Sunday, 31 August 2014

Dress Down Sunday: Parade's End by Ford Madox Ford

book 2 – No More Parades

published 1925


At those words it came to Tietjens suddenly to think of Sylvia, with the merest film of clothing on her long, shining limbs . . . She was working a powder-puff under her armpits in a brilliant illumination from two electric lights, one on each side of her dressing-table. She was looking at him in the glass with the corners of her lips just moving. A little curled . . . He said to himself: ‘One is going to that fine and secret place . . . Why not have?’ She had emanated a perfume founded on sandalwood. As she worked her swansdown powder-puff over those intimate regions he could hear her humming. Maliciously! It was then that he had observed the handle of the door moving minutely. She had incredible arms, stretched out amongst a wilderness of besilvered cosmetics. Extraordinarily lascivious! Yet clean! Her gilded sheath gown was about her hips on the chair . . . 

observations: Another visit to this series of books: more of the plot in these entries, or click on the labels below.

Christopher Tietjens is in the trenches during the First Wold War, but remembering a recent moment when his estranged wife, the deeply wicked Sylvia, came to France (with no papers) to visit him and to make his life as difficult as possible – something which seems to be her only aim in life.

The night is going to end up in a drunken brawl in the hotel corridor. The door handle he can see moving is someone who thinks he might just visit the lovely Mrs Tietjens.

There is a lot in the series about gentlemen having regular mistresses, and we are twice informed that the correct way to pay off these women is to set her up in a tobacco shop. They don’t exist much any more, but now I’m thinking again of the respectable women who ran them in my youth… surely not….?

The relationship between Christopher and Sylvia has elements that resemble the marriage of George Smiley and Lady Ann in John le Carre’s books. Christopher is even more annoying than Sylvia: at one point he says ‘I have not got a friend in the world’ and you can’t help thinking that it’s hardly surprising. Just for starters, he has attractive views like this:

A heavy dislike that this member of the lower middle classes should have opinions on public affairs overcame Tietjens.
Another character says to him:
Yet you’re a disaster; you are a disaster to every one who has to do with you. You are as conceited as a hog; you are as obstinate as a bullock . . . You drive me mad.
… and that seems about right.

A key element of his memories of her – ‘three months ago they parted’, above – has her going to Paddington station so as to travel to Birkenhead and a convent where she will go on retreat. Nowadays you would certainly be going to Euston, not Paddington.

The description of life in the trenches has a ring of total authenticity, and there are interesting points about the differences between enlisted men and conscripts, and the importance that quite small sums of pay might mean. And there is a nice bit of character-drawing for Christopher’s brother Mark, who has

his copy of The Times airing on a chair-back before the fire – for he was just the man to retain the eighteen-forty idea that you catch cold by reading a damp newspaper.
The picture is a saucy French postcard of the era, something that both Christopher and Sylvia would both consider to be very low class.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

The Love of Stones by Tobias Hill

published 2001

There is a painting of Queen Elizabeth in Hatfield House Hertfordshire. It is called the Ermine Portrait, after the stoat which sits on the Queen’s arm. It is a political portrait in the old style, the Queen surrounded by her treasures. A show of potency to the powers across the water. In this picture the Bretheren is the brooched centrepiece of the Queen’s black jewelled skeleton

The Virgin Queen(‘s) eyes are small and quite hard, like those of the ermine poised on her sleeve. It is nearly three decades since she gained the throne, the assassins sent for her from Europe finding themselves, inexplicably, assassinated…

When Elizabeth gained it, the Three Bretheren was 150 years old. It took this time, five generations, before a woman owned the jewel.

observations: In this recent Ayelet Waldman entry, the protagonists of the book were looking for the owners and history of a precious piece of jewellery: in this one they’re looking for the jewellery.

The whole of Love of Stones is about the jewel above, clearly visible in the picture as described (though not sure about ‘skeleton’). The story starts with the commissioning of the brooch by Duke John the Fearless of Burgundy, and then mostly concentrates in two particular periods in its history: the lives of two Jewish men from Baghdad, who end up in Victorian London, and a modern-day search for the jewels by a partial narrator, Katharine Sterne.

The details – of jewellery, precious stones, goldsmithing, the creation of a crown – are fascinating, and Hill convincingly describes a kind of mania that overtakes some people who become obsessed with collecting (in the case of one character, just pearls, nothing else.)

Does the jewelled brooch really exist? Hard to tell – it doesn’t seem to exist under the name Hill gives it, though there it is in the picture.

With the two main strands of the plot, you have inklings of what is going on, and they seem to be carefully structured to echo each other. The Levy brothers sections is real historical fiction – including lots of research, a look at mudlarking and a meeting with Queen Victoria. Katherine Sterne’s part is a contemporary thriller: she is following clues, moving on, staying one step ahead of others. The main criticism of the book would be that it is hard to understand her obsession with the brooch: it is just a given that she is spending her life trying to find it, sacrificing everything to it. But we are not given any glimpse as to why.

It is an intriguing read, though I suspect a forgettable one. It’s well-written – ‘his feet were full of anger. They walked by themselves’ – and has odd moments of humour. But it is quite repetitive, the same things keep happening to the characters (they are knocked out and knocked down quite a lot), and it’s hard to care much what is happening to them, there are too many plot devices, too many roads to take. It’s 450+ pages long, and could have done with losing a third of that.

Two of the Amazon reviews give strange reasons for reading it: one is from author Sally Vickers, who says Hill gave her own Miss Garnet’s Angel a nice review, so she thought she’d return the compliment. The other is from someone who was entering a writing contest of which Hill was a judge, and who thought it might be helpful to suss him out. 

The picture is the Elizabeth I portrait from Hatfield House – the photo came from Wikimedia Commons.

