Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Beauty and the beast

I've been re-reading Angela Carter -- 'The Bloody Chamber' -- as well as Grimm's fairy tales, and some more Hans Christian Andersen. All of which is sometimes floating at the back of my mind when I write about fashion in the Sunday Telegraph. Here's last week's column in Stella, in case anyone is interested:

If fashion is a stock market in which shares in certain staples rise and fall, according to whim, emotion, and possibly the economy, then animal prints are riding high right now. The reasons are hard to fathom; the last time I noticed such a plethora of the stuff was in 2002, when the Yves St Laurent spring collection, at that time designed by Tom Ford, was awash with leopard prints. (Kaftans, skirts, dresses, bikinis, blouses: you name it, they were spotted.) The High Street swung into action, consumers snapped at the bait, and by the autumn of that year, Theresa May was flaunting leopard-print heels from Russell & Bromley as she strode onto the platform of the Conservative Party Conference.

The Right Honourable Member for Maidenhead clearly has a thing about the look – last October she wore animal print wellies on the opening day of the conference, and disco-danced the following evening in a matching leopard jacket and shoes. You have to admire her confidence, but even so, the outfit was a reminder that a little leopard goes a long way. Get it wrong, and the effect is more kitsch than chic.

Still, that doesn’t answer the question of why the shops are overflowing with animal prints this year, from Miss Selfridge to Sonia Rykiel. Perhaps it’s simply cyclical – a British winter approaches, so let’s pretend we’re in a tropical fantasy. Or maybe it’s a defence mechanism: as the recession bites and a credit crunch threatens to chew us up, we’re buying fake leopard skins, either as camouflage or in the hope of fighting back.

There are all manner of archetypes at play here, which could inspire several new reinterpretations of Beauty and the Beast; except Angela Carter has already done them in her marvellous short story, ‘The Tiger’s Bride’. (“And each stroke of his tongue ripped off skin after successive skin, all the skins of a life in the world, and left behind a nascent patina of shining hairs. My earrings turned back to water and trickled down my shoulders; I shrugged the drops off my beautiful fur.”)

That’s the fairy tale version, but the reality can be more disappointing, as I discovered when I recently found myself in Oasis, having retreated there from a violent downpour of rain. The shop was filled with enticing animal prints, including a caramel fake fur jacket; I reached out, stroked it, slipped into it... But when I looked in the mirror, the reflection was not of a foxy lady, but a tragically drowned cat.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Bibilotherapy: What to read when you feel abandoned

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a small black and white dog called Molly (she's a mutt, but mainly Jack Russell). I got her as a puppy, not long after my sister died; at the time, it seemed as if we were taking on a dog because our two sons desperately wanted one, but in retrospect, I can see that the decision was partly motivated by my unconscious desire for the reassurance of childhood. When my sister and I were very young, we had a Jack Russell called Simon, but there was also another dog in my life -- she was in a book, but nevertheless seemed entirely alive to me, and if I'm honest, she still does. Which is doubtless why I treasure that battered copy of my favourite childhood picture book, ‘Cannonball Simp’ by John Burningham, with my name scrawled in a five-year-old’s pink-ink handwriting on the title page.

This is the tale of a fat little dog, with only a stump for a tale. “Her owner had found homes for her brothers and sisters but could not persuade anybody to take Simp.” So she is driven to a rubbish dump outside the town, and abandoned there without a backward glance. The rats tell her to leave, she is chased away by cats, and when she tries to make friends with people on their way to work, ‘nobody seemed to care about her’. Eventually, Simp is thrown into the back of a van by the dog-catcher, but she manages to escape before being locked up in kennels, and runs away as fast as she can from the heartless inhabitants of the town. At last, she finds a safe haven with a kindly clown at the circus, who lets her into his caravan, feeds her, and allows her to sleep on his bed.

