Sunday, 30 September 2012

Dress Down Sunday: Any sexual problems?

Dress Down Sunday -
what goes on under the clothes

the book:

The Group by Mary McCarthy

published 1963  chapter 6


[Norine is telling Helena about sexual problems with her husband Putnam. She has tried asking doctors for advice]

‘[The first doctor] told me I should consider myself lucky that my husband didn’t want intercourse. Sex wasn’t necessary for a woman, he said.’

‘Good Heavens!’ said Helena.

‘Yes!’ nodded Norine. ‘The second one was a GP with a few more modern ideas. Put’s partner, Bill Nickum, sent me to him. He was pretty much of a Behaviorist. When I explained Put’s sexual history, he advised me to buy some black chiffon underwear and long black silk stockings and some cheap perfume. So that Put would associate me with a whore. And to try to get him to take me that way, with all my clothes on, in the afternoon, when he got home from work.’

‘Mercy!’ said Helena. ‘What happened?’

‘It was almost a success. I went to Bloomingdale’s and got the underwear and the stockings.’ She pulled up her sweat shirt, and Helena had a glimpse of a black chiffon ‘shimmy’ with lace inserts. ‘Then I thought of that polar-bear rug. My mother had it in storage; it used to belong to my grandmother Schmittlapp, who was a rich old aristocrat. “Venus in Furs” – Sacher-Masoch. I arranged so that Put would find me on the rug when he got home from the office.’ Helena smiled and made a noise like a whistle. ‘Put ejaculated prematurely,’ said Norine somberly. ‘Then we had a fight about how much I’d spent at Bloomingdale’s. Put’s an ascetic about money.'

observations: The separate strands of this novel are all absorbing in their different ways, as Libby becomes more and more vile, and Harald and Kay’s marriage gets more unnervingly real and horrible. Norine is light relief: she is not one of the main cast – as she points out, she wasn’t one of the in-group at Vassar – but she certainly adds verve to the book.

For a book written in the 1960s about the 1930s, the themes are very modern: the problems with child-rearing and breast-feeding, the affairs with married men, the troubles with aging parents, the embarrassment of visiting the contraception clinic - all the same as today.

 It is written in a clever style, as if almost by one of the girls (is it Libbys voice or, just whoever is the central figure in the section?), dipping into a 2nd person narration at points – ‘you found that you got obsessed with these petty details’.

The Group has featured
before, and there’s a black lace dress here.

 The picture is of a 1920s Ziegfeld girl Helen Lee Worthing and is from the
Library of Congress collection. This is another Ziegfeld girl.


Saturday, 29 September 2012

When I am young I will wear purple

the book:

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

published 1817  chapter 27


[Part of a letter from Isabella Thorpe to Catherine Morland]

The spring fashions are partly down; and the hats the most frightful you can imagine…

We happened to sit by the Mitchells, and they pretended to be quite surprised to see me out. I knew their spite: at one time they could not be civil to me, but now they are all friendship; but I am not such a fool as to be taken in by them. You know I have a pretty good spirit of my own. Anne Mitchell had tried to put on a turban like mine, as I wore it the week before at the concert, but made wretched work of it—it happened to become my odd face, I believe, at least Tilney told me so at the time, and said every eye was upon me; but he is the last man whose word I would take. I wear nothing but purple now: I know I look hideous in it, but no matter—it is your dear brother's favourite colour. Lose no time, my dearest, sweetest Catherine, in writing to him and to me, Who ever am, etc.

observations: Heroine Catherine is shocked by this letter, as it shows Isabella in her true light: ‘She must think me an idiot, or she could not have written so; but perhaps this has served to make her character better known to me than mine is to her. I see what she has been about. She is a vain coquette, and her tricks have not answered.’

Northanger Abbey is the simplest of Jane Austen’s works, but is still full of delights. The idea of wearing purple even though ‘I know I look hideous’ is easily worthy of Lydia Bennett from Pride and Prejudice, and although too much frivolity in clothes (as we have
seen) is never a good thing, Jane Austen takes clothes and appearances very seriously, and her letters are full of references to shopping, to choosing materials, to ribbons and hats and stockings.

With thanks to Barbara (again) for the suggestion.

Links up with: Northanger Abbey has featured
before. Couldn’t be more different, yet somehow just the same: Neely in Valley of the Dolls wears purple in this entry.

The picture is The Purple Dress by William Glackens and is in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and is not hideous at all. The photo was taken by
pohick2 and submitted to the Wikipedia Loves Art project.

Friday, 28 September 2012

Don't remember a thing

the book:

Before I go to Sleep by SJ Watson

published 2011

An image came then. Claire and I joking that we would never marry. ‘Marriage is for losers!’ she was saying as she raised a bottle of red wine to her lips, and I was agreeing, though at the same time I knew that one day I would be her bridesmaid, and she mine, and we would sit in hotel rooms, dressed in organza, sipping champagne from a flute while someone did our hair….