More about Elizabeth I (and more pictures of her) in the entries on Lytton Strachey's book on her - click here, or on the labels below.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Murder in Style by Emma Lou Fetta

published 1939

Susan Yates, passing through the lobby accompanied by a client from Chicago, glanced at the blue-gloved young woman with amused approval of the inventiveness of her costume.

As if the force of gravity ended at the top of her skull, Miss Holt had managed to place a halo-like hat exactly at that point. There it remained magically…. She decorated an otherwise skimpy but docile little suit with a cheap bunch of artificial, blue cornflowers. Amazingly, Susan thought, the tout ensemble of the young woman’s toilet possessed that tenuous quality known to her business as chic. She murmured as much to her woman companion, who sniffed audibly, after one glance at the redhead, and said: ‘Darling if I didn’t know all about your
impeccable taste, I should say you’d lost your mind. Why the child looks like a floosie. Probably is.’

Susan shook her head. ‘She has, my lamb, that thing you can improve upon but not endow – natural taste. One could make a knockout of her with a little time and trouble.’

observations: Curtis Evans, of the excellent Passing Tramp crime fiction blog, brought this one to my attention: he wrote about author and books here and here, and has had a hand in the reprint, by Coachwhip Publications, of 3 of Emma Lou Fetta’s mysteries. Nothing could be more up the Clothes in Book street than a 1930s murder story set in the fashion industry, so naturally I ordered it, and was delighted to find that Curt had written a fascinating and comprehensive introduction (which should definitely be read after the book in fact…)

World of Fashion Luncheon, New York 1940

A group of women representing branches of the fashion industry are meeting for a business luncheon in New York – they are organizing a special show. One dies after taking a vitamin pill. Naturally, she was an out-and-out trouble-maker, and everyone in a 50-metre radius might have a motive to kill her. Investigations follow, and anonymous notes, and sinister meetings in the park at midnight, and a lot of discussion of clothes, the fashion world, and career women.

It is not the greatest murder story ever written, but it is great fun, and full of fascinating sociological detail: the woman have huge handbags, rather like the It bags of today; one woman puts on a marabou jacket to sit up in bed and eat her breakfast; a successful radio personality is hoping that she might be able to take a role in the new industry of television. One character wears ‘a hat like a flashlight camera’ – I’m guessing that might be this kind of shape:

-- like those cameras press photographers have in films of the era.

More on the blog from the obvious suspects – Margery Allingham’s Fashion in Shrouds, and Christianna Brand’s Death in High Heels, are both similar detective stories set in the fashion world, as is Patricia Moyes’ Murder a la Mode – and, there is another book of that name, which I am hoping to read soon. The other (earlier) Murder a la Mode is by Eleanor Kelly Sellars – writer and blogger Helen Szamuely found it and recommended it to me. Watch out for it…

All the photos are from the NY Public Library collection, and from the 1939/40 New York’s World Fair. The World of Fashion luncheon looks like it might be the kind of event the ladies in the book were organizing….

Thursday, 28 August 2014

My Friends the Hungry Generation by Jane Duncan

published 1968

In 1951, when I had last seen my niece, she had been an entrancing three-year-old who was just beginning to read and when the door opened now I was quite unprepared for the leggy coltish eight-year-old dressed in very short shorts and a very dirty white shirt. The first things I noticed about her were the long, beautifully-shaped bare legs, the long, light brown pigtails and the large eyes, shaped and darkly-lashed like the eyes of her mother, but in colour, the brilliant blue of her father’s. The two boys, who stood on either side of her in the doorway, I had never seen before, of course.

[Some time later] George, Tom, Sandy Tom and I followed. On the driveway there was a Land Rover, hitched to it was a small horse-box and looking over the tailboard of this was the hairy face of a little Shetland pony… Miss Forth, George and Tom were leading the pony down the little ramp on to the gravel…. Liz clasped her arms round the pony’s neck and laid her cheek against the wiry mane.

observations: And on we go with Jane Duncan and her alter ego Janet -  it is 1956 now, and she is visiting her brother and his family. Her sister-in-law is having another baby, and Janet ends up looking after the other children, who are the Hungry Generation. Janet is child-free herself, and makes heavy weather of the mysteries of childcare. She is also very soppy and bursts into tears the whole time. Normally these books have a mixture of a current thread and a historical one, but this one is unusually linear, with some reminiscences of Janet’s youth, but otherwise a straight story about the summer looking after the children.

The book is a curiosity in terms of childcare, showing us how much has changed since those days – the children sound positively hysterical and are endlessly badly-behaved, and Janet doesn’t hesitate to spank them. The general level of violence in the house (which is definitely meant to be a happy, loving, normal household) is quite surprising to modern readers I would suggest. In addition the new-born baby (two weeks old, max) is given diluted cow’s milk to drink, and when that doesn’t work, goat’s milk. The Christening happens almost immediately, with no special preparations. When an aunt dies (in the same town) the parents of the new baby both disappear to the bereaved house completely for several days – possibly just a plot device to give Janet more responsibility.

Janet in the book claims that one character loves her son-in-law ‘more, even, than her own daughters or the [grand]children.’ This trope comes up occasionally in books, and always seems to be wholly unconvincing – and in normal circumstances (ie there is nothing wrong or strange about her relationship with her own children) unimaginable. It sounds sniping to say that the author had no children of her own.

I think I enjoyed this one less that others in the series, because of the single setting. More on the series by clicking on the Jane Duncan label below. I have missed out My Friends the Macleans, a rather uninspired entry that ends on the day that this one begins. 

In a serious adult book in the 1960s, it seems very strange that one character will casually give a pony as a thank you gift to a family: in fairytales and old-fashioned children's books, yes, lovely. In real life: worst gift ever.

