Friday, 28 February 2014

The West End Front by Matthew Sweet

published 2011

[From a chapter about exiled Royal families of Europe living in London during World War 2...]

By the morning of 20 March 1944, the crying and shouting and swooning were over and the Claridge’s hairdresser was sticking pins into the future Queen of Yugoslavia. Alexandra’s maid, Rose Holloway, packed up the bridal wear – a veil donated by Princess Marina, the pale oyster satin gown in which Maimie Lygon had married Peter’s cousin, Prince Vsevolod of Russia – and hoicked it round to the Yugoslav Legation...

Afterwards the couple posed for what has become the team photograph of Allied royalty: Queen Elizabeth smiling her tight little smile in fox fur; George VI, the best man, cast in the role of indulgent Uncle Bertie, Princes Tomislav and Andrej, the groom’s younger brothers; Aspasia of Greece, her face a hard mask of triumph…

observations: Apparently the bride wore flat shoes so as not to tower over her husband. That’s the kind of detail you can rely on Matthew Sweet for.

After enjoying his Shepperton Babylon (one of my top 10 books of last year) so much, I would follow him just about anywhere, and this book turns out to be very rewarding. The subtitle is ‘the wartime secrets of London’s grand hotels’, and the chapter headings include Aliens, Reds, Subterraneans, Traitors and Majesties. The stories he tells are extraordinary – there must be material for a fistful of novels here: talking about his cinema book I said ‘it tells a history you can find nowhere else, and you feel that Matthew Sweet has had unique conversations with people who either were never asked before, or are now dead, or both’ – and this description applies equally to this book.

The story of King Peter II of Yugoslavia is excruciating and
King Peter as a boy
complex – he was a boy at prep school in England when his father was assassinated in 1934, and on being removed from there he assumed he had been expelled for illicit sweet-eating, rather than to accede tot the throne. That anecdote somehow sums him up – the hopelessness, the sadness, the lack of understanding. The dramas leading up to the wedding described above are hard to credit, and there wasn’t anything very great in his future either – though his son Crown Prince Alexander (born in 1945 in a corner of Claridge’s accorded the diplomatic status of Yugoslav territory for the duration of his birth) sounds much happier and is now back in his homeland.

It is no exaggeration to say that every chapter of this book contains stories as fascinating and as strange as this one.

The Maimie Lygon mentioned above was a good friend of Evelyn Waugh’s, part of the family thought to have inspired the Flytes of Brideshead Revisited.

The rather dubious Stella in the book – whose conversation is ‘too filthy’ to be written down by MI5 agents - shares with Una, the doughty older lady from Christine Poulson’s Footfall, a liking for the Schiaparelli perfume, Shocking, a strong and iconic fragrance.

**Added later:  Blog friend JS (long-time contributor) sent in this picture, taken in Marseilles, of a plaque marking the spot where young Peter's father was assassinated:

-she says 'preux' is an old-fashioned word meaning something like 'doughty'.  ***

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Laughing Torso by Nina Hamnett

published 1932

Henri had a bright red shirt. A friend of mine had invented a shirt, the neck was cut square, it was what is now called a jumper. Henri had a red one and wore it inside his trousers. I wore mine outside my skirt and people stared at us in the street. 

[Later] I wore a jumper made on the same pattern as those Henri and I wore in London, only it was of a large cubist design in blue, orange, and black. No one in Paris had seen anything quite like it and although Sonia Delaunay was already designing scarves, this was more startling. It was made and designed for the Omega Workshops by Roger Fry. I have it on in the photograph of the dance in the Avenue du Maine, where Modigliani is standing in the background.

observations: There have been many entries on this book on the blog: click on the Nina Hamnett or Laughing Torso label below to see the others (dancing around in the nude, the boy who was nearly filed as a girl, the different-coloured shoes). Rarely have I found a book that suggested so many different posts, so I would like to again thank publishing diva Alexandra Pringle for suggesting it – I think this might finally be the last entry, and I will miss Nina and her distinctive voice. I loved reading the book, and preparing these entries.

Henri is the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska: that’s him in the picture, perhaps wearing his special red shirt. Nina Hamnett is precise about clothes, and her plainly very retentive memory works very well when it comes to their descriptions. She accumulates evening dresses from her much richer friends – one is

long and straight and was covered all over with golden spangles, which looked like fishes’ scales. It fitted quite tight and exposed the lines of the figure to view and I was very much pleased with myself.
As you would guess from the final seven words, she has an entertaining sense of self-knowledge. There’s this too:
I wished I were older. I bought a large black hat like a coal-scuttle and a dress with a slight train and tried to feel fatal.
Her unabashed way of describing what she got up to is very endearing.

One oddity is that she is always telling you if people spoke good French or not, which given the cast of characters is not the most interesting fact to hear. It also gets a bit confusing, because the non-famous people (presumably to protect their privacy) are not given names: they are initials – F. and R., I had to keep turning back to find out if they were male or female – or just described as 'the Pole', or 'the man in the café', or 'the man I stared at'. It is quite confusing.

The lower picture is of a Sonia Delaunay design: even though NH is anxious for us to know that she preceded Delaunay, it seemed a suitable illustration. The other is a painting of Henri Gaudier Brzeska by Alfred Wolmark.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Night Film by Marisha Pessl

The moment I entered my apartment, I heard an odd banging upstairs.

