Thursday, 28 February 2013

400th post: Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford

Published 1949      Part 2 chapter 7

 [Fanny is telling Polly what Lady Montdore is up to]

‘They’re in London now, fearfully busy with the Longhi Ball they are giving at Montdore House. Cedric came to see me the other day and could talk of nothing else – he says they won’t be going to Hampton again until it’s over.’ 

‘What is a Longhi Ball?’ 

‘You know, Venetian. Real water, with real gondolas floating on it, in the ballroom. “O Sole Mio” on a hundred guitars, all the footmen in masks and capes, no light except from candles in Venetian lanterns until the guests get to the ballroom, where a searchlight will be trained on Cedric and your mother, receiving from a gondola. Fairly different from your ball, Polly?’… 

‘Fanny it’s your duty to go to it – you will, won’t you?’ 

‘Oh darling, I can’t…’ 

[neither of them makes it to the Ball, but Fanny has heard all about it, and describes it to Polly:] 

‘It seems to have been very splendid, Cedric changed his dress five times, he started with tights made of rose petals and a pink wig and ended as Doris Keane in Romance and a black wig, he had real diamonds on his mask. Your mother was a Venetian youth to show off her new legs and they stood in a gondola giving away wonderful prizes to everybody – Norma got a silver snuff-box – and it went on till seven. Oh, how badly people do describe balls.

observations: In a previous entry on the Ball, after researching what Cedric might have worn when dressed as Doris Keane, I commented that I would love to find a picture of Cedric’s other costume. And voila! A kind reader – who has so far remained anonymous – came up with this:
Thinking a bit more about Cedric's costumes, I would suggest the first outfit is a reference to Nijinsky in Spectre de la Rose. His costume was covered with silk rose-petals that were touched up with a curling iron every night.

Touched up with a curling iron! Isn’t that the best detail ever… I believe it’s the same reader who provided fascinating facts about Doris Keane’s costumes in Romance – see below this entry for both comments - and I'd like to offer him or her my thanks.

Spectre de la Rose was a ballet performed by Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, with whom Nijinsky had  great success. Quoting those experts at Wikipedia: it is about a woman who ‘dreams that she is dancing with the rose that she had been holding in her hand. Her dream ends when the rose escapes through the window.’ Nijinsky, of course, danced the Rose. It seems all too likely that this is exactly the costume that Cedric wanted. As Mitford is such a blog favourite, and I feel we are doing original and exciting research on this book and Cedric, this seems the ideal entry to form the 400th Clothes in Books post.

Links on the blog: Obviously, previous entries gave rise to this one, but Love in a Cold Climate also featured here and here, and Cedric is quoted on Fragonard in the comments on this book. Venice has featured (with the fabulous photos) in Carnevale entries recently and last year.

The pictures of Nijinsky and his costume are widely available on the Internet, and the Venetian portrait is again the work of Perry Photography – see her website weddingsinitalytuscany

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Travels with my Aunt by Graham Greene

Published 1969       part 2 ch 1

I looked out of my porthole, to escape my thoughts, into the winter day and saw a tall lean sad grey man gazing back at me. My window gave on to the bows and he turned quickly away to watch the ship’s wake, embarrassed at having been noticed. I finished my unpacking and went down to the bar…

‘Mind if I join you?’ the American asked. He wore an English tweed coat and a pair of old grey flannel trousers: thin and melancholy, he looked as English as I did; there were small lines bitten by care around the eyes and mouth, and like a man who has lost his way he had a habit of looking this way and that with anxiety. He had nothing in common with the Americans whom I had met in England, noise and self-confident, with the young unlined faces of children romping and shouting to one another across the nursery floor.

observations: The quiet American (to quote another Greene book) is the father of Tooley, a young girl in a miniskirt whom Henry has encountered earlier in the book (in an episode on the train to Istanbul – an episode which this reader had for years wrongly ascribed to a different, and much earlier, Greene book, Stamboul Train). The father, O’Toole, a CIA man, worries a lot about his daughter.

Part of his role in the book is to show us how Henry is changing: the two men have their similarities, and their anxieties. Henry earlier told us that he is likely to be ‘the only man in a dinner-jacket at a fancy-dress party’ and there is a very funny symbol for his repression: he moves his lips while he is thinking, and on one occasion a very beautiful lip-reading woman finds out what Henry really thinks about her this way – he has been ‘dwelling a little wistfully on her loveliness.’ Henry sees this as her mistake, her problem. But he will change under the influence of his aunt.

Links on the blog: Sweet Tooth has more spies (MI5 rather than CIA) who aren’t supposed to admit what they are doing. Another of the great aunts of fiction in this book. You can trace a path through this book with earlier blog entries.

The picture is of the photographer William P Gottlieb (we've used several of his fabulous pictures on the blog) and comes from his collection at the Library of Congress.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

There's Trouble Brewing by Nicholas Blake

published 1937    chapter 1

Failing to notice the two steps that led down into the room, he fell into her presence rather than arrived. As he picked himself up, blinking in the strong light, he heard an amused voice say: ‘It’s all right. Everybody does that the first time. I’m always telling Grace to warn people.’

