Week 104: Vain Trifles

‘Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us’ (Virginia Woolf, Orlando)2006AH5344_jpg_ds

What the world sees of me in my NorthernReader incarnation is a fairly unvarying uniform of what are known in this house, with grateful acknowledgements to Nancy and Peggy Blackett of Swallows and Amazons fame, as Comfortables. It has not always been thus and clothing freedom is not the least of my Reasons To Be Cheerful these days. An infancy of knitted things was subsumed into a school uniform of Byzantine complexity involving different hats for all seasons and summer frocks with buttons at the front and bows – large lumpy clumsily-tied bows that ground their fists into you just where spine met unrelenting chair – at the back. As a drama student, I spent three insouciant years in a fetching ensemble of black leotard and footless tights (what were we thinking) before becoming engulfed by the City of London. Think BIG: shoulders, hair – it was not a good time and I have burned the photos. I am still sufficiently prey to social mores to own a black coat, funerals for the use of; two pairs of heels (see Week 69 for why I will never need more), and a proper grown-up frock just in case the moment arises. But by and large we do not march to the tune of any ‘dress code’.

imagesYHGBE8FXHow unlike so many fictional worlds. Virginia Woolf, provider of this week’s title, had a keen eye for class difference demonstrated by clothes: Mrs Dalloway’s gorgeous ‘silver-green mermaid’s dress’, for example, serves not least to mark her out as spectacularly cocooned by wealth and privilege. But Woolf knew that we read clothes, in life and in books, to infer so much more than status. If you haven’t read Orlando, what a treat you have in store and I do not wish to spoil it for you by giving too much away, but clothes most definitely maketh the man. Or woman.

Realising the clothes the characters would be wearing can bring so much to our perception and enjoyment of a novel. To see Jane Austen’s world through her first readers’ eyes, I heartily recommend John Mullan’s What Matters in Jane Austen?, not least for his thoughtful chapter on clothes. Her plots are surprisingly often jostled along by death, and many of her characters would therefore be wearing full mourning while going to balls and flirting: a jarring dissonance more obvious to those early-nineteenth-century readers than to us. Austen doesn’t tell us, because she wants us to be unsettled by our not-knowing: when Frank Churchill is flirting his socks off, is he wearing full mourning (shockingly inappropriate)? Or has he instantly ditched the black (equally gasp-making)? Either answer tells us volumes about Frank, and clever Jane leaves both in play, doubling our feeling that Frank is not ideal husband material for Emma.

7e87dba5a205e19ea7b9c591edf94559For worldly vanity, froth and the emptiness thereof, we cannot do better than turn to the wonderful Edith Wharton. I confess it took me half a lifetime (and that might be an optimistic calculation) to get round to reading her. I think I expected her to be heavy and dull (I fell into this trap with her friend Henry James as well and was wrong there too). The House of Mirth shows us an early-twentieth-century Jane Austen on acid. The juxtaposition is deliberate: if Austen’s genius lies in teetering along the edge of the precipice between comedy and tragedy but somehow achieving happy-ever-afterdom, Wharton is her dark twin, sparkling her way towards catastrophe. The heroine of The House of Mirth, Lily Bart, is the dazzlingly-arrayed victim of a ruthless society in which – ah, Austen again – a girl’s only chance of financial security lies in marrying well. Let’s have Wharton’s The Custom of the Country on this week’s bookshelf while we’re about it: when I tell you that Margaret Drabble, no less, describes this wickedly perceptive tale of social observation as ‘one of the most enjoyable great novels ever written’, how can you resist? And the clincher is that Wharton’s heroine is called Undine Spragg. Admit it; you simply have to read on.

If all these frocks and petticoats are a bit too much for you, we could always turn to the chaps for a sterner and more utilitarian approach to costume. Perhaps we should let Robinson Crusoe set the standard with his detailed instructions for making goatskin breeches (first catch your goat …). In no time at all, he has added a goatskin waistcoat and a goatskin umbrella to what must have been a jolly striking outfit. A far cry from theuntitled (8) Mayor of Gloucester’s fripperies, who, as you remember, is to be married in ‘a coat of cherry-coloured corded silk embroidered with pansies and roses, and a cream coloured satin waistcoat – trimmed with gauze and green worsted chenille.’ Like Miss Potter’s Flopsy Bunnies intoxicated with lettuce, I could drown in the heady poetics of all those fabric words and long (provided someone else was doing the ironing) for the days of paduasoy and taffeta.

But for the last word in gents’ outer wear we must turn, of course, to the Collected Works of PG Wodehouse. It’s hard to pick a definitive World of Wodehouse costume: from the dandified Psmith to the Earl of Emsworth forced into top hats and stiff collars, from Psmith’s friend Mike, a sort of walking rag-bag, to the unlovely Spode in his black shorts (all shirt colours having been bagged by other Fascists quicker off the sartorial mark), there is no character in the whole pantheon who is not deftly brought to life by his clothes.

untitled (7)Which brings us, of course, to Jeeves. Bertie Wooster’s man, minder, guardian angel , father figure and, untiringly, clothes editor. ‘”There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself, ‘Do trousers matter?’” “The mood will pass, sir.”’ I think we can safely conclude that Jeeves would not have been happy as valet to the Mayor of Gloucester.

