Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess
published 1980 Chapter 28, 1919 & Chapter 42, 1928
"...He and Hortense had spent some time with me in Paris, she to see about her weddingdress and trousseau. The dress was made by the rising house of Worth and was very modern, that is to say it had a tubular bodice, low waist, gathered skirt that only just covered the knees, shirttype sleeves, flared lace oversleeves, low U-shaped neckline, and a fine chiffon veil with embroidered edges. It was in Paris that she said, while Domenico was meeting the composer Germaine Tailleferre somewhere, that she would never forgive me…"
[Nine years later] "...Tom’s marriage took place the following afternoon in a church in Soho patronized by Catholic stage performers…The demands and responses of the ceremony rang clear, the timing was good. Estella wore a shortskirted wedding dress with shirttype sleeves and flared lace oversleeves, a low U neckline, a chiffon veil with embroidery on the edge, soft kid shoes with straps over the instep. Late in the ceremony Augustus John and Peter Warlock (or Philip Heseltine) came in drunk, but were ejected by two strong men later, jocularly, identified for me as Cough and Spit the Flemish twins..."
Isn’t that a coincidence? If two different people had written these extracts, one of them would have a case for plagiarism. But one can only assume that Anthony Burgess – expert in so many things – asked someone else for a description? Or saved one up then forgot he’d used it already? There is nothing in the text to indicate it is anything but a mistake.
The book is probably most famous for its first line:
It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.
This and the (highly typical) sentences surrounding the wedding descriptions above might tell you if you would enjoy it or not. It is a cracking read, a long busy book with ideas and questions bursting out in all directions, real people and historical events featuring throughout. It doesn’t really resemble any other book.
All kinds of connections here: The House of Worth is very much a real fashion house and was often featured in literature – Edith Wharton and Frances Hodgson Burnett both liked to drop the name, and Dorothy L Sayers’ Harriet Vane got her wedding dress from Worth in this blog entry. However, to say Worth was ‘rising’ in 1919 is not at all correct – by then it had been the main Paris couturier for upperclass women from the USA and the UK for around 50 years – again suggesting A.Burgess doesn’t know everything.
And of course these two brides will have to worry about their ‘poor old dead legs’ just like Nancy Mitford’s Louisa, see this entry here….
With thanks to Blog Follower Audrey (again), who cleverly remembered this anomaly after 30 years..
The photo is from the state library of New South Wales and is featured on Flickr.