Nigel shook hands with the owner of the voice. Mrs Cammison was a robust shapely creature, red-cheeked and blue-eyed, the picture of health: she might have been any age from twenty-five to thirty-five, and looked like a Victorian painter’s idea of a milkmaid except for her chic dress and the horn-rimmed spectacles that went so incongruously with her fresh face. Nigel muttered involuntarily: ‘I believe Georgia was right after all.’

‘“ Georgia was right”? That’s your wife, isn’t it?’

‘Yes. It’s a long and rather discreditable story.’

observations: Nigel has guessed in advance what his hostess will be like, and has been proved wrong. In the manner of many a 1930s amateur investigator, he has come a-visiting for harmless reasons and will get caught up in a dramatic murder. He is to give a talk on Caroline poets, supposedly, though that doesn’t make sense, as they talk about modern poetry in the meeting – but it’s a good chance to introduce all the suspects. Nicholas Blake, pen-name of the poet Cecil Day-Lewis, keeps switching between being a very classic, respectable detective story writer, and introducing some rather unlikely tropes. He’s a bit funny, a bit sexy – see previous entry – and notably mentioned TS Eliot in a different book. This one even features an abortion, as a sad necessity but not something dreadful. Two surprises – he is described as having irregular and discoloured teeth, and uses the phrase ‘dollars to doughnuts’, not perhaps common in the UK in the 1930s.

As a murder story this is enjoyable and very much of its time, not outstanding. As C Day-Lewis, its author wrote some wonderful poems – including one of the best on parenthood, Walking Away – and his children include the actor Daniel, who won his 3rd Oscar on Sunday, and the cook Tamsin. 

Links on the blog: You can find a list of detective stories on the blog by clicking the tab above. This book featured in a Dress Down Sunday entry here.

The picture comes from a vintage eyewear blog.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Whoso List to Hunt by Thomas Wyatt

uncertain date - probably either 1526-7 or 1533

Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,

But as for me, helas, I may no more;

The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,

I am of them that furthest cometh behind.

Yet may I by no means my wearied mind

Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore

Fainting I follow; I leave off therefore,

Sithens in a net I seek to hold the wind.

Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,

As well as I, may spend his time in vain.

And graven with diamonds in letters plain,

There is written her fair neck round about,

'Noli me tangere, for Caesar's I am,

And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.'

observations: Noli me tangere - do not touch me - are the words of the risen Christ to Mary Magdalene, supposedly also found on actual collars of Caesar’s animals.

The poem has a conceit, that the woman is a hind, and it is based on courtly convention, and on a poem by someone else (Petrarch). But it has a hard reality in it: it’s generally agreed to be about Anne Boleyn, so the Caesar is Henry VIII. When she was beheaded at the Tower, Wyatt was imprisoned there too and nearly lost his life exactly on suspicion of touching her.

Thomas Wyatt was part of Anne’s circle - a gossiping, poetry-writing, flirtatious group - and was probably in love with her at one time. The poems might be courtly and theoretical, but you can’t read this one and think that it was an exercise or a game: there is a grim eroticism about it, a depth of feeling. His most famous poem is They flee from me that some time did me seek, which contains these lines:

When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall. 
And she me caught in her arms long and small,  
Therewithal sweetly did me kiss, 
And softly said, 'Dear heart, how like you this?'

--which again sounds all too real.

Wyatt had an extraordinary life: a miserable marriage, a dangerous liaison (of unknown seriousness) with a future Queen. Maybe he did nothing but flirt with her – but it brought him to the Tower. He came close to execution twice in his life, he introduced the sonnet to England, he was an Ambassador, he was ordered by law to take back his adulterous wife, and he wrote sad serious poetry which sometimes seems so heartfelt and private that it is uncomfortable to read.

There are two excellent and very different recent books about his life – Nicola Shulman’s Graven with Diamonds is accessible and entertaining, while Susan Brigden’s Thomas Wyatt: The Heart’s Forest is scholarly, detailed and complete.

Links on the blog: Anne Boleyn has featured several times – click on the label below.

The deerhunt is from a Greek vase in the Louvre: the photo is © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons. The woman showing her shoulders is a picture by William Etty, found on The Athanaeum website.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Dress Down Sunday: A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh

published 1934 chapter 4


Milly sat up in bed. ‘O.K.,’ she said. ‘Winnie darling, give mother her jacket off the chair.’ She was a conscientious girl, ready to go through with her job, however unattractive it might seem. ‘But it’s early.’ 

Tony went into his room and took off his shoes, collar and tie, coat and waistcoat, and put on a dressing gown

‘You are greedy,’ said Winnie, ‘eating two breakfasts.’ 

‘When you’re a little older you’ll understand these things. It’s the Law. Now I want you to stay in the sitting room for quarter of an hour very quietly. Promise? And afterwards you can do exactly what you like.’ 

‘Can I bathe?’ 

‘Yes certainly, if you’re quiet now.’ 

Tony got into bed beside Milly and pulled the dressing gown tight round his throat. ‘Does that look all right?’ 

‘Love’s young dream,’ said Milly. 