‘There are a couple of photos here.’

They were wedding pictures, though not formal shots; these were blurred and dark, taken by an amateur. By Ben, I guessed. I approached the first one cautiously.

She was as I had imagined her. Tall, thin. More beautiful, if anything. She was standing on a clifftop, her dress diaphanous, blowing in the breeze, the sun setting over the sea behind her. I put the picture down and looked through the rest. In some she was with her husband – a man I didn’t recognize – and in others I had joined them, dressed in pale-blue silk, looking only slightly less beautiful. It was true; I had been a bridesmaid.

observations: A very much talked-about book, and understandably so – and also a remarkable debut. Right at the end, the explanations and tidy-up are done in quite a plonking way, but that just makes the reader realize that this has been very much not a typical first novel, it is mostly written in a very assured way. If you’re the one person who doesn’t know the setup: Christine wakes up every morning unable to remember most things about her life, she has to find out all over again why she is there, and who she is with. She is keeping a notebook and meeting a doctor, but why does her husband not know about that? Is there something more going on - and whom can she trust? This reader felt the first half could have been cut considerably, that it was quite long and dull and (in its nature) extremely repetitive, and it was hard to care about the characters. But then - after those early longueurs, the final third is completely gripping, you couldn’t have paid me to put it down before the finale.

Links up with: wedding pictures all over the blog – click on the label below.

The picture is a fashion photo by the fabulous Toni Frissell, from 1948. It is in the
Library of Congress collection. You can see another of her extraordinary pictures in this entry.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Small and dark: The Borrowers

the book:

The Borrowers by Mary Norton

published 1952 chapter 9


[tiny Borrower Arietty has come across a human boy]

Don’t move!” said a voice, and the voice, like the eye, was enormous but, somehow, hushed – and hoarse like a surge of wind through the grating on a stormy night in March.

Arietty froze. “So this is it,” she thought, “the worst and most terrible thing of all: I have been ‘seen’! Whatever happened to Eggletina will now, almost certainly, happen to me!”…

“I’ll pick you up and break you in half!”

Arietty stood up. “All right”, she said and took two paces forward.

There was a sharp gasp and an earthquake in the grass; he spun away from her and sat up , a great mountain in a green jersey. He had fair, straight hair and golden eyelashes. “Stay where you are!” he cried.

Arietty stared up at him. So this was “the boy”…

observations: The boy is not nearly as aggressive as this makes him sound - he is in fact scared to death of Arietty, and he is as charming and loveable as she is. He is nine (though he claims to be ten) and he can’t read - he tells Arietty “Well if you’re born in India, you’re bilingual. And if you’re bilingual you can’t read. Not so well.” He wants her to read to him, and she does.

This is a true children’s classic, delighting imaginations for 60 years. In fact some of us didn’t care if Arietty never had adventures, we just liked reading about the clever uses the Borrowers put to household objects – the pin and nametape for climbing, the broom made out of doormat fibres, the cotton reel for a stool. Even the young wonder whether Mary Norton has worked out the scale correctly, but it would spoil the magic actually to make the calculation. There are darker elements to the book – the missing Eggletina, the constant shadows, the way the boy questions Arietty about who is actually left, the thin smoke trail of lost family.

Links up with: other children’s classics such as
Jennings – also from 1952 - and Ballet Shoes. Another strange boy in this children’s book.

The picture comes from the
Tyne & Wear archives and museums.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Baker Street irregularities

the book:

The Baker Street Letters by Michael Robertson

published 2009  chapter 24

Surely Krendall was bluffing.

Reggie watched through the revolving window as the Hollywood sign slowly passed by.

Now the lift doors opened, and a man stepped out who Reggie guessed had to be the Lloyd’s agent – no tan whatsoever on his face, wearing a traditionally tailored Gieves & Hawkes suit, a dark narrow tie, and a Turnbull & Asser shirt that looked as if it were finally getting a bit tight in the collar, having been in use, probably for the past ten or fifteen years.

This had to be Wellingham.

The man paused and looked about – and then walked directly to Reggie’s table and introduced himself.

observations: What could be a better concept? Everyone knows that Sherlock Holmes lived at 221b, Baker St, London, and that people write to him at this address. So imagine that whoever is reading these letters starts following up on them, and gets involved in crime-solving. Regrettably, this book – first of a series – really doesn’t live up to the idea. It is disappointing, and it reads as though every so often the author suddenly remembered that he was trying to emulate Holmes, and put in a bit of detection or some clues. The rest of the time it is a routine Californian thriller, and not particularly engaging.

The author seems to be American: this blog sometimes thinks we should hire ourselves out to US writers to spot their mistakes in scenes set in the UK. Here, his character ‘navigated a little circus where three roads converged’ – we presume he means roundabout? The other error concerns a popular kind of candy: Smarties. He repeatedly refers to them as ‘chocolate Smarties’ a turn of phrase which simply doesn’t exist in UK speech – they are always just Smarties.