Girl in shorts, a 1958 photo from the Florida archives via Flickr. The picture of the children on a pony comes from the National Library of Wales.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick

published 2009

set in 1907

With the letter she had sent a photograph of herself, and he could feel the tattered edge of it with his thumb as he raised his hat to one more person, saw, from the corner of his eyes, one more person gauge the unusual sobriety and richness of his black suit and strong boots and fur-collared overcoat. His thumb caressed her face. His eyes could see her features, neither pretty nor homely. Her large clear eyes stared into the photographer’s flash without guile. She wore a simple dress with a plain cloth collar, an ordinary woman who needed a husband enough to marry a stranger twenty years her senior.

He had sent her no photograph in return, nor had she asked for one. He had sent instead a ticket, sent it to the Christian boarding-house in which she stayed in filthy, howling Chicago, and now he stood, a rich man in a tiny town in a cold climate, at the start of a Wisconsin winter in the year 1907. Ralph Truitt waited for the train that would bring Catherine Land to him

observations: Reading this book was part of a project to clear a TBR pile, and that worked out well because  I bought it a while ago, and remembered nothing about it except what you would know from the excerpt above: that a man living in a remote mid-Western town in 1907 advertises for a wife, and she arrives by train. So something like Patricia MacLachlan’s YA classic Sarah, Plain and Tall? No, as it turns out, not one little bit.

I knew it had been described as a gothic creepy tale, but still every surprise and twist came to me fresh, and I enjoyed that – I am a good guesser, and there are only so many ways this plot could go, but still I could lose myself in the overblown prose, even if there were rather too many descriptions of sex.

There was one point where I found the plot unconvincing, but as it turns out, Robert Goolrick had thought of that too, right at the end, so that was satisfying. (I felt the whole business with the original photograph wasn’t really explained, either.)

We find out about Ralph Truitt’s past, and what he wants from the future: we find out some of Catherine Land’s past. He says to her ‘I know. I know what you are doing.’ But does he?

Some of the very lush prose became repetitive, and the endless misery got a bit much, with the sad stories of the people of the town, and the tagline ‘it was just a story about despair.’ But I found it involving, and a little bit unexpected, and I really did want to know what was going to happen to the people.

In Sunday’s entry on John Dickson Carr, another book set in 1907, I featured a picture of a young woman in a bathing-suit. It was captioned in a museum archive as 1907, although it did look much more recent than that, and one valued reader, Daniel Milford-Cottam, helpfully came into the comments to explain why he thought it had been wrongly dated. He was very convincing…. But whatever the truth, the world of bathing suits and exposed legs is very far from the 1907 portrayed in this book.

This photograph here is of Harriet E Giles, a pioneer and advocate of women’s education in the early years of the 20th century, and one of the founders of Spelman College.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

aka Big Little Lies

published 2014

The parents at Pirriwee Public [school] had a baffling fondness for fancy-dress. It wasn’t enough that they should have an ordinary trivia night. She knew from the invitation that some bright spark had decided to make it an ‘Audrey and Elvis’ Trivia Night, which meant that the women all had to dress up as Audrey Hepburn and the men had to dress up as Elvis Presley…

Jane wandered into the crowd, past groups of animated Elvises and giggling Audreys, all of them tossing back the pink cocktails...

[Jane thinks about her new friend Madeleine] A glittery girl. All her life Jane had watched girls like that with scientific interest. Maybe a little awe, mayble a little envy. They weren’t necessarily the prettiest, but they decorated themselves so affectionately, like Christmas Trees, with dangling earrings, jangling bangles and delicate pointless scarves. They touched your arm a lot when they spoke. Jane’s best friend at school had been a Glittery Girl. Jane had a weakness for them.

observations: This book specializes in telling and funny observations, such as the identifying of the Glitter girls above: surely we all recognize the type?

I loved The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty (here on the blog) so was more than happy to read this one, courtesy of the publishers & NetGalley. The book starts with the reader being told that something terrible happens at the Trivia Night above – someone is dead. Moriarty does a great job of teasing the reader throughout, so you really don’t know who is for the chop (I guessed half of it), or what exactly happens at the event, though there is a very pleasing image of physical fighting amongst the Elvis-es and Audreys. The trouble starts among the kindergarten mothers as their children play together: is there bullying, is there violence, is there class-based resentment? I loved the woman who assumed the much younger mother must be a nanny; the parents of the gifted children, and Madeleine assigning ‘their gift was shouting’ to some young twins; the involved husbands who still aren’t quite sure who everyone else is; and Madeleine’s feeling that there was no need to do King Lear at the local theatre: ‘They had enough Shakespearean drama in their own lives in the school playground and on the soccer field.’

My favourite moment in the whole book is probably where Madeleine is thinking through the various infuriating situations in her life and picks up her son’s light sabre, ‘conveniently left on the floor for someone to trip over’, and starts swinging it around in her crossness and almost breaks a light fitting, and imagines trying to explain that away. It has the feeling of pure truth for some mother somewhere.

In fact the book as well as being funny and a good puzzle has a very serious central core about domestic violence which, amid the laughs, is dealt with in a sensitive manner. So it’s a very easy read, and the observational comedy is perfect, but Moriarty is also a very good writer, with some thought-provoking things to say.

Pictures of Audrey Hepburn come from my favourite source, Perry Photography, and used with her kind permission. You can see more of her pictures at Flickr, or at her website weddingsinitalytuscany. Her wonderful photos have featured on the blog many times before.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Summer Holiday Special: The Last Good Day by Gail Bowen

published 2004

I swam back towards the raft that floated a hundred metres away. My stroke was the tried and trustworthy Australian crawl. Flutter-kicking forward, my arms cutting through the sparkle of foam on the waves, my gaze turning from the bright sunlight to the iridescent shimmer beneath the surface, I felt myself moving towards strength.

There were perhaps 80 people at the Canada Day party. No one appeared to be in charge of seating arrangements, yet as the first rocket spiralled into the sky and rained down its shower of fiery starts, my kids and I found ourselves alone with the Falconer Shreve families in what was, indisputably, the choicest location on the beach...