‘All right then. I’ll ring the bell.’ When the tray had been brought Tony got out of bed and put on his things. ‘So much for my infidelity,’ he said. ‘It is curious to reflect that this will be described in the papers as “intimacy.”

observations: The scenes in the Brighton hotel are strange and funny: Tony Last is providing fake evidence for his wife to get a divorce. He and Milly have to be found in a state of undress, and the pretence falls apart as the problems of the accompanying child, Winnie above, feature more and more. 

It is Tony’s wife who wants to end the marriage, as she has a lover. The staged adultery is for the court’s benefit, and to protect his wife’s reputation. But this is not going to happen – Tony will renege on his agreement. It didn’t always work anyway: in Dorothy L Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon a Countess says 

My idiot great-nephew, Hughie, has bungled matters as usual. Having undertaken to do the thing like a gentleman, he sneaked off to Brighton with a hired nobody, and the Judge wouldn't believe either the hotel bills or the chambermaid—knowing them all too well by sight. So it means starting all over again from the beginning.

Brenda knows that her lover, John, is ‘second rate and a snob’. But no-one in this book is particularly nice – we said Tony was a passive-aggressive idiot in an earlier entry. His sense of entitlement is not attractive, he is painful with Brenda, and his attachment to his hideous-sounding house doesn’t really sound any better than Mrs Beaver flogging her chromium-plated walls. 

There’s one unlikely character, the Shameless Blonde, Mrs Rattery, who seems to have wandered in from a different book, and there is a very detailed description of a hunt – it’s surprising Waugh, essentially urban at this stage in his life, knew so much about it. 

Brenda’s bleak fate – ‘And she went out alone into the sunshine’ – after finding from the solicitor that she will get no money, foreshadows Graham Greene’s Rose in Brighton Rock four years later who ‘walked rapidly in the thin June sunlight towards the worst horror of all’. However, Brenda will find another husband – and one who knows the worst about her. 

Links on the blog: previous entries from this book

The picture is Toulouse-Lautrec’s In Bed from Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold

published 2001   Part 3

The doorbell rang, giving him something to do. He threw the door open, readying a polite quip.

On the other side was Phoebe.


‘Hello!’ He almost shouted it with joy.

‘Oh, hello,’ she cried in recognition, putting out a hand, which he took and more or less used to yank her across the threshold. She was a delightful study in contrasting simplicity and dash: though her face had been but lightly powdered, and she’d gone sans rouge, she also wore Angelus lipstick – shockingly scarlet – and her hair had been very much done, straightened and held in place with chopsticks. She wore a beaded black silk dress that left an elegant amount of her throat bare.

‘I’m so glad to see you,’ he exclaimed.

observations: In this very complex novel, Phoebe and Carter are comparatively straightforward in their relationship. There are trip-ups along the way, but it is not a spoiler to say that nothing too terrible will happen. Phoebe is blind when they first meet, having lost her sight in an incident that is connected with the plot. Is she psychic, is she a medium, has she developed special powers because of her blindness? You can read the book and find out.

Carter is a real person – Carter the Great, a leading American magician of the 1920s –and the book also features (as we have seen before) a real President, Warren G Harding, and other true-life characters. It is a mystery book, in that President Harding dies, and it’s not clear what Carter’s involvement consists of….

The backstage atmosphere of the magic shows is wonderfully well-done in the book, as is Carter’s childhood, and the feel for San Francisco with its speakeasies and low-lifers. Gold obviously did his research well - for example Angelus lipstick is a real brand of the era. The descriptions of Carter’s illusions are also enthralling.

Links up with: the book featured in Presidents’ week. Black silk dresses featured here and here. A modern novel about Warren G Harding keeps popping up....

The picture is from the Bain Collection at the Library of Congress.

Friday, 22 February 2013

Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

published 2011    section set in Berlin 1992, but looking back 

Oh Berlin, our beautiful Berolina, our charcoal life. What a city this was, after that first war. And all of us poor, antsy, fetching to know what more life held. I been a latecomer, didn’t hit these streets till ’27, but man was she beautiful. Hundreds of gates flocked here, dragging their instruments. Hundreds of stage hens. Every joint felt famous then. The Barberina. Moka Efti. The Scala. In the Romanisches Café, the great brains of the age gathered like grapes to trade ideas over beer. I saw Kästner there, and Tucholsky, even Otto Dix. Dix maybe dreaming up nightmares for his paintings, pausing over his glass as something new struck him. That famous one he did of Anita Berber, the dancer, her hair and dress red as torn flesh. That Berber girl, hell. We used to flock to watch her dance at the White Mouse. She’d slither half-nude through the packed tables, bring her dance to a climax by breaking champagne bottles over fellows’ heads. Broke one over Big Fritz’s head, he ain’t hardly noticed. I remember her working the Eldorado, too, that pansy club so dark you couldn’t hardly see the stage. And her all flexing and shivering to the dry old tunes of Camille Saint-Saëns – man, did she ever bring it down.

observations: At the moment, the BBC is showing a new drama by Stephen Poliakoff - known also for The Lost Prince, mentioned in an entry this week. Dancing on the Edge is about a jazz band in London in the 1930s, and covers somewhat similar territory to this book. Most of Half Blood Blues is set in 1939 and 1940, but the author has stretched Sid’s time in Berlin back to 1927: Anita Berber died in 1928, aged 29, after a full and scandalous career as an androgynous beauty, starring in films and cabaret, and famed for drug-taking, alcoholism and bisexuality. She looks considerably more covered up in this picture than the descriptions of her stage performances suggest.