Racing into Sam’s room, it looked as if Moe Gulazar’s closet – maybe Moe himself – had exploded all over the carpet. Sequined gold leggings, a mink stole (suffering from mange), silk blouses, and striped neckties were draped everywhere. Nora, in a pair of black jodhpurs and a tuxedo shirt, sleeves rolled up, was packing up the clothes. I noticed Jesus and Judy Garland were no longer taped to the wall.

‘What’s going on?’ I asked.

She glanced at me over her shoulder and then turned away, folding a pair of purple hot pants and shoving them into one of the Duane Reed bags.

‘I’m moving out.’


She was folding an old grey cardigan with a sequin flying bird pin on the shoulder and a massive gaping hole in the left elbow that resembled a silently screaming mouth.

observations: A second visit to this strange book.

It suffers in comparison with Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, published around the same time, a similar great shaggy long book featuring successive adventures in someone’s life, and with scenes in New York. Both feature St Mark’s Place, and this photo used for a CiB Goldfinch entry would have easily fitted in for Night Film too.

The Goldfinch is much more literary, a wonderful work of art, a serious book about serious things that is also very funny and entertaining. But if you remove Night Film from its shadow, it has a lot going for it – it keeps you reading, it has a very properly thought-out plot, it is funny and fun. Anyone who likes indie films will enjoy the picture of the film industry and the imaginary movies that Cordova makes. Perhaps it could have done with another edit – and the narrator could have been stopped from italicizing quite so many words.

The US magazine Slate has a very helpful review of the book, in which Mark O’Connell recommends that you suspend your critical faculties and just enjoy it – this seems excellent advice, and I particularly like his line ‘It’s hard to roll your eyes when they’re glued to the page’.

Also, there are plenty of very good clothes descriptions in the book, and Nora, the character above, has particularly fetching ensembles: in this respect only, Night Film is faintly reminiscent of Robert Plunkett’s fabulous My Search for Warren Harding.

This is one of Nora’s outfits:
She was dressed like Lily Munster meets Cinderella by way of punk in a pea-green velvet dress, black crocheted tights, Moe’s motorcycle boots, and black fingerless gloves.
- though this also demonstrates one of Pessl’s most annoying quirks, which is the endless, pointless use of unnecessary italics.

The main picture is a McCall’s magazine cover – it really should be called ‘I’ll see to her packing’ after a favourite phrase from Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, but couldn’t really match it to that book. More packing by Bridget Jones, and in this book, with a really excellent picture – why are both packing lists in novels, and photographs of packing, both so compelling? Another clothes list, for the Fossil sisters, here.

The lower photo is by James Jowers: both are from George Eastman house. Previous entry on this book here.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

At Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarcon

published 2013

[Henry is playing the part of the President in a touring production]

Meanwhile, Henry put on the presidential riding pants, the ruffled shirt and long coat, the leather boots, the white gloves and sash, and went down to the market once more. “Everyone stared at me,” he reported. “They stopped me, and asked where I’d come from. It was wonderful.”

[Later in the tour, making a phone-call in a small town] It took them more than twenty minutes to make the six-minute walk. Segura was just closing up [his shop], but he seemed happy to have company. Noelia went in to call and Nelson waited outside with Mrs. Anabel. He and Segura lowered her delicately onto the steps so she could sit. “It’s like I’m a queen,” she said. Nelson had never been with Mrs. Anabel outside the house. Her eyes darted about the plaza, marveling at everything she saw. The heat of the day had passed, and a few locals were out for a stroll. Mrs. Anabel seemed happy to watch them go by. The shawl around her shoulders slipped, and Nelson helped her rearrange it.

observations: This is an easy-going relaxed book, ambling along for the first two-thirds – there is plenty of foreshadowing, and you know something bad is going to happen at the end, but up till then there are great jokes and slightly irrelevant but very funny scenes. The plot is complex, as is the reporting structure: you slowly find out more about who is telling the story. In an unnamed country (which we are taking as Peru – the author is Peruvian-American) a group of three men get together to tour with an absurdist play called The Idiot President: one of them wrote it many years ago, and was put in jail for doing so. During the tour, he realizes he is close to the town where his cell-mate, friend and lover came from: he decides they must visit his family. The calamitous results of this kindly impulse are unforeseeable and far-reaching.

It’s an immensely well-written book, highly enjoyable and thought-provoking, it does a brilliant job of making you picture Peru, and you just want to quote from it endlessly.

They travel by bus – ‘no one was immune to the allure of travel. Even a night bus has some glamour, if only you let yourself see it’ – and someone videos the passengers before they leave, in case the bus falls into a ravine. They are up in the highlands:

Everything got stranger once you rose beyond an altitude of four thousand meters, that supernatural threshold after which all life becomes theater, and all theater Beckettian. The thin air is magical. Everything you do is a riddle.
[The food is dull, but] occasionally, guinea pig, a welcome change, but which too often involved the unpleasant ritual of having to choose your lunch from among a pen of furry little animals. (“The fat one,” said Henry, every time, without deigning to bend his head over the beasts.)

It is a strange and wonderful book, and one that leaves you considering afterwards – the ending is satisfyingly open.

The top picture is of Mariano Ignacio Prado, a 19th century President of Peru.