As always, the fireworks were over too soon. The last star arced across the sky, the last lovely parabola of light faded, and the night was suddenly dark and cheerless. For a beat, we stood uncertainly, breathing in air wisped with smoke and pungent with bug spray. Then people began to fold blankets, collapse chairs, and say their goodbyes.

observations: Canada Day is July 1st, so this is set at the other end of the summer from the UK’s August Bank Holiday today, but still there is a fellow feeling.

I love the Gail Bowen books: they are crime stories featuring Joanne Kilbourn, who lives in Regina in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan (I was astonished to read that the population of the city is 180,000 – I’d assumed from these books that it was a bustling provincial metropolis like Calgary or Vancouver). For this entry, the 9th, she is spending the summer on a lake 70 kilometres away, and Bowen does a great job of creating the world of a summer community – in this case, a very upmarket spot where a group of wealthy successful lawyers has built an enclave. But all is not perfect, someone dies, and someone else is missing, so Joanne has to investigate.

This is more like a straight novel than a crime story, with its searching look at marriages, careers, and the loss of idealism: in some elements it resembles that classic 1980s film The Big Chill – not to mention the Don Henley song Boys of Summer (‘summer is for bad boys’ one character says). There is a marvellous atmosphere of regret and nostalgia, with the obvious metaphor of the summer being like life – ‘The lake was full of fish. The paint on the Muskoka chairs was crayon bright; the paddles, sticky with fresh varnish, were on their hooks in the boathouse; and the board games and croquet sets still had all their pieces…Anything was possible.’

It’s always soothing to be with Joanne, a really great character, like someone you know, telling you details of her life – there’s always plenty about what everyone ate and wore. She’s always going on about her children, again just like someone you know who finds her own offspring totally adorable and delightful, but doesn’t quite manage to put that over – hers always seem too good to be true, especially the artistically-talented adopted daughter Taylor.

The ending had me shouting out ‘no’ – it wasn’t shocking, in that there was a terrible inevitability about it, but I was greatly affected by it, and anyone who has read this series from the beginning would feel the same way I think.

The b/w photo is of a girl and a bear (!) at Henderson Lake in Alberta, from the Galt Museum and Archives.

The Canada Day fireworks picture is a Wikimedia Commons photo by Skeezix1000.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Dress Down Sunday: The Witch of the Low Tide by John Dickson Carr

published 1961


She wore the most modern bathing dress of 1907…
She lay face down on the floor in that other room. The pallid daylight fell faintly on her dark-brown bathing-costume, and on her bare thighs and legs, and on the canvas shoes that she always wore to swim. ..
Through his mind ran words Betty had read aloud to him, less than a week ago, from a so-called fashion hint in a magazine.

‘“A discarded heavy wool-mohair skirt,”’ she had quoted,  ‘“can be made over into an excellent new bathing-costume.”’ And she had added,  ‘Ugh!’…
Garth looked at the wall opposite. From one of the hooks along this wall hung a long bathing-cape of brown serge with horizontal yellow stripes. It belonged to Betty, he knew, although she very seldom wore it.


observations: This book is subtitled ‘An Edwardian melodrama’, and is part of a trilogy Carr wrote covering the first 90 years of the Metropolitan Police and Scotland Yard. He obviously researched these books very well, and went to a lot of trouble about – among many other aspects – the clothes. There were many items in the book I could have chosen to illustrate – Moulin Rouge, ladies’ daywear, men’s evening wear. (The Satanist group in Paris, though tempting, never really got going and he doesn’t tell us what they wore.) But the idea of turning your heavy woollen skirt into a bathing suit had to win out in the end. As he explains, bathing suits became a lot lighter at this time – and it is comment-worthy that Betty does not wear stockings to swim.

All this was to the good, and there is a hotchpotch of Freudianism, shilling shockers, the usual ‘impossible murder’, and dramatic tension-raisers such as authorial comments of (Look out! Look out!) interspersed in a tricky interrogation. I liked the character Marion, ‘in a pose he suspected of being imitated from Mrs Patrick Campbell on the stage.’

I have said before that JDC likes to create quite a sexy atmosphere, though true to his time he doesn’t go into too much detail, and in this book – can’t say too much – he ventures into some very difficult territory, with views that would not be popular today. (You might generously allow that he is trying to accept women as sexual beings.) There are shades of Fo
rd Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, of all unlikely books. 

JDC is never less than a good read, though I think I prefer when he writes about his own time. And it was great fun finding pictures of the bathing costumes. These ones do not look as though they were made from old skirts, but that IS a useful fashion tip.

More discussion of beachwear in this entry and this one.

The (presumably) colorized photo is from George Eastman House.

The b/w photo is of ‘Australian swimmer and silent Hollywood film star Annette Kellerman’ in 1907, but it is recognized that this is quite a daring swimsuit for the time. It’s from the Australian National Maritime Museum.

The group of 5 women is from 1908 and is from the State Library of New South Wales.

The advertising illo is from later, 1913, and is from the collection of the University of Washington.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Autumn Term by Antonia Forest

published 1948

[A schoolgirl production of The Prince and the Pauper: Tim – a girl – is producing, twins Nicola and Lawrie are playing the two main roles of young boys who swap places: the swap is about to take place]

They were playing well and fast, no pauses, snapping up their cues. Tim glanced at the lighting plot to make sure when her next cue came and permitted herself to relax and enjoy it. Tom eating hungrily, watching the Prince with round-eyed hero-worship, answering Edward’s questions with artless childish deference… the sudden plan to change clothes… Nicola dashing off-stage and tossing her apparel to a Lawrie almost hidden behind the throne (‘Because if they don’t see you change, they won’t believe it,’ Tim had insisted when Nicola had protested that it would be much quicker if they both changed off-stage); Lawrie swaggering down-stage, smoothing her hair, peacocking before a mirror, Nicola coming on a second later, and the sudden burst of applause from the delighted audience...

