I didn't get around to posting a painting on here this weekend, but I just spotted this photo and wanted to show it to you. It's said to have been taken in London in 1940, after a bookshop had been bombed in an air-raid. If anyone knows any more about it I'd love to hear.
Conventionally our life story ended in a shower of rice at the church door, amid the scent of white flowers, with a flutter of white favours all about us...and a high heeled white satin slipper struck the back of the brougham as we drove off. It was like a parting slap on the shoulder from our old life -- the old life which we left so gayly, eager to fulfil the destiny set at the end of our wooing's fairy story and to 'live happy ever after'.
So, at the point where, as Nesbit slyly points out, most novels end, begins The Red House, which was published in 1902 and which, despite its irresistible wit and charm, has some important things to say about love and marriage, and about gender roles, and about the rapidly changing society of its day. Not long ago I read and hugely enjoyed my first of Edith Nesbit's novels for adults, The Lark. I'd managed to buy her complete works on Kindle for silly money and always meant to read another of them, and now I have. Well, all the praise I heaped on that one in my review deserves to be repeated here. Nesbit, despite her huge popularity as a writer for children, really needs to be treated as a forgotten author who is ridiculously overdue for a revival.
The two young people whose wedding is described in that first paragraph are Chloe and Len. Six months have gone by since that wedding day, and they are as much in love as ever, but life is hard for them, because they have no income apart from what they can earn by their own efforts, Chloe as an illustrator and Len as a writer of short articles and stories. They are falling over each other in the tiny house they call the Bandbox, and the maids they take on never stay. A quarrel is just starting as the novel begins, but it's interrupted by the arrival of the post, with a letter that changes everything. Len's uncle has died and left them a hundred a year and a house. Obviously the sensible thing will be to rent out the house and thereby have a much more comfortable income. But when they go to look at it, Chloe falls instantly in love, and they decide to move in despite the fact that they can't afford the upkeep (and that it's said to be haunted by a ghost). Predictably, many things go wrong, despite the help they get from their much more practical friend Yolande, who pays long visits in between teaching and lecture tours (she's a Girton girl). They make many mistakes, like letting one of their cottages to a family of ne'er-do-wells, often end up doing all the housework themselves because the maids won't stay, but slowly their lives get sorted out. And through it all, despite worries and anxieties and little disagreements, their joy in each other remains constant.
You might think that doesn't sound like much of a plot, but it is narrated so vividly and joyfully, and Chloe and Len are such immensely loveable people, that the sheer verve of it all carries you through, if you're like me, loving every minute. Not only that, but the novel is interesting in so many ways for the way it looks at changing roles in society. By 1902 it was not unheard of for a woman to work (as of course Nesbit did herself, supporting her husband, their children, his mistress and her children), but the accepted standard was that of the man as breadwinner and the wife taking care of the house, and here Chloe's work is what's keeping them from bankruptcy. Also, in fact we find that Len probably likes housework more than Chloe does -- she sometimes takes a run at a big job like cleaning out the kitchen cupboards, but it's quite likely, in times of need, that you'll find Len on his hands and knees scrubbing the front doorstep. And before you wonder if they really need a maid at all -- well yes they do, because when they are cleaning the house they can't spend the usual ten hours a day needed to write and draw.
There's also the interesting question of how these two unconventional innocents are viewed by the neighbours. At one point they have a visit from the vicar's wife, who is extremely condescending and snobbish until she is shocked to find that Chloe's family is of a considerably higher social status than her own. Then there's Yolande, a thinker and an organiser, who swears she will never marry, never clean a house or mend anyone's socks -- until she meets the charming tenant who moves into one of the cottages...
Towards the end of the novel, something very predictable happens, only alluded to rather obliquely. Almost the first we know of it is when a group of children come to visit (they are actually the Bastables, known to readers of The Treasure Seekers) and find an item in the cellar which they think would make a perfect rabbit hutch but which turns out to be a cradle. Although Chloe's condition is never spoken of in our hearing, there's a very moving moment when the young couple address what, at this period, must have been a very real issue for any woman expecting to give birth, which many did not survive..
'We've been so happy. It makes me feel frightened. And now its so peaceful; I feel as if things were gathering together for some awful thing to happen. You don't know!'
I was silent. Did I not know?
'Yes you do,' she went on, holding me more closely. 'You do, you do, but you pretend you aren't afraid of anything, because you think it makes me cheerful, but it doesn't. I hate to think we're pretending to each other -- now. So I tell you plainly, Len, I'm very, very frightened, and you know it, and so are you, and I know that, and if you'd only let me look straight at it, Perhaps I shouldn't be so frightened. Oh, there are so many things I want to say to you.'