A previous entry mentioned that real-life figures crop up in this book quite a lot. The author has tried to re-create the atmosphere of the nightclubs and music haunts of Berlin and Paris, and the narrator’s voice is distinctive, using words and grammar in a presumably authentically strange manner. The book was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2011 (which Clothes in Books is always ready to say proves nothing) but is somewhat unsatisfactory to read. The modern and historical strands don’t really gel, there is a lot left unexplained, and incidents and events are either described in weird and unnecessary detail, or just glossed over as the author rushes on. But at the same time it has a very consistent, confident voice, a very assured feel to it.

Links on the blog: A great photo of a trumpeter came up last time. Nightclubs in Boston, London and New York have all featured on the blog.

The picture is of a German postage stamp, issued to mark the centenary of Otto Dix’s birth in 1991.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Hunting and Gathering by Anna Gavalda

Translated by Alison Anderson 

Published in France 2004, in UK 2006       
Part 2 chapter 18

[Camille and Franck are working in a restaurant on New Year’s Eve]

Camille was surprised by the atmosphere of agitation and concentration which already reigned in the kitchen.

It was suddenly so hot.

‘Here you go, boss. A brand new commis.’…

[Later] Camille heard someone ask her: ‘Everything okay?’

She looked up and was dumbfounded.

She didn’t recognize [Franck]. Spotless trousers, an impeccably ironed jacket with a double row of round buttons and his name embroidered in blue letters; a little pointed bandana, immaculate apron and dishtowel, and his toque resting nice and tight on his head. She’d never seen him dressed any other way than as a consummate slob; she found him very handsome indeed.

[Camille sees the maître d’, and another worker explains:] ‘They’re all good-looking, the ones who work on the floor. At the start of the work day, we’re the ones who are clean and they go around vacuuming in their t-shirts and as the day goes by it tends to go the opposite way: we start to stink and get grubby and they walk by fresh as daisies, with their impeccable hairdos and suits.’

observations: If this were a film, Camille would be played by Audrey Tautou. Oh, it is, and she is. The story and the characters teeter on the edge of being precious, but there is a hard core at the centre saving it from tipping over, most of the time. It could do with being shorter – the plot takes a long and depressing time to get going – but it is very atmospheric, you get the feel of Paris and its apartments and offices and restaurants. Four people end up sharing their lives: the aristocratic Philibert who can’t cope with the world, Camille the artist who doesn’t eat, Franck the chef who is full of anger, and his grandmother Paulette who doesn’t want to be in a home. So, yes, you can predict quite a lot of it from that, given that the book is widely described as ‘feelgood’. But it is cleverly done, and the (very) slow-moving relationship between Franck and Camille is charming.

The New Year’s Eve where they work together in a smart, busy restaurant for one night only is absolutely fascinating – it’s just a couple of chapters in the middle of the book, and doesn’t particularly fit in with anything else. It is a very detailed description of food preparation and the workers concerned, but it is strangely riveting.

With thanks to Jackie (again) for recommending the book.

Links on the blog: Plenty of books set in Paris – The Dud Avocado, A Moveable Feast and the fictionalized version A Paris Wife, and Nancy Mitford’s Don’t Tell Alfred: all four books about English-speaking visitors. For the French version of the city, Claudine in Paris, and Les Miserables.

The black and white photo is of a restaurant kitchen run by noted chef Paul BocuseThe colour picture is of the kitchen of the renowned El Bulli restaurant (now closed), and was taken by Charles Haynes.  

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

A Question of Inheritance by Josephine Bell

published 1980      chapter 16

Following their visit to the opera-house, [they] went to the Milan equivalent of a British big top and sat in the second row near the centre, where the horses’ hooves spattered them occasionally with the soft covering of the ring and the exciting smells of scent and grease-paint, sweat, hide, and animal dung, vied with those of a huge, enthusiastic audience. It was an unusually hot evening, after an overpoweringly hot day. The men were all in their shirt sleeves, though Mr Moorehead carried a linen jacket over his arm. Philip had brought a summer linen suit with him, though he had left a wet, cold, August day at Heathrow two days before. He also had shorts for the Lakes, but wore the linen trousers with a thin sweat-shirt this evening, out of courtesy to Mrs Moorehead. He was excited by the whole lay-out of his surroundings at the circus. This was something his mother had never taken him to see as a child. He had never bothered to take himself to one in England when he grew up. But now he knew he had missed something, perhaps that thing he was now enjoying at his advanced school of gymnastics in England.

observations: This is a strangely-structured but always intriguing story: there are two major ‘crimes’, and one is wide-open to the reader right from the beginning. You then watch in disbelief as police investigate a 20-year old incident - really? That man remembers the mileage of a car on a certain day all that time ago? – but the book certainly keeps the interest up.

Bell wrote her many crime stories over more than 40 years (there's one from 1950 here), and here she seems to be trying to keep up-to-date – there are some swear words dropped in rather oddly (Agatha Christie never did that) and then - political satire! - one character who has no money
had in no way begun to understand what poverty meant, in real, relative or assumed trade union terms.

