Sunday, 31 March 2013

The Man Born to be King by Dorothy L Sayers

Series of plays first broadcast in 1941 & 1942:  the 12th play ‘The King Comes To His Own’

Author’s notes to the producer:

Note that for all the women, there is, on an occasion such as this, the consolation of being able to act. The male disciples are lethargic because they have come to a dead end: the women can occupy themselves with funeral details, and get a certain mournful satisfaction out of them. The bustle of preparing spices, of collecting towels and basins, of the early morning excursion – the contemplation of fine grave-clothes, a rich casket, a beautiful tomb – it all soothes and braces them. At births and deaths, women come into their own and do something, while men can only sit about helplessly. Melancholy as it all is, the women are on top – it is their adventure….

Scene 7

THE EVANGELIST: Mary Magdalene returned to the sepulchre and stood without, weeping. And as she wept, she stooped down, and seeth two angels in white sitting, one at the head, and the other at the foot, where the body of Jesus had lain.

GABRIEL: Woman, why do you weep?

MARY MAGDALEN: Because they have taken away my Lord and I don’t know where they have laid him. (She turns away, sobbing)

JESUS: My girl, what are you crying for?

MARY MAGDALEN: Oh sir! … are you the gardener?

Happy Easter and Passover Greetings to all blog readers 

These plays by Dorothy L Sayers were very controversial when they were first written, because she had an actor playing Jesus, which at that time was not allowed on stage in the UK. The plays were written for radio, which meant those rules didn’t apply, but still there was a considerable fuss – although church leaders came out in favour of them, and they were broadcast to almost universal praise and appreciation.

In the story of Lazarus, he comes forth from the tomb with his grave-clothes around him: he will need them when he dies for a second time. In the Resurrection story, the bindings are left behind in the tomb because Jesus will not need them.

DLS is more usually known for her detective stories featuring Lord Peter Wimsey – often featured on the blog: click on the label below. She also did a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

The picture of Mary Magdalene at the Tomb is by Tissot, more famous for painting beautiful society ladies in elaborate gowns. It is in the Brooklyn Museum – the Museum has kindly made the image available online

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford

published 1949    chapter 6

[Lady Montdore is giving advice to debutante Fanny, who has said no-one will ever marry her]

‘Nonsense. And don’t you go marrying just anybody, for love,’ she said. ‘Remember that love cannot last, it never does, but if you marry all this it’s for your life. One day, don’t forget, you’ll be middle-aged and think what that must be like for a woman who can’t have, say, a pair of diamond earrings. A woman of my age needs diamonds near her face, to give a sparkle. Then at meal times, sitting with the unimportant people for ever and ever. And no motor. Not a very nice prospect, you know. Of course,’ she added as an afterthought, ‘I was lucky, I had love as well as all this, but it doesn’t often happen, and when the moment comes for you to choose, just remember what I say…. Goodbye then Fanny – let’s see a lot of you now we’re back.’

observations: Lady Montdore, one of the great monstrous creations of literature – see earlier entry - needs to be dramatized again (there were TV versions of the books in 1980 and 2000) and Clothes in Books has a most brilliant idea: Rupert Everett should play her, following on from his role as the headmistress of St Trinian’s. We think this would be perfect casting, and we freely hand the idea over to production companies. In fact we really think we should start a campaign.

Lady M will show she means what she says when Fanny eventually does get engaged, for love – she offers to call up the editor of The Times to get the announcement removed from the paper. She also is rude about the engagement ring (the one that is NOT the size of a pigeon’s egg or a trouser button – see important and detailed discussion here).

The jokes in this book, and Pursuit of Love, are very much character-based. So for example, Aunt Sadie is very much uninterested in health, while Davey is obsessed with it. When Lady Patricia dies, Sadie says:
‘I always liked her so much, though of course, all that about being delicate was tiresome.’

‘Well, now you can see for yourself that she was delicate,’ said Davey triumphantly. ‘She’s dead. It killed her.’

Links on the blog: both books have featured extensively on the blog: click on the labels below. Bejewelled earrings are important in this story. Debutantes in London in the 1930s here.

The picture is of the Duchess of Berry by Robert Lefevre, from about 1820

Friday, 29 March 2013

When it was Dark by Guy Thorne

published 1903

"There's the church," said Spence, "where she lies buried. Gortre sees that the grave is kept beautiful with flowers. It was an odd impulse of yours, Father, to propose this visit."

"I do odd things sometimes," said the priest, simply. "I thought that the sight of this poor woman's resting-place might remind you and me of what has passed, of what she did for the world— though no one knows it but our group of friends. I hope that it will remind us, remind you very solemnly, my friend, in your new responsibility, of what Christ means to the world. The shadows of the time of darkness, 'When it Was Dark' during the 'Horror of Great Darkness,' have gone from us. And this poor sister did this for her Saviour's sake."

They stood by Gertrude Hunt's grave as they spoke. A slender copper cross rose above it, some six feet high. "I wonder how the poor girl managed it," said Spence at length;..."I suppose Llewellyn had left papers about or something. But I do wonder how she did it."

"That," said Father Ripon, "was what she would never tell anybody."

"Requiescat in pace," said Spence.

"In Paradise with Saint Mary of Magdala," the priest said softly.

observations: This book, a huge bestseller, was a kind of Da Vinci Code of its day, though with a quite opposite intent.

The horrible thing about it is its quite extraordinary anti-Semitism: Claud Cockburn (When it was Dark features in his excellent overview Bestseller) says it would have been seen as quite normal at the time. Apart from that, it is a very strange novel indeed. The premise is straightforward, and clear from early in the book: an antichrist figure is working against religion, and so launches a plan to disprove the Resurrection of Christ (the book is subtitled The Story of a Great Conspiracy) – he uses planted archaeological finds to show that the body was hidden by Joseph of Arimathea. He is successful, up to a point, before the work of a smart young curate (with the unusual name of Gortre – almost an anagram of GThorne) defeats his wicked plan, with the help of Gertrude, the fallen woman whose death is being remembered above.