The photograph of a Peruvian woman is from Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, 24 February 2014

A Language of Loss

the book: Performing Englishness by Trish Winter and Simon Keegan-Phipps

published 2013

From regular Guest Blogger Colm Redmond

It is striking how often references to English cultural traditions are couched in a language of loss. This is palpable, for example, in journalist A A Gill’s elegiac account of the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance:

Down a winding cobbled street from the church trips the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, the most evocative and strangely dramatic of all morris dances, performed for hundreds of years, conceivably for thousands. They are led by a single fiddler, dressed in a rag coat, playing a tune that is childlike and simple, but also full of sadness and an ethereal, mordant power, like the soundtrack of a dream. Behind him come men carrying antlered fallow deer heads in front of their faces. Behind them, a man-woman, a hunter and a hobbyhorse. They dance in silence, slowly. ...

[Another well-known, and controversial, tradition is] …the Britannia Coco-nut Dancers of Bacup, Derbyshire, whose blackened faces are part of an outlandish and unique costume that includes ‘decorated clogs with bells, long white socks, black velvet knee-breeches; a white skirt decorated with red horizontal bands; a white hat adorned with red or blue braid, pom-poms, and feather’.

observations: One of my tasks at Clothes In Books is to write about books the original blogger, and other guests, might not. And today’s book definitely fits that remit. Performing Englishness is not a novel, and it’s not really in the business of “entertaining” anyone, although it does. It’s an academic work and written in a very formal way, and it discusses how successive folk revivals, particularly the current one, have affected the way the English (as distinct from the rest of Britain) feel, and are perceived and organised and self-identified.

The writers (including friend of the blog Dr Trish Winter) are musicians as well as academics, and most of the book centres around English folk music. But dance comes into it too - not just Morris dancing, which is used as a convenient catch-all title for many different English styles, but Border Morris and Molly, to name but two others. The matter of the costumes worn by folk dance “sides” was too good to miss, for CiB.

Elsewhere in the book there is a reference to a major question about different sides’ distinctive costumes: whether they carry handkerchiefs or not. But there are more noticeable specialities, such as the Britannia men’s skirts and the strange assortment of outfits at Abbots Bromley.

One problematic area is the highly controversial practice of blacking-up, whose origins are mysterious. Many modern Morris and Molly sides, who wish to maintain the face-painting tradition without doing something they consider unacceptable, get around it by painting their faces blue or green or in extravagant styles to go with the extravagant costumes. The brilliant main pic is of a member of the Pig Dyke Molly, at the Sidmouth Festival in 2012. It’s used here with the very kind permission of the photographer Richard Powell, who lives in Sidmouth. You can see more of his work here: and lots more pics of the Pig Dyke Molly, in their wild black and white costumes, on Google and Flickr.

There are numerous videos from Abbots Bromley on YouTube, including an extract from the Unthank sisters’ 2010 BBC documentary Still Folk Dancing… After All These Years. Strangely, the clip that most resembles Gill’s description is also the most flagrantly inauthentic - performed on a noisy Maryland sidewalk by an American side:

This clip from the Unthanks’ programme shows the Bacup dancers and includes some explanations:

The description of their costumes, quoted in Performing Englishness, is from a 1990 article by Theresa Buckland in the Dance Research Journal. The b&w photograph was taken at Abbots Bromley, no later than 1914.

For more from the Guest Blogger, click on his name below.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Dress Down Sunday: Green for Danger by Christianna Brand

published 1945, set in 1940


[There’s an air raid at the hospital]

‘I suppose Woody and I will have to plunge down to that mouldy shelter. The one and only advantage of night duty is that you can stay above ground. Do you think we dare just go to bed and see if we can get away with it?’

‘My dear, last time Joan Pierson and Hibbert did that, the Commandant routed them out and drove them down to the shelter just as they were, and now everybody knows that Hibbert goes to bed in her vest and knickers.’

‘Well we don’t go to bed in our vests and knickers. Com’s welcome to drive me forth in my Jaeger pyjamas.’…

[Later] Cockie [stood] in the narrow doorway, politely averting his eyes from a line of solid-looking underwear hanging across the little kitchen…

Woody dived under the line of washing, holding up a garment for the Inspector to follow her. ‘Excuse the Jaeger coms and things, but chiffon and crepe de chine don’t quite suit the life of a VAD…’

***For a discussion on what you might understand by ‘vest and knickers’ be sure to see this entry.***

observations: It’s hard to say which is better – this book or the marvellous black and white film made from it in 1946, which apparently was too terrifying to be shown in any medical situation – ‘banned from hospitals’ makes a change in the annals of censorship.

The book creates an extraordinarily convincing atmosphere of the second world war – the hospital, the blitz, the regular medical staff and the volunteers. It is set in a hospital in Kent (ie not far from London): a harmless old man dies in the operating theatre – but why on earth would anyone want to kill him? Life goes on, and there is a ghastly party night for the staff. A second murder removes all doubts, and then it turns out that the main characters we have been following all have their motives. Days pass, and the suspects (all those who were near the theatre on the day in question) are stuffed in together (no-one else in the hospital wants to be around them) waiting for something to happen. The final denoument is wholly surprising, and brilliantly done.

In the meantime, of course, they have all been chatting, being witty, starting and finishing love affairs, and being snobbish about everyone else. The three main women share a cottage on their own to avoid being with the lower-class women, as above. There is some funny business with the shillings for the gas meter – what a gift that system was to UK murder story writers of the era – and the revelation that the medical staff all carried small quantities of morphine around in their gasmask holder, just in case they were ever trapped in a bombed building.