There is also a housekeeper contemplating possible pregnancy among the maids, in one of those sentences you could never parse grammatically but understand exactly what she means:
They’ve left to get married and not before time, I’ve often wondered, but there’s never been anything said, and why should there, these days?

The final scenes at the circus are melodramatic, totally unconvincing, and highly enjoyable. The opera they have seen the night before is Marriage of Figaro, where the foundling Figaro is reunited with his long-lost parents.

Links on the blog: Dressing up as a circus clown here, and Terry Pratchett’s splendid clown’s funeral. The theatre school is also teaching circus skills in this book. In the marvellous Saffy’s Angel an outsider family ends up going on a strange quest in Italy – almost exactly the same happens here, though it was a relief to be re-assured that they were unrelated, we half-feared….

The picture is of a circus in NE England, and is from the Tyne & Wear Museum and Archives.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Sybil or The Two Nations by Benjamin Disraeli

published 1845 Book 2 Chapter 5

The divine melody ceased; the elder stranger rose; the words were on the lips of Egremont, that would have asked some explanation of this sweet and holy mystery, when in the vacant and star-lit arch on which his glance was fixed, he beheld a female form. She was apparently in the habit of a Religious, yet scarcely could be a nun, for her veil, if indeed it were a veil, had fallen on her shoulders, and revealed her thick tresses of long fair hair. The blush of deep emotion lingered on a countenance, which though extremely young, was impressed with a character of almost divine majesty; while her dark eyes and long dark lashes, contrasting with the brightness of her complexion and the luxuriance of her radiant locks, combined to produce a beauty as rare as it is as it is choice; and so strange, that Egremont might for a moment have been pardoned for believing her a seraph, that had lighted on this sphere, or the fair phantom of some saint haunting the sacred ruins of her desecrated fane.

observations: Disraeli said ‘when I want to read a book I write one’, but probably he should have read a few more first – as a novel the best you can say of Sybil is that it has its heart in the right place. He was a man with a message, and one that he put over firmly and clearly: Sybil is about poverty and deprivation, and about stupid people running the country based on nothing but a sense of entitlement (so no modern applications there then), and he has clear ideas on tackling the problems. So – for right-thinking sentiments he gets a 9 (one point docked because the poor people still need kindly-hearted higher classes to help them organize). As a novel – about a 3. At one point a character needs to find someone: a complete stranger for no reason drops a letter in front of him, which happens to be for the right person, so he gets the address from the envelope.

But there are better moments – a splendid story about the democratization of the railways has a Lady Vanilla sitting with two men and chatting friendlily to them. She does not realizing they are criminals until she asks to change seats with one, and both have to move because they are chained together.

Disraeli always sounds like a nice man who liked women (including his wife), so it’s a shame that all the female characters in this book are created at a level very fairly represented by the passage above. This is our introduction to Sybil herself, and she IS the worst, she apparently has no human characteristics whatsoever, it is quite tormenting to read the scenes she features in.

Links on the blog: Sybil wears religious garb but is not a nun: Sister Agnes is the opposite in her attractive little skirt.

The picture, Hope, is by the French artist Pierre de Puvis Chavannes, and is from the Walters Museum in Baltimore: the museum has generously released its images under a creative commons licence.

Monday, 18 February 2013

A King's Story by the Duke of Windsor

published 1951  chapter 2

I was now almost nine years old; and my mother, thinking the time had come for us three older children to polish the somewhat rustic ways of Sandringham, decided that a good beginning would be to learn the first simple steps of dancing. After discussing the matter with friends who had children of the same age, she formed a class of 20 to 30 boys and girls; and the doyenne of the Victorian dancing mistresses, Miss Walsh, was engaged to teach us. The class met twice a week, sometimes in the dining-room of Marlborough House, or else at one or another of the great houses of London. The little girls all had long hair, and their short dresses were pulled tight at the waist with silk sashes tied with a bow at the back; all the little boys wore Eton suits – surely one of the most uncomfortable rigs ever invented to confine the restless energy of boys. A lady at the piano provided the music; Miss Walsh, whom I remember as being decidedly stout yet surprisingly light and quick on her feet, showed us the intricate steps of the polka, the waltz, and the Highland schottische. These afternoons with Miss Walsh could hardly be described as a leap into gregariousness; even in their most abandoned moments they never approached the spontaneous fun of a children’s party. But at the same time those dancing classes meant something to the three of us: they lifted us out, if only briefly, from our walled-in life in London and brought us together with other children of our own age.

observations: In the passage above, the mother is a Queen of England, and two of the little boys are future Kings. But one fascinating fact is that Nancy Mitford (yes we do keep quoting from her letters, along with those of Evelyn Waugh - here an exchange that mentions the Duke) said the childhood described in the book is just as hers was (she was 10 years younger than the Duke, and knew him well in later life) – she thought all upper-class childhoods of the time were the same. The Duke describes spending a lot of time with his sister and brothers (there is one brother who is mentioned exactly once: the ‘Lost Prince’ John, whom we would now describe as special needs) – and, as implied above, says he was very lonely and would have loved to spend more time with other children. His relationship with his parents was not good, and there are certainly times in the book when you feel he is revealing more than he means to about his need for love and attention.