Antonia Forest’s niche but ever-popular school stories have many selling points, and one of them is that she does theatrical productions extremely well – several of her books contain detailed descriptions of school plays and other performances, and very engrossing they are too. The same is true of Noel Streatfeild’s stage school books (here, and click on label below for many others) of course, but Forest's are generally not professional productions – though Lawrie is supposed to be an exceptional actress, with the possibility of a proper career ahead of her. She’d have been snapped up by Streatfeild’s Madame Fidolia. 

Autumn Term is the first of Forest’s books. She wrote about trying to make the genre more realistic: ‘No tomboys, no midnight feasts, no life-and-death adventures, no marvellously popular young headmistress, no wise and over-responsible head girl, “beloved of the juniors”, on whom the Headmistress relied.’ She succeeded in this – at first glance the books might resemble every other boarding school story, but they have a magic something missing from her contemporaries. She wrote them over 30 years, simply going along with the passage of time – Tim, Nick and Lawrie are in 1948 above: by the time of Attic Term they are a couple of years older, but it is definitely 1976 outside. But no harm in that, Forest makes it work. She wrote four school stories, more books about the same family at home in the holidays, and a couple of historical novels.

End of Term - and the school Nativity Play – has featured on the blog, while Falconer’s Lure provided a MayDay entry, and Peter’s Room one for Twelfth Night.

The comic cover dates from 1946, the film stills are from the 1937 film version of The Prince and the Pauper - the original Mark Twain story has been filmed and televised many times. The Prince is the future Edward VI. 

Friday, 22 August 2014

Northbridge Rectory by Angela Thirkell

published 1941

[Mr Holden has come to Miss Pemberton’s cottage for the first time]

Sitting on opposite sides of the fire, a well-spread tea-table between them, were Miss Pemberton and a spare, grey-haired, intelligent looking man of about 55.

Miss Pemberton rose, for no other word can express her action. Mr Holden saw what was apparently an elderly man with a powerful and slightly unpleasant face, dressed in brown sacking with short grey hair and an amber necklace….

[on a later occasion]

[Miss Pemberton] rose, and gathering up her dress, which was a green sack worn under a kind of art burnous of a dull purple woollen material and set off by some rough silver necklaces, moved with a certain toad-like majesty to the further end of the living-room where an oak table… was spread with peasant-edged linen mats and dull Swedish silver.

observations: Northbridge Rectory was recommended to me by Kate Walker, who is also responsible for my reading Earl Derr Biggers and The Agony Column, and Vita Sackville-West’s Devil at Westease. Thanks again, Kate.

These passages show both what is good and what is bad about Angela Thirkell and her books (High Rising has featured on the blog a couple of times). The novel is a light-hearted look at life in an English village in the early days of World War 2, seen through the eyes of the rector’s wife. All the residents of the village come in for some hearty satirical description, and there are just enough unexpected touches to stop it being too predictable. But some of it just seems pointless and ill-natured. Miss Pemberton, above, has arty and literary pretensions: her lodger is Mr Downing, an expert on Provencal literature. They go everywhere together. The relationship between them (she is anxious to keep him to herself and resents intruders: he likes being taken care of) has elusive moments of being real and interesting, but Thirkell always overdoes it and makes them figures of unnecessary fun, in a way verging on the unpleasant. Also, what is so special about ‘rose’ for her actions (in both sentences)? – it doesn’t seem to need any comment on it.

But this is still a vastly entertaining book (much better than, say, blog favourite Nancy Mitford’s 1940 Pigeon Pie). The war details are particularly fascinating for being so contemporaneous, no chance for perspective or historical smoothing. The Rector and his wife formerly ran a boarding-school, and now they have officers billeted on them and can treat them alternately like difficult pupils or recalcitrant parents, to some comic effect. Mrs Villars is the usual woman of great humour and self-deprecation but terribly attractive to everyone etc etc – see all Thirkell’s books – and a repository for what one assumes were Thirkell’s own views.

The picture, from the Smithsonian, is of Herbert Spencer Jennings and his wife.

Stella Gibbons’ novel Westwood gives another picture of life on the home front, later on in the war.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

The Second Lady by Irving Wallace

published 1980

[The First Lady of the USA has a busy day]

She had received the winners of a painting contest sponsored by a national association of handicapped persons. Then, [the designer] Ladbury himself, just arrived from London, had appeared for a preliminary fitting of new dresses and gowns she hoped to wear in Moscow and London. Without rest, assisted by her personal maid Sarah Keating, she had plunged into a search for an old college scrapbook that Guy Parker needed as research for the autobiography he was ghostwriting for her. Next, she had hastened downstairs… to receive the delegation of Girl Scouts and their leaders and pass out special awards to those who had performed outstanding community service. With less than five minutes to spare, she had gone with Nora to the Yellow Oval Room upstairs, where the gathering of press representatives had been having tea while awaiting her arrival.

observations: My good friend Prashant C Trikkanad recently talked about this book on his excellent blog Chess, Crosswords and Comics. The name of the post was ‘Sex in Fiction’ and he revealed that as a teenager this was one of the books that he enjoyed for its risqué content – but that it was also a good Cold War thriller with a twisty plot and a surprise ending. The plot sounded high concept & intriguing so obviously I had to read it: especially after enjoying a recent book on the Argentine First Lady Eva Peron - on the blog recently.

So this is the plot. The KGB has groomed a young actress to impersonate the First Lady of the USA, and at a key moment they organize the substitution. The real First Lady, Billie, is held in Moscow, while Vera takes her place. This is a short-term plan (covering a specific political crisis) and they think the sub can get away without having sex with the President. But they thought wrong. So the Soviets need to find out from the prisoner Billie what kind of sex she has with the President – most other things in her life they were able to check up on, but not this one. So perhaps a handsome young KGB man could go to bed with her and find out? And then pass on his observations?

