Reviews of Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather, by Tessa Boase, Warlight, by Michael Ondaatje, and So Much Life Left Over, by Louis de Bernières.
A fashion-loving suffragette and an ornithologist who wanted to save birds from the grisly feathered-hat industry are the unlikely subjects of a joint biography.
The Duke attached a huia feather to his hat. That was the end of the elegant black bird with the white-tipped tail feathers.
REVIEW — FRANCES WALSH
Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather: Fashion, Fury and Feminism — Women’s Fight for Change Tessa Boase (Aurum Press, $45)
It is only right and proper that Camilla be called out for that godawful hat she wore to Meghan and Harry’s wedding, even if it is on ethical rather than on ethical and aesthetic grounds.
Writing in the Guardian last month, the English journalist Tessa Boase asked: “If all fashions are cyclical, is the Duchess of Cornwall’s flamboyant pink-feathered wedding hat the start of a trend that will soon see whole herring gulls being worn on the heads of women? This was the look at the turn of the previous century.”
Boase knows her hats. Her book Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather: Fashion, Fury and Feminism — Women’s Fight for Change is freighted with train-spotting details of “murderous millinery”, from the Victorian and Edwardian days when every woman wore a hat, featuring perhaps the soft down of a great crested grebe and/or the rust-red tail of a Raggiana bird-of-paradise. Such decoration didn’t come cheap; an ounce of American snowy egret feathers was worth twice as much as an ounce of gold. Feathers retained their value, and were cleaned and re-curled yearly, and passed down to daughters. Working women formed saving clubs to buy an ostrich plume and took turns to wear it.
The book makes for a queasy read — items for one auction held at London Commercial Sale Rooms in Mincing Lane in the 1880s included: hummingbirds (12,000), blue creepers (6000), parrots from India and South America (8000). Entire species of wild birds were slaughtered for the millinery trade, at its peak worth £20 million (£204 million in today’s currency) in Britain annually. Boase cites the huia as a case in point. Following his 1901 tour of New Zealand, the trendsetting Duke of York attached a huia feather to his hat. And that was pretty much the end of the elegant black bird with the white-tipped tail feathers. In the scheme of things, however, the Duke was a vision of restraint. Harper’s Magazine reported on the de rigueur “unkempt” look in hat prettification in 1887, attained by splaying body parts—heads of owls, breasts of parrots, wings of woodpeckers—on crowns, as if recently fallen from the heavens, and on brims, as if nesting in “earnest incubation”.
But Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather is much more than a comprehensive guide to the macabre: it is a terrifically oddball joint biography of two women whose campaigns tracked concurrently, although not sympathetically. The celebrated suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst founded the militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), and was partial to feathers. The relatively unknown Etta Lemon was one of the founders of the genteel Royal Society for the Protection of the Birds, which had as its original sole purpose to stamp out the fashion for feathers in hats. She was also anti-suffrage.
Both Pankhurst and Lemon faced opprobrium; up until the First World War, the notion of female emancipation was as risible as that of bird protection, at least in England. Pankhurst led the “shrieking sisterhood”, Lemon the “plumage cranks”. Both spoke out in public, unusual for their gender and times (Lemon’s rhetorical style was inspired by her evangelical father, whose five points for effective speaking were: “Begin low, proceed slow, mount higher, take fire, then expire”). The two heroines were also singular. Predictably but cutely, Boase looks to the avian world to describe their differences: “If Mrs Pankhurst is the jewel-green parakeet on the wing, calling out with insistent voice, Mrs Lemon is the brindled woodcock on the ground, hunkering down beneath the shadow of a raptor high above.”
Pankhurst was mad for the clothes, partly because she was “finished” in Paris, partly because she had twigged that fashion was political. Her stylishness was part of her brand, “a way of showing the world that she was no unnatural, mannish harridan intent on a ‘petticoat government’,” writes Boase. With her equally glam daughter Christabel, Pankhurst exhorted suffragettes to dress well and with large hats to further the cause: “If you were both powerful and feminine, went the message, then you had the best of both worlds,” Boase notes. When Pankhurst senior stormed Parliament in 1909, she wore a purple ostrich feather. By then the WSPU suffragettes wore a colour-coded livery—purple, green and white, standing respectively for dignity, hope and purity.