But this sanctuary is revealed to be less secure than it first seemed: the clown is anxious that he is about to lose his job because the circus manager is bored by his act, and the audiences have lost interest. Fortunately, he is saved from being fired by the firing of a cannon – or, more precisely, by Simp’s decision to climb into the cannon and be fired out of it, straight through the clown’s paper hoop, and into the hearts of the audience. Thereafter the clown and his dog prosper at the circus, as the celebrated act of Cannonball Simp.

As a small child, I loved this book like no other, and re-reading it now, it seems to me to be just as powerful, though its message is perhaps darker than one might expect. People can be cruel, and even if you think you have escaped from abandonment, circumstances may still prove to be harsh. Thus it is that we squeeze ourselves into dark and dangerous places, performing improbable tricks in valiant attempts to please a crowd or earn a living. You will doubtless have noticed that I am identifying myself here with a small dog; but then isn’t that often the case? In a dog’s eyes, we see a reflection of our own…

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Bibliotherapy: What to read when you dread the darkness of winter

I am writing this on one of those November days when a dreary grey noon merges into a gloomy dusk; it’s not the cold that depresses me so much as the absence of light, and my heart sinks at the thought of the inescapable winter. So there’s only one thing for it: to embrace the darkness by re-reading ‘Wuthering Heights’. Emily Bronte’s novel opens in winter – its narrator, Lockwood, ventures up to Wuthering Heights because the fire in his study has been extinguished by a servant girl, and arrives there as snow begins to fall. “On that bleak hill top the earth was hard with a black frost…”

As the snow deepens, Lockwood is forced to stay the night in Wuthering Heights, and it is then that he has his famous encounter with the ghost of Cathy, a spectral child who taps at the window with ice-cold fingers, crying ‘Let me in – let me in!’ Given the novel’s mythic status, there are innumerable interpretations – as many as its myriad readers – but for me, one of its most powerful messages is that though we fear the cold shadows of winter, the darkness is also part of us.

Nearly everyone is horrible to everyone else in ‘Wuthering Heights’ – they bite, they scream, they stamp their feet, they hang puppies and mistreat small children – which makes it all the more curious that Heathcliff and Cathy (both of them the cruellest of lovers) have been deemed the epitome of romance. But this remorselessness is one of the reasons that the novel remains so potent – a bracingly subversive read, and a reminder (amongst many other things) that the dark season must be met head on.

When Cathy is sickening in her final illness, she wants the window open, even though it is midwinter: “There was no moon, and every thing beneath lay in misty darkness, not a light gleamed from any house, far or near; all had been extinguished long ago.” But her light is not extinguished by death; and nor was her creator’s. Emily Bronte died on December 19, 1848, on the eve of the longest night of the year, yet her fierce writing survives, unquenched by the darkness of every passing winter.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Red patent on a grey November day...

It has rained and rained and rained today; so much rain that the drain overflowed and the guttering fell apart and water poured in through the roof of my kitchen. I am currently mopping up, and contemplating the cost of replastering and repainting, though who knows how long it will take for the kitchen walls to dry out?
Anyway, in between mopping and moaning, I've been lusting after a red patent something to cheer me up. The belt above is from M&S, and I think it's the 21st century equivalent of Olivia's favourite red belt in my favourite Rosamond Lehmann novel, 'Invitation to the Waltz'. Speaking of which, here's my latest thoughts as a Closet Thinker ...

Are you in the red or in the black? And even if you’re not overdrawn, do you want to wear the colour of mourning at the onset of a winter of discontent? I ask these questions, because they’ve been on my mind ever since I started hankering after a beautiful red patent bag by Anya Hindmarch, the day after Lehman Brothers went bust.

Yes, I’m feeling just as anxious as everyone else is about the serious stuff. But I’ve also realised that I don’t want to walk around looking like a crow, because there’s already quite enough gloom on the streets. It’s not that I’m proposing to chuck out the black from my wardrobe, in a sartorial attempt to prove that life is a bowl of cherries, when quite clearly it’s not. But I think I could do with a bit of ruby patent leather to lighten things up, and perhaps even benefit from the traditional folklore that holds red as a lucky talisman. “Red is the colour of magic in every country,” wrote W.B Yeats, “and has been so from the very earliest times. The caps of fairies and musicians are well-nigh always red.”