This is a truly jaw-dropping plot point, and I can truly see where teenage boys will have loved this book – there are two sexual encounters with the two First Ladies and both are described in enormous detail, if in rather a clinical, matter-of-fact tone.

In addition to this – while talking about Patricia Ferguson's excellent Aren’t We Sisters? the other day, I mused that internal gynaecological examinations really don’t turn up in books very often, et voila, here’s another one inside a month. Again, quite unnecessary detail.

The whole impersonation plot is mind-boggling and you just have to suspend your disbelief and stop asking questions (eg were their feet the same size?), and wondering how on earth you could keep this secret when there was a huge staff of people in Moscow working towards training the young woman. You just have to rattle along with the plot – and the ending, as Prashant says, is extremely well-done: you don’t know how he’s going to get out of the situation he has got his characters into, but the final twist is a real humdinger.

It’s a weird mixture of sex talk and the Famous Five : ‘The key is in the pocket of the velvet suit model, the black velvet outfit on the mannequin’, for goodness sake. Meanwhile, at a secret meeting overheard by one of the goodies, each person introduces himself and then they run over their nefarious deeds to date, which is handy for the eavesdropper.

I am immensely grateful to Prashant for introducing me to this splendid book – it reminds me somewhat of the recent US TV series The Americans, which I also enjoyed.

The picture, from the US National Archives, shows First Lady Rosalynn Carter – obviously, not a Soviet spy – with some Girl Scouts in 1977.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Hell Hath No Fury by Ingrid Noll

published in 1991 in German

English translation by Ian Mitchell published 1996

I had a bath, washed my hair and blow-dried it. Witold wouldn’t be coming in the morning, since he had to be in school. But as to whether he would arrive immediately after lunch or not until later, I could only guess. From two in the afternoon, I was waiting, in my silken pyjamas; I put away my tea-cup, fetched it out again, cleaned my teeth once more. By six I was extremely edgy....

At last, at eight, he arrived…

‘Come on,’ he said, ‘don’t hang around in the kitchen, lie down on the sofa. I’ll stay with you for a few minutes.’

In my silk nightwear, I tried to assume as decorative a pose as possible, a bit like Tischbein’s painting of Goethe in the Campagna.

‘I looked awful yesterday, you must have been disgusted by the sight of me,’ I murmured.

‘Don’t worry yourself, that’s how everybody looks when they’re in a bad way.’ Witold really did seem to pay precious little attention to my appearance.

observations: This is a strange and very funny book, as the excerpt above might suggest. The painting mentioned is famous in Germany and would be easily imagined by most of Noll’s readers, and it is indeed a splendid image for anyone to bring to mind.

The narrator (known as Rosie, or Rosemarie, or Thyra) is a single woman in a dull job who thinks of herself as very old (in her 50s: can’t agree that this is old…) and decides to make one last grab for happiness and adventure. She more or less decides to fall in love with Witold, her visitor above, and more or less decides to be obsessional and criminal about the relationship. People standing in her way are not going to be blocking her for very long.

She has a very odd tone: she’s not really an unreliable narrator, she is all too reliably reporting what she has done, but there is a clever distance between her flat descriptions of what she has done, and then her getting very upset by some slight from one of the people in her life. She sweeps through some events, and then changes to a very detailed description of others. She is mad as a box of frogs, and rather wonderful. She has something of the older protagonist in Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal, and something of the artist Nora in Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs.

As part of her personal makeover, she buys herself a wine-red velvet skirt and a crepe-de-chine blouse ‘with a heraldic pattern’. I couldn’t really work out what that pattern would be.

The picture is the one mentioned in the text, from Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

The Dark Island by Vita Sackville-West

published 1934

He stared at her very intently. She is young, he thought; not more than 25 or 26; but beyond her obvious youthfulness of years there is a curious mix of ages: caught at certain angles she looks almost childish,… but caught at other angles she looks fashionable and sophisticated, able to cope with life that may have treated her well or harshly.

Scantily dressed in brown satin, from which her arms and shoulders emerged rounded and gleaming, without a single jewel beyond their own transparent lightness, she enjoyed some quality which made her appear even more naked than she actually was. She had, he noticed, a trick of sitting with her hands clasping either shoulder, as though by her crossed arms she defended her breast from assault, and leant her cheek against her own shoulder, as though no flesh but her own had the right to caress her flesh. 

observations: So isn’t Vita Sackville-West full of surprises. When I read The Devil at Westease I was surprised by how conventional it was. The Dark Island is quite different: it starts out like Enid Blyton (whom I did mention in relation to the other book, and who also writes about a Secret Island) and turns into Anais Nin, with a very strange sexual feeling to it: there is strongly implied Lesbianism and some sadism. According to James Lees-Milne the book is ‘an astonishing revelation of the sadistic practices of love-making’ and the theme ‘much disturbed’ her husband Harold Nicolson.

The heroine, Shirin, seems a lot more attractive to VS-W than to the reader. All men fall in love with her, but she has an untouched and manly soul, and is apparently close to illiterate. Eventually she marries a man who is hereditary ruler of a small island (something on the lines of Sark one assumes). The marriage is not very happy, though improved when a woman called Cristina comes to live with them in a form of ménage a trois (Cristina very definitely there for Shirin rather than the cruel husband). But then everything goes wrong again. It’s very overblown, and although in general sex in books doesn’t bother me at all, there was something horrible about this one (not, in case you are busy rushing off to order it, detailed descriptions of perversions – just a slimy atmosphere). I still can’t decide what this bit means: ‘He moved closer towards her, following the line of his physical desire. She, experienced as she was, recognised the movement and shrank from it.’