The really old-fashioned thing about it is this: the world falls apart on the news that Christianity is based on a fake Resurrection. People fight and kill each other, the economy collapses, ‘unmentionable orgies take place in public’,
in Rhodesia the mine capitalists were moving for slavery pure and simple. It was proposed openly that slavery should be the penalty for law-breaking for natives. This was the only way, it asserted, by which the labour problem in South Africa could be solved.

And, it becomes apparent, only religion was protecting women: crimes against females increase massively.

As Claud Cockburn points out, it is hard for us now to imagine a world where this was a believable scenario.

Links on the blog: Evelyn Waugh’s Helena also deals with Biblical archaeology – the True Cross rather than the burial place of Christ. Another chapter of the Cockburn book is about The Green Hat.

The picture of Mary Magdalene is by Giacomo Galli, and is in the collection at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, used with their permission

Thursday, 28 March 2013

The Histories by Herodotus

written between 450 and 420 BCE 

this translation by Andrea L Purvis in 2007

Book 7

The following peoples were serving in the army. There were the Persians, who were dressed and equipped in this manner: they wore soft felt caps on their heads, which they called tiaras, and multi-coloured tunics with sleeves, covering their bodies, and they had breastplates of iron fashioned to look like fish scales. On their legs they wore trousers, and instead of shields they carried pieces of wicker, which had quivers hung below them. They were armed with short spears, long bows, and arrows made of reeds. From their belts they fastened daggers, which hung down along the right thigh…

The Medes on the expedition were dressed and equipped in the same way, for this attire is actually Median, not Persian. … Long ago the Medes had been called Arians by everyone, until Medeia of Colchis came to them from Athens, and then, at least according to what the Medes themselves say, they, too, changed their name. The Kissians who had joined the expedition were dressed and equipped just as the Persians were in everything, except that they wore turbans instead of felt caps… The Hyrcanians were dressed and equipped just as the Persians were…

observations: This is the army of Xerxes on an expedition. (The entry should be read in conjunction with this earlier one.) The top picture,
 from the great audience hall in Persepolis, Xerxes’ ceremonial capital, is from the 5th century BCE, ie the right era. The Medes are apparently the ones with the round hats and boots.

Just before this listing of the army, there is a story about them trying to build a bridge across the strait of Hellespont. This is not going well, so Xerxes orders that ‘the Hellespont was to receive 300 lashes under the whip’. Even better, his men were to ‘say barbarian and insolent things’ as they were striking the water: ‘You are a turbid and briny river!’

It is well worth reading the book because of these splendid stories interrupting the more straightforward bits. It was a different time, with different standards: Herodotus casually mentions at the end of this anecdote that as well as this punishing of the sea, the supervisors of the project were all beheaded.

There is also the strange story of Polykrates, the man who was too lucky – his friend and ally Amasis eventually ends their friendship because everything must eventually go wrong for him, so
when severe and dreadful misfortune should finally strike Polykrates, Amasis’ spirit would not be tortured with anguish, as it would be for a friend and ally.

Links on the blog: More soldiers – the Napoleonic guard in John Le Carre, and this rather splendid major in Agatha Christie, whose name might have indicated she knew more than she should about Bletchley Park.

The picture of the reliefs at Persepolis was taken by Arad, and can be found on Wikimedia Commons. The other picture is a reconstruction of what the soldiers might have looked like, based on Herodotus.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Oxford Blood by Antonia Fraser

published 1985     chapter 8 

‘Dress: Gilded rubbish’ was printed at the bottom of the Chimneysweepers’ ornate invitation…

Fanny was after all a young girl living in Oxford, and a not unattractive one, even if she was not quite in the same class as two ravishing girls introduced to Jemima merely as Tessa and Nessa. In the old days such girls would have been marked down as arriving from London; nowadays all the prettiest were probably at the University…

It had to be said that the style of ‘Gilded Rubbish’ did not suit Fanny’s looks and perhaps it was for that reason, or perhaps she was generally discomforted by the company, but in any case Jemima found Fanny much less ebullient… Tiggie Jones was exactly the sort of girl who shone at a party like this, and there was Tiggie – shining. Shining also was Poppy Delaware, a girl so like Tiggie (except for the colour of her hair, which was partially blue and partially orange) that Jemima wondered if they might not be sisters until she realized that the effect of the glittering tattiness of the costumes as well as the short-cropped haircuts of both sexes was to make everyone young look rather alike.

observations: The Jemima Shore detective novels were great fun, and one can only hope that Antonia Fraser may revive her wish-fulfillment heroine one day. Jemima was a TV journalist who solved crimes in her spare time, but she wasn’t nearly as annoying as that makes her sound. She had great clothes and she light-heartedly slept with a lot of men and she took her career seriously – a combo that was more unusual than you might think in 1980s books.

The crime plot is not the main attraction here: there’s a lot of clonkingly obvious stuff about bloodgroups and paternity, everyone takes forever to get there, and if you don’t see one twist coming you should give up. It would all be swept away by DNA testing now anyway. But the atmosphere of the 1980s is superb: from the Cortina car to the girls in long Laura Ashley dresses to the reverent respect for Princess Diana (not, it would seem, shared by Fraser or Jemima). Jemima’s assistant, Cherry, wears for work 
a pink cotton boiler-suit, many top buttons left untouched and a tight belt to clinch [should this be cinch?] her figure at the waist.
 Nothing can be proved about how I know that this is not as unlikely as it sounds in a sensible, career-minded and professional person working in the media at that time. 