Links up with: This protagonist has a
smart suit too, and other carefully dressed chaps are here, here and here.

The picture is of Sidney Paget, man in a sharp suit, but also the man who did the original, iconic illustrations for the Sherlock Holmes stories. The picture can be found on
Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Margery Allingham at her best

the book:

The Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham

published 1952  chapter 9


[A group of ex-soldiers living in difficult circumstances are surprised when someone arrives through the window]

Through the dark square a pair of legs had appeared. They were elegant legs in well-pressed wide trousers of a pattern very fashionable in certain circles before the war. Suede shoes and bright socks accompanied them, and above there was a suggestion of tweed, thick, buff, expensive coat skirts…

There was a moment of silence, a stunned and timeless pause during which the circle of upturned faces froze into grotesque masks, ludicrous in their astonishment. Then…the legs kicked out once, as with the grace which belongs to strength alone a man unfolded himself before them. He hung by an arm from the beam… his feet in their excellent shoes swinging limply two or three yards from the ground. The light fell on him squarely. It found his gay scarf, and the gap of good shirt between his waistcoat and trouser top where his stomach was arched to take his weight, and every man in the cellar saw the tragic face… and the steady eyes regarding them so boldly as he looked round for men he knew. Then he dropped lightly to the ground… ‘Dad’s back’ he said, and his voice was smooth and careful.

observations: Enter the master villain. Jack Havoc is a strange and difficult character in this superb book, which has appeared before on the blog. There is a terrific feel for 1950s London, and this is very much a book is about the aftermath of war: seven years after WW2 ended, some of these men (street buskers who live together in a cellar) are still remembering a raid they went on to a French chateau, and the treasure that may still be there. Jack – who should be in prison – has just turned up to try to recover the valuables. And the story starts with a young widow, about to remarry, being sent hints that perhaps her husband, the brave Major, is not dead. An enticing setup, and a wonderful, memorable book.

Twice in the book the Hollerith system is mentioned – they are tabulated punch cards for sorting data, and not something that comes up these days, but they formed one of the bus-stops on the road to modern computers.

Links up with: earlier appearance,
here. Natty young men,  here. Musicians in a cellar in a very different context in this entry.

The picture is of the blameless and totally un-criminal bandleader Cab Calloway, part of the Gottlieb collection at the
Library of Congress.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Four Children and It

the book:

Four Children and It by Jacqueline Wilson

published 2012  chapter 7

[Four modern-day children have time-travelled to visit their Edwardian counterparts] She led us all into a beautiful nursery bedroom with a dog on wheels and a scrap screen and little complicated white clothes airing on a fender. A small boy stood up in his cot, shaking the bars, eager to be lifted out. He had fair curls and big blue eyes and very pink cheeks and looked extraordinarily like a little boy version of Maudie. Both toddlers pointed at each other, laughing. ‘There now! Let’s get you out, my little duckie,’ said Anthea, lifting him up. ‘He’ll likely be grizzling and grumbling all afternoon now because he hasn’t had his nap,’ said Martha, but the Lamb seemed in an exceptionally sunny mood. He nodded at all of us and gave Maudie a delighted hug.

[Martha] frowned at Anthea and Cyril and Robert, and positively glared at all of us. ‘I don’t know where you met up with those strange children, but they don’t look like proper gentlefolk at all. Look at the rags they’re wearing! They’re scarcely decent. I don’t know what your mother would say, Miss Anthea,’ said Martha. ‘She’d say, “How lovely to meet you and I hope you have a splendid tea,”’ said Anthea. ‘Off you go now, Martha,’ said Cyril – and she did. I wondered what it would be like to order adults around like that. Smash looked as if she’d like it tremendously.

I thought Maudie would like to play dolls too, but she had invented a new game with the Lamb called Walky Doggy. They took turns pushing the dog on wheels, running fast and frequently ramming it into the furniture – or us.

observations: This is one great follow-up book – Jacqueline Wilson is a wonderful writer, and one assumes she took on this task (a modern-day sequel to Five Children and It by E Nesbit – featured in yesterday’s entry) not because she needed the money but because she wanted to, perhaps because she loved the original. JW has sold more than 30million of her own books, so isn’t needing the boost.

The four children are a modern blended family, children shoved together for a summer holiday and not particularly getting on. As well as having a masterly way with plots, Wilson is very good on the small difficulties of the children of divorce, and this features in the book, along with some adventures parallel to the old ones, some very different ones, and this chapter – where the children from the old and new books meet up to excellent effect.
This article , which we HIGHLY RECOMMEND, gives a detailed analysis of why Wilson is both good and successful - we described her as having cheerful integrity and no sentimentality, and that’s as true as ever. The children have problems with their father and nothing is going to be resolved too easily, no over-simple endings, but she sends them on their way with a bit more hope and calmness in their hearts. And also there are fantastic descriptions of the food at picnics – better than Enid Blyton even.

