Vintage reading: Nancy Mitford and Schiaparelli

I remember that my mother, during one of her rare visits to England, brought me a little jacket in scarlet cloth from Schiaparelli. It seemed to me quite plain and uninteresting except for the label in its lining, and I longed to put this on the outside so that people would know where it came from. I was wearing it, instead of a cardigan, in my house when Cedric happened to call, and the first thing he said was,
‘Aha! So now we dress at Schiaparelli, I see! Whatever next?’
‘Cedric! How can you tell?’
‘My dear, one can always tell. Things have a signature, if you use your eyes, and mine seem to be trained over a greater range of objects than yours, Schiaparelli – Reboux – Fabergé – Viollet-le-Duc – I can tell at a glance, literally a glance. So your wicked mother the Bolter has been here since last I saw you?’
‘Might I not have bought it for myself?’
‘No, no my love, you are saving up to educate your twelve brilliant sons, how could you possibly afford twenty-five pounds for a little jacket?’
‘Don’t tell me!’ I said. ‘Twenty-five pounds for this?’
‘Quite that, I should guess.’
‘Simply silly. Why, I could have made it myself.’
‘But could you? And if you had would I have come into the room and said Schiaparelli?’

That’s Nancy Mitford, in the partly autobiographical Love in a Cold Climate, published in 1945. Continue reading “Vintage reading: Nancy Mitford and Schiaparelli”

Vintage reading: Stella Gibbons and Nightingale Wood

I’m on vacation in roadless country and spend a fair bit of time reading. Light reading, for preference. Right now I’m alternating between Heinrich Böll’s wonderful short stories in Murke’s Collected Silences and Stella Gibbons’ Nightingale Wood, published in 1938.

Stella Gibbons is practically only known for her first novel Cold Comfort Farm today, and I hunted down this one and a few other novels by Gibbons mainly because Cold Comfort Farm is the most comforting book I know, a favourite novel that holds the distinction of being the book I have bought the most copies of by far. I’ve worn it out, given it as a gift and given my own worn copy away to someone who needed it twice. Last year I finally bought myself a nice, illustrated folio edition, brought my worn-out Penguin Classics paperback up here and left it in the communal cabin library, stocked with fly fishing literature, books on arctic flora and fauna, Kar de Mumma, Fritiof Nilsson Piraten, Georges Simenon, Leslie Charteris, Agatha Christie and Aunt Mame.

Stella Gibbons’ other novels are different, though. She described Cold Comfort Farm as

…some unignorable old uncle, to whom you have to be grateful because he makes you a handsome allowance, but is often an embarrassment and a bore.

Which is understandable, as the success of that first novel completely eclipsed the 20-odd novels she published later in life. But I still love it the most. I’m sorry, Stella Gibbons.

Her later novels are much subtler in their satire, and often have a wistful quality that I like, but don’t always feel up to. I’ve heard Westwood described as depressing, and in a way it is, perhaps. Her female protagonists are sometimes hard to like. Not because they are horrible, Flora Poste is rather horrible but also likable, after all, unlike Westwood’s Margaret Steggles, who is not horrible, but at least initially hard to like. The beauty of that is that I think I find her hard to like because I see so much of the most awkward, boring and unsympathetic sides of my own younger self in Margaret Steggles. That’s deeply uncomfortable, but also makes the character’s development throughout the novel emotional and ultimately rather satisfying.

But now I’m reading Nightingale Wood, which is a Cinderella story, an unsentimental and slightly uncomfortable one, since it is Gibbons, after all. Cinderella is a former shopgirl, no lady and no Mary Sue, the prince isn’t all that, the role of the stepmother is filled by a mean father-in-law making everyone miserable, and the stepsisters are quietly tragic figures. Spinsters, stuck in an unhappy home with their highly respectable parents, who invite their recently widowed daughter-in-law to live with them, even though she is not quite quite.

‘Shirley Davis? I think I have heard you mention her before, have I not?’
‘Oh, hundreds of times, I sh’d think. She’s my best friend, you know. She was at my wedding.’
‘I remember her perfectly. A very striking-looking girl.’
With dyed hair, thought Mrs Wither, for that shade of red could never be real.