If red is magical, it is also radical, and suggests that its wearer has a certain purposefulness. Rosamond Lehmann’s wonderful coming-of-age novel, ‘Invitation to the Waltz’, written in 1932 in the dark days of the Great Depression, has the heroine celebrating her 17th birthday with the precious gift of a roll of flame-coloured silk. She already cherishes her red jumper – ‘the crimson heartened the lesser days, put a firm face upon them’ – and wears a favourite scarlet patent leather belt on her birthday, which compensates for the deficiencies of her humdrum brown skirt. “The belt was an object which had virtue in it… Within its compass she felt a certainty of individuality, like a seal set on her…”

Those in search of affordable 21st century amulets – a more readily available version of the alchemists’ Philosopher’s Stone, or the ‘red tincture’ that would turn base metal to gold – should make haste to Gap, currently offering a chic red patent tote for £39.50, and a crimson pin-tuck dress for the same price. Alternatively, Miss Selfridge has a cerise angora beret for £12 that Yeats might have approved of, while the patent accessories at Boden are cheerfully berry-coloured. You don’t need to buy all (or any) of them; but my feeling is that if I’m going to be tightening my belt this winter, then it’s got to be a damn good red patent one.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Bibliotherapy: What to read when you're jealous...

Here's today's Bibliotherapy column. I've also posted a picture taken this summer, of me by the lake at Menabilly, the setting for 'My Cousin Rachel'. Can't believe that was only a few months ago, and I was wearing sandals, though of course, a dark and stormy November evening like this one would be even better as the backdrop for a du Maurier story. (I was, as it happens, feeling rather unsettled when this photograph was taken; but that's another story...)

Everyone knows to beware the green-eyed monster that doth make you sick, but it’s easier said than done, when you are eaten up inside with jealousy. I know – I’ve been there myself, reeling and writhing and troubled of heart – but the best remedy, in my experience, is to re-read Daphne du Maurier’s ‘My Cousin Rachel’, which is a like-for-like cure.

As with her most famous book, ‘Rebecca’, du Maurier sets the story in own home, Menabilly, the Cornish mansion that she called her ‘house of secrets’. Both novels also have a jealous narrator, but ‘My Cousin Rachel’ – first published in 1951, 13 years after ‘Rebecca’ – is seen through the eyes of a man. Anyone expecting the romance that du Maurier is often – wrongly – accused of delivering will be startled by the opening: a decaying corpse of a wife-killer swings from the gallows near the gate to Menabilly. And murder continues to preoccupy the narrator, Philip Ashley, the heir to the estate, whose older cousin and guardian has married their distant cousin Rachel.

I don’t want to give the plot away – it’s a fiendishly clever novel, with an ending that continues to haunt and trouble its readers. But what is made clear is that jealousy is poisonous; a truth that du Maurier knew only too well. By the time she wrote ‘My Cousin Rachel’, she had been married to her husband, Lieutenant General Frederick Browning, for two decades, and with their three beautiful children, they presented a perfect fa├žade to the world. But neither had been faithful, and both were tortured by suspicions about the other’s infidelity. Daphne had had a wartime affair with another man, while her husband was serving abroad, and also an intense relationship with Gertrude Lawrence, an actress who had been one of her father’s lovers. All of which was mixed up into a venomous stew of emotions that later contributed to Browning’s breakdown, and tipped her over the edge into paranoia and delusions. Such was her consummate skill as a writer that out of the chaotic mess of jealousy came a novel that still cuts like a knife, with its sharp warning that this way, madness lies…

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

A discovery in the library...