At Oxford University, the doors had finally opened to women in fair numbers. There had always been a handful of women’s colleges, but the intake was wildly unbalanced (in favour, of course, of men) till just before this book was written: hence the remark about the pretty girls coming down from London. Apparently Fraser, who has written very entertainingly about her own time at Oxford, was intrigued by the changes she saw when her daughter arrived there in the 80s.

Links on the blog: Dorothy L Sayers is another famous alumna of Oxford, and wrote about it in Gaudy Night. Why Princess Diana resembles the Duchess of Windsor, here.

Both pictures are from a fashion magazine of 1985.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

My Search for Warren Harding by Robert Plunket

published 1984    chapter 14

[Barrie is updating her friends on the life of her mother, a former movie star, and her new boyfriend]

‘He’s nuts about my mother. He thinks she’s some big star…. The same day he met her, he was so smitten he gave her a fully-let-out chinchilla car coat.’

‘Such an awkward length,’ commented Jonica.

‘Not if you’re in a wheelchair’ Barrie went on. ‘It belonged to his dead wife. She suffered in agony for twenty years with multiple sclerosis.’

‘Eeech,’ said Jonica. ‘Who’d want that coat?’

‘My mother, that’s who. She wears it around the house to save money on heat.’ Barrie leaned a little closer to the front seat. ‘My mother’s going crazy. She doesn’t know whether to marry the guy or not. She keeps calling, asking my advice, wanting to spend time with me, I can’t get her out of my hair… Just yesterday she called and said, “Barrie, here you are twenty-five years old and you’ve never had me over to your house for dinner.”’

‘Serve fish,’ Jonica suggested. ‘She hates that.’

observations: We keep visiting this book not only because it is such an under-rated gem, but also because the clothes descriptions in the book are so great. This tasteless, but very convincing, conversation is a perfect sample. Plunket usually describes exactly what people are wearing to dramatic effect – Elliot in his purple shirt with the home-made armpit shields (don’t ask), Jonica dressed ‘like a little English boy: a vest, knickers, a little tweed cap.’

diversion: we have discussed the question of US/UK usage of ‘knickers’ before. This is an extreme case – an English girl going out to dinner in her vest and knickers is in her underwear (perhaps with suspenders too). In which case obviously she would be in the Dress Down Sunday feature of the blog.

Jonica gets most of her clothes from thrift shops, and there is a wonderful description of her searching the bins: ‘She could pick up an article, give it the once-over, check for stains and rips, look at the label for fibre content, and toss it back in two seconds flat, and then be able to relocate it again ten minutes later.’

The young people are on their way to an outing on a boat, one of the great setpieces of the book, with dreadful things going wrong, plus sharp descriptions of everyone’s clothes.

Links up with: Two earlier entries from this book. This First Lady wore a fur jacket, and Lord Peter gives Harriet a fur here.

The picture is of comedienne Phyllis Diller in a chinchilla coat.

Monday, 25 March 2013

The Jewels of Paradise by Donna Leon

published 2012   chapter 9

[Caterina is researching the life and papers of composer Agostino Steffani in Venice] The next paper was a letter dated 21 June 1700, addressed to Mio caro Agostino, the familiarity of which salutation brought the scholar in her to the equivalent of a hunting dog’s freezing at point. There was general talk of work and travel, mutual friends, the problem with servants. Then things turned to gossip and the writer told his friend Agostino about the Duke N.H.’s public behaviour with his brother’s wife at the last ball of Carnevale.

The third son of G.R. had died of bronchial trouble, to his parents’ utmost grief, in which the writer joined them: he was a good boy and barely eight years old. And then the writer told his friend that he had overheard… [a Baron] speaking slightingly of Steffani and making fun of him for singing along with his operas while attending in the audience. The writer thought his friend should know of this, should he receive compliments or promises from the Baron. Then, with affectionate good wishes for Agostino’s good health, the writer placed his illegible signature at the bottom.

observations: Donna Leon has written a long series of very popular police procedurals featuring Commissario Brunetti of Venice – the city where she, an American, has lived for many years. This book is a standalone, and is the fictional story of a young musicologist researching papers relating to this rather obscure (but real) composer. There is a mystery regarding what happened to Steffani, and an unlikely dispute over inheritance, with ‘family’ following up several hundred years later. (This is a bit of a mystery in itself – perhaps Italian relations are different, but as none of them are direct descendants, they have surely gone a long way from him and each other in the intervening time? Late on there is a sudden implication that Steffani DID have descendants, but this is not followed up).

But then, on top of all this, there is a real-life linkup with the sublime singer Cecilia Bartoli, who has produced a CD of Steffani’s music, and even bravely disguised herself as him for a photo:

- when she normally looks like this:

The Bartoli connection makes the whole deal worthwhile. The book is, perhaps, a vanity project – Leon’s publishers presumably let her do whatever she wants. It’s not a great book by any means, but harmless (apart from an almost bizarre hatred of the Catholic church – what did they ever do to Leon?), and if it makes one person listen to Bartoli singing, then good.

Links on the blog: There’ve been a few Venice entries – click on the label below. Particularly, Byron’s Beppo had people misbehaving at Carnevale (and more great pics).

The picture of Steffani is from Wikimedia Commons, the photo of Venice is from Perry Photography, and the Bartoli pictures are publicity for her Steffani CD, Mission.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Dress Down Sunday: London Belongs to Me by Norman Collins

published 1945


chapter 33 - Doreen appeared. She was smoking a cigarette and wearing an old, flowered dressing-gown. Her face glistened with cold-cream and her hair was gathered up in a red silk handkerchief. On each cheek a small disc of rouge that had not yet been rubbed in burned fiercely. Altogether she looked like something large and sticky from the back row of the ballet.