The picture is of utility underwear of the time – it was produced by the Ministry of Information and is now in the collection of the Imperial War Museum. The second picture, also from the IWM collection, is of a hostel for war workers – the toothbrusher lives in a hostel with other similarly-placed young women, very much like the women in this book.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Saint Homicide by Jake Hinkson

published 2013

I let myself into her house with the spare key she hid on the top of a tall post at the coxrner of the back porch. I stopped in Lynn’s bedroom, looked at her unmade bed, its sheets twisted together like a coil of snakes, and thought how sad it was that some people never see beyond this world of flesh.

I walked down to Karen’s room. I found Brother Peter’s old clothes still hanging neatly in the closet. I dressed in the black suit he wore when he preached funerals. Then I searched the top of the closet until I found his little silver pistol. I had to rummage round for the clip, but I found it in Karen’s dresser under some shirts. I made sure it was loaded and slipped it in my pocket.

I thought about going to see Jennifer one last time.

observations: Yesterday a real saint (and nun), today the title is more.... ironic.

My good friend Col of Col’s Criminal Library thinks I don’t read enough hard-boiled, noir fiction, and so he sent me this book after reviewing it himself (you can read his verdict here) - he said:
It'll be maybe an hour and a half of your life invested in it, so not too much lost if you don't enjoy it. It's a little bit coarse and a little bit bawdy in places......which we know is more me than you....but I don't think you'll be as apoplectic as your typical Guardian book commentator. Who knows I might turn you to the dark side yet!

So I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but I liked its shortness – it’s a novella really – a huge point in its favour. And in fact I read it in one sitting and was really really impressed: Hinkson is a very good writer, whatever you might think of his subject matter. It’s a dark story, tied up in murder, violence and religion without much in the way of redemption. Someone on the back cover calls it Bible-black noir, which seems like a good description.

The first person narrator is not exactly sympathetic, but Hinkson gets you inside his head, so you can understand (to some extent) the sad things in his life and the disastrous course he undertakes.

It’s published by, and you can download it for a Kindle for £1.86, and it’s worth that much of anyone’s time and money….

The picture, from a haunting collection at the Missouri State Archives, is of a man called Eugene Hamilton, convicted of murder in 1916.

With thanks to Col.

Friday, 21 February 2014

The Hidden Face of Ste Therese by Ida Gorres

first published in German in 1944, revised for 1959 edition

translated by Richard and Clara Winston

The most eloquent document of this period, it seems to us, and one which vividly sums up the saint’s brief remarks as well as her studied silence, is the photograph of her Clothing day. Thérèse stands upon the pedestal of the big cross in the yard, wearing the heavy, clumsy habit in which as yet she scarcely knows how to move. Her right arm is placed stiffly around the shaft of the cross, her left arm held forward, in an equally stiff and artificial manner, with two fingers protruding out of the long sleeve—a pose apparently chosen carefully by the photographer, a visiting priest, as appropriate for the occasion. 

Above this body in its strange and obviously uncomfortable pose the face of the sixteen-year-old girl looks out at us, straightforward and compelling. Her eyes, slightly closed because of the harsh winter sunlight, are smiling with a friendly roguishness, but the heavy shadows in the eye sockets speak of tears and sorrows endured. Her mouth too is smiling amiably, obviously in compliance with a request, but without constraint. But how hard is the line of the mouth between the round, full child’s cheeks, how mute, reserved and uncompromising. How much resistance and independence there is in the whole face. It is full of gentleness, contains a measure of humour, and much patient, unwavering self-command. How much firm readiness for what is to come, for unforeseeable and unavoidable trials, there is here, and at the same time how much composure, patience, lack of strain. 

It is a great pity that this picture has been rejected by the convent as a poor likeness (“infidèle”), because it deviates from the usual stylized sweetness. For this reason the photograph was retouched and made into one of the well-known representations. The retouching gives regularity to the features, but erases the unusually alive expression of solitude suffered with childlike courage.

observations: After last week's fictional nuns on the blog and at the Guardian, here's a real-life one.

St Therese of Lisieux, The Little Flower, is the strangest of saints: because there are photos of her, because one of her sisters was still alive in 1959, and because she lived her 24 years in a small area of France without any particular deeds to mark her life. Of course there are recent saints and potential saints – Mother Theresa and Pope John Paul II – but they are modern figures, each of whom died after a long and scrutinized life of great achievement. St Therese seems to belong to an older tradition.

It is also true that you rather fear for any young girl now who acted as Therese Martin did: she was brought up in a very devout family, and outdid her parents and sisters in her piety – she knew from an early age she wanted to be a nun, and petitioned the Pope of the time for special permission to break the rules and enter a Carmelite convent at the age of 15. Her story is fascinating: she wrote her own ‘Story of a Soul’ – outlining her Little Way to God, it has been a massive bestseller ever since. The biography above is long (especially considering how short Therese’s life was), but does an excellent job of giving context to the church of the time, the convent she was in, and the people she was with. It also honestly assesses the points where the reader can’t help feeling Therese must have been a difficult and painful companion at times.

A much more recent book – Shirt of Flame: A year with St Therese of Lisieux, by Heather King – looks at her relevance to modern-day life, as the author tries to learn useful lessons from the Saint.