PS   This month’s NorthernReader Book Club is on Friday February 19th and we will be sharing our favourite heroes, heroines and villains.  Pop across to the Book Club page for details and do come if you can.

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Week 46: America

usa_cookiesHappy Independence Day, dear American readers. Almost two hundred and forty years ago, you picked up the ball and ran with it. As the dust settled, you produced the Declaration of Independence, one of the best pieces of aspirational prose ever produced. The lovely, the startling, the truly revolutionary, thing about it is its unqualified commitment to the human right to happiness. If we were only to acknowledge the indivisible relationship between happiness and kindness and have a go at living up to the Dalai Lama’s rigorous instruction to us all, ‘be kind whenever possible. It is always possible’, well, to quote another great American icon, Louis Armstrong, what a wonderful world.

On this your sort-of-birthday, America, I’m not going to say a word about some of the less praiseworthy things you have brought to the party (but that does not mean that I am condoning your really extraordinary continued espousal of killing people as a method of justice). No, today is a day for celebrating what you have done with the English language and how American literature has added to the sum of human happiness.

archy-and-mThank you for your poets. From Walt Whitman to the Beat generation and beyond, they have spun and whooshed into the language store with verve and energy and freedom and fun, and we are all the better for it. I’m choosing just three for this week’s bookshelf. The first is Don Marquis. Journalist, humorist (please note American spelling in honour – can’t go too far – of the occasion), novelist and playwright, Marquis is best remembered in the NorthernReader household as the poet behind Archy the cockroach who had been a vers libre poet in a previous life. Using Marquis’s typewriter (lower case only: it is tough to be a cockroach), Archy writes poems of great humour and poignancy about Mehitabel, the great love of his life who happens to be a cat – as in feline, although jazz culture and argot underpin Archy’s world. And that’s why I love the Archy and Mehitabel poems: they are the voice of NewYork, every bit as distinctive and authentic as Woody Allen, reminding me that the modern era started at least a decade before we tend to think it did (Marquis created Archy in 1916) and that by the end of the First World War the baton had already passed from tired old Europe to up-and-at-‘em America.

My second poet (I’m taking it for granted, by the way, that we already have the usual suspects on the bookshelf: Whitman of course; Longfellow – although a little of that relentless tum-ti-tum-ti rhythm goes a very long way; Pound and Eliot) is Robert Frost. Friend of Edward Thomas, which is accolade enough, surely, Frost was in many ways an old-fashioned poet; perhaps, even, the last of the old-style poets. Long-lived and prolific, his poems use colloquial language and, very often, a New England rural location to set out, scene by scene – he is, I think, a particularly visual poet – a careful exploration of the human condition. To my mind, Frost is second only to Auden as a poet of the twentieth century with the knack of coining perfect phrases. As a taster, let me remind you that Frost gave us ‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall’ (perfect for us here in the debatable lands of the North) and ‘Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,/ I took the one less traveled by,/ And that has made all the difference.’ Exactly, now I come to think about, what America herself did, and something for us all to check our actions against from time to time.

And my third great American poet (all of the twentieth century this week, you’ll have noticed) is E E Cummings, another celebrant of the typewriter’s lower case (although not for his own name: e e cummings was an orthographic imposition of his publishers later copied by critics). The Fourth of July is the day to remember his sonnet, ‘next to of course god america i’. Fiercely critical, satirical and unswervingly ready to call his country’s failings to account, Cummings is a splendid figurehead for the necessity for free speech (please don’t forget the Al-Jazeera journalists today, by the way: there is an Amnesty International petition here that you might consider signing). Cummings didn’t so much eschew the capital letters and punctuation in his poetry as play fast and loose with them, and one of the pleasing consequences is that you really do have to read his work aloud. His work is free-wheeling, exuberant and musical, and as American as they come.

We must have novelists too. Another trio, then, chosen pretty much at random from another crowded field: how about Henry James, Edith Wharton and Ernest Hemingway? The lives of all three overlap, and James and Wharton were chums. I do  rather long to discover that Hemingway dropped round for tea and gossip with them both, and it would in strictly temporal terms have been possible, as he was sixteen by the time James died and I’ll bet he was precocious. But, whatever the vast chasms of difference between them – and the idea of James wrestling with lions is almost as enchanting as that of Hemingway getting to grips with Upper East Side manners – all three share the distinction of being indispensably great. If you have never got round to reading Henry James, you might not be expecting his dry observational humour. Granted, The Turn of the Screw isn’t terrifically

Correy Stoll as Hemingway in Midnight in Paris

Corey Stoll as Hemingway in Midnight in Paris

comedic, but, by and large, trust me. If Edith Wharton has so far passed you by, you’re going to love her acid and astute analysis of the power of money. Try The Custom of the Country. Think of her as an American, early twentieth-century, Jane Austen. And if you didn’t think Hemingway was your sort of thing, try Across the River and Into the Trees, not least because it made me cry and I don’t see why I should be the only one.

This birthday reflection has thought only of America’s past, dominated by white men. The present and the future are different, gloriously different. The land that said (through Emma Lazarus, a woman from an immigrant family) ‘give me your tired, your poor,/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free’, has often lived up to such magnificence. America the generous, America the advocate of happiness, happy Independence Day.lady-liberty