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…

13 comments:

enid said...

I used to wear gloves for smart occasions as a child. I had leather gloves in all colours. The best gloves were those that ladies wore to dances - long gloves to their elbows- so glamorous. iI too love Elizabeth Bowen she is very underrated. It is unbearably hot here and I am wilting in the heat unable to do anything.

kairu said...

Here we are bearing up under an overnight snow storm. As the only one within walking distance I trekked in this morning wearing two pairs of pants, two pairs of gloves, and my warmest fleece scarf around my neck...

I remember, dimly, a pair of white gloves when I was a child, appliqued with tiny daisies. I can't think where I might have worn them, to a summer wedding, perhaps, or a piano recital. Now, of course, I never remember to wear gloves unless it's absolutely freezing, and usually they are fleece or cashmere...

I remember discovering Elizabeth Bowen through you, Justine, and loving The House in Paris, and how much it reminded me of What Maisie Knew (and also how I sometimes confuse the latter with Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country as happens with the passage of time and memory).

Justine Picardie said...

Long gloves -- v. glamorous -- and leather gloves are lovely, too, though not at the height of the South African summer! I'm so looking forward to coming to Cape Town and Jo'burg in September.
Such a contrast between these two missives -- Enid in the heat, Kairu in the snow -- and me in the middle, in the English drizzle. But all connected through reading and gloves. I like the sound of Kairu's tiny daisies on white gloves... Just the sort of thing that Edith Wharton or Elizabeth Bowen might have added as a detail to a story.

Mystica said...

Nothing to do with your post but I just finished Daphne and just loved the book!
Review following in about a week.

Karen, Surrey said...

I have just been reading the scene of Wemmick's wedding in Great Expectations. The only nod to his wedding is to don white gloves, as do all the party. Strange custom. I wore gloves when I worked as Cabin Crew in the 80's. It all seems very archaic now.

Justine Picardie said...

Thank you, Mystica -- I'm really glad you enjoyed Daphne.
And Karen -- I'd forgotten about that scene in Great Expectations (shows how much is lost over the years, and also the details that is cut from a screen adaptation) -- so thank you -- I'm going to look for it now!

enid said...

Speaking of Elizabeth Bowen have you read Love's civil War letters of Bowen and J Ritchie edited by Victoria Glendinning. It is a wonderful read.

Justine Picardie said...

Was that her long-standing lover?

enid said...

Yes indeed he was !!!!!

jaywalker said...

These posts just brought back a flash of memory - gloves my mother lovingly knitted for me with wool embroidered flowers on little panels on the backs - and an early post-war Yorkshire winter. On the way to school we held snowball fights and I continually ruined the fingertips where the icy water ate through the wool. They were carefully darned and re-darned - wool was scarce and money even scarcer.
And school uniform gloves - grey cotton - and prefects always on the lookout for naughty wilful girls like me who weren't wearing them in town!

enid said...

Playing a concerto with Zubin is like being surrounded by a well-loved, cashmere-lined silk glove.”
Isaac Stern quotes

another side of gloves ?

Justine Picardie said...

Proustian gloves; all these comments are wonderful...

Lilacs In May said...

Why do I never lose my fleecy gloves, or the old wooly ones with holes in? But with my coloured leather ones, a different story.
I Wish I was where you are Enid, I could do with some sweltering heat on this grey, cold Monday.