The whole phenomenon of St Therese is very hard to look at clearly. In 2009 her relics (some of her bones) were brought to the UK – that’s the kind of event that outsiders find hard to understand about the RC church, but the numbers of people who turned out to see the casket were truly staggering.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

The Days of Anna Madrigal by Armistead Maupin

published 2014

from The Days of Anna Madrigal 

Ben was pointing towards a buff and nearly naked youth prancing past their semi-circle of sofas. ’Evening of the Faun’ said Ben. The guy had goat horns sprouting from a mop of blond hair. His legs were trousered with some form of faux fur

Everything about this man was suited to their molly moment. He seemed closer to a spirit than a human being, the uncomplicated embodiment of youthful lust and sweetness….

Michael laughed. ‘I had a whole Pan outfit. Long time ago… Home Yardage. Mock chinchilla.’

from Tales of the City (1978)

The beast in the doorway made Mary Ann’s flesh crawl. Its face was chalk white with lurid spots of rouge on the cheekbones. It was bare-chested and furry-thighed, and two gnarled goat horns rose hideously from its brow.

It spoke to her. ‘How horny can ya get, huh?’


‘Wrong, O boring one. I am the Great God Pan.’ …

Michael bounced into the room and sat down, adjusting the brown Afro wig that held his horns...

[Later] Michael uncapped a tube of Dance Arts clown white and repaired his Pan face in the foyer of 28 Barbary Lane… He gave himself a thorough inspection and smiled in approval. He looked damned good. His horns were outrageously realistic.

His mock-chinchilla Home Yardage goat haunches jutted out from his waist with comic eroticism. His belly was flat, and his pecs . . . well, his pecs were the pecs of a man who hardly ever cheated on a bench press at the Y. You’re hot, he told himself. Remember that... Pan is on the rampage tonight.

Armistead Maupin says The Days of Anna Madrigal will be the last Tales of the City book, though he strongly implied that on previous occasions too, so you never know. The inhabitants of 28 Barbary Lane, whom we have been following over nine books since 1978, are now all living elsewhere, but drift together for one last adventure, most of them tipping up at the Burning Man festival in Nevada. There is also a separate strand describing the teenage years of Anna Madrigal. I found those sections less enthralling, but that’s because I just wanted to read about Michael and Mary Ann and Shawna and Brian, like reading the Christmas circular letter of some friends you used to know years ago. The books are beyond criticism or carping. If you came to this one fresh it would perhaps make no sense, and you wouldn’t understand all the fuss. But if you’ve read the others, then you need to catch up. It has many references back to earlier incidents, including this one, which is plainly quite symbolic and meaningful, as the much older Michael in effect meets his younger self. 

In earlier entries on the books, here and here, we said that they were ‘funny and very much of their time, and we read the first ones with melancholy nostalgia, knowing AIDS was just around the corner. Dressing up and costumes are an important part of Maupin’s series of books, usually seen as a celebration of differences and a way to have fun, rarely negative or hiding anything.’ 

The top Pan picture is a Bakst costume, a category we’ve used a few times before. The second Pan is from a mosaic in a museum in Naples.

The picture from Burning Man 2013 was taken by russavia and is on Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

How To Be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis

published 2014

Samantha Ellis is writing about her favourite literary heroines. Blog notes start within the excerpts

[Ellis] Even now I cry my eyes out when Anne [of Green Gables] gets puffed sleeves.

[Clothes in Books covered this on the blog in two full entries here and here, with the words ‘It would take a heart of stone not to be charmed’ (which meant ‘it would take a heart of stone not to cry’). Here’s a brown gloria dress with puffed sleeves, below, and a specially elaborate puffed sleeve to the right.]

[Ellis, imagining meeting her heroines] Pauline and Posy Fossil [have] come straight from the shows they’re in, still in stage make-up and full of stories.

[Clothes in Books covered the audition dresses for Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the very modern fairy costumes they finally wore, below, and also looked at The Whicharts.]

[Ellis, on the other Fossil sister] Petrova, in a leather aviator jacket, goggles pushed back, a chic scarf knotted around her neck, is telling the thrilling story of her latest flight and how she fixed an engine fault in mid-air.

 in Books: Just like the costume we chose for Katniss Everdeen in Hunger Games, below,  and so we found another from the same series for Petrova, top picture.]

observations: Are we making the point? Samantha Ellis likes the same heroines, and books, that Clothes in Books does. She mentions many books inside this one, and 22 of them have featured on the blog. This is the book for those of us who really like reading. Not people who say ‘oh I like a book, I always have one on the go, books are great.’ This one is for the people who read manically, obsessively, lost in their books, living in the world inside their head, tied up forever in their favourites. You know who you are. In which case, do just go out and buy this book and read it, you will love it.

And, like me, you will say ‘I want to write this book!’ – not because you want to plagiarize, or do down Ellis (who is lovely) but because the idea is one that speaks to us, and although we all like, roughly, the same books, we would each have our own version of this one. Its subtitle is ‘What I’ve learned from reading too much.’ Ellis should launch a line of Literary Heroines Workbooks so we can each make our own. 

Some of the other books featured in this book and on the blog:

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Crooked House by Agatha Christie

published 1949  chapter 15

[Sophia] stood by my side looking out at the garden. It looked bleak and grey now with the half-denuded trees swaying in the wind.

Sophia echoed my thoughts as she said: “how desolate it looks…”

As we watched, a figure, and then presently another came through the yew hedge from the rock garden. They both looked grey and unsubstantial in the fading light.