On the other hand, Lemon didn’t give a fig about fashion, or rather was hostile to it. Like Pankhurst, she was the product of a bourgeois upbringing, but perhaps significantly, finished her education in the decidedly less chic Switzerland. For Lemon, preposterous head gear undermined the thinking woman. What price emancipation if she was enslaved to fashion, she asked. And then, there were the birds. Lemon was in the habit of taking a notebook to church on Sunday, and under the heading “Feather Bedecked Women” listing members of the congregation along with the species displayed on their bonces. On Monday morning, the offenders received a letter from Lemon, informing them of the full horror of plumiferous activity — that birds, for example, were slaughtered
during mating season, which meant their fledglings would starve to death.
Her two main players aside, and in the interests of bottom-up history, Boase also tells the workers’ story. Pankhurst, Boase writes, wore her purple feather as a political statement, but “it was also, ironically, an emblem of female abuse”. Two thousand “feather hands” were employed in London in the 1880s. Willowers aged as young as five lengthened fronds by tying extensions into each flue; apprentice curlers routinely aged 13 worked the feather with a knife. Shifts, at least in 1878, were as long as 11 hours; recompense was pitiful. Workplaces were thick with dust and down: pulmonary tuberculosis was a killer.
Neither Lemon nor Pankhurst was preoccupied by such things. They had other fish to fry. Pankhurst claimed victory first — the 1918 Representation of the People Act gave some women over the age of 30 the vote. Lemon had to wait a little longer to chalk up her win. The Plumage Bill was passed in 1921, making it a crime to import exotic plumage but not to sell or wear it.
REVIEW — JOHN SINCLAIR
Warlight Michael Ondaatje (Penguin Random House, $35)
The fact that war, second only to love, has a special hold on the human imagination is, for a novelist, both promising and problematic, as Michael Ondaatje’s latest novel shows. It has provided his setting before: for the Booker Prize-winning The English Patient, and for Anil’s Ghost. On the plus side, setting a story in wartime gives the
writer a ready-made set of big canvasses prepopulated with familiar emotions, images and storylines tucked neatly into the wings of the reader’s mind. On the minus side, the enormity of a war going on in the background can cover over a multitude of literary sins and give an impression of weightiness where none exists.
Ondaatje’s opening gambit is a scenario worthy of YA fiction: “In 1945, our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.” So says teenager Nathaniel as he and his sister, Rachel, wave goodbye to their parents, who claim to be bound for a job in far-flung Singapore. The siblings are immediately suspicious. Both parents have been involved in undercover black ops during the war and are accustomed to dropping out of sight for months at a time, and soon after their mother’s departure, they discover that she has left behind the steamer trunk they helped her to pack with her clothes.
The teenagers’ new guardians are The Moth (so called because he is “moth-like in his shy movements”) and
The Pimlico Darter (a former boxer, ladies’ man and dog smuggler). They live up to their Dickensian-sounding names by introducing a regime of casual neglect that would appeal to most fictional teenagers. The taciturn Moth and the “not fully legal” Darter impose no curfew, provide meals erratically, and welcome a procession of disreputable house guests: Mr Nkoma the piano teacher; Olive Law- rence, the ethnographer whose “talk sparkled” (how, exactly, is not explained); and the gangly Arthur McCash, who will be on hand to rescue Nathaniel from an ambush by Yugoslav terrorists. “The house felt more like a night zoo,” Nathaniel comments, “with moles and jackdaws and shambling beasts who happened to be chess players, a gardener, a possible greyhound thief, a slow-moving opera singer”.
Ondaatje seems unwilling to develop the farcical potential of the material, instead entrusting the narrative to an older but glummer Nathaniel, looking back on his youth with wistful lugubriousness and more than a little posturing. “I don’t know. I don’t know,” he moans in his humourless voice-over, “What does a boy know?” Nothing of interest, it seems. His memories of youth are seasoned with words like “sacred”, “magical” and “abundant” and his attempts to sum up other characters are portentous (“He always knew the layered grief of the world as well as its pleasures”) or vague (“He knew the real and urgent world was the sea”) or frankly nonsensical (“She thrilled to open space and weather nights” — whatever they might be).