Altogether as I hope I managed to convince you, this is a really lovely novel. Nesbit, whose own marriage was certainly challenging, has imagined a way for a couple to relate to one another through gentleness and honesty, and to overcome obstacles with cheerfulness and belief in each other. Brilliant.
When, about twenty years ago, I first bought the house in France where I now live, a few bits of old furniture were still there, left behind when the last inhabitant died several years before. Nothing was of any value or beauty, everything was well past being useable and had to be thrown out. Everything that is apart from one thing, a little rickety oak table with a drawer in it - and in that drawer, buttons. Very utilitarian buttons, for these had been poor people, scraping a living from the land, a very simple life. But I've still got what we always called Mme Garnier's table -- it's now in the spare bedroom, with an old piece of linen as a cloth, acting as a sort of dressing table. And yes, the buttons are still there.
I've always loved buttons, and I'm sure many other people reading this will be able to share Lynn Knight's delight in her childhood memory of 'the rattle and whoosh of my grandma's buttons as they scattered from their Quality Street tin'. Buttons were used as play money, as counters in games, and as pretend sweets when playing shop. And, taking that as a starting point, she has written this truly lovely book, in which the various types of buttons in the box are woven (perhaps I should say sewn) into a narrative that encompasses not just her own life or even those of her mother, grandmother and great-aunt, but spreads a wide net that takes in the story of women's lives from the nineteenth century to the present day.
In a sense the structure of the book is pretty obvious. The buttons are taken from the box one by one, and each one forms the basis for a story. So we get, to give just a few of the 28 chapters, The Shoe Button, The Twinkling Button, The Blue Slide Button, The Small Drab Button, The Diamanté Clasp, The Toggle, The Pearl Button, and even Suspenders. The Shoe Button chapter is a representative example. It starts with the personal:
My great-aunt came of age in 1922. She wore dropped-waist frocks, long dangling beads and dashed about -- Eva never did anything slowly -- in the one-bar buttoned shoes of the time. The button box contains three pairs of tiny buttons which fastened shoes like hers. Of course where there were buttoned shoes, there were also buttonhooks; Eva's nestled in the little handbags she always carried and later passed on to me, and which also speak eloquently of that era.
The chapter opens up to look at women's fashions of the day, sometimes through the perspective of various women's written or recorded accounts of what they wore, or sold, at the time. This then takes us onto suffrage, as this was the era of the so-called 'flapper vote', the extension of the franchise in 1928 to women aged 21 and over; to women's new careers as working women and the possibilities open to them; and to the question of the right clothes to wear to work and the probable cost of buying them: a book called The Bachelor Girl's Guide to Everything advised that young women should allocate a portion of their income to clothes -- those earning 25s or less a week should spend £12 a year, rising to £15 or £20 if they earned between 27s and £3. In practice, Knight points out, few women could afford to spend a third of their income on clothes, and indeed 'some shop workers could barely afford to clothe themselves'. This then was the era of home dressmaking, with magazines offering cheap and simple patterns for girls to follow. Finally the chapter circles back on itself, looking at the fact that, with such difficult and often worrisome lives, women frequently sought pleasure and distraction on the dance floor. And here we are once again in the world of the buttoned shoe, plus a look at headdresses, skirt lengths, differing perception of the ideal female body, and the seemingly unalterable necessity of wearing a hat. The chapter ends with a quotation from the writer Winifred Holtby. Reflecting on the dreary cumbersomeness of most women's clothes at the time, she wrote:
We want clothes in which we can dress ourselves quickly and comfortably, and which we can wear all day without feeling awkward...And we want to feel that in them we appear as charming, as chic and more entitled to self-respect than the [leisured fashionable women] whose photographs today we admire so wistfully in the illustrated papers.
And that's just a summary of one chapter. Imagine all the delightful and informative material in there magnified over all twenty-eight, you'll surely see why I absolutely loved every minute of this gorgeous book. Autobiography, social history, costume, gender -- it's all in there. It's beautifully produced, with a lovely cover and endpapers studded with photos of highly desirable buttons of all periods, and it has all the endnotes you could ever need plus a full bibliography. If there's a non-fiction prize in the offing, I'd like to see this win. In any case, it's high on the list of the best books I've read this year. Wonderful stuff.
A few days ago I reposted a painting by William Sergeant Kendall, after I was contacted by the painter's great-granddaughter. I very much enjoyed exploring the website she has set up for her great-grandfather and his work, which has many more examples of his lovely paintings. So when I spotted this one, I knew it had to be next up for a Saturday painting. Kendall frequently painted his wife and his three daughters, of whom this is certainly one. It's called 'The End of the Day'.