Brenda Leonides was the first. She was wrapped in a grey chinchilla coat and there was something catlike and stealthy in the way she moved. She slipped through the twilight with a kind of eerie grace.

I saw her face as she passed the window. There was a half-smile on it, the curving crooked smile I had noticed upstairs.

observations: Poor old Brenda – everyone looks down on her, because she is common and wears too much make-up and her hair is too elaborate. Christie has a go at making her human and real, but even her champion – narrator Charles – gives up on her in the end. She is repeatedly compared to Edith Thompson,* a real person who was executed in 1923 for the murder of her husband, but who was probably innocent. Brenda in the book is the young wife of aging patriarch Aristide Leonides, and when he is murdered she is the obvious suspect.

This was Christie’s own favourite among her books, and interestingly it doesn’t feature any of her regular detectives. It has also resisted TV adaptation, though apparently is in the works for a film – it would give some great opportunities for actors. Christie did love to place her murders in weird families and among strange married couples, and this is a particularly full example. The diva-ish mother Magda – at one point being stage managed by her daughter during a police interview – is particularly good, and rather underused in the book. She is reminiscent of blog favourite Julia from W Somerset Maugham’s splendid book Theatre, and Georgia from Margery Allingham's Fashion in Shrouds.

Some Christies you could re-read after a while and not at all remember whodunit, and have no clue how it was going to end (looking at you, The Clocks) – but it is fair to say that this one is of a different calibre: it has a memorable and clever solution.

There are an unusual number (for Christie) of references to the outside world – as well as Edith Thompson, above, the book features paintings by John Sargent and Augustus John, the play Arsenic and Old Lace, the radio programme the Brains Trust.

* In Love in a Cold Climate, source of many a blog entry, one of the unnamed rich women is very upset to lose her lucky charm bracelet, because she has just ‘managed to get a bit of hangman’s rope, Mrs Thompson too, did I tell you? Roly will never win the National now, poor sweet.’ There’s nothing really to say about that.

That is a chinchilla coat in the picture above, it is exactly that fur giving the very un-posh-looking stripey effect– and although the photo is from Vogue, via the Dovima is Devine photostream, the model certainly has the look of a Brenda.

A chinchilla coat also features in the wonderful book My Search for Warren G Harding by Robert Plunket and the blog entry showed this picture:

Monday, 17 February 2014

Diana Mosley again: The Marble Foot by Peter Quennell

published 1976

[Quennell is reminiscing about the 1930s: he is married to S, but an admirer of Diana Mitford, who at that time was married to Bryan Guinness]

[My wife] S was bitterly displeased when I formed a romantic devotion to the beautiful wife of an old Oxford friend. My affection was harmless enough. But I frequently visited her house, and passed an hour or two in her enchanting company…

Her range of friends was wide; and she greeted all her guests with a similarly appreciative but dreamy smile. Tete-a-tete, the expression she most often assumed was one of fascinated astonishment. ‘I can’t believe it!’ she would bring out, opening her large blue eyes, in which floated particularly small pupils

[At a Roman fancy dress party in 1932] D. performed the role of the Empress Poppaea, immaculately robed and coiffed. Later that evening, a group of Roman courtiers assembled round Poppaea’s throne. S was among us; but suddenly I saw her rise; and for the next few seconds I observed the whole scene in cinematic ‘slow-motion’. Near the throne stood a magnum of champagne; or perhaps it was a jereboam. Very gradually her sandalled foot lifted; slowly her right heel touched the bottle. It tilted; and a foaming flood of wine poured out over Poppaea’s silken skirts….

observations: Not getting obsessed with Diana Mosley… but after the recent entry in which I commented on how odd her eyes look in photographs, it was interesting to read this from one of her admirers. He also mentions that when he says something she doesn’t like, ‘a wave of sharp annoyance seemed to sweep beneath the surface of her eyes, which became a colder, even paler blue.’

Peter Quennell was a man of letters and man about town of the era, but is now pretty much forgotten – he produced a huge body of work, but none of it seems to be in print. He knew all the usual suspects (Evelyn Waugh is always horribly rude about him) and this autobiography is only really of interest because of the other people who pop up in it.

In fact there is more than a touch of the Pooters here – the surprise that his wife objects to his admiration for the great beauty, the insertion of ‘perhaps it was a jereboam’. (He’s lucky he wasn’t charged for the champagne, like Pooter at the Volunteers’ Ball). He is extremely snobbish, and rather pleased with himself: he congratulates himself on his writing style, but on the evidence of this book it was correct but pedestrian. He tries to be discreet: he doesn't at any point name either Diana or Bryan Guinness.

In the past year we featured a large number of entries based on Nina Hamnett’s Bohemian memoirs, The Laughing Torso – there are a lot of similarities with this book, and neither of them is particularly well-written (again, with Hamnett, you read to find out about her friends). But Hamnett’s book is a lot more fun. But we will surely be revisiting Quennell on the blog because of the breadth of his acquaintance.

