls schools.) It would make a wonderful film or TV programme, and it's surprising that it never seems to have been adapted for any other medium.
The ending of the book (the very ending, the very last page) is shocking and discomfiting. But along the way we have had the usual turn through Josephine Tey’s wide range of views and prejudices, her firm decisions about who is nice and who isn’t. She is a most entertaining writer, even if some of her views are either rather shocking (though probably average for her time) or just passingly over-judgmental – Lucy Pym watches her friend putting sugar in her coffee: “How nice, thought Lucy wistfully, to have a figure like a sack of flour and not to mind!” Her books have a vintage feel about them, but are still a good entertaining read. ‘Daughter of Time’ - about the Princes in the Tower – is probably her best-known now: it is full of criticisms of historians' ways, although not innocent of the same lapses, but at least it stands as an attempt to make people think about Richard III. The Franchise Affair also pops up from time to time, but a personal choice would be Miss Pym, and the marvellous Brat Farrar, with its young man back from the dead who may be an impostor. In  Daughter of Time and one of her police novels – To Love and Be Wise – an author, Silas Weekley appears: he plainly writes rural gothic novels of the kind satirized in Cold Comfort Farm, featured in this blog entry. Josephine Tey herself was much involved in the theatre – she wrote a play, Richard of Bordeaux, which was one of John Gielgud’s first big hits – and the theatre features just enough on the edges of the detective stories.

The photo is of a young lady at a regatta in Brisbane. It is part of the Queensland State Collection, and is featured on Flickr.