A Long Way From Verona by Jane Gardam
published 1971 chapter 11 set in 1940
[Jessica, aged about 12, is visiting friends of her parents, and getting ready for a party]
The pale washed-out viyella was absolutely right. You could tell girls had been putting on pale, pretty, nicely-made old party dresses in that room for about 30,000 years. An English dress, as English as the patchwork quilt it was lying on, as English as the rag rug, as English as the books on the shelves…
I looked at the other clothes – they were the black page’s from the Nativity Play. I’d worn them last year when they were too big and had had my face blacked with cherry blossom. There was a gold tunic made from an old cope of the vicar’s and a pair of scarlet tights. There was a gold turban, too, with a big purple brooch from Woolworth’s but I hadn’t brought that. The clothes shone from the bed in a violent heap. The room looked washed out. It turned pale at the sight of them. I put out my hand and touched the scratchy gold stuff and the jewels.
observations: Jessica has smuggled in the second outfit because she doesn’t want to look dull in an ill-fitting dress, and she bravely tries to wear the gold costume, but eventually has to give in and go for the standard frock for the Christmas party. She is one of Jane Gardam’s annoying and very realistic heroines (this scene as it continues is excruciating, but Jessica has absolutely no empathy for anyone else, and no gratitude for anyone trying to help her) – now JG is better known for her adult books, including the splendid Old Filth, but her Young Adult books of the 1970s were unusual and ahead of their time. The teenage girls are all a bit misunderstood, and very literary, and struggling with life, but have hope that one day it won’t all be so ghastly.
Viyella is both a brand-name and a specific type of fabric, a wool/cotton mix associated especially with upper-class girls' frocks. ‘Cherry blossom’ is probably incomprehensible to most young or non-UK readers: it was the brand name for a widely-used kind of shoe polish, and yes it is clear that she has worn black make-up to be the page – unimaginable now.
The title of the book is never explained, you have to work it out for yourself.
Links on the blog: Noel Streafeild likes a clothes panic, and this is a typical one (and a beautiful gold dress) from a similar era, although with a happier ending. Jane Gardam is mentioned in the notes on this entry. A Nativity Play featured here and here.
The picture is from George Eastman House.