Links up with: Five children and it. Wooden dogs featured in
this Saki story.

The photo is of a 19th century German picture, and can be found on
Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Dress Down Sunday: wearing your petticoat as a dress

Dress down Sunday –
what goes on under the clothes
the book:

Five Children and It  by E Nesbit

published 1902     chapter 3
It turned out that Jane must either mend the dress she had torn the day before or appear all day in her best petticoat. It was white and soft and frilly, and trimmed with lace, and very, very pretty, quite as pretty as a frock, if not more so. Only it was not a frock, and Martha's word was law. She wouldn't let Jane wear her best frock, and she refused to listen for a moment to Robert's suggestion that Jane should wear her best petticoat and call it a dress. "It's not respectable," she said. And when people say that, it's no use anyone's saying anything. You'll find this out for yourselves some day. So there was nothing for it but for Jane to mend her frock. The hole had been torn the day before when she happened to tumble down in the High Street of Rochester, just where a water-cart had passed on its silvery way. …Of course the others were not such sneaks as to abandon a comrade in misfortune, so they all sat on the grass-plot round the sun-dial, and Jane darned away for dear life.

observations: Jacqueline Wilson has written a modern day follow-up to Five children and It, and very good it is too, and we’ll be looking at that tomorrow. But the original is still seriously worth a read – it is hilarious, very clever and full of interest. Of course E Nesbit lived in a different era, and (despite her socialist leanings) some of the references to servants and gypsies grate on modern ears, although the children are very straightforward, and what they say merely reflects their acceptance of the world. (And there is a moment of real feeling from the gypsy who has no child.) The dialogue certainly gives the impression that this IS how children of the era would have talked to each other. The children have their wishes granted by the endearingly grumpy Psammead, the It of the title, and usually they end up badly, but – for example – the description of the children flying is very beautiful, and worth the horror of their then being grounded on a church tower…

And the jokes are splendid:

"He said we could have a wish every day, and we wished first to be beautiful."

"Thy wish was scarce granted," muttered one of the men-at-arms, looking at Robert, who went on as if he had not heard, though he thought the remark very rude indeed.

Links up with: The
Fossil sisters like frilly white dresses and petticoats. Flora Poste is sewing her petticoat and lying about it, this Virginia Woolf heroine is standing at the window in hers, and Gertie McDowell irons and starches hers.

The photograph is by the ever-wonderful Adolf de Meyer, who has featured
before, more than once.


Saturday, 22 September 2012

Guys and Dolls

the story:

A very honourable Guy  by Damon Runyon

First published 1929    Now in the collection Guys and Dolls

She has blonde hair and plenty to say, and her square monicker is Annie O’Brien, and not Hortense Hathaway at all. Furthermore, she comes from Newark, which is in New Jersey, and her papa is a taxi jockey by the name of Skush O’Brien, and a very rough guy , at that, if anybody asks you. But of course the daughter of a taxi jockey is as good as anybody else for Georgie White’s Scandals as long as her shape is okay, and nobody ever hears any complaint from the customers about Hortense on this proposition. She is what is called a show girl, and all she has to do is to walk around about on Georgie White’s stage with only a few light bandages on, and everybody considers her very beautiful, especially from the neck down, although personally I never care much for Hortense because she is very fresh to people. I often see her around the nightclubs, and when she is in these deadfalls Hortense generally is wearing quite a number of diamond bracelets and fur wraps, and one thing and another, so I judge she is not doing bad for a doll from Newark, New Jersey.

observations: Yesterday’s entry, on Shaw's Major Barbara and the Salvation Army, brought to mind Damon Runyon’s Guys and Dolls stories, about life in the demi-monde in New York in the 1920s. The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown is the original title of the story that’s the linchpin for the musical and film (although it is now usually known as Guys and Dolls), and Miss Sarah Brown, with her one-hundred-percent eyes, tootled a cornet for the Save a Soul Mission, trying to reform the sinners of Broadway. The other stories – Runyon wrote a lot of them – tend to be a lot more about the lowlifes than the mission workers: the people in night clubs, in Broadway shows, in speakeasies and racetracks. The language in the stories is irresistible and inimitable, the plots charming, the characters intriguing. You don’t hear about them much, but they are great great stories. This is an early one, with a plot about crime, true love, betting, and selling your body for science.

Links up with:
Miss Pettigrew goes to a nightclub, as do the characters in Valley of the Dolls.

The picture is the next best thing to a George White’s Scandals girl – a Ziegfeld girl. Both were shows that kept the populace of New York happy with scantily clad women and other entertainment, and launched a lot of careers. This  tasteful photo is of Hazel Forbes, photographed by
Alfred Cheney Johnston, and is from the Library of Congress Collection.

