Sunday, 7 September 2014

Dress Down Sunday: The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie

published 1925



LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES









‘Chilvers said you were going out.’

‘So I was – to Sloane Street. There’s a new place there where they’ve got a perfectly wonderful new hip band.’

‘A hip band?’

‘Yes, Bill, H-I-P hip, B-A-N-D band. A band to confine the hips. You wear it next the skin.’

‘I blush for you Virginia. You shouldn’t describe your underwear to a young man to whom you are not related. It isn’t delicate.’

‘But, Bill dear, there’s nothing indelicate about hips. We’ve all got hips – although we poor women are trying awfully hard to pretend we haven’t. This hip band is made of red rubber and comes to just above the knees, and it’s simply impossible to walk in it.’

‘How awful!’ said Bill. ‘Why do you do it?’

‘Oh because it gives one such a noble feeling to suffer for one’s silhouette. But don’t let’s talk about my hip band. Give me George’s message.’





observations: Well, really, Bill is meant to be rather an ass, and Virginia to be the perfect woman, but I think Bill is in the right of it here – what a peculiar thing to be discussing.

The marvellous Vicki/ Skiourophile pointed this out to me in the comments on this recent corset entry and I was delighted by it.

Virginia is ‘tall and of an exquisite slimness’, so doesn’t really need a hip band – even in those days of flapper dresses and straight-up-and-down figures. I wondered at first if she was going for a slimming treatment – at one time (and perhaps now for all I know) you could go to have your flesh jiggled in an attempt to make yourself smaller, and this seems to have involved wrapping yourself up while in a machine. But close textual reading - eg the reference to walking – has led me to conclude that this was some kind of girdle. Why was it red? No idea.

Virginia’s hair ‘was of real bronze, with the greenish tint in its gold’ - the reference to green in her hair is repeated later on (‘the green gold of her hair’), so is deliberate, but it does sound weird - usually a greenish tint in hair is a sign that something has gone badly wrong with a dye-job.

As a crime novel, this is one of Christie’s light-hearted adventure thrillers, with far too much mixed in to the basic setting of an English country house weekend: a Balkan kingdom with a missing prince, oil concessions, blackmail, a Red Hand gang, lost jewels, secret documents in code, a master criminal. No Poirot or Marple – Superintendent Battle is overseeing the crimes.

It is readable, but somewhat tiresome, too frothy, and there is much too much in the way of racial slurs: the comments on Jews and dagos are hard to take.

Some of the characters from this one also appear in The Seven Dials Mystery in 1929 – which has an equally ridiculous plot but is much better than Chimneys. You can see Christie moving towards her glory days in the differences between the two books. Dumping the thriller elements was key.

Thanks again to Vicki, good friend to this blog. See here for a previous brilliant suggestion from her, Lucy Carmichael by Margaret Kennedy.

The first picture is a girdle from 1925. It is a patent application, with complex instructions:’ To prevent the protrusion of the stomach over the top of a low corset, tapered restraining flaps 8 are provided at the upper part, which flaps are fastened, as shown, to the central part 10 of corset. Tabs 3 attached to the side carrying hooks 5 capable of engaging holes 6. The straps 7 are attached to the flaps 8 as also are straps 11. Stiffeners 9 are provided on the flaps.’

The other picture, from the Library of Congress, shows someone buying one, but from much later, in the 1940s.

32 comments:

  1. Okay, what would irk me more? The awful terminology here? Or the horrific instrument of torture, that girdle? Both, I'd imagine.

    I remember the days of girdles, which I luckily bypassed. But knew women who kept up this particular piece of clothing. Now on TV I see advertised modern versions of it.

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  2. Actually, I'm in pain contemplating wearing this get-up. Ouch!

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    1. I know - I wonder how different the modern versions are. When girdles disappeared last time it seemed like a victory for feminism. But then they came back in the guise of Bridget Jones' Big Pants and Spanx...

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  3. So glad you enjoyed the hip band, if not the rest of the book. Seven Dials is pretty low down my Christie list, but I've always thought this one had a fair bit of charm in the same way that The Man in the Brown Suit is, in PC-aspects unbearably dated, but the characterization is totally charming. I am supremely glad that large red rubber undergarments are no longer required, but perhaps Spanx are not that different in intention nowadays.

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    1. I think we all have an early Christie that we're forgiving about, and one we're not, and you and I are just reversed. But, Man in a Brown Suit needs no forgiveness - I LOVE that book, and have done so since first reading it at about age 12. Thanks again for the Chimneys girdle tipoff. (not a sentence I ever thought I'd write.)

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  4. Girldles *shudder*. My grandmother used to wear one (didn't do much good ;-) )

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    1. You can't think there is much reward for the discomfort involved can you....