Links on the blog: the Duke of Windsor’s memoirs featured before, and Nancy Mitford's sister Diana wrote a biography of his wife - the featured excerpt contains sharp comments on Royalty and fashion. A children’s party in the 1950s is described here. The Fossil Sisters attended very different kind of dancing classes.

The picture is of a dancing class in New Hampshire, and comes from Flickr.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Dress Down Sunday: The Cape Cod Mystery by Phoebe Atwood Taylor

published 1931


[Summer visitor Prudence and local man Asey have joined forces to solve a crime, and Asey has been hit by a suspect]

“…You’re all covered with blood, Asey. And something ought to be bound round your head.”

Feeling a little like a Revolutionary War heroine, the kind who were always bandaging people up with their underthings, I lifted my skirt, took a nail file from my pocketbook and with it tore the hem from my white silk petticoat. As I tied up his head I reflected that Betsey would now have no reason to scoff at my petticoats for some time to come…

[Later on, Prudence says:] “oughtn’t someone look after your head?”

“It’ll be all right. I forgot to say I guess the doctor kind of recognized that petticoat.”


“Yup. I’m kind of ‘fraid your ‘scutcheon is goin’ to suffer a blot or two from this day’s goin’s-on.”

“Well,” I said resignedly, “no one talks about escutcheons till there’s a blot on them anyway.”

observations: Crime fiction blogger Margot Kinberg (see her terrific regular musings at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist) put me onto this book, the first of a classic American series. It’s a true Golden Age adventure, but one that has worn well – full of smart talk, and class divisions that seem extraordinary to us now. Asey Mayo the hired man – who is clever, entertaining and solves the crime – calls his co-conspirator ‘Miss Prue’, and tells her he’ll be happier in the kitchen. But at least he isn’t just a comic and idiotic servant, as found in so many books of the era, and he’s a great character. His finest moment comes when he gets hold of a child’s police fancy dress costume, so he can use the fake badge to fool a suspect into thinking he’s an official investigator.

The heroine/narrator is 50, which again makes a nice change from Bright Young Things or Miss Marples investigating crimes. (On the downside, she is known as Snoodles to her friends, but we can try to ignore that.) This cheerful tearing of the petticoat is fun – the doctor who looks at Asey’s head is also glimpsed in white knickers (he wears them ‘most of the time’). It is always such a disappointment to UK readers that this means knickerbockers not underwear.

And then there’s this: early on, Prudence is looking at the view:
The oyster-shell lane that led from the cottage down the hill past the tennis courts shone like a piece of white satin ribbon. I remembered that Betsey’s impractical underclothing needed new straps.

How lovely. The picture – of Lillian Gish, from the Bain Collection at the Library of Congress – is a combination of the two quotations.

Links on the blog: For more Dress Down Sunday, and many more petticoats, click on the label below. Flora Poste is sewing one in this entry (‘he hoped it was a pair of knickers’, UK readers), and Charles Darwin says gauchos wear them.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Now You See Him by Eli Gottlieb

published 2008 chapter 27

The very next day, I did something I’d never done before. I went out and bought new clothes. It was a snap decision, made without the least hesitation. I drove over on my lunch hour to a local clothing store popular with college kids, where I purchased jeans, a pair of black form-fitting T-shirts and some European boots with thick soles and heels. I knew the T-shirts would be less than flattering on my untoned body, but I didn’t care. The word shitkicker, applied by the clerk to my choice of boots, stuck in my head. Never in my life have I been especially conscious of how I dressed. Lucy has always bought my clothes…

I didn’t wear these new clothes to either the office or home. I merely kept them in my desk drawer at work, the whole bunch of them, and took them out from time to time, and smelled the fresh sizing of the fabric and the leather of the shoes, and felt myself comforted by this in a way I couldn’t explain. The clothes seemed somehow to provide me with a lifeline of sorts, an implied way through the storm ahead….

observations: There’s not much pretence that these clothes are going to suit the narrator, Nick – later he sees himself as ‘balding and plump, swelling a pair of pencil-leg jeans and a black T-shirt’. But also, the boots ‘due to their chunky heels, altered my sight line by a perceptible half inch and gave me the vaguely privileged feeling of looking down on myself’ – the symbolism is clear: he gets a new view of the world during the course of this book, even if the means are not quite right. His childhood friend has been involved in a strange and horrible crime, and Nick thinks back over their friendship, the days when the two families lived close to each other (though this is not a re-run of childhood, these are just memories rather than a major strand of the book – and all the better for that). His marriage is failing (not helped by his meeting up with his friend’s sister), his life is at a dead end, and he finds out some secrets about the past that shock him.

This is probably best-described as a literary thriller – it is very well-written, and the relations with his parents and the other adults from his childhood are particularly convincing and real. And there is a tension there, as the story of what happened to his friend slowly unwinds.

Links on the blog: There’s not much in the way of well-dressed men in modern books, and thus not much on the blog- here’s a footballer who sounds smart, and some comments on men’s clothes.

The pictures are: left,  from Wikimedia Commons and, right, an author photo for Eli Gottlieb.