‘Listen, my pet,’ she said. ‘I don’t like little girls who go about stealing other girls’ friends.’

Chapter 82 – It was just 9.30 when Mrs Josser got there. And Cynthia wasn’t yet dressed properly. She came down to the door in a kind of kimono with her hair done up in a fish net. The sight offended Mrs Josser. In her house, particularly when the children had been little, she herself had always been clothed and presentable from 7 o’clock onwards. She didn’t approve of housewives who made a late start. Also, she wished that Cynthia could have looked a little more pleased to see her. Pleased. Not just surprised.

observations: This lovely book is undecided on its attitude to young women. Norman Collins has satirical intentions often, and the second extract definitely gives the views of Mrs Josser, the serious housewife and matriarch. But NC seems to be a bit innocent about the female sex, and to have some very traditional views. The book is liberal-minded and wide-ranging, with a generosity of spirit to all kinds of behaviours and minor sins – but there are some puritanical attitudes tucked away (the one woman who is wild ends very badly), and he doesn’t show women as having any great interest in sex.

Unwanted pregnancy is usually one of the staples of a big-city slice of life like this book, particularly given the working-class setting, but doesn't feature at all here.

If you thought ‘fishnet’ was a mistake for hairnet (as I did) – it’s a kind of crochet pattern, and can be made into a most attractive snood for holding up your hair when hanging around in your dressing-gown:

This picture came from the wonderful Vintage Knitting Pattern site. 

Links on the blog: There’ve been plenty of robes, kimonos, Chinese robes and dressing-gowns, but mostly without the judgemental air found here. The whole question of snoods gets a good going-over in this entry

The kimono picture is by Frederick C Frieseke, is in the Indianopolis Museum of Art, and can be found on Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Work for a Million by Eve Zaremba

published 1986     chapter 9

Betty Grelick has a small, tasteful office in a remodelled building just off fashionable Bloor Street West. She greeted me pleasantly, obviously having decided to be charming rather than resentful. Definitely an improvement. She was head-to-toe in tailored denim, a casually expensive French designer outfit with embroidered vest and good jewellery. If she was short of money, it wasn’t showing. I was offered a drink and accepted. Betty mixed two powerful Bloody Marys. Then followed an awkward pause. Whatever the purpose of her lunch invitation now that I was there, she had trouble getting the situation organized to her liking. 

‘How long have you and Sonia been friends?’ I asked tactfully. It was a safe opening. Got the ball rolling and allowed her to take the conversation in any direction she chose.

observations: There is a somewhat discreditable reason for this particular crime novel being used: I was updating the list of books-on-the-blog (tabs above) and realized there were no authors beginning with Z. So this one was pulled out of an extensive crime fiction library to fill the gap. (Zamyatin might turn up one day.) It is very reminiscent of a book called Salmon in the Soup – in the blog entry (rude remarks but lovely picture), I said ‘the heroine has seen it all before, and so has the reader’, and that would apply to this one too. The investigator is a female private detective working in Toronto, a lesbian, and she is called in as bodyguard to a beautiful singer who has had threatening calls. (It does sound like a mishmash of many a Virago/Women’s Press 1980s crime effort.) It’s part of a series and is entertaining enough, but routine and unmemorable. Having said that, here’s a complaint that it did not have an expected scene: It seems a shame to have made one of the main characters a popular singer, but NOT to have an exciting climax at a concert full of jeopardy.

One nostalgic note was hit by the House Detective at a hotel, provoking thoughts that this important figure featured a lot in thrillers of the last century, books and films: it seemed a mysterious and glamorous job – what did they do? For those of us in the UK, living dull lives, they were indicative of a whole world out there that we didn’t quite understand, but knew to be exciting and dangerous. Presumably they’re just called Security now.

Links on the blog: Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone (female private eye) books started out in the same era, and stayed there in their own special way.

Margot Kinberg, on her splendid Confessions of a Mystery Novelist blog, last year did an excellent piece on 1980s crime fiction.

The picture is of supermodel Gisele Bundchen at a fashion show in Rio.

Friday, 22 March 2013

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford

published 1945      chapter 14

Feeling provincial, up in London for the day and determined to see a little life, I made Davey give me luncheon at the Ritz. This has a still further depressing effect on my spirits. 

My clothes, so nice and suitable for the George, so much admired by the other dons’ wives (‘My dear, where did you get that lovely tweed?’) were, I now realized, almost bizarre in their dowdiness… I thought of those dear little black children, three of them now, in their nursery at home, and of dear Alfred in his study, but just for the moment this thought was no consolation. I passionately longed to have a tiny fur hat, or a tiny ostrich hat, like the two ladies at the next table. I longed for a neat black dress, diamond clips and a dark mink coat, shoes like surgical boots, long crinkly black suede gloves, and smoothly polished hair. When I tried to explain all this to Davey, he remarked, absent-mindedly:

‘Oh but it doesn’t matter a bit for you, Fanny, and, after all, how can you have time for les petits soins de la personne with so many other, more important things to think of.’

I suppose he thought this would cheer me up.

observations: How do we count the ways we love this book? Poor Fanny, don’t we all empathize with her, that terrible feeling when your clothes aren’t right. Nancy Mitford seems like someone whose clothes were always right, but she certainly understood the situation. Crinkly suede – you would be hard put to explain exactly what this is, but at the same time we know exactly, it’s the perfect description.

Late in the book there is a sly reference to Brideshead Revisited, published about the same time by Mitford's great  friend Evelyn Waugh.

