Sunday, 13 April 2014

Dress Down Sunday: No Name by Wilkie Collins

published 1862



LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES









Magdalen turned, and confronted Mrs. Lecount. She had expected—founding her anticipations on the letter which the housekeeper had written to her—to see a hard, wily, ill-favoured, insolent old woman. She found herself in the presence of a lady of mild, ingratiating manners, whose dress was the perfection of neatness, taste, and matronly simplicity, whose personal appearance was little less than a triumph of physical resistance to the deteriorating influence of time. If Mrs. Lecount had struck some fifteen or sixteen years off her real age, and had asserted herself to be eight-and-thirty, there would not have been one man in a thousand, or one woman in a hundred, who would have hesitated to believe her. Her dark hair was just turning to gray, and no more. It was plainly parted under a spotless lace cap, sparingly ornamented with mourning ribbons… Her large black eyes might have looked fierce if they had been set in the face of another woman, they were mild and melting in the face of Mrs. Lecount; they were tenderly interested in everything she looked at—in Magdalen, in the toad on the rock-work, in the back-yard view from the window; in her own plump fair hands,—which she rubbed softly one over the other while she spoke; in her own pretty cambric chemisette, which she had a habit of looking at complacently while she listened to others…

The housekeeper listened to the praise of her domestic virtues with eyes immovably fixed on her elegant chemisette


observations: I had to read this several times – staring at her chemisette? Was this some kind of metaphor or euphemism? So then I looked up chemisette: ‘a woman’s light undergarment for neck and shoulders, an ornamental neckpiece or dickey usually made of muslin or lace, and worn by women to fill in the open neck of a dress.’ 

So it’s a filler, to make your neckline or décolleté more respectable, pretty much fulfilling the role of a camisole today. And sometimes the chemisette really only consisted of a front, tied on, and that it could be called a tucker, as in the phrase ‘best bib and tucker’, which is more or less the same thing as the dickey in the definition.

So there you go. Still don’t know why Mrs Lecount stared at it so much. In the rather rough morality of the book, Mrs L is a baddy – she correctly infers who Magdalen is and what she is up to, and she tries to thwart her. She is a worthy opponent for the splendid Captain Wragge, and must be almost unique in Victorian literature: she isn’t seen as particularly scholarly or a bluestocking, but she is knowledgeable about science, and Captain Wragge mugs up on scientific facts in order to attract her interest and impress her. It is hard to think of any other female characters for whom science talk would be a distraction, and who know more than the men around them. She also keeps an aquarium in her room containing fish, reptiles and amphibians (to Magdalen’s horror) – hence the toad above. 

Captain Wragge is a wonderful character, with his ‘dash of humour’ and his complete lack of morals, very amusing and entertaining, and Magdalen is a remarkable heroine. The fake identity they build for themselves is hilariously thorough: ‘[your imaginary father] is buried on the south-west side of the local cemetery in Honduras with a neat monument of native wood carved by a self-taught negro artist. Nineteen months afterward his widow died of apoplexy at a boarding-house in Cheltenham.’

The portrait of a lady is Countess Bucquoi by Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun, wearing a chemisette. The other picture is a chemisette from a costume collection.

There have been several other entries on this book: click on the label below.

10 comments:

  1. Moira - Trust you to teach us something new about clothes. I never knew what a chemisette was either! Thanks. And I do love that description of Mrs. L. And I do love the idea of a woman who's not depicted with a condescending pen, so to speak. I like the fact that she's an interesting character, baddy or not.

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    1. As I keep saying, Collins' female characters are much better than some of his contemporaries' (looking at you, Mr Dickens). And I love that the blog gives me an excuse to go chasing up what these obscure words and garments are.

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  2. I read this a few weeks ago and had to re-imagine the clothing when I realized the action is set in 1843, not at the time it was published. One of the characteristics expected of an attractive woman in the 40's was a gentle "droop" emphasized by the wide, dropped shoulder-line and trimming of the dresses, the hair styles, and her posture. Tipping the head down and sideways so that the eyes rest on the upper chest/shoulder is exactly the desired effect, and dear Mrs. L. is nothing if not an expert at producing the desired effect. Collin's readers old enough to remember the fashions of twenty years earlier would have recognized this and contrasted it with the fashionable line and posture of the 60's. The kind of chemisette fashionable at the time was embroidered in delicate white-work produced in and named after Ayrshire in Scotland, and I'm certain that the cambric was very clean, very fine and worked in a pattern very carefully chosen to be "pretty" but not "showy".

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    1. That's fascinating Ken, a really illuminating comment. We (amateurs) don't think of their being fashions in line and look like that...

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  3. Moira: There is obviously alot of clothing with which I am unfamiliar. At least chemisette has enough of an underclothing connotation to guess at the meaning.

    I would thought she kept looking down as she was bored with the conversation until I read Ken's comment.

    It has often seemed to me that Victorian times were so focused on nuance that it must have been a challenge to decide what to wear and what to say.

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    1. Wasn't that interesting, what Ken had to say? I suppose Wilkie Collins wasn't thinking of us reading the book 150 years later, with our completely different clothes.

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  4. Hmm.....I think I'll stick to the downloaded Collins from a week or two ago. Seems kind of interesting, but not really my cup of tea.

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    1. The other one is about a tenth of the size so I think you made the right choice!

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  5. Someday I will decide on a Wilkie that I will read... a shorter one. But at least you are reminding me of him.

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    1. As I said to Col, probably start with the Haunted Hotel, nice and short!

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