Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Petite Mort by Beatrice Hitchman

published 2013





She looks away and laughs: quick and bitter, and the silence descends again. After a while she says: ‘You are an enigma, Mlle Roux.’ And it is in that moment that someone close by says: ‘Luce!’

The woman is dressed in grey, with a ruffle at the throat of her blouse: but underneath her skirt I see the toes of riding boots. Her face is long and lean, like a horse’s, brown-grey hair pulled sharply back, but the eyes are twinkling, and the skin of her face is leathery, as if she spends a lot of time outdoors. Terpsichore is grinning; they lean forward for the bises; the woman looks at me over Terpsichore’s shoulder. Then she takes my hand and shakes it, like a man. 


Terpsichore says: ‘Mademoiselle Roux, may I present Madame Vercors, wife of Louis Vercors, former Minister of the Interior.’

‘Aurélie,’ says the woman. ‘Call me Aurélie.’

Enchantée,’ I say.



observations: A clever entertaining book with a refreshingly cold heart and a setting in the early days of the French film industry – there’s a lot to like. It’s a bit fussy at times, too many changes of tense and narrator and time, and too much riding on the (really not very interesting) twist, but definitely an author who is going places, and who can do a lot with descriptions of people, places and (very important round here) clothes. The book takes in love, jealousy, bisexuality and glamour in pre-1914 Paris. Of course, the movie-star Terpsichore and her assistant are there for the first night of The Rite of Spring…. which tells you what kind of book this is.

I’m guessing Aurelie is wearing a riding-habit, a byway of women’s fashions that always intrigues. Rich women were expected to ride side-saddle, so had special clothes designed to fit the activity. Those of us who aren’t great horsepeople find it very hard to imagine riding sidesaddle – apparently it wasn’t dangerous and difficult, and you weren’t much more likely to fall off. But I don’t know why that should be.


*Added Later* My most informative blog reader and costume expert, Ken Nye, very much doubts that it was a riding habit - see what he has to say in the comments below...


Links on the blog: Aristo in a habit here. Silent movies in this recent entry,  British film history here, and an American moviestar  came up last week.

The picture is of Elizabeth the Empress of Austria dressed for riding in 1884.


3 comments:

  1. Moira - Somehow the film industry seems such a terrific setting for a story. And this is a great era too in which to set a novel. Interesting too that you'd mention riding sidesaddle. I'm no great equestrienne myself, 'though I've done some riding. I helped out a bit once at a horse show, and I saw some great examples of sidesaddle riding. Your review made me think of how elegant that looked.

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  2. Since it's not a book "written in the period" I just let the details flow by as part of the atmosphere, but knowing what a riding habit of those years is and how it would have been made, that's not the impression I get from the context. It seems to me that the wearing of the riding boots under a regular skirt is mentioned to point out the eccentricity of the character. The skirt of a riding habit is seamed and darted to hang perfectly while the wearer is in the saddle, but turns into an odd-shaped lump hanging to one side and dragging on the ground when the lady alights. If that's what she was wearing, there would have been nothing to comment on about the oddness of wearing the boots. Since it's the opening night of a ballet, I would bet all the other women present are wearing kid or satin pumps. If I'm being too logical, you're allowed to slap me... 8-)

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  3. Splendid response as always Ken, thank you for most informative remarks. I am going to add a note to the entry...

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