Fanny’s mother, The Bolter is a quite splendid character, and the reader longs for more of her - Mitford is unusually restrained in her use of her. (Incidentally, a recent book about the alleged original of The Bolter makes repeated mistakes about The Pursuit of Love: the author seems not to have read it, or at least not recently). 

‘Black children’ is meant to indicate that the children have dark hair – this rather curious construction is used twice in the book. Another curiosity is Linda’s child Moira (a name of interest to us at Clothes in Books) – she is abandoned to the estranged husband, fine, but it seems odd that Mitford writes more books about the family, following up – at least in passing – on everyone’s future and offspring, but Moira is never mentioned again. Surely the Radletts would have kept track of their granddaughter? It seems quite possible that Mitford herself forgot all about her.

Links on the blog: Endless more Nancy Mitfords – click on the label below. This woman:

looks much as the ones Fanny describes – the picture is from the blog entry for Anne Scott-James’s In the Mink, also about fashionable London ladies of the 1930s.

The top picture is a portrait of Helen Wallace from the US National Archives, the lower one from Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Have His Carcase by Dorothy L Sayers

published 1931 chapter 2

Harriet walked sturdily onwards, the light pack upon her shoulders interfering little with her progress. She was twenty-eight years old, dark, slight, with a skin naturally a little sallow, but now tanned to an agreeable biscuit colour by sun and wind. Persons of this fortunate complexion are not troubled by midges and sunburn, and Harriet, though not too old to care for her personal appearance, was old enough to prefer convenience to outward display. Consequently, her luggage was not burdened by skin-creams, insect lotion, silk frocks, portable electric irons, or other impedimenta beloved of the ‘Hikers’ Column’. She was dressed sensibly in a short skirt and thin sweater, and carried, in addition to a change of linen and an extra provision of footwear, little else beyond a pocket edition of Tristram Shandy, a vest-pocket camera, a small first-aid outfit, and a sandwich lunch.

observations: That’s all very well, but she’s about to discover a corpse on her travels, and although the tiny camera will prove useful, what is she going to wear when she has to go a-sleuthing, and vamp suspects? Sayers has no problem with self-contradiction, and blandly moves on to Harriet going on two shopping expeditions – if only she had brought a silk frock and an iron!

Amongst Wimsey/Sayers fans Carcase might win a vote for the least-popular of the series, but we have a soft spot for it, despite the almost-deliberate longueurs while interviewing suspects and following up alibis, and the quite bizarrely unlikely plot. The chapter in which Harriet and Peter solve a cipher is jaw-droppingly dull, and makes one doubt the claim that some calculations have been omitted ‘for brevity’s sake’, but really you can skip the whole chapter (due warning: chapter 28) for brevity’s sake. Even Sayers seems unsure about the book – in the later Gaudy Night (another blog favourite) Harriet asks Peter, referring to the incidents in this book:
‘Do you remember that horrible time at Wilvercombe when we could find nothing to throw at one another but cheap wit and spiteful remarks? At least, I was spiteful: you never were.’
‘It was the watering-place atmosphere,’ said Wimsey. ‘One is always vulgar at watering-places…’

But in fact the wit and spite improve the book, and the atmosphere of a 1930s walking tour, and then the resort and the smart hotel, are beautifully done.

The book has featured before, and also gave us the very first entry for Clothes in Books. Another book (very different) featuring an extended hike. Gladys Mitchell’s teachers wore similar outfits.

The picture is by William Orpen, a great favourite whose pictures have appeared for other entries.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

published 2012         Day Three

Nearly everybody had a story to tell about the Titanic, which had sunk in a spectacular fashion just over two years before.

Mrs McCain’s younger sister had been one of the survivors, so we listened spellbound to everything she had to say on the subject, and pestered her for details about her sister’s experience. In the case of the Titanic, the problem was the lack of lifeboats, but those who made it into the boats were rescued very quickly. ‘The ship sank at night, so many people were not properly dressed,’ said Mrs McCain. ‘Whenever my sister tells the story, she laughs and says that her biggest worry was the fact that she was wearing on her feet only a pair of jewelled Arabian slippers 

and that her ankles showed beneath her robe when she was getting in and out of the boat.’ The other females and I simultaneously looked down at our feet and blushed, which was a nice reminder that somewhere a world existed where this might be our primary concern.

observations: These discussions are taking place as they themselves sit in a lifeboat, waiting to be saved. Unlike those who escaped the Titanic, this party will have to wait a long time for rescue - there are no ships nearby, and there is a question mark over distress messages. But we know from the beginning that the narrator, Grace not only survives, but is being tried for something that happened on the lifeboat.

This is a mysterious book in two senses: it is not clear exactly what happened on the boat, and it is also not clear what you are meant to take from it. Is it an allegory, and if so, what does it mean? It is well-written and clever, the heroine is intriguing and certainly not setting out to captivate either readers or the other people on the lifeboat. I was hoping for an ending that tied everything together or contained some revelation, but that didn’t happen. And there came a point where I couldn’t quite be bothered to try to work out what she was trying to say. But the description of the horrors and deprivations of the lifeboat, and the annoying characters on it, was very compelling and convincing – a great feat of imagination, as presumably Rogan has not been shipwrecked.

Links on the blog: In Daniel Deronda, George Eliot has Catherine Arrowpoint asking the man she loves to marry her, and compares the proposal to a woman leaping from the deck to a lifeboat. There is a dramatic shipwreck in this book, quite surprisingly, and one of Anthony Powell’s books is compared to the film Titanic in this entry.