Friday, 15 February 2013

The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin

published 1839   chapter 18

I was much disappointed in the personal appearance of the women: they are far inferior in every respect to the men. The custom of wearing a white or scarlet flower in the back of the head, or through a small hole in each ear, is pretty. A crown of woven cocoa-nut leaves is also worn as a shade for the eyes. The women appear to be in greater want of some becoming costume even than the men.

Nearly all the natives understand a little English - that is, they know the names of common things; and by the aid of this, together with signs, a lame sort of conversation could be carried on. In returning in the evening to the boat, we stopped to witness a very pretty scene. Numbers of children were playing on the beach, and had lighted bonfires which illumined the placid sea and surrounding trees; others, in circles, were singing Tahitian verses. We seated ourselves on the sand, and joined their party. The songs were impromptu, and I believe related to our arrival: one little girl sang a line, which the rest took up in parts, forming a very pretty chorus. The whole scene made us unequivocally aware that we were seated on the shores of an island in the far-famed South Sea.

observations: Charles Darwin was born on February 13th in 1809 (the same day as Abraham Lincoln by a strange coincidence). Although On the Origin of species (published 20 years later) is his important work, this account of his travels is very enjoyable, as the blog has said before, and he comes over as a delightful companion.

Earlier, he quotes someone else speaking of the inhabitants of Mendoza:
"They eat their dinner, & it is so very hot they go to sleep & what could they do better?" I quite agree with [him], the happy doom of the Mendozinos is to eat, sleep & be idle.

- this despite obviously being himself someone with a huge capacity for work, achievement and acquiring knowledge, someone who could walk for miles and climb mountains with ease, while spotting tiny differences in the plants and insects he sees.

There is also a very grumpy description of a town where no-one would let him walk through their gardens to get to the hill beyond: ‘I feel glad that this happened in the land of the Brazilians, for I bear them no good will – a land also of slavery, and therefore of moral debasement.’

According to his granddaughter Gwen Raverat, he was very bad at spelling, and there is a lovely story of his playing a Scrabble-type word game and looking in puzzlement at someone adding an M to create the word ‘mother’ and saying ‘Moe-ther? Moe-ther? There’s no such word.’

Links on the blog: Charles Darwin and gauchos appeared last month, and Gauguin decorated this entry by Ian McEwan.

The picture is by Gauguin, who spent a lot of time in Tahiti and nearby islands, and is from a gallery in Dresden via Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Valentine's Day: A First Date in London

the book:

London Belongs to Me by Norman Collins

published 1945 chapter 18 set in 1939

In the end it was the Zoo they decided on. Bill seemed rather surprised when Doris suggested it. But it was certainly a relief. He’d only got ten shillings until Monday and if Doris suggested going down West, he wasn’t sure how they’d get back again.

They set off up the Adelaide Road arm-in-arm – Bill had taken hold of Doris’s arm and shoved it absent-mindedly through his almost as soon as they left the house – and climbed the steep path leading to the top of Primrose Hill.

Then, if you had stood there on the summit under the pink hawthorn, looking out over London – almost standing on top of it as it were, with St Paul’s and Big Ben underneath your feet – you would have seen Bill and Doris going down the long walk on the Regent’s Park side. They made rather a gay pair –Bill in … grey flannels and Doris in a yellow dress. Somehow they made everyone else who was out that afternoon seem rather heavy and middle-aged.

observations: For Valentine’s Day: Bill and Doris are going on their first proper date. (An earlier entry showed Doris’s mother buying an outfit for her first meeting with Bill’s mother, later in the book.)

Doris is quite critical of Bill’s clothes – his sports jacket gives him an ‘amateur vanman appearance’, whatever that is – but she is going to get pretty smitten, as is he, and Collins will follow their romance with the same care he gives to the other characters in this long book. They will all have their lives massively altered by the outbreak of the Second World War.

Looking at that great romantic novel The Making of a Marchioness at the end of last year, I criticized the Marquis for comparing his ladylove to an animal at the zoo, and also for giving her a ring with a stone the size of a trouser-button. But perhaps this was a standard measurement for gew-gaws: later in this book, Bill will buy Doris a wrist-watch for four guineas, ‘a nice little thing in chromium about the size of a small trouser-button’. He spends another five shillings – 25p, 40 c – on a dozen roses for her, which makes David Copperfield – our entry was called ‘all that money on a flower?’ – look even more lavish with his 2/6 (12.5p, 20 c) spent on a buttonhole a hundred years earlier.

Love on the blog: Last year’s Valentine entry showed the importance of the Eye of Love, in a splendid non-makeover scene. A romantic proposal here, falling in love on the river here, and a gorgeous introduction to love and cider with Rosie. Another first date in this entry.

The picture is from the Imperial War Museum Collection, and is of young people at a Co-operative summer school at Lake Windermere.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

published 2012

In Henry’s new church, Lent is as raw and cold as ever it was under the Pope. Miserable, meatless days fray a man’s temper. When Henry talks about Jane, he blinks, tears spring to his eyes. ‘Her little hands, Crumb. Her little paws, like a child’s. She has no guile in her. And she never speaks. And if she does I have to bend my head to hear what she says. And in the pause I can hear my heart. Her little bits of embroidery, her scraps of silk, her halcyon sleeves she cut out of the cloth some admirer gave her once, some poor boy struck with love for her … and yet she has never succumbed. Her little sleeves, her seed pearl necklace … she has nothing … she expects nothing …’ A tear at last sneaks from Henry’s eye, meanders down his cheek and vanishes into the mottled grey and ginger of his beard.

observations: Cold meatless Lent begins today, Ash Wedesday, after the glories of Carnevale on Monday and Tuesday.