Friday, 21 September 2012

A very major Barbara

the play:

Major Barbara by George Bernard Shaw

first performed 1905  Act 1


LADY BRITOMART: I don’t know how Barbara will take it. Ever since they made her a major in the Salvation Army she has developed a propensity to have her own way and order people about which quite cows me sometimes. It's not ladylike: I'm sure I don’t know where she picked it up. Anyhow, Barbara shan’t bully me; but still it's just as well that your father should be here before she has time to refuse to meet him or make a fuss. Don’t look nervous, Stephen; it will only encourage Barbara to make difficulties. I am nervous enough, goodness knows; but I don’t shew it.

Sarah and Barbara come in with their respective young men, Charles Lomax and Adolphus Cusins. Sarah is slender, bored, and mundane. Barbara is robuster, jollier, much more energetic. Sarah is fashionably dressed: Barbara is in Salvation Army uniform… Cusins is a spectacled student, slight, thin haired, and sweet voiced… his sense of humor is intellectual and subtle, and is complicated by an appalling temper… By the operation of some instinct which is not merciful enough to blind him with the illusions of love, he is obstinately bent on marrying Barbara.

observations: Very helpfully, George Bernard Shaw is always prepared to tell us what to think. The typically detailed stage directions (the one above has been shortened considerably) are only the half of it – there is a 14 000-word preface to this play, an essay explaining Shaw’s beliefs on relevant matters. He never needed persuading to write such explanations, but in this particular case he was specificially unhappy that some critics had misunderstood his thinking on the issues therein. While the trappings of the play are very much of their time, these issues are fascinating and very modern: what is the morality of arms manufacture? The Salvation Army performs good works: should they take money from anyone, or be fussy about the donors? What are the causes and effects of poverty? Barbara is disappointed in the SA’s decisions, and ends the play ‘fashionably dressed’ in what she calls a ‘vulgar and silly dress’ – but still trying to do good works. As a funny and relevant play (there is also some discussion of women's issues), Major Barbara could bear being revived more often.

For a very major Barbara on her birthday.

Links up with: the good and bad of religion feature
here and here in their different ways, uniforms are discussed here.

The picture is from the State Library of
New South Wales.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

"Kitty thought she had never seen anything so lovely..."

the book:

The Painted Veil   by W Somerset Maugham

published 1925    ch 58

[Kitty, living in a Chinese city, has made friends with Englishman, Waddington. He takes her to visit his Chinese mistress, a Manchu noblewoman]

Kitty shook hands with her. She was slim in her long embroidered gown and somewhat taller than Kitty, used to the Southern people, had expected. She wore a jacket of pale green silk with tight sleeves that came over her wrists and on her black hair, elaborately dressed, was the head-dress of the Manchu women. Her face was coated with powder and her cheeks from the eyes to the mouth heavily rouged; her plucked eyebrows were a thin dark line and her mouth was scarlet. From this mask her black, slightly slanting, large eyes burned like lakes of liquid jet. She seemed more like an idol than a woman. Her movements were slow and assured. Kitty had the impression that she was slightly shy but very curious. She nodded her head two or three times, looking at Kitty, while Waddington spoke of her. Kitty noticed her hands; they were preternaturally long, very slender, of the colour of ivory; and the exquisite nails were painted. Kitty thought she had never seen anything so lovely as those languid and elegant hands. They suggested the breeding of uncounted centuries…

"What does she do with herself all day long?" asked Kitty.

"She paints a little and sometimes she writes a poem. But she mostly sits. She smokes, but only in moderation, which is fortunate, since one of my duties is to prevent the traffic in opium."

observations: Kitty is shown as rather vain and frivolous, and heedless (“it was not done in her set” to think about Chinese culture), but she has no qualms about visiting a woman who is both foreign and in an irregular relationship. She is unusually unjudgemental for the times – but she is also fascinated, because the Manchu woman and Waddington seem to have achieved a great love story, a real passion, and Kitty fears she herself will never find that.

There are a handful of pictures of Manchu women on the web, all as stunning and fascinating as this one (which is a photograph by John Thomson found on
Wikimedia Commons.) You can find artworks here and here, and another photo here.

This is the third oriental robe this week: arranged for those returning from China.

Links up with: The Painted Veil, an intriguing favourite, has featured before, as has another of Maugham’s works. Village life in China here, and Chinese robes on Englishwomen here and here.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Real or fake?

the book:

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

published 2012    chapter 9     set in the 1970s


Neil…was looking at a young woman who had turned away from the entire group. She was contemplating an engraving – a view of Venice – on the wall. But not quite. Through an error of alignment by the window dresser, or, as he suddenly found himself imagining, a degree of stubbornness in the woman herself, her gaze was off the picture by several inches and was angled straight into the corner. She was pursuing a thought, an idea, and she didn’t care how she appeared. She didn’t want to be there. She wore an orange silk dress of simple folds and, unlike all the rest, she was barefoot. Her shoes – they must have been her shoes – were lying on their sides by the door, discarded as she came in. She loved freedom. In one hand she held a small black and orange beaded purse, while the other trailed at her side, wrist turned outwards as she lost herself to her idea. Or perhaps a memory. Her head was slightly lowered to reveal the pure line of her neck. Her lips were parted, but only just, as though she was formulating a thought, a word, a name . . . Neil.

observations: In general this blog likes to choose pictures of people wearing clothes, not just the clothes, though there have been exceptions (this is fairly extreme one). Sometimes a perfect outfit pops up in our researches, but it is on a mannequin, a shop dummy; and again we would use such a picture with reluctance – there are examples here and here, and it is possible to deduce there is something within the extracts that seems to justify the use of an inanimate object in these particular cases.