I wrote a piece for the Sunday Telegraph about this exhibition at the Women's Library -- and I really do recommend a visit, because it's a fascinating show -- and I wanted to post a link to the piece on the Telegraph website, but for some reason, I can't, so I'm going to put the entire article here. Sorry, it's a bit long for a blog, but eagle-eyed readers (of this blog and 'Daphne') will notice a reference in it to Clement Shorter, one of Mr Symington's colleagues in the Bronte Society. Imagine my surprise when I discovered his discoveries of Bronte manuscripts, as recorded in the archives of the Women's Library... Truth is stranger than fiction (etc); though I'd need to write another novel to uncover the rest of this story. Still, as you'll see, there are a few more clues here about the activities of Mr Shorter et al.

Once upon a time, when I was a student at Cambridge in the early Eighties, I knew that my enjoyment of women’s magazines was a guilty secret, and that my stash should be kept hidden under the bed in case someone saw me looking at them. I’d grown up reading my mother’s copies of Vogue and Nova, and they played a part in the shaping of my ambition to write, despite the unwritten law that suggested their irrelevance. This was an era when everyone seemed to disapprove of women’s magazines: feminists declared that they oppressed the sisterhood, academics said they addled the brain, and the Right united with the Left in the firm belief that they were irrelevant to political discourse.

A quarter of a century later, I still occasionally find myself having to defend them against intellectual sneering, but the disapproval is less widespread; and a growing acceptance of their place in cultural history is evident in the mounting of a new exhibition devoted to their evolution from the 18th century to the present day, drawing on an archive of magazines at the Women’s Library in the East End of London. The collection is a treasure trove, as I discovered on a visit there last month; for the further I delved into its depths, the more was yielded up of the extraordinarily varied ways in which magazines have both reflected and defined the lives of their readership over the last three hundred years. True, there an abundance of ephemera – though that itself is intriguing; what looks like a rag-bag of custard recipes, health tips and soap advertisements turns out, upon closer inspection, to contain little gems and nuggets of information about the world inhabited by previous generations. In other words, beware of judging a magazine by its cover, because what might be dismissed as trivia could open hidden histories. “These magazines matter,” says Gail Cameron, curator of The Women’s Library, “because they were, and are, bought by hundreds and thousands of women, so that they’re an incredibly important source of information about women, as well as having been a source of information for their readers at the time.”

The past is a murky place, and some of this information will seem bizarre to modern readers; but then women’s magazines have often offered curious advice, or edged into disconcerting territory. If a woman’s magazine is a friend to its reader – and the best ones are – then it is also the case that those friendships will go through difficult patches, when each is irritated or confounded by the other. I have worked for several different magazines, and been involved in the launches of three new titles; but I still find myself becoming exasperated, at times, as a reader of magazines that I feel deep attachment to, particularly when they make me feel bad about myself or if they take on a supercilious tone. (Too chubby or impoverished for the new designer collections? Ho hum, get on your bike…)

Not that there is anything new in admonitory editorials; a chorus of tut-tutting arises from the pages in the archive of the Women’s Library. Take, for example, this declaration of intent from the Servants Magazine, published in 1849: “We neither scold, nor discourage; and if at any time we deem it necessary to point out a fault, we try to consider ourselves as occupying the place of an orderly, but kind, mistress, who whilst she will have everything about the house done properly, yet, if she observe any neglect, tells her servants of it, in such a judicious manner, as to secure both the attention and affection of those whom she has taught to look up to her as their friend and counsellor.” There are moments when a despotic fashion or beauty editor’s instructions in a 21st century glossy magazine can seem equally bossy; though at least we no longer have to put up with sartorial advice from Reverend H. Melvill, whose advice to readers, under the headline PASSION FOR DRESS, was as follows: “The beautiful attire is that which comes out of the loom of modesty; and all other, by whomsoever worn, is raiment ‘spotted by the flesh,’ and therefore perilous to the wearers.”