Sadly much of Kendall's work is either in unknown private hands or languishing in the vaults of various museums. There's a page on the website showing some reproductions and appealing for help in locating their whereabouts. Do pop over and have a look!
I posted this lovely painting five years ago and just got a comment on it from the great-granddaughter of the artist, who is setting up a website for his paintings. Here's the link if you want to visit -- very interesting. You'll be seeing more of his paintings on here in the future.
And here's what I said about it last time round:
Yet another nineteenth-century American painter of whom I was woefully ignorant until I recently ran across this very sweet painting of a mother and daughter -- the painting is called An Interlude, and the subjects are the wife and daughter of the artist, William Sergeant Kendall (1869-1938). You can read an essay about him here, which reveals that he frequently used his wife and daughters as models in his paintings but also that he became involved with a girl of thirteen when he was in his thirties -- they eventually married after his divorce, by which time he was fifty-three and she was thirty-two. He is said to have painted a beautiful portrait of her, called variously A Yellow Hat and The Turquoise Necklace, but neither of these titles show up in a google search. However you can see a lot more of his paintings here.
I do love a picture that tells a story, and this one, spotted this morning, had me puzzling. This is by the Russian artist Pavel Fedotov (1815-1852) and it's called 'Breakfast of an Aristocrat'. The title makes a bit more sense when you read his wikipedia entry which says he was an amateur painter (not sure really what this means) and specialised in satire. He had a sad life and died at the age of 37 in a mental hospital.
Anyway, what exactly is going on here? Obviously there's a visitor at the door and the boy is concealing the cake he's having for breakfast underneath a book. But who is the visitor and why would they be concerned to see he's eating cake? Maybe it's his mother (he looks like a young teenager to me) and he's nicked the cake from the larder? Any suggestions gratefully received. Love his trousers, by the way.
Just look at the snippets on the cover, and there are plenty more inside: 'I am head over heels in love with this book. Every page is a joy' (Barbara Trapido); 'a romp, a joy, and an inspired feast of clever delights' (Elizabeth Gilbert); 'as louche, chic, and freakish as early Evelyn Waugh' (John Richardson). All this, and the lively-sounding blurb, encouraged me to accept a review copy, and when the novel was shortlisted for this year's Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction I could hardly wait to start reading it. But, though I finished it and had some moments of enjoyment, my immediate reaction was one of amazement - could this be a case of the Emperor's new clothes, or am I so dreadfully out of step that I can't appreciate a masterpiece?
OK, so the novel has been described as a romp, or a caper, which is generally not my cup of tea. Certainly there's a great deal of entertainment value here if it's yours! This is a big fat novel, with a complex storyline and a cast of larger than life, though frequently unpleasant or unattractive characters. Of course the heroine, Annie, and her admirer Jesse, are the exceptions, a pair of innocents in a decidedly naughty world. Annie, alone after the unhappy break-up of a longterm relationship, is living in London and working as a chef. Following a hopeful first date, she impulsively buys a painting in a junk shop to give to the said fellow, who then stands her up. Her mother Evie, who despite being a hopeless alcoholic has a good smattering of common sense, decides that the painting looks as if it must have some merit, and persuades her to take it to the Wallace Collection, where the pair of them compare it to some works by the celebrated 18th-century artist Watteau. They are spotted doing this by Jesse, a struggling artist working as a guide, who immediately falls for Annie and for the painting in about equal measure. He persuades her to try to get the painting authenticated but the process plunges her into some very dodgy goings on, in a world of unscrupulous and dishonest art dealers and terrifyingly peculiar multimillionaires.
Of course, as well as being a love story with a bit of a whodunnit thrown in, the novel is essentially a satire on the higher echelons of the international art world. It raises important questions about the enormously high values placed on works of art in todays market, and on the motives of the purchasers of them, which rarely if ever have anything to do with aesthetic appreciation. One of the more interesting elements of the plot concerns the theft of precious art works by the Nazis in WW2 and the repercussions for the families of the original owners. Added to all this, scattered throughout the novel we get chapters narrated by the painting itself, a device that seems to be there largely to give some background history about the painter himself, who is indeed Watteau (he was of course real, though this painting is an invention). I have to admit that I found these sections, with their archly faux-18th century tone, increasingly irritating, and started to skip or skim them as time went on. I was equally irritated by Barty (Barthomley Chesterfield Fitzroy St. George, né Reg Dunn), the ageing, camp, cross-dressing fixer, who enjoys going to auctions dressed as Marie-Antoinette. Overall, there was just too much froth and silliness for me, though I did enjoy the few incursions into the technicalities of picture authentification and restoration.