Ondaatje gives Nathaniel plenty to be glum about. His mother returns eventually and retreats to her family estate in Sussex, refusing the armed guard MI6 offer her, but also refusing to explain anything to Nathaniel (about the war, his father, what she was doing and why). Years and decades pass, and he eventually pieces together a story straight from the world of John le Carré — of spooks losing the post-war moral high ground through self-serving machinations amongst the warring factions in the Balkans.
And so it rolls on towards a conclusion that comes as no surprise, leaving Nathaniel in possession of few facts, but a plethora of emotions that his fuzzy prose fails to express with any clarity.
REVIEW — RACHEL O’CONNOR
So Much Life Left Over Louis de Bernières (Harvill Secker, $37)
Set in the aftermath of the Great War, So Much Life Left Over explores the experience of a generation of traumatised survivors who struggle to determine how to fill the lives they have unexpectedly retained.
The novel commences in the lush mountainous landscapes of colonial Ceylon, where Daniel Pitt and his young wife, Rosie, have sought an escape from the melancholy of Europe and the ghosts of their own lost loved ones. For a brief period, this paradise seems to offer them a fresh chance at happiness, but tragedy and temptation con- spire to threaten their fragile marriage, and with their two young children they set sail once more for England. Readers of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin will be charmed by the cameo appearance of a certain Greek whom Rosie and Daniel encounter aboard ship, but contentment does not accompany the family’s eventual return to The Grampians, Rosie’s gracious family residence; in the words of Samadara, the lover abandoned in Ceylon, happiness has slipped out their door. What does await them is a host of other characters, each in their own particular state of dissatisfaction or angst, who will largely be familiar to readers of de Bernières’ preceding novel, The Dust that Falls from Dreams.
In the increasingly liberal society of London between the wars, the fortunes of the McCosh, Pitt and Pendennis families proceed to entwine to an almost fantastic degree, as the characters endeavour to secure love for themselves and to forge and preserve relationships that will safeguard them from further emptiness and loss.
Their battle with the business of life is conducted to the soundtrack of swishing golf clubs and to the roaring of the motorbikes and aeroplanes which, a succession of lovers notwithstanding, constitute Daniel’s most enduring passion. Once-entrenched attitudes to sexuality, marriage and parenthood are destabilised in this increasingly fractured social circle, and the extent to which each character will go to secure their desires results in a veritable cascade of couplings, concealments and revelations.
Narrated from myriad viewpoints and in a wide range of styles, the short, episodic chapters focus principally on the motivations and emotions
The children’s new guardians introduce a regime of casual neglect that would appeal to most fictional teenagers.
of characters, but at times draw back the lens to allow the reader a broader perception of regional and global developments.
In Samadara’s first narration, the young tea picker delivers a detailed description of her family’s migration from India and the conditions of their lives and employment in the tea plantation. Her gentle observations about the relationship between Daniel and Rosie do nothing to negate the implications inherent in their position as the white colonial overlords on the estate.
Similarly, “Oily” Wragge, the whimsically named tragi-comic gardener who resides under rather nebulous contractual conditions at The Grampians, recalls at bewildering length his harrowing sojourn in an Ottoman slave-labour camp. This trauma does not deter him, however, from tempting fate when he joins Daniel in Germany during the rise of Hitler.
This interlude is problematic in some respects; the German people with whom the Englishmen consort during this period do not quite evade the mask of caricature, and the heroic cross-country rescue of the archetypal Jewish intellectual and his family is an adventure that feels misplaced, and almost gratuitous. Nevertheless, the episode provides a useful mechanism for revealing the degree of naivety and misinformation that existed among the English in the build-up to the Second World War.
The novel’s constantly changing voices build a rich mosaic that emerges with increasing clarity in the latter stages, but the shifts in narrative perspective are both compelling and disconcerting. At times, the somewhat laboured employment of the vernacular detracts from more confident and revealing close third-person accounts, and the fluctuating viewpoints limit the reader’s sustained investment in a single protagonist, resulting in a degree of emotional impartiality.
Any detachment evaporates, however, at the novel’s heart-wrenching climax. Deftly echoing the tragedy encountered in the novel’s first pages, de Bernières lays bare one of this work’s most pervasive themes; just as war’s survivors must contemplate a future they did not expect, a man bereft of his children must face a yawning chasm of life left over, and choose how he will fill it. So Much Life Left Over, then, succeeds in