Nothing, however, could be more perilous to the flesh than the accessories advertised in the Ladies Diary in 1728, which included artificial teeth (‘they are not to be taken out at Night, but may be worn Years Together’) and other, more mysterious contraptions: ‘Steel Spring and other sorts of Trusses for Ruptures at the Navel or elsewhere.’ Nevertheless, the editorial content of the Ladies Diary – also known as the Woman’s Almanack – offers a satisfying refutation of the theory that magazines for female readers have always been filled with mind-numbing rot. This sprightly 18th century ancestor announced itself as ‘Containing many Delightful and Entertaining Particulars, Peculiarly Adapted for the Use and Diversion of the Fair Sex’; and the mathematical puzzles and poetical enigmas (a trickier variation of modern crosswords) suggest that its readership enjoyed a challenge; and its correspondents were equally clever. One of the issues preserved at the Women’s Library contains a letter to the editor in Latin; another a series of enigmas composed in verse by Mrs Utrecia Smith. (Question: “I, who was born to neither House or Land/ Have now heaps of Wealth at my Command/ And yet to gain this Power I nothing do/ But all to others Active Hands I owe…” Answer: A Dice Box.)

There are many more pleasurably idiosyncratic periodicals to be discovered within the archive; I was particularly taken with Home Notes, edited by the semi-anonymous ‘Isobel’, a hugely popular weekly women’s magazine launched during the boom-years of the genre in the 1890s. Its alphabetical index for a bumper issue in 1898 spanned a mind-boggling range of articles: from A for Alaska, Marriage Customs in; Antoinette Broderie, Design For; Armless People, What They Can Do; to Z for Zurich Cats, Citizens Proposing Tax On. It turns out that the talented armless people featured in Home Notes included the redoubtable Miss Sarah Biffin, a gifted artist ‘only thirty-seven inches high’ who painted miniatures exhibited at the Royal Academy; possibly a more interesting subject than the celebrities whose bodies are examined and found wanting in the current crop of gossip magazines. The same issue also contained a fashion report from Paris – ‘What Is Being Worn in the Gay City’ – which seems uncannily familiar to what we might read over a century later: the magazine recommended ‘simplicity combined with smartness’, in the form of a dark grey dress trimmed with scarlet cloth and black braid. I also like the notion of The Fairy Belt, ‘a unique invention which changes the form of the waist, making it look two to three inches smaller’, that appears to have been a Victorian precursor of Magic Knickers.

There are other overlaps between the past and present: recipes, beauty tips, health advice, agony aunts. The latter appear to have adopted a bracing tone from the start: in 1805, the ‘Old Woman’ who responded to readers’ letters by citing the wisdom of her age and experience, was a no-nonsense character: “If a miss scarcely entered her teens asks my advice respecting a lover… I surely cannot show myself more their friend than by conveying to oblivion their folly…” The 20th century doyenne of agony aunts, Evelyn Home, who took on the job at Woman in 1937, was equally firm with her readers. In answer to a letter which ended, ‘So he left me, and I knew my heart was broken and I should never be happy again,’ she observed, briskly, ‘This is an example of self-dramatization, of making melodrama of a boy-friend’s preferring another girl. People who have suffered far more know that it takes a great deal for hearts to break – it takes enormous self-pity, self-interest and usually a narrow mind to achieve despair.”

Of course, some advice varied according to the era: at the end of the nineteenth century, when a fuller figure was more fashionable, Home Notes gave its readers guidance on how to put on weight: “Use plenty of butter and bread… Laugh over everything, worry over nothing; the less exercise taken, the better. Eat no acid fruits, but heaps of black grapes.” By 1967, the effervescent Honey magazine – motto, Young, Gay and Get-Ahead – was outlining a fast-track diet to lose weight: an orange for breakfast, a lean grilled steak and one tomato for lunch, another grilled steak with two tablespoons of cauliflower for supper, and no more than a couple of cups of tea a day to quench the thirst.