The lifeboat picture dates from 1912 and shows a lifeboat with survivors from the Titanic. It comes from the US National Archives. The slippers are a detail from a picture by Francesco Renaldi, part of the Google Art Project.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Sybil or The Two Nations by Benjamin Disraeli

published 1845 book 2 chapter 6

Lord Marney, followed somewhat reluctantly by his brother, advanced to the other end of the drawing-room, where his wife was employed with her embroidery-frame, and seated next to her young friend, Miss Poinsett, who was playing chess with Captain Grouse, a member of the chess club, and one of the most capital performers extant…

Lord Marney, who was fond of chess, turned out Captain Grouse, and very gallantly proposed to finish his game with Miss Poinsett, which Miss Poinsett, who understood Lord Marney as well as he understood chess, took care speedily to lose, so that his lordship might encounter a champion worthy of him. Egremont seated by his sister-in-law, and anxious by kind words to soothe the irritation which he had observed with pain his brother create, entered into easy talk…

"And do you really mean to go on Thursday?" said Egremont: "I think we had better put it off."

"We must go," said Lady Marney, with a sort of sigh, and shaking her head… “We must go. I am annoyed about this dear little Poinsett: she has been to stay with me so very often, and she has only been here three days. When she comes in again, I wish you would ask her to sing, Charles."

Soon the dear little Poinsett was singing, much gratified by being invited to the instrument by Mr Egremont.

observations: A second entry from this book, showing a certain lack of attention by Disraeli. The book has scenes among the nobs, and scenes among the lower classes, and he seems to be more interested in the poor people, because the smart parties don’t quite come off. Here, it’s not clear what the purpose of Miss Poinsett is, and is she a good thing or not? Lady Marney’s remark about her feels as though it should read ‘She has been to stay with me so LITTLE’ – while the bit about the chess doesn’t read well either. Lord Marney likes chess, but is he good at it? If so, why does Miss P have to make an effort to lose? Again, the sentence might have read something like: ‘Miss P understood Lord M better than he understood chess.’ Just a thought.

And yet, there are flashes in the book suggesting wittier and more interesting possibilities. During a discussion of heiresses, Lady Marney says ‘I would just as soon be married for my money as my face’ – a revolutionary idea in a 19th century novel, and one that could be investigated to good effect.

It’s not a novel that would have survived if the author hadn’t also been Prime Minister, but it does still have curiosity value – and although the political parts are exaggerated for satirical effect, presumably he knew whereof he wrote.

Links on the blog: The book has featured before. Lucy plays chess with Reepicheep on the Dawn Treader.

The picture by George Goodwin Kilbourne comes from the Athenaeum website.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Through a Glass Darkly by Helen McCloy

published 1949  chapter 8

[Getting ready for a tea party at an upmarket girls’ school, with parents, pupils, trustees and staff]

It was always an ordeal for the younger teachers to achieve the difficult blend of sophisticated elegance and pedagogic decorum which Mrs Lightfoot expected of them on these occasions.

That afternoon Gisela looked in her mirror and decided she had reached a happy compromise this time in a white wool dress with gold necklace and bracelets. As she went down the hall, the door of Alice Aitchison’s room was standing wide open and Gisela saw in one glance that Alice had been less discreet.

She stood, profile to the open door, facing a dressing-table. She wore a long-skirted housecoat of corded silk the same vivid burnt orange as her scarf. There were outrageously high-heeled black suede pumps on her feet, with huge rhinestone buckles. The sleeves were elbow length, but the neckline dropped dangerously over her thrusting bosom. For the first time Gisela thought Alice beautiful, in a bold, hot-blooded way. But nothing could have been more inappropriate.

observations: This very unusual book starts out in a girls’ school in a small town not far from New York, and moves from a standard academic mystery (‘I believe you are meeting the Greek Play Committee at four o’clock’) into something much stranger. It is a small classic: short, spooky and sticking in the mind afterwards. And it has a certain lack of resolution which is, in this rare case, a good thing.

Any experienced reader can see that Alice is for it. In many a detective story, the point of the bright orange dress would be either misidentification of the body, or a sighting somewhere at a crucial time. That isn’t quite what happens here.

The housecoat had me puzzled, and wondering if it meant something different in the US but apparently not: a loose informal robe designed to be worn at home. Not something you would wear to look memorable at a smart party, and not something you’d be wearing high-heeled shoes with. (In Under Milk Wood, it’s what Miss Price wears as she runs to the clothesline and then eats her breakfast). It’s the kind of mistake you might expect a man to make, but Helen McCloy is most certainly female, and is quite careful in her clothes descriptions – that Greek Play gives us a long detailed discussion of costumes – so it is a mystery. One of the covers for this book has her wearing something more like an evening dress, which also seems wrong.

The book is about doubles, doppelgangers and haunting. But there is a solid detective story structure too, with inheritances, fallen women and valuable jewels – it makes for quite a combination.

Links on the blog: There are orange dresses here and here. Murder at a girls’ school here – and a detective who wears magenta, orange and blue (so it could only be Mrs Bradley).

The picture is Study for the Orange Robe by Henry Salem Hubell.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

St Patrick's Day Special: An Irish Wedding

That they May Face the Rising Sun by John McGahern

published 2002

Not a single one of John Quinn’s children had stayed away. They all came to the wedding, bringing their wives and husbands and children. Gathered together outside the church door before making their way to the altar, they made a formidable and striking picture of youth and strength and solidarity. John Quinn was at their living centre, in a tailor-made pinstripe suit with a white rose in the buttonhole, thriving on the attention. Together they all filed into the church to await the bride. She came late. Only the whisperers at the church door saw her arrive, a handsome, determined-looking woman in her late 50s, wearing a stylish navy-blue costume and a veil with a spray of white lilies in her hair. In spite of her vigour and good looks the bride appeared vulnerable as she walked up in the aisle on her white-haired brother’s arm past all the curious heads that turned, but she appeared to grow in confidence during the ceremony. Afterwards she looked excited and happy when confetti was thrown and the photographs were taken.

observations: John Quinn is a man for the ladies, and for a view of the mountains, ‘lovely and blue in the distance’, and for what comes naturally to men and women. This marriage is not going to end well for him, and the reader is torn because although he is a most unpleasant man, it’s hard to hate him as much as you should (and his children, surprisingly, love him). 