All this makes me sound like a joyless curmudgeon with no sense of humour, but I hope that's not true. I think part of the problem for me was the massive build-up, which led me to believe it was going to be something extraordinary -- though maybe it is, and I'm just missing it. I'm honestly glad that this novel is giving pleasure to so many people, and I hope that some of you may be curious enough, after reading my churlish comments, to pick it up and try it for yourself. But I'm afraid I'll be rather disappointed if it wins the Baileys Prize.
Lovely painting, sent to me by a friend - thanks, Rob! This is Girl with a Book (1902), by the American Impressionist artist William Merritt Chase (1849-1916).
For those of you interested in fashion, she's wearing a typical Arts and Crafts 'aesthetic dress'. Here's something informative I found this morning:
Aesthetic dress was a protest against the contemporary fashion for bustles in various forms and restrictive corsets. In fashion history terms only a very small section of the community ever wore it initially, but it did spread to middle class intellectuals, to artistic and literary people. Aesthetic dress was made of wool or Liberty silk or velvet fabrics.
Aesthetic fashions were cut looser and was unstructured in the style of medieval or Renaissance garments with larger sleeves. The dress appeared loose compared with figure hugging fashion garments of the era. Loose waited corset free women were considered to have loose morals and it did not help that many of the Aesthetic women were thought slightly Bohemian and beyond the normal social conventions and morals of the time.
The typical fashionable aesthetic lady would have red flowing hair often henna enhanced, a pale face, green eyes and wore heelless shoes. This model of aestheticism was frequently ridiculed in Punch cartoons where the wearer might be shown with her hair brushed into her eyes. The idea of red hair itself was ridiculed as red hair was thought of as social assassination.
Janet Coombe stood on the hill above Plyn, looking down upon the harbour. Although the sun was already high in the heavens, the little town was still wrapped in an early morning mist. It clung to Plyn like a thin pale blanket, lending to the place a faint whisper of unreality as if the whole had been blessed by ghostly fingers.
I was away from home recently and though I'd taken reading matter with me, none of it was grabbing me. So when I found an unread (by me) Daphne du Maurier on the shelf of the guest bedroom, I plunged in. Though I think I've read all her other novels, and am a huge admirer of Rebecca and, even more so, of My Cousin Rachel, I'd never heard of The Loving Spirit. It turns out to be her first novel, published in 1931 when she was just 24 years old. While it certainly doesn't measure up to her greater, later works, I found lots of interest and plenty to enjoy.
Set largely in Cornwall, though with some of it taking place in London, this is a family saga spanning one hundred years. It's divided into four sections, each devoted to a successive member of the Coombe family. The first we encounter, and the most interesting, is Janet Coombe. Janet has a wild, adventurous spirit, and wishes she had been born a boy, so she could go to sea, something she absolutely craves to do. But girls in 1831 did not have that option, so Janet settles for marriage to Thomas Coombe, a respectable and successful boatbuilder. She has five children, one of whom, the wild-spirited Joseph, has a special psychic link with his mother. He goes to sea, and becomes a successful master seaman. His brother Philip, meanwhile, a strange, withdrawn boy, refuses to enter the family business and becomes a clerk in the local shipping office.
Joseph, after sowing a great many wild oats, marries and has several children. His greatest wish is for his son Christopher to follow in his footsteps, but Christopher has a great fear of the sea, and though he agrees to try a voyage, he jumps ship and ends up living in London, where he marries the repressed daughter of his boarding-house landlady. Their daughter Jennifer seems to have inherited the wildness and strength of her grandfather and great-grandmother, and after her father's sudden death she goes back to Cornwall, marries her cousin, and will seemingly have a happy and fulfilled future.
It seems that du Maurier based the outline of this story on the history of a real family, the Slades -- she had bought an old figurehead from a ship, the Janet Slade, when she moved to the village of Polruen, which becomes Plyn in the novel, and had researched something of Janet's family history. However, what I found most interesting here was not so much the events of the story but rather what might be called the paranormal undertones. These are seen most clearly in the powerful link between Janet and her son Joseph -- from the moment of his birth she is convinced that they have been together in the past, and he comes to feel this too. There's an impressive scene in which Joseph, late in life and long after his mother's early death, has a vivid sense of her presence which arguably saves him from some kind of self-harm. Janet is a most interesting and vivid character, and it seems clear, from what we know of du Maurier's youth, that she put much of herself into this young woman's overpowering wish to have been born a boy.
So - not one of du Maurier's greatest novels, but an entertaining read and a pretty good shot for a debut.