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  5. Moira, I've got to hand it to you, I will never be able to look at this book in the same way again! I'm not actually very keen on her thrillers but I really will have to dig out my copy of this - ta!

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    1. I think most people could read this book and not notice the important reference to the hip band. I certainly put these books at the lower end of my Christie list, but when I re-read them there is always something to enjoy. I hope that happens to you too.

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  6. I love your posts on corsets / girdles. I have always wondered why women would submit themselves to corsets (as in Scarlet and Gone with the Wind... although she had the sense to resist it). But, I did wear girdles as a teenager and did not need it at all so ... it must be cultural. Willing to suffer to get a man. Who knows?

    Anyway, if I ever get back to Christie, Secret of Chimneys is near the top of the list for me. I am looking forward to it. I like the adventure books more than most people, I haven't read a Superintendent Battle (within memory), and I have enjoyed all her books I have read so far. I don't know what happened to my Christie reading. Last year I read nearly one a month and loved them.

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    1. It's such a weird and interesting thing isn't it - I am endlessly fascinated by them. And by the sound of things, you will enjoy this one. Time to get back on the Christie train....

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  7. Moira - I'll have to admit. I do like the wit in this, but I'd hardly rank it as Christie's best either. I've never liked the '-isms' in it, and I think Christie's plotted much better in some of her other work. Still, that snippet you shared does show the quality of some of the dialogue. Oh, and about the hip band? No. No. No. Oh, and in case you were wondering? No.

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    1. I am laughing into my coffee here, Margot, thank you very much!
      As I say to Sergio above, there's always something in a Christie, even her lesser works aren't a write-off.

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  8. I remember reading this and wondering just what a hip band was! It doesn't seem like a thing mentioned in polite conversation ;-)

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    1. It does seem really bizarre doesn't it? A very strange thing to be chatting about in 2014, let alone 1925.

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  9. Moira, I'd never think of "Clothes in (Agatha Christie) Books" but you have given it an interesting spin as usual. She had her peculiar brand of humour, often subtle but funny nonetheless. I believe she got along very well with Wodehouse. Incidentally, this particular novel is next in line of my (delayed) chronological reading of Christie's mysteries. I have read quite a few in-between but I'm starting all over again.

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    1. She's not a one for very detailed descriptions, but she has her clothes moments: this one is unusual because it is completely irrelevant to the story (except to show Virginia has no romantic interest in Bill?) whereas usually clothes details have something to do with deception - hiding, covering up, disguise.
      Love your Wodehouse perception! I agree - she was funny.

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  10. Women on TV anchor jobs talk about wearing Spanx, even two sets of them at once.
    And in "fashion" segments, stretchy garments are shown that are too-girdle-like for my comfort.

    And I think I'll try to find "The Man in the Brown Suit," which gets good reviews. But if there are "isms" in it, I quit.

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    1. Two sets of Spanx - I'd never heard of that, how weird.

      Borrow Man in The Brown Suit from the library so you can give it back if you don't like it. I don't instantly remember if there'll be anything in it you don't like.

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  11. I don't think the library has it. (That's another headache; the administrators now take older books out of circulation, and keep one "noncirculating" copy at the main library, so one has to go there to read it.)

    But I think I can borrow a copy or buy a used one.

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  12. I'm in luck. The library has The Man in the Brown Suit.

    There was a bit of the plot mentioned at the library's web page, and it reminded me of an excellent BBC TV show with Bill Nighy, "State of Play." Similar crime set-up; person dies mysteriously on a train station.

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    1. Glad you will be able to try it - I hope you don't hate it. I didn't see the Bill Nighy, although I really like him.

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  13. That several-part episode TV show, State of Play, is great, with Nighy, James MacAvoy and other excellent actors.

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    1. I'll look out for it when it's on again, thanks.

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    2. I second Kathy's recommendation. State of Play is very good. I am a big Bill Nighy fan. But everyone in it is good.

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    3. With both of you recommending it, I'll have to actively seek it out I think.

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  14. To think women wore this stuff back then way back then and it is prevalent in the Victorian novels of the era.

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    1. It IS hard to imagine - and really difficult to contemplate just how uncomfortable some of these arrangements were.

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  15. And then there were corsets tied so tightly that their wearers would faint because they couldn't breathe in sufficient oxygen.

    To concur with Tracy, every actor in the British version of State of Play is excellent. I think I'll rewatch it sometime.

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    1. The two of you have certainly got me thinking I need to watch this soon.

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  16. I lack experience in the girdle department, though for a few years pre-slimline self could have done with the male equivalent - does such a thing exist? Man-spandex perhaps - you need to educate me.
    Not a Christie book I'll be trying, when I do get around to trying one that is.

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    1. I am sorry to say that I am unable to advise you! I believe such things exist, but I have managed to avoid them so far...

      No, there's a lot of Christies you should try before this one.

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