The picture shows Diana Guinness (as she then was) dressed as Poppaea at the party at the Savoy, presumably before the incident described above (and while obviously it is wrong to damage a dress in this way, you can’t help admiring S). On the right is Robert Byron, another of the 1930s figures always popping up in biographies, diaries and letters.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Dress Down Sunday: Pamela by Samuel Richardson

first published 1740


And so [I] sat myself down on the bed-side, and went on undressing myself. And Mrs. Jervis being by this time undressed, stepped into bed, and bid me hasten, for she was sleepy. I don't know what was the matter, but my heart sadly misgave me… I pulled off my stays, and my stockings, and all my clothes to an under-petticoat; and then hearing a rustling again in the closet, I said, Heaven protect us! but before I say my prayers, I must look into this closet. And so was going to it slip-shod, when, O dreadful! out rushed my master in a rich silk and silver morning gown. I screamed, and ran to the bed, and Mrs. Jervis screamed too; and he said, I'll do you no harm, if you forbear this noise; but otherwise take what follows. Instantly he came to the bed (for I had crept into it, to Mrs. Jervis, with my coat on, and my shoes); and taking me in his arms, said, Mrs. Jervis, rise, and just step up stairs to keep the maids from coming down at this noise: I'll do no harm to this rebel.

observations: This entry should be read with a previous one, and contains PLOT SPOILERS.

Samuel Richardson gives a very clear picture of a social system that horrifies us, but must have seemed – although dangerous for young women – quite normal to him: Pamela is utterly in Mr B’s power, from the small matters of her difficulties communicating with the outside world, or the worries about her getting more employment, to the knowledge that if he does ‘ruin’ her, virtually no-one will blame him or be interested. He offers her quite generous terms for her virtue in fact: you suspect many real-life Mr Bs were not so thoughtful or so patient. The scene above is just part of a long campaign on Mr B’s part.

And just when you think you understand how different life was then, you get something like Pamela’s report of a lecture on the duties of marriage from her husband:
Let me see: What are the rules I am to observe from this awful lecture? Why these:…

26. That the words COMMAND and OBEY shall be blotted out of the Vocabulary. [Pamela’s comment] Very good!

She sounds like Bridget Jones. And the list of rules is very funny, and odd, and thought-provoking.

The book is considered one of the earliest novels, and given Richardson didn’t have much of a tradition to build on, he did amazingly well. Every now and again he uses the famous papers and journal as an excuse to give a recap of the plot so far ‘I will briefly mention the contents to you. In these papers, then, are included, An account of Mrs. Jewkes's arts to draw me in to approve of Mr. Williams's proposal for marriage’ etc etc at great length, but quite helpful.

Previous entry on the book here. For more Dress Down Sunday entries, click on the label below. 

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Guardian Books Blog: Nuns in Books

Today’s entry appears on the Guardian Books Blog, and is about fictional nuns, a really fascinating subject to some of us. This is a part of it:

Once you start looking at nuns in history from a modern perspective, there comes a whole new topic – was it actually fun being a nun? Of course there must have been an unknown percentage of women closed up against their will, but it's rewarding to examine the idea that being a nun wasn't that bad an option in earlier times. In fact, dare we say it, was it the feminist choice? Look what they missed: a nun was free from the horrors and dangers of childbirth and the rigours of unwanted marriage. Often they could pursue an interest in medicine, horticulture, art or music. They didn't have to wear corsets or attract men …


Nuns have featured on the blog several times: This entry and this one – by the same author under a different name, the Jane Haddam mentioned in the piece. Sleuth nun Sister Agnes is here, and the Devils of Loudon here. One of Kate O’Brien’s sturdy women characters is going to become a nun, and Disraeli’s Sybil looks like a nun but isn’t one.

Call the Midwife is here, and Spark's Symposium here.

To see all the blog pieces featured at the Guardian, click on the tab above.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Valentine's Day: Victorian rivals in love

Can You Forgive Her? 
by Anthony Trollope

published 1864/5 chapter 8

Captain Bellfield … was got up wonderfully, and was prepared at all points for the day's work. He had on a pseudo-sailor's jacket, very liberally ornamented with brass buttons, which displayed with great judgement the exquisite shapes of his pseudo-sailor's duck trousers. Beneath them there was a pair of very shiny patent-leather shoes… His waistcoat was of a delicate white fabric, ornamented with very many gilt buttons… His array was quite perfect, and had stricken dismay into the heart of his friend Cheesacre, when he joined that gentleman… 

Cheesacre, too, had adopted something of a sailor's garb. He had on a jacket of a rougher sort, coming down much lower than that of the captain, being much looser, and perhaps somewhat more like a garment which a possible seaman might possibly wear. But he was disgusted with himself the moment that he saw Bellfield. 

[The captain said:] "my fellow sent me this toggery, and said that it was the sort of thing. I'll change with you if you like it." But Cheesacre could not have worn that jacket, and he walked on, hating himself.

observations: Or, Can You Possibly Finish It? as (apparently) Stephen King said. The person in need of forgiveness is young Alice who, when pulling out of one engagement (she gets through 3 in the book, 4 if you count the one that actually leads to marriage, this is a real Valentine's Day massacre) tells her fiancé that to marry him

will be to me as though I were passing through a grave to a new world
- it is hard to imagine a more horrible comment, although any sensible man would consider such a bride well-lost. Her father (not otherwise an admirable character) comes out with the very modern-sounding ‘I never heard such trash in my life’ when she tells him how she feels, and the reader feels like cheering.