Here we have the rare opposite situation - the woman described above is a shop dummy, and Neil is about to fall in love with her. This is a story within a story in a really rather tricksy book - there is a twist at the end of it which prevents much open discussion of the plot. It is, as is usual with this author, beautifully written and very entertaining, and it is close to impossible to guess where it is going next. The picture of the UK, and particularly London, in the 1970s is very convincing and real. The picture of the security services is also convincing and real, as well as being both funny and horrifying. Whether is more than just a clever book with a clever trick is hard to say.

Links up with: Mrs Bradley likes orange in
an outfit, as does this young woman. Espionage, women and high drama also feature in this book. Another Ian McEwan book here, and he is mentioned in the comments on this entry.

The picture is
Flaming June by Frederick Leighton, a Victorian painter whose reputation has had its ups and downs. It is owned by an art museum in Puerto Rico.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

We do like a nice dressing-gown

the book:

A Nest of Magpies by Sybil Marshall

published 1993    ch 49    set in the 1960s


I slipped up to my own private bathroom en suite with my bedroom. I put my dressing gown over my summer nightie, and looked at myself in the long mirror. That housecoat really was rather a gorgeous garment! It was a Jaeger creation of the finest black wool, embroidered all over with flowers of multi-coloured real silk. I had bought it in a mad, flush moment years ago, and it had cost so much that I felt guilty (as usual), so I had put it away and forgotten it, until it had come to light again by chance a week or two ago. But I adored it, because it made me feel expensive and exclusive, like itself…

‘That’s a wonderfully becoming garment you’re wearing,’ he said. ‘Come closer, so that I can see it properly.’

Clasping the bundle of clean sheets in my arms, I pirouetted in front of him to show off the full skirt, but he caught me and pulled me down beside him. I dropped the linen on the floor as I responded to his kiss.

observations: This follows on (hundreds of pages later) from the flirtatious carryon in
this entry. Fran and William’s rather excruciating romance is about to be consummated, and those of us who are fed up and bored with their shilly-shallying and dithering and holy talk about morals and adultery – well, we’re glad (SPOILER) that it’s going to come to an end. Ms Marshall was writing 30 years after these events were set, but presumably was confident that the endless discussions of the new ways of permissiveness were convincing. Fran is surely a Mary Sue character for the author, so it is a pity she is shown as a snobbish Lady Bountiful (though she is very cross when one character describes her as such), when Sybil Marshall sounds quite nice herself.

Links up with:
Miss Marple, of all unlikely people, visits a man in the middle of the night wearing her dressing gown. Sylvia Plath’s Esther takes a keen interest in people’s nightwear here. Jane Eyre bizarrely tells Mr Rochester to make himself a dressing-gown out of the rich fabrics she rejects for her wedding-dress.

The picture is Caprice in Purple and Gold by Whistler, and is in the Freer Gallery of Art, part of the Smithsonian. The image is available via the
Google Art Project

Monday, 17 September 2012

Chinese robes and Native Americans

the book:

Vermeer's Hat by Timothy Brook

published 2008  chapter 2    the early 1600s

The chief of the Winnebagoes invited Jean Nicollet to be his guest at a great feast of welcome. When he presented himself before the thousands who came great distances to attend the feast he hosted in his honour, he wore the finest item he had in his baggage: a Chinese robe embroidered with flowers and birds….

There was no way that an up-country agent such as Nicollet acquired this garment on his own. He would not have had access to such a thing, let alone the money to buy it. The robe must have been Champlain’s. But how did Champlain acquire it? Only in the early years of the 17th century were curiosities of this sort starting to make their way from China to northern Europe…

The likely origin was a Jesuit missionary in China, who brought or sent it back to Europe as a testimonial of the cultured civilization to which he had devoted his life. The English traveller John Evelyn saw a set of Chinese robes in Paris, and marvelled at them. They were “glorious vests, wrought and embroidered on clothe of Gold, but with such lively colours, as for splendour and vividness we have nothing in Europe approaches.”


observations: Samuel Champlain was trying to reach China by travelling across North America. Jean Nicollet was his ‘woodland runner… infiltrating the interior and operating extensive networks of trade.’ Champlain hoped that there was a chain of rivers and lakes to take him across the continent. He ended up with a monopoly on the fur trade, he made maps, and he initiated a wave of encounters with Native Americans – seen as a ’turning point… in the history of the European-Native relationship.’

