Sunday, 6 April 2014

Dress Down Sunday: The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West

published 1930, set in 1905



LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES







[17 year old Viola is visiting her mother’s bedroom. Lucy Duchess of Chevron, is getting dressed for dinner with the help of her maid Button]

For a while there was silence, broken only by irritable exclamations from within. These inner mysteries of his mother’s toilet were unknown to Sebastian, but Viola knew well enough what was going on: her mother was seated, poking at her hair meanwhile with fretful but experienced fingers, while Button knelt before her, carefully drawing the silk stockings on to her foot and smoothing them nicely up the leg. Then her mother would rise, and, standing in her chemise, would allow the maid to fit the long stays of pink coutil, heavily boned, round her hips and slender figure, fastening the busk down the front, after many adjustments; then the lacing would follow, beginning at the waist and travelling gradually up and down, until the necessary proportions had been achieved. The silk laces and their tags would fly out, under the maid’s deft fingers, with the flick of a skilled worker mending a net. Then the pads of pink satin would be brought, and fastened into place on the hips and under the arms, still further to accentuate the smallness of the waist. Then the drawers; and then the petticoat would be spread into a ring on the floor, and Lucy would step into it in her high-heeled shoes, allowing Button to draw it up and tie the tapes.



observations: Vita Sackville-West is yet another of those figures from the first half of the 20th century whose charms seem elusive to modern eyes. There’s a lot written about her and by her, and I’ve been sampling it recently, while also looking at the much-less-remembered Violet Trefusis – more blog entries to follow.

The Edwardians – a big best-seller in its day – is full of scenes that VS-W apparently took from life. This is one of them, though there is a double-distancing effect: it is clear Viola is imagining this from past experience, she is in the bedroom whereas her mother is in the dressing-room. Viola may well be meant to be Vita, but in fact she is rather an empty character with only a couple of scenes: some critics suggest that the major (sympathetic) male characters in her books are meant to be Vita S-W herself – this adds greatly to the joy of reading her. So perhaps Vita is Sebastian, her older brother, the Duke. (As I found out while researching  this entry, a Duchess does not become the Dowager Duchess till her son marries.)

It is hard for us to imagine a fit healthy woman having her stockings put on for her by a servant. Really, it was quite time all that was swept away, along with a lot else in this book.

On the first page of Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate (great blog favourite) she pokes fun at a certain kind of historical writing about aristos, and there are times when this book is just like her imaginary The Magnificent Montdores. It is full of clunky clumsy exposition, and does not do well when compared with Edith Wharton’s novels set in roughly similar times and social strata (Wharton is of course American, and has mostly US settings.) VS-W hammers home her points over and over: times have changed, people are different, that other generation is hypocritical and rigid but WE are not – but at the same time she is fairly entranced by this old way of life.

There is an elderly aristo who has managed to survive ‘both Darwinism and Socialism’, and later on Lucy will be dreadfully ashamed that Viola has gone to live in a flat. Social doom follows for Viola, who doesn’t really care. Neither does the reader.

Coutil is a fabric with special advantages when used to make corsets – see explanation in this entry and the comments below. The Duchess has a 20 inch waist, 2” more than when she was a girl.

The picture is from a magazine advert of the era.

12 comments:

  1. The history of underclothes is as fascinating as outerwear. I'm slightly suspicious of Spanx and the like as they seem to hark back to the era of sucking women in.

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    1. Yes I know what you mean - my generation were all for freedom and getting out of the old restrictions, so it can be surprising to see young women willing get back into that frame of mind... but I guess everything goes in waves.

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  2. Moira - Yes, I was going to mention the writing style, but you've handled that beautifully. Can't possibly imagine wearing a corset and stays! Hard to believe women ever accepted being that uncomfortable. Little wonder women stopped wearing them.

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    1. Exactly Margot - I think it's good for us to read this kind of thing now and again, remind ourselves what we escaped from and why we should defend our liberty.

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  3. To quote Dominic Fox: This narrative that says that everybody before about 5 minutes ago was UNAWARE but now we are AWARE and YAY.

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    1. Nice one Lucy - and something that crops up often, and annoyingly.

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  4. Margot - roll-ons were bad enough!

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    1. Did it make you snigger when at school some historical poem or story mentioned my lady's girdle (meaning sash-like belt of course)? Or was that just us?

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  5. Not one for me....... I was halfway to reaching for my wallet, when you sneaked those pesky Mitfords in again......at which point you lost me. Now if you believe that....

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    1. It's going to be hard when the time for the Mitford embargo comes isn't it? The noir-ish elements of books like these will become more obvious.

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  6. If it was a mystery, I would probably read it. Otherwise, you are right, not very interesting to me. I like to read about different times but... who knows, maybe you will entice me with another post.

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    1. You'd probably enjoy more a mystery set in the same era! You can find out what you need to about this book in the various posts - I've got a few planned on Vita Sackville-West and also her lover Violet Trefusis - and actually VS-W did write a murder story....

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