What a mysterious person Jane Seymour is. We know nothing private about her, only the public facts of her life – beyond that is just guesswork. True of many historical figures of course, and particularly women, their lives recorded only at intervals.

She is still an enigma in this book, though Hilary Mantel succeeds in making her intriguing, with the suggestion of more than can be seen in the facts. We, the readers, know that the gift of the cloth came from Thomas Cromwell himself, and that he was rather taken with her (political needs aside) – but that is all just in the book, it’s not history. What history does show, is who, surprisingly, married Jane Seymour’s sister Elizabeth as her second husband….

Ages to wait before the 3rd book of this trilogy is published: but we look forward to seeing how Jane is dealt with. She does seem to have worked hard to reconcile her husband with his children from previous marriages, which would show a kind heart.

Links on the blog: Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies have both featured several times. The lovely Topaz in I Capture the Castle probably doesn’t often get compared with Jane Seymour, but she WAS a great stepmother.

The picture is Hans Holbein’s portrait of Jane – there are few images of her in existence. Holbein is a character in the novels.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Beppo: A Venetian Story by Lord Byron

published 1818

…All kinds of dress, except the ecclesiastical,
All people, as their fancies hit, may choose,
But no one in these parts may quiz the clergy, -
Therefore take heed, ye Freethinkers! I charge ye. 


You'd better walk about begirt with briars,
Instead of coat and smallclothes, than put on
A single stitch reflecting upon friars,
Although you swore it only was in fun;
They'd haul you o'er the coals, and stir the fires
Of Phlegethon with every mother's son,
Nor say one mass to cool the caldron's bubble
That boil'd your bones, unless you paid them double.

But saving this, you may put on whate'er
You like by way of doublet, cape, or cloak.
Such as in Monmouth-street, or in Rag Fair,
Would rig you out in seriousness or joke;
And even in Italy such places are,
With prettier name in softer accents spoke,
For, bating Covent Garden, I can hit on
No place that's called "Piazza" in Great Britain.

observations: Should be read with yesterday’s entry – keeping the words short to fit in an extra picture. 

It’s not clear if the figure in the top photo is a real priest or dressed up as one, but there don’t seem to be the same limits on costumes as there were in Byron’s day. (Phlegethon is a fiery river, or a river of blood that boils souls.) Inigo Jones designed the Covent Garden Piazza in Italianate style – nowadays there are quite a few squares in Great Britain described as piazzas.

The amazing photographs were taken in Venice for us last week by Perry Photography, and you can see more of her work at the weddingsinitalytuscany website – and also on the blog, last year’s Mardi Gras entry, this picture which might be the most beautiful dress on the blog, and more photos here and here.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Beppo: a Venetian Story by Lord Byron

published 1818  


'T is known, at least it should be, that throughout
All countries of the Catholic persuasion,
Some weeks before Shrove Tuesday comes about,
The people take their fill of recreation,
And buy repentance, ere they grow devout,
However high their rank, or low their station,
With fiddling, feasting, dancing, drinking, masking,
And other things which may be had for asking. 

The moment night with dusky mantle covers
The skies ( and the more duskily the better ),
The time less liked by husbands than by lovers

Begins, and prudery flings aside her fetter;
And gaiety on restless tiptoe hovers,
Giggling with all the gallants who beset her;
And there are songs and quavers, roaring, humming,
Guitars, and every other sort of strumming.

And there are dresses splendid, but fantastical,
Masks of all times and nations, Turks and Jews,
And harlequins and clowns, with feats gymnastical,
Greeks, Romans, Yankee-doodles, and Hindoos...

observations: Byron’s poem is set in Venice at Carnevale: the season of joy and pleasure preceding Lent. Heroine Laura thinks she is widowed – her husband, Beppo, disappeared on a sea voyage – and she has found some comfort with a new companion, The Count. As they are enjoying the feasting and dancing, they notice a Turk staring and staring at them. Not very surprisingly, he will turn out to be her lost spouse. And that’s about it for the story. Perhaps there is an implication that the husband’s return (Lent) is the end of the good times (Carnevale) for Laura, but that is not overt. Apparently, the husband gets on just fine with the Count. But there is a lot more discussion and digression in the poem, which is enjoyable, easy to read, and very funny. Almost the first thing the rather splendid Laura says to her newly-returned husband is ‘Well, that’s the prettiest shawl! - As I’m alive! You’ll give it to me?’

Carnevale ends this week (Ash Wednesday coming up) and these amazing photographs were taken in Venice for us last week. There’ll be more of them tomorrow, along with a bit more of Beppo.

They were taken by Perry Photography, and you can see more of her work at the weddingsinitalytuscany website – and also on the blog, last year’s Mardi Gras entry, this picture which might be the most beautiful dress on the blog, and more photos here and here.

Another Byron poem featured in this entry.