This is an almost perfect novel, entrancing, affecting, beautiful. It follows just over a year in the life of a rural Irish community, perhaps in the late 1970s or early 80s, centred on the Ruttledges, a middle-aged, apparently childless, couple, and circles of their friends neighbours and family. The title is explained a long way into the book, and even then is somewhat mysterious.

It’s all beautifully described, absolutely universal. Don’t you recognize this big city lady coming to visit:
When she first met the Ruttledges she expected them to be bowled over by her personality… They found her exhausting. She drew all her life from what was outside herself, especially from the impression she imagined she was making on other people…

And her father-in-law Jamesie has ‘an artificial voice he used when he was too impressed with the subject matter of his own speech’ – yes, exactly.

These people are not perfect, but they’re doing their best. There’s a kind of review cliché here: you say ‘nothing much happens in this book blah, but somehow it says more blah the whole world blah.’ So: that. McGahern is one of those writers – like WG Sebald, who is in Ireland in the extract here - whose charms are very difficult to describe. The blog described Sebald as 'a miracle of a writer', and that’s McGahern too, and the Canadian writer Alastair McLeod. You just want to tell people to go and read him and find out for themselves. And then say Thank You.

Links on the blog: More Irish writers: James Joyce, Kate O’Brien, Edna O’Brien, and a stunning picture for last year's St Patrick's Day entry. More weddings all over the blog – click on the label below.

The picture, from the National Library of Ireland, is from a wedding in the Irish town of Waterford.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

The Histories by Herodotus

Written between 450 and 420 BCE 

This Translation by Andrea L Purvis in 2007 

Book 5

[Following on from an attempted raid by the Athenians on Aegina]

Only one Athenian returned home to Attica safe and sound…Actually that one man did not survive long either, but perished in the following way. After he had returned to Athens he reported the disaster, and when the wives of the men who had served with him against Aegina heard of it, they became outraged that of all the men, he alone had come back safely. They took hold of him on all sides and, as they all asked him where their own husbands were, they stabbed him with the pins of their cloaks; and so that is how he too died. To the Athenians, what the women had done seemed an even more terrible disaster than the loss of the army. They could find no other penalty to impose upon the women except to make them change their style of dress to the Ionian fashion. Prior to this, the Athenian women had worn Dorian clothing, which most resembles the Corinthian style, but now they changed to wearing a linen tunic, so that they would have no pins to use.

observations: Sometimes it’s hard to believe you are reading something 2400 years old, and sometimes it isn’t. Certainly Herodotus does not tell a story in the same way a modern writer would; he tends to say that something happened, then follow that with the narrative, and so there is no tension or holding back the end. So in this case he tells you right off that the man died. He has just told us the differing versions of this disastrous raid - one side think they destroyed the other, while ‘the Athenians attribute the loss of the army to a divine force.’ He is very straight-faced, it's hard to tell what he thinks of that. Herodotus is the Father of History, so I suppose it is fair enough that he hadn’t read anyone else’s versions, and couldn’t be on trend.

It is not a truly riveting read on every page, but just as you’re yawning through some long description of warring tribes and politics, a story like the above one will pop up – it ends with the Athenians' enemies increasing the size of the women’s cloakpins by 50%:

And so on ever since that time, even down to my own day, the Argive and Aeginetan women have been wearing larger pins than they had earlier, all because of the strife with the Athenians.

He also tells stories he has heard about the customs, people, animals and geography of an area, a complete mishmash of likely, unlikely and rubbish. He also likes to tell some striking tale then say immediately that of course this isn’t true, thus having his cake and eating it.

There is a good stuff on the Spartans, and talking laconically, and a Solomon-like story about twin boys – which is the first-born and thus the king? See which one the mother likes best…

Links on the blog: Another Greek vase photo here.

The pictures, of  Athenian women pictured on a vase from roughly the time Herodotus was writing, are from the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Sad Cypress by Agatha Christie

published 1939   chapter 5

Young and severe in her black dress, Elinor sat in front of Mrs Welman’s massive writing-table in the library. Various papers were spread out in front of her. She had finished interviewing the servants and Mrs Bishop. Now it was Mary Gerrard who entered the room and hesitated a minute by the doorway.

‘You wanted to see me, Miss Elinor?’ she said.

Elinor looked up. ‘Oh, yes, Mary. Come here and sit down, will you?’

Mary came and sat in the chair Elinor indicated. It was turned a little way towards the window, and the light from it fell on her face, showing the dazzling purity of the skin and bringing out the pale gold of the girl’s hair.

Elinor… thought ‘Is it possible to hate anyone so much and not show it?’

observations: I was astonished to find this book was published in 1933. That’s because it wasn’t, despite what it says on the copyright page of my paperback. The correct date of 1939 makes much more sense - for a start there’s a reference to discussing possible husbands for Princess Elizabeth (the current Queen) which is less strange when she was 13 than when she was 7.

But the real giveaway is a reference to more relaxed divorce laws, the result of a 1937 Act of Parliament. A couple tied together by the insanity of one partner, 
unable to divorce – this used to crop up often enough in books of the first part of the 20th century, and it is agreed in the book that the new law was much kinder and more sensible. Mind you, in the closing pages of Sad Cypress, an important character is told ‘you are going to a sanatorium’: ‘that’s all arranged… Quiet place. Lovely gardens.’ This is shown as being a kind thought – perhaps like going to a spa today – and there is no suggestion this person is being bundled away, but it comes over very oddly indeed.