This fascinating non-fiction book has a concept that is simultaneously brilliant, simple, and hard to explain. The author – an expert on Chinese history – takes as his starting point five paintings by Vermeer, two by his contemporaries, and a porcelain dish. Timothy Brook uses these pieces to look at the way the world worked in the 17th century, and specifically travel and trade, the way that various features in the pictures arrived there – from silver to a black boy, from hats to maps. The result is rivetingly informative.

With thanks to JS for the book.

Links up with: The fascination with Chinese robes continued into the 20th century -
here and here and here.

The picture is of a man’s formal court robe from the Qing Dynasty, and is in the Indianapolis
Museum of Art.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Dress Down Sunday: corsets making their mark

Dress Down Sunday -
looking at what goes on under the clothes

the book:

The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty

published 2012  set in the 1920s

[Cora has slept with her lover for the first time]

He asked about the impressions around her waist, on her shoulders. ‘This is from what you wear?’ His fingers, rough against her skin, traced a curve from just under her breast to her navel. ‘It is so tight? This must hurt.’ She was embarrassed. He’d never turned off the lamp on the table. It was just a reading lamp, but the dim halo of light reached the bed. Despite her best efforts to relax, to concentrate on what she herself was feeling and seeing, she’d been so aware that she was visible to him, not covered in darkness as she’d been with Alan. And now, after, it seemed her fear was founded: there was something strange about her naked body, something she hadn’t known was strange. Did other women have marks from corsets? Cora guessed, just from his reaction, that his wife hadn’t had marks. Immigrant women didn’t always wear corsets, especially if they worked. But did other women like her have marks? There was no way to know. Even while giving birth to the twins, she’d had a sheet over her, draped to her knees. No one had seen her bare belly since Mother Kaufmann stopped giving her baths.

‘You get used to it,’ she said.

observations: You couldn’t read this book and not be aware that Cora wears a corset – it’s mentioned 28 times, and never positively. She has many such realizations of the restrictions of her life, and in fact it is salutary for the reader to be reminded that Cora has difficulty bending down to pick something up, and can’t eat much while wearing her corset. The lives of modern women choosing to wear a corset top are very different.

This is a fascinating book, using Cora’s life to map most of the 20th century in changes of attitude and morality. The compromises she reaches, and the lifestyle she eventually manages for herself, can seem unlikely, but you really want her to be happy….

Links up with: The Chaperone has featured
before, and other Dress Down Sunday entries can be found by clicking on the label below. Corsets were important in Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins (the photo of the corset shop is one of the most popular on the blog), and, perhaps surprisingly, Esther’s friend in The Bell Jar is wearing one in the 1950s.

The picture is from a 1922 catalogue, and can be found on
Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

A film star, a murder and espionage

the book:

And so to Murder by John Dickson Carr (Carter Dickson)

published 1940

'There she is’ said Cartwright.

They were looking, as though deep under a hood, into the bedroom of a luxury suite aboard an ocean liner. And in the middle of the cabin, wearing a low-cut gold evening gown, out of which her full shoulders rose superbly, stood Frances Fleur.

The aching clarity of the light made every colour and detail more vivid than life. Pink-and-white panelled walls, white upholstery, mahogany round the porthole windows, all glowed and glistened. The toilet articles on the dressing-table appeared to be made of gold; the white door stared; even the lamp and the water-bottle glittered on the table by the bed. Frances Fleur’s make-up, the skin a super flesh-tint like orange gold, contrasted with her long, narrow eyes and rich black hair. The face was broad and rather high of cheekbone, incuriously placid, and the eyebrows looked as though they had been painted on oiled silk.

observations: Originally a Carter Dickson, this has been reprinted under the JDC name, and it simplifies things to file both lists of mysteries under one name. The Carter Dickson books generally feature HM, Sir Henry Merrivale, as the detective, as opposed to the Gideon Fell ones. Even a huge fan (ie me) thinking of various memorable plots in the two oeuvres, couldn’t confidently assign a book to one of the two, nor the various quirky traits, catchphrases and details of appearance. Though, apparently, Fell is based on GK Chesterton and HM is, of all people, Winston Churchill. But what matters is that the books are fun, quick and easy reads, usually with an element of a locked-room mystery (that was the JDC speciality) and almost always with a real surprise or twist. The solutions are extremely unlikely, but still satisfying for the gotcha moments of explanation. This isn’t actually one of the best ones – it is set in the early days of WW2 and has a spy strand – but still, the film studio setting is enjoyable, and the characterisation of Frances Fleur is sketchy but clever. And the entire book is worth reading for the running joke throughout about a Duke of Wellington biopic, and the director’s attempts to make the Battle of Waterloo more appealing – “The Duchess of Richmond… puts on her brother’s uniform and gets up on his horse…” ending up with a splendid rolling in of the mystery of the missing film reels and sensitive government information.