By this point, Honey was up against younger competitors like Nova, which had launched in 1965; though its retaliation to the new girl on the block was a startling cover line -- ‘This Is I Hate Honey Month’ -- beside a picture of a snarling model ripping up its pages. Inside, however, the contents were slightly less radical: having invited its readers to send in their criticism, the magazine came up with familiar answers. ‘I hate Honey for telling us one month that short hair is in,” complained one correspondent, ‘then the next month showing us lots of lovely snoods which need long hair to go in them.’ Honey’s solution? ‘Buy a hairpiece for 5s. 11d.” Meanwhile, Nova was declaring itself to be A NEW MAGAZINE FOR A NEW KIND OF WOMAN, but was nevertheless edited by a man, and its first issue veered towards male writers (Sir Julian Huxley, Robert Robinson, Christopher Booker, amongst others), though it did contain a delicious recipe for syllabub by Elizabeth David.

All of which makes it impossible to claim that women’s magazines have represented emancipation and liberation; but it would be churlish not to recognise the freedom with which they have ranged beyond their remit. As it happens, my favourite discovery in the archive was an article by a male author in an 1898 issue of The Woman at Home, a hugely successful periodical founded by a man, William Robertson Nicoll, though he remained invisible, while ‘Annie Swan’, a pseudonym for the successful novelist, Mrs Burnett Smith, presided over each issue with her editorials and advice columns. The journalist was Clement Shorter, an avid collector of Bronte manuscripts and close friend of Nicoll’s; presumably this explains why it was in The Woman at Home, rather than an academic journal or national newspaper, that Shorter chose to reveal his discovery of two poems by Charlotte Bronte, written immediately after the deaths of her sisters Emily and Anne. The magazine also printed the first facsimiles of the handwritten originals of these and other Bronte poems, and when by chance I came across them in the archive of the Women’s Library, it was with the astonished thrill of knowing that they would be important clues to literary detectives and academics attempting to solve the puzzle of missing Bronte manuscripts.

If there is a moral in this – and women’s magazines tend to search for morals, as well as meaning, in the chaos of ordinary life – it is that one should beware of dismissing these magazines as being meaningless. What seems to be irrelevant might just turn out to be important; and even if it isn’t, why feel compelled to hide your favourite magazine under the bed?

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Bibliotherapy: What to read when you feel shut out in the cold

The sad story of ‘The Little Match Girl’ by Hans Christian Andersen might seem like a perverse recommendation as the temperature drops and heating bills soar; for this is the tale of a child who freezes to death on a winter’s night, after trying to warm herself by lighting matches.

But as is often the case with Anderson, the tale is a subtle one, written as much for an adult audience as children. Like much of his best-known work, it reflects his own unhappy past, and his continuing sense of himself as an ungainly outsider – The Ugly Duckling or The Little Mermaid – locked out from human warmth and love. The only son of a cobbler and a washerwoman, he grew up isolated and bullied in a provincial Danish town. At 14, he set off for Copenhagen, hoping to make a new life for himself; once there, he was as starving and freezing as the Little Match Girl.

His imagination was to be the saving of him, the spark that set alight his story-telling; just like his heroine, who sees marvellous scenes in the tiny flames of the matches that no one would buy from her – a roast goose that walks, a Christmas tree with a thousand candles, rising up into the stars. When she dies, born aloft by her spirit of her dead grandmother to the radiance of heaven, the Little Match Girl escapes a cruel and heartless world: “No one knew what beauty she had seen…”

The world did come to recognise Andersen, yet for all his fame and riches, he remained uncertain of his place within it; and his awkwardness made him unwelcome. “He was certainly something of an ‘oddity’,” recalled Henry Dickens, the novelist’s son, after Andersen had come to stay during a trip to England, “so much so that the small boys of the family rather laughed at him behind his back.” Charles Dickens never wrote to him again, and the invitation was not repeated (the visit ‘seemed to the family AGES,’ said Dickens). So Hans Christian Andersen returned to Copenhagen, where he continued to tell his stories of ice and snow, still seeking to warm cold hearts.