Another classic theme comes with the fishpaste sandwiches as a possible vehicle for poison – detective story fans find it difficult to take the snack seriously in real life, as it was such a favourite in books. We cannot be the only household where anything being offered around is accompanied with the words ‘Sandwich Mrs Bickleigh?’

Sad Cypress has an excellent plot, unlikely but fairplay, and the character of Elinor is beautifully done – Christie has her set ideas on the relations of men and women, but inside the clichés you get a stamp of conviction and the voice of experience. There is even a joking reference to Aunt Agatha’s Advice Column for tips on romances - is it a strange choice for her to have used her own first name?

Links up with: Agatha Christie has featured many times – click on the label below.

The picture is from a treasure trove of photos of utility clothes, taken by the Ministry of Information and recently released by the Imperial War Museum. Sorrel in Theatre Shoes thinks she will be reduced to wearing a utility dress to a first night, and tries to be brave about it...

Thursday, 14 March 2013

The Importance of Being Kennedy by Laurie Graham

Published 2007      chapter 15

It was a big production, getting two girls ready to be presented at Buckingham Palace. Mrs K was to go with them in the limousine and she had to wear a diamond tiara and white kid gloves with twenty-one buttons, no more, no less. She said you could be turned away if your gloves weren't right. The things the English dream up to keep you in your place. The main worry though was the curtsying. The girls had to practise walking up the red carpet until they had it off pat. Curtsy, step to the side, then glide away. We all went downstairs to see them off. Herself was in a gown made by Mr Molyneux, white satin with tiny gold beads stitched all over it, and a tiara borrowed from Lady Bessborough. Kick and Rosie had white tulle with a silver thread, Prince of Wales feathers pinned to their veils and lily-of-the-valley nosegays. Kick looked pretty, though we'd had to wrestle with her hair, and Mrs K looked a million dollars, but it was Rosie who stole the show, with her beautiful creamy shoulders and her dimples when she smiled. As Danny Walsh said, she was a grand doorful of a girl.

observations: Mrs K is Rose Kennedy, mother of JFK, and the girls are two of her daughters. Joe Kennedy is the US Ambassador to London, and the family is making the most of its brief time there at the end of the 1930s. Kick is Kathleen, who will marry the heir to a Dukedom, be widowed, and then meet further misfortune. In this (lightly) fictionalized version of their lives, her story and that of her sister Rose Marie are the main strands. Rosie was what would now be called special needs, and her prospects aren’t great either, especially viewed from a modern-day perspective. But the book is very funny and illuminating – the kind of fiction that makes you feel you understand this corner of history better.

Links up with:  
Those gloves have featured before – see hereJohn F Kennedy’s wedding featured in Presidents’ week here, and versions of the social Season from Anthony Powell, Christobel Kent and of course Nancy Mitford are all past entries. Pay attention now: Nancy's sister Deborah, that's Debo, married the younger brother of Kathleen Kennedy's husband. Because Kathleen's husband was killed in the war, Debo's husband Andrew became heir to the title Duke of Devonshire.

The picture is of debutantes in Sydney in the 1930s.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

A Challenge: The Beckoning Lady by Margery Allingham

Published 1955 chapter 15


Prune only knew of two dressmakers, Miss Spice in Pontisbright and Edmund Norman in London and Paris. Because it was to be the greatest day in her life she had gone, not unnaturally, to Norman. She had told him everything about herself and left it to him. She had the height and figure of a model, and at the only school she had ever attended they had taught her how to walk, if little else. The rest of the miracle had been performed by Charlie Luke, who walked now a little behind her looking as if he knew it. Her dress was made of tailored cream, which flattered her skin and her hair, and her shoes and long gloves and little handbag were all fashioned from the palest milk chocolate, or something very like it in tint and texture. Round her throat she wore the jade necklace, which deepened rather than echoed the colour of her eyes, and in her hand was the flagrant posy for a lover which Old Harry had wound according to the ancient way.

She was so ecstatically happy that she glowed with it as if she wore a glory, and every man who set eyes on her that day remembered her for the rest of her life.

observations: This appearance has been set up for a long time - in the book and on this blog. The Honourable Prunella is dismissed and described as rather feeble throughout the book, everyone is impatient with her. When policeman Charlie Luke falls in love with her, his friends are horrified. The couple come from very different backgrounds, and there is a funny scene where Prune goes to meet Luke’s mother, alone: of course this turns out alarmingly well (the mother invites Prune to stay the night: ‘Luke, who had the most vivid recollections of the upheaval which had preceded the weekend visit of an aunt way back in 1936, was astounded’). During the village-fete-style event they are attending, her appearance is nicely trailed: ‘Have you seen Prune?... she used to be such a dull girl.’

Love and a makeover – what more could you want? The transformative effects of romance are something we all hope for, and I cherish such descriptions in books.

This is one of the very first books I wanted to illustrate in Clothes in Books, but I think the picture in my head was never going to appear, so after more than a year of looking - well, this is not the perfect picture, because that probably doesn’t exist, but it is very lovely. It is from 1956, and I found it on the beautiful Clover-vintage site

The Clothes in Books Challenge is this: If anyone can find a better illo for Prune’s outfit, I would love to see it, and would use it on the blog. Tweet or email or Facebook.

***ADDED LATER: you can see the prize-winning entries here.

Links on the blog
: Margery Allingham has appeared before with her amazing thriller Tiger in the Smoke. The Eye of Love extract is the opposite to this one: Love wins, but the makeover was not necessary.