People did dye their hair in the 1930’s, of course, far more frequently than before WWI, but it was not uncontroversial. My grandmother once told this story about dyeing her hair around the same time, when she went to school in Stockholm in her late teens and lived in a rented room. She had her brown hair dyed darker with two bleached streaks on either side of the face at the temples. It’s visible in a short 8mm clip, I’ll upload it when I get home. She wasn’t allowed to do that, of course, and worried about what her parents would say when she went back home to Sundsvall. But it wasn’t even mentioned until they were having coffee on the veranda and great-grandmother calmly said ‘I understand that you think you look very fancy now,’ barely even looking up. Having seen great-grandmother in those films and read her entries in the guestbook here, I don’t think she found it particularly shocking. She had an odd sense of humour, too.

Vintage reading: Sally Bowles

As she dialled the number, I noticed that her fingernails were painted emerald green, a colour unfortunately chosen, for it called attention to her hands, which were much stained by cigarette-smoking and as dirty as a little girl’s. She was dark enough to be Fritz’s sister. Her face was long and thin, powdered dead white. She had very large brown eyes which should have been darker, to match her hair and the pencil she used for her eyebrows.

I like to read books written in my favourite eras. This is about the temporal goggles again; I like all the small things that tell you something about the author’s time and place. Historical fiction isn’t the same, it’s always coloured by the writer’s own time and place. So I read a lot of older fiction, especially from the first half of the 20th century, and I gravitate towards writers who are women or queer. We are all familiar with the dominant perspective already, that of straight, cis and white men. It’s unavoidable.

Jean Ross, early 1930's.
Jean Ross, early 1930’s.

I have just finished re-reading my favourite Christopher Isherwood novel, Mr Norris Changes Trains. It was published in 1935 and set in early 1930’s Berlin, where Christopher Isherwood, then 25 years old, went in 1929 to visit friend and occasional lover W. H. Auden. He stayed on and lived in Berlin until 1933, writing and working as an English tutor. The volume also contains Goodbye to Berlin, a collection of short stories about people he met in Weimar-era Berlin and the basis for Cabaret, not least the novel these quotes come from, Sally Bowles. The character Sally Bowles is based on a woman Isherwood met in Berlin, Jean Ross, who was British, a politically engaged Communist and worked as a cabaret singer. She herself felt that Sally Bowles was more reflective of some of Isherwood’s flamboyant male friends.

‘Hilloo,’ she cooed, pursing her brilliant cherry lips as though she were going to kiss the mouthpiece: ‘Ist dass Du, mein Liebling?’

As someone who thinks a lot about clothes, style and how people present themselves, I’m always interested in passages about how people look, how they dress and groom themselves, how the author chooses to portray that and what it says about the character, the author, the story and the time and place they are wearing it in. It’s fascinating. I thought I’d share quotes with you when I come across them, and Isherwood was a sharp observer who wrote these wonderful, very visual character studies.

Sally laughed. She was dressed in black silk, with a small cape over her shoulders and a little cap like a page-boy’s stuck jauntily on one side of her head: ‘Do you mind if I use your telephone, sweet?’

A few days later, Isherwood goes to tea in Sally Bowles’ lodgings.

She was wearing the same black dress today, but without the cape. Instead, she had a little white collar and white cuffs. They produced a kind of theatrically chaste effect, like a nun in grand opera. ‘What are you laughing at, Chris?’ she asked.

Sally Bowles is a 19-year-old cabaret singer in Weimar-era Berlin, and not a highly paid one; Christopher Isherwood is a young novelist who makes ends meet by working as an English tutor, as close to openly gay as you could be in those days. It makes perfect sense that Sally has one good day dress that she wears frequently and changes up with different accessories like this, lots of women did, perhaps especially during the Depression. There’s a great article about that over at Witness 2 Fashion. But they both came from solid British middle-class backgrounds; there’s a sense that they are slumming it in Berlin, there’s always a certain assurance that they have someplace to go if things go really wrong. Later in life, Christopher Isherwood was well aware of that distinction between him and the many working-class Germans he met in Berlin. He could leave when the Nazis made Berlin too unsafe to stay in. They couldn’t.