Everyone has deep and important feelings which they start to express then fade away, no-one is ever honest or tells each other anything properly. There is just one moment where VS-W seems to see this and almost makes a joke. In a moment of deep emotion Shirin says to her suitor “if you really want to marry me you must….”

“Yes, must what?”

“Throw away that tie.”

James Lees-Milne, who was plainly very fond of Vita Sackville-West, is one of those friends who writes as her champion, and seems to have no idea how eminently dislikeable he makes her sound. Or perhaps that’s just me. I find her snobbery and ruthlessness very unattractive, and could do without the endless discussions of who is common, who hates democracy, and who is really worthwhile. But then, I have managed to read quite a few books by her.

The picture is from the Dovima is Devine photostream.

Monday, 18 August 2014

The Birthday Murder by Lange Lewis

published 1945

The minute she saw Bernice Saxe standing there in the doorway, she knew something was wrong, terribly wrong. Bernice Saxe was her oldest friend. They had known each other since they had been children of 12, and although their lives had taken very different patterns, they had remained friends down the years. Bernice was a tall pretty woman with a little-girl voice that contrasted oddly with her size. She spent a great deal of time and money on her clothes, which were always of the best…

Today she was wearing a handsome gray pin-striped suit which displayed her fine bustline to advantage. Over it was tossed a silver fox scarf, a Christmas gift from her husband, Walter. … Bernice was clutching a green lizard bag, although her shoes and gloves were black suede, and there was no touch of green elsewhere about her costume. She stood in the doorway with her shining brown eyes opened very wide, and Victoria had the feeling that at any moment she might topple over and crash to the tiled floor of the porch.

observations: Sergio, over at the Tipping my Fedora blog, recommended this book, and I ordered a copy as soon as I had read his review. That turned out to be a very good decision: I enjoyed this hugely.

It’s a short, tight book: Hollywood-based writer Victoria sees a number of people as she waits for her husband to come home, the day before her birthday. Albert returns, they eat dinner together, and during that night he dies, apparently after ingesting ant poison – exactly the method used in Victoria’s recent book-about-to-be-a-movie. So how did he consume the poison, and who did the dirty deed?

In best Murder She Wrote fashion, any of the people in the book might have a hand in it, and all the visitors had the opportunity to fiddle with the kitchen containers. One of them was Victoria’s former husband, the peculiarly-named Sawn (a nice addition to my complaints about names theme): and my only complaint about the book is that his method of making Old Fashioneds seems to have a huge bearing on the murder, but is never mentioned. (It doesn’t spoil or contradict the plot, but does shortcut through one aspect of it.) Apart from that, sheer joy. Everyone’s clothes are described – pale green satin lounging pyjamas! A robe with huge daffodils on it! – and the point about the description above is that we know Bernice must be in a terrible state because her bag and shoes don’t match. Those were the days.

There is a character called Moira: they don’t often come up in books, see previous blog entries here and here, but when the name is used, not to boast or anything, but it tends to be by wonderful writers such as Donna Tartt and Nancy Mitford.

And, the fictional Victoria lives over the road from the Humphrey Bogarts, and is on coffee-borrowing terms with them: Humph would have just married Lauren Bacall, who died last week. 

Lange Lewis seems to undeservedly forgotten, and it's hard to find out anything about her, even in the standard crime fiction reference books - Sergio sums up what is known about her in the blog entry mentioned above.

The picture is from the Clover Vintage tumblr, and is a Vogue fashion shot from a few years later.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Dress Down Sunday: Golden Pavements by Pamela Brown

published 1947



[Drama student Lyn is appearing in a seaside rep performance of The Constant Nymph]

The second act went off without a hitch with an inspiring hush of attention from the audience. Even Mark seemed to be enjoying himself, and acutally deigned to offer Lyn a cigarette between the second and third acts. The third act contained some difficult scene changes, and for these it was “all hands on deck” to get it done quickly. Jean was playing the part of the lodging-house keeper in the last scene, and she did so well that Lyn wondered why she ever bothered to slave away as a stage manager when she was such a competent actress. By this time Lynette was exhausted by the mental strain and physical effort of the part, and was pale as death without the help of make-up. She wore a white petticoat during most of the scene, and this had a curiously shroud-like effect. At the end of the scene, as she died upon the ugly iron bedstead, there was a flutter of handkerchiefs among the audience a clearing of throats.

observations: Last week I did an entry on The Constant Nymph itself - this week a look at its place in popular culture.

What a favourite book Nymph is, and one that has lived down the ages, beloved by all, a form of shorthand – the Radlett family use it to tease Fanny in The Pursuit of Love, reading out the chapters staged above because her aunt is about to marry, late in life. Will Fanny fall in love with her new uncle…? An admirable young woman in Dorothy L Sayers The Nine Tailors wants to write books like The Constant Nymph. And in Antonia Forest’s seminal school story Attic Term, sceptical Nicola Marlow knows her older sister Ginty (15 or 16) is putting it on when she asks to borrow Dante from the neighbours’ handsome son: ‘What Ginty liked were thrillers and grown-up novels like The Constant Nymph. She must have been doing a massive show-off to have borrowed these.’ This should place the book exactly even if you haven’t read it.

In the book above - drama college followup to the excellent Swish of the Curtain - Lyn is an acting student working as an ASM in a repertory company in her summer break: she is supposed to get small walk-on parts, but because she is so talented, she gets the chance to play Tessa Sanger. Tessa is a very virtuous young woman (according to the author of the original novel, Margaret Kennedy) but otherwise the sacrificial dying could be from La Traviata or La Dame aux Camelias – though not the splendid blog favourite Romance, where the difficult woman is allowed to live a chaste and charitable life.

Another Margaret Kennedy book, Lucy Carmichael, recently gave me a couple of splendid blog entries, where I also pontificated on Constant Nymph.

One of my favourite books-about-books is Claud Cockburn’s long out-of-print Bestseller – a look at the most popular books in the first half of the 20th century – and his chapter on The Constant Nymph and The Green Hat is wonderful.