The ‘
A Penguin a Week’ blog recently looked at this book – the review is well worth a read.

Links up with: More film people in
this entry, and this one, while Peggy wears a gold dress here in a bar in New Orleans.

The picture is of actual movie star Rita Hayworth, and is from the
Library of Congress collection.

Friday, 14 September 2012

one block west of the light

the book:

Live to Regret by Terence Faherty

published 1995  chapter 19


“When she was eighteen, Brigid fell in love with a young man who worked for her father. An ivy-leaguer named Cyrus Oberting. My mother said she could remember them out rowing together on the lake, Cy Oberting in a striped jacket and straw hat and Brigid under a parasol. Everyone thought that he wanted to marry the boss’s daughter and expected that he would. But he didn’t. One fine day, Oberting moved out to California, lock, stock, and barrel. The accident occurred about a week later. Brigid’s drowning, I mean. She was found in the lake wearing a fancy gown, the one she’d worn to the Fourth of July ball, when she’d waltzed the night through with Cy Oberting.”

Mrs Dial’s pink face settled into a sweet smile as she stared over my shoulder at the twirling dancers. A fragment of my wasted education came to mind: the image of the doomed Ophelia from Hamlet, pulled down into the water by her clothes “heavy with their drink.”

 observations:   Terence Faherty wrote two series of detective stories between 1991 and 2005, and as they are being republished on kindle they are well worth a look – and isn’t that a great side-effect of the ebook reader, that lost gems can easily be relaunched at no financial risk? This one features Owen Keane – failed seminarian and amateur sleuth. The books are very hard to describe, they are not typical detective stories, they have a dream-like feel and are full of ideas and emotion. But they are very readable, and they do have secrets, mysteries and solutions. And they are funny – Owen, approaching a beautiful young woman, says

I was conscious of a feeling of suspense, due in part to the excitement of waiting to hear the stupid remark that would shortly pop from my mouth.

In this one, he is trying to watch over and help an old friend who has lost his wife, and dead and lost girls keep recurring, as above.

At one point someone gives Owen directions to a motel: “One block west of the light” – I feel this is a valuable phrase which I might steal for the title of a novel.

The astonishing picture is by the largely-forgotten fashion photographer Toni Frissell, and is part of the
Library of Congress collection. In the book, another character disputes that the dead Brigid was wearing a ballgown, says it was just a simple dress, and the fancy story was part of the myth.

Links up with: the
Three Men In a Boat take girls out on the river in happier circumstances. And being on the water is a way to hook up here. Lost girls are a big feature of this book.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Woman in red: Hardy's glorious Bathsheba

the book:

Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

published 1874  chapter 1

The girl on the summit of the load sat motionless, surrounded by tables and chairs with their legs upwards, backed by an oak settle, and ornamented in front by pots of geraniums, myrtles, and cactuses, together with a caged canary — all probably from the windows of the house just vacated. The handsome girl waited for some time idly in her place, and the only sound heard in the stillness was the hopping of the canary up and down the perches of its prison. Then she looked attentively downwards… at an oblong package tied in paper. She turned her head to learn if the waggoner were coming. He was not yet in sight; and her eyes crept back to the package, her thoughts seeming to run upon what was inside it. At length she drew the article into her lap, and untied the paper covering; a small swing looking-glass was disclosed, in which she proceeded to survey herself attentively. She parted her lips and smiled.

It was a fine morning, and the sun lighted up to a scarlet glow the crimson jacket she wore, and painted a soft lustre upon her bright face and dark hair….What possessed her to indulge in such a performance in the sight of the sparrows, blackbirds, and unperceived farmer who were alone its spectators, — whether the smile began as a factitious one, to test her capacity in that art, — nobody knows; it ended certainly in a real smile. She blushed at herself, and seeing her reflection blush, blushed the more.

observations: What a fabulous introduction to Bathsheba Everdene. Hardy himself may have had a soft spot for the ‘pure maid’ Tess, but surely everyone else prefers the wicked but glorious Bathsheba. And apart from her and Tess, can you name any other Hardy heroine? To an older generation, Julie Christie epitomized her in the 1967 film – so it is a slight surprise to find she is so very much not blonde. In the Penguin edition the word ‘black’ replaces dark here, but all other editions seem to agree on dark - a couple of chapters later she is described as having 'ropes of black hair.'

The watching Gabriel Oak notices that she doesn’t primp or fiddle with her appearance, there is nothing to correct, she just gazes at herself.

Posy Simmonds took this story and modernized it in the graphic novel Tamara Drewe, which then became a
live-action film in 2010 – both excellent.

Links up with: Another woman in a red coat looking in a mirror
here, and this one has her mirror to hand. Julie Christie starred in the film of this book too. A Thomas Hardy poem features here.

The picture is by the Polish painter Anna Bilinska-Bohdanowitz and can be found on
Wikimedia Commons.