Wednesday, 18 January 2012
Snowdrops and gloves
It's drizzling this morning, after days of crisp air and icy cold blue skies; but though I miss the sun, I'm glad of the rain for my spring bulbs and the cyclamens that have miraculously survived the winter thus far in window boxes. I've been re-reading Elizabeth Bowen -- To the North is such a brilliant novel, and her short stories are remarkable (their landscape seems to continue, long after I've stopped reading them; like a dream that exists even when you have stopped dreaming it).
Meanwhile, Frances Cornford popped back into my mind, after I read Bowen's 'Hand in Glove'; prompting last Sunday's Closet Thinker. When I think of Cornford's Fat Lady poem, it seems to form an instantly visual scene -- vivid as the woman in gloves, seen from a train. For me, the fat lady is wearing white gloves, and there are snowdrops on the winter ground. I don't actually think of her as fat; rather, of the poet as thin and melancholic; possibly hungry, as well, with nothing to eat on her train journey. Finally, it was Henrietta Llewelyn Davies who introduced me to Frances Cornford, and much else besides (on a train from Fowey to London, after we had both been talking at the Du Maurier Literary Festival); all of which I find myself remembering, in the new year after Henri's death.
Closet Thinker: January 15th
It is perhaps indicative of the time of the year that when my thoughts turn to gloves – why have I mislaid one again, leaving me with yet another singleton? – I also remember Frances Cornford’s poem, ‘To a Fat Lady Seen from a Train’: ‘O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,/ Missing so much and so much?/ O fat white woman whom nobody loves,/ Why do you walk through the fields in gloves…’
I have often wondered about Cornford’s own gloves, and her writing hands beneath. The slender, dark-eyed grand-daughter of Charles Darwin, part of an abstemious family that disapproved of sugar, she married a Cambridge Classics don in 1909, the year before she composed the poem, and suffered from a depressive tendency, but history does not relate the details of how she kept her hands warm. Perhaps if her gloves had been cosier, she might have been less unforgiving of the fat woman; and it seems to me entirely possible that the larger lady wasn’t unloved – it was Frances herself who was feeling melancholic.
Anyway, the avoidance of chilly extremities is paramount this month, as is cheering food – for why punish oneself any further than necessary, given the flagellating weather and economic outlook? In an ideal world, a fairy godmother would bestow everyone with jolly gloves – my favourites are from Brora, long enough to cover well beyond the wrists, in soft Scottish cashmere. (I like them best in scarlet or blueberry; and am thoroughly annoyed at misplacing one of mine in each colour, leaving two unmatched left hands).
That said, traditional white gloves can still have something sinister about them, as is made manifest in Elizabeth Bowen’s wonderfully eerie short story, ‘Hand in Glove’, about two sisters living in Ireland in 1900, both in search of rich husbands. Bowen – herself of a generation of well-dressed women, brought up to believe that smart gloves were an essential part of an outfit – imagines a scenario whereby the sisters keep their ailing aunt locked alone in a bedroom, while breaking into her trunks in the attic containing her bridal finery. Only the aunt’s long gloves elude them, but when she finally dies, the elder sister, before even closing the old lady’s eyes, steals her keys and opens the last trunk, whereupon one of the gloves reaches up and strangles her…
Fortunately, when I discovered Coco Chanel’s white gloves in the pocket of one of her signature suits, no such ghostly horrors took place; but then I would never have the temerity to steal another woman’s gloves, however often I lose my own…