Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Class in Angus Wilson

Hand-woven djibbah

In Such Darling Dodos, Angus Wilson writes about groups of people who are imprisoned together by money. Adult children get a small allowance. Even after the war (when most people had jobs), it’s acceptable for young women to live at home without studying or working. The idea is that they will meet a suitable young man and get married, but their parents have no spare money for the strenuous social life that would enable this. Things changed in the 60s. A bit.

“The rock garden… looked so bare and pathetic in winter, but he anticipated with pleasure the masses of aubretia, crimson, lavender, blue, that would blaze there in May.” (Only purple aubretia is permitted, and Upwards insist that it is “aubreta”.)

Here's the room that goes with this garden: “the Medici prints, the little silver bowls, the mauve net curtains, the shot-silk covers, the beaten copperware, the Chinese lanterns and Honesty in pewter mugs – it was all so pathetically genteel and arty.”

A spinster wears: “lucky charm bracelets and semi-precious necklaces”. Jingling or clanking jewellery was warned against by etiquette authorities.

“Dresses on Priscilla would always seem like hand-woven djibbahs.” A djibbah was what we’d call a kaftan (though the word was also used for a child’s overall). They became a uniform for progressive women like Priscilla who in the late 19th century refused on principle to wear corsets. They also became short-hand for a certain kind of woman: intellectual and fey. She might be a social reformer or a spiritualist.

Tony, an elderly conservative Catholic, visits his Oxford cousins: “He entered that awful sitting-room with its Heal’s furniture, its depressingly sensible typewriter and long low bookcases… Hard little, bright-covered books full of facts, a dangerous array of so-called scientific knowledge that tried to treat man as a machine.” Long, low bookcases were a marker for university lecturers. Penguin (orange) and Pelican (turquoise) paperbacks were full of the “illusory paradise of refrigerators for all”.

Priscilla has written to Tony to say that her husband is ill. Now she regrets it. “The sort of wretched, hysterical outburst that one hopes so much will never happen, but which always does at these hateful, morbid times.” According to her code, all expression of human emotion is hysterical or morbid.

Kitty visits her relative’s employers: “Kitty came downstairs to meet them, her fox fur and eye-veil resumed for the occasion.” The net eye-veil was part of her hat.

Margaret’s “dainty” room features: “Venetian glass swans and crocheted silk table mats”.

In another story, landlady Greta is out with her elderly boyfriend. “He had told her so often that physical caresses in public were ‘just not done’… She no longer said ‘serviette’… She never went out now without gloves… but she also no longer blew into them when she took them off. She was jealous sometimes… but he told her not to be so suburban.” Blowing into your tight leather gloves was a class marker: Jacky in Howard’s End is also guilty. But did anybody really?


Here's poor Jacky Bast from Howard's End in the early 1900s: "Her appearance was awesome. She seemed all strings and bell-pulls – ribbons, chains, bead necklaces that clinked and caught and a boa of azure feathers hung round her neck, with the ends uneven. Her throat was bare, wound with a double row of pearls, her arms were bare to the elbows, and might again be detected at the shoulder, through cheap lace. Her hat, which was flowery, resembled those punnets, covered with flannel, which we sowed with mustard and cress in our childhood, and which germinated here yes, and there no. She wore it on the back of her head."

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