So we’re abandoning her and going back to the wonderful Widow Greenow  – apart from anything else, Trollope gives her and her suitors extensive and interesting wardrobes, whereas the younger characters are left sadly undescribed. Bellfield and Cheesacre are competing for her favours throughout the book - clothes are just part of it – and their scenes are hilarious. Here, they are going for a day-long outing and picnic on the beach, and it is a laugh-out-loud funny setpiece. There is a brilliant knowing touch when Mrs Greenow tidies up her clothes and appearance later in the day, having brought along a secret bag hidden away for the purpose, to the great annoyance of all the other women.

Later Captain Bellfield pursues his love to the Lake District, where he is too cold in this outfit:

He had on his head a jaunty little straw-hat, and he wore a jacket with brass buttons, and white trousers.

His rival follows him, and the farcical scene develops: Cheesacre stops off to talk to the Widow while

Bellfield, who was sent on to the house, found Alice and Kate surveying the newly arrived carpet bag. "It belongs to your old friend, Mr. Cheesacre…”

By this time the reader is on the floor laughing, I promise you, however unlikely that sounds. 

So yes, the book is worth finishing: Trollope sounds like a lovely man – knowledgeable about people’s foibles, but comfortably forgiving, as befits the title. A long read but a great one, and actually a surprisingly modern look at love of many kinds.

Two portraits of real sailors: 
Admiral Eustache Bruix by Jean-Baptiste Paulin Guérin from The Athenaeum websiteand Admiral Joseph Sydney Yorke, painted by Henri Pierre Danloux. The third picture is a photo from the National Library of Wales.

For more entries on this book, and more from Trollope, click on the labels below.

Thursday, 13 February 2014


Ivy + Bean Book 6: Doomed To Dance by Annie Barrows

published 2010

From regular guest blogger Colm Redmond

When grown-ups asked you to sit in a circle, they were usually about to tell you something you didn’t want to hear. Ms Aruba-Tate, Ivy and Bean’s second-grade teacher, was forever gathering them in a circle for bad news. Like, the class fish died over the weekend. Or, everyone has to start using real punctuation. Or, the pencil sharpener is off limits. Circles meant trouble.

Bean watched Madame Joy walk pointy-toed to a chair and sit. No floor for her. “Girls,” she began, “I have something very special to tell you.”

“Oh, tell us, Madame Jwah!” cried Dulcie. She even clapped her hands.

[I+B find out they’re going to be squids - who don’t actually dance at all - in the class’s performance of “Wedding Beneath The Sea”.]

Bean’s mother had said she would make both squid costumes because Ivy’s mom didn’t like to sew. But it wasn’t even a real costume. Madame Joy’s picture showed a white leotard with a circle of droopy white tentacles hanging from the waist.

Madame Joy said that tentacles were a breeze to make. Bean’s mom didn’t think so.

“Who ever heard of squid costumes, anyway?” she muttered.

“No complaining,” said Bean.

“None of your lip there, missy,” her mother said.

That was grown-ups for you. They never followed their own rules.

[Note from CiB: Yesterday's entry looked back at the life of Shirley Temple, so it is appropriate, and a happy chance, that today's entry deals with modern-day potential child stars.]

observations: If, like me, you wish there were a dozen more books about Hilary McKay’s Casson family [this entry, and an early appearance by the Guest Blogger] - excluding the disappointing late sixth entry in the series - you could do a lot worse than look into Annie Barrows’ Ivy + Bean books. The children are seven (or eight - it depends where you look it up) and in theory the books are for that kind of age group. But, as with all the best children’s books, there’s plenty here for adults to enjoy.

Like the Cassons, they do outlandish things and get into outlandish scrapes, and crucially they don’t do it for attention, or to be self-consciously eccentric, or to be bad, or to gain an advantage over anyone else: if they did, adult readers wouldn’t like them and I’m pretty sure children wouldn’t either. They just do things because it seems like a good idea, or a good solution to a problem they’ve already created for themselves. And then they deal with the consequences, the ones they couldn’t foresee because they’re seven. (Interestingly, they will ask grown-ups for help, but not for ideas. They have all too many ideas.)

The supporting cast is good, too. Parents and other grown-ups are interesting and not entirely predictable. We don’t like all of the other neighbourhood kids and schoolmates equally, which is realistic; but no child is belittled for not behaving better than they know how to. Ivy + Bean are cut some slack because they’re kids so it’s only fair that the others are. Mind you, I like to think you can sense some score-settling at times by the author, for example with the parents who would bring a child up to be like Dulcie, in the extract, who is a massive two years younger than our heroines but loves dancing, is annoyingly very very good at it, and is both a precocious suck-up and a teacher’s pet, the worst possible combination.

The main pic is a beautiful serious grown-up squid costume from the Ballets Russes, designed by Natalia Goncharova c1916. Pic from the National Gallery of Australia website, which sadly doesn’t note which ballet it was needed for. It couldn’t be much less like Ivy + Bean’s ones, with stuffed tights for tentacles.

In Korea, apparently, squid are so beloved that the existence of a sexy squid outfit is a given. This pic is from a fancy dress costume website – I don’t know why the model looks like she probably comes from California.
Lots of other characters in fairy tales and other fiction have been “doomed to dance”, in much more sinister senses than Ivy and Bean, of course. The girls really wanted to dance in Giselle, where there are vengeful female spirits called the Wilis who force people to dance till they die of exhaustion. But they’re the spirits of jilted women, so that’s ok… And someone in the film The 12 Dancing Princesses - starring Barbie - is doomed to dance, but it would be a spoiler to tell you who it is.

To read more from the Guest Blogger, click on his name below.