The picture is from the Library of Congress.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Violet Hammersley by Diana Mosley

--- from Loved Ones, a Book of Pen Portraits 

published 1985

She was rather small and very dark, with black hair and huge dark eyes, and she had an expression of deep gloom. She had a rather low, hollow voice, and although she often laughed it was as if unwillingly…

When I first knew her she was already a widow, and widow’s weeds became her. To the end of her life she was swathed in black scarves and shawls and veils; in later years not exactly in mourning, because many of her clothes were dark brown, but the whole effect had something more Spanish than French about it. Once when she was slightly annoying my sister Nancy, who used the powder and lipstick universal among our generation, by saying: ‘Painters don’t admire makeup at all,’ Nancy retorted: ‘Oh well Mrs Ham you know it’s all very well for you, but we can’t all look like El Greco’s mistress.’ Mrs Hammersley gave her hollow, unwilling laugh.

observations: Mrs Ham is a great feature of the chronicles of the Mitford family – she would surely be all-but-forgotten otherwise, but lives on in their letters, and in the many books about the sisters. She is a splendid character, and whenever she turns up in the canon you can relax, knowing entertainment will follow.

Diana Mosley is of course even more fascinating, as we keep finding on the blog. Her politics were detestable: she was a friend of Hitler, and she was married to fascist leader Oswald Mosley and supported his political views totally. But once you get out of the way, there is still something left. She was a woman of principle and great loyalty, she found it easy to make and keep good friends despite everything (‘everything’ including imprisonment during the WW2 and the whiff – strongly denied - of potential treason). For someone claiming such strange views she had friends of all kinds – including many whom her husband’s desired political system would have condemned as degenerate, or Jewish, or both. There is a way in which she doesn’t add up…

Oswald Mosley was always the most outrageous philanderer, and doesn’t seem to have changed or adapted that at any point during his entire life: this was apparently a sorrow for his wives, but they both lived with it. Rather embarrassingly, Diana compared herself with her sister Nancy Mitford – who also had a great love who was incorrigibly unfaithful – and decided smugly that her Oswald (also known as Kit and Tom, to the confusion of keen readers of the letters) was not as awful as Nancy’s Colonel. Both men sound vile, but Gaston Palewski – the original of Nancy Mitford’s Fabrice in The Pursuit of Love – seems marginally more attractive, if you had to have one of them, and at least was not a fascist friend of Hitler.

Diana Mosley was stepmother to Nicholas Mosley, author of one of the blog’s best books of 2013: they had a very good relationship for many years, but ultimately she accused him of betraying the memory of his father (Nicholas wrote a 2-vol biog of Oswald), and so she refused to speak to him in the years leading up to her death in 2003.

She was simultaneously quite transparent and quite incomprehensible – those who knew her say she had great personal warmth and charm, but some of us (without the advantage of knowing her personally) wonder about the ice in her heart.

The photograph shows Mrs H with Jessica Mitford.

The portrait of her is by Duncan Grant and is in Southampton art gallery.

This week in the excellent #bookadayuk meme on Twitter I picked Diana Mitford as a controversial writer.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Blood Makes Noise by Gregory Widen

published 2013

At twenty past midnight he was dozing when there was an insistent rap at the rear glass doors. Otto got up and opened them on a broad-shouldered man in livery costume. “Herr Spoerri?”

“Of course.” Who the hell else would be stuck here at this hour? The livery costume nodded, walked back to the idling limousine, and opened the rear door.

From it emerged a beautiful woman in her late twenties. She wore mink, her blonde hair up in a fierce chignon. Otto Spoerri recognized the face immediately, and his surprise was sufficient enough to leave him momentarily without manners.

“Are you the banker?” she asked in Spanish. Finally coming to attention, he took her hand and bent with a snap. “Senora. I am surprised. Please, welcome to Kredit Spoerri.”…

What a woman, with her harlot lips and shopgirl swagger, the heat of an absolute confidence that dried his eyes. A woman who’d come to a country that despised her, waded through seething crowds and splashing fruit, all to sit in the city’s oldest bank at midnight and calmly wait for what she wanted, turning the cigarette between moist lips.

observations: My good friend Col, over at Col’s Criminal Library, introduced me to this book, and you can read his review of it here.

I am fascinated by Eva Peron – that’s the Evita of the musical – and her extraordinary story: how she made it from poverty to be First Lady of Argentina in a very short space of time, how she was worshipped by many of the populace, how her memory lived on. And her body lived on too: she was embalmed at her early death – and what happened to her corpse is the subject of this bizarre thriller. 

It is not the best book ever written, but I must say I loved it: and I couldn’t guess where the story was going half the time. A young CIA agent, Michael, gets involved in a plot to smuggle her body out of the country. He succeeds in this, but completely messes up the rest of his life in the process. Fifteen years later, he is a broken, drug-addicted drunk – but gets caught up in a plan to bring her body back to Argentina. All kinds of extraordinary people pass through this book, and the twists and turns of the plot are labrynthine: but the writer says that many of the people are real, and a lot of what he describes actually happened. There’s a hallucinatory, supernatural feel to some sections: and the bits about the corpse and the embalming are truly creepy. I was less interested in the gunfights and the manic chase through Europe, but I still enjoyed the book and found it memorable and satisfying – and the various things that happened to the corpse are, well, indescribable and astonishing.

Pampas and gauchos feature – there is an interesting claim that Argentina is unusual in never developing ‘a myth of the homeland… this topsy-turvy culture invested all value in urban Porteno values. The countryside was a hostile, brutal place; its people, their gaucho cowboy tradition, despised.’ (Portenos are those who live in ports, and usually the phrase is applied to those from Buenos Aires.) One of our favourite pictures, from a Charles Darwin entry, shows this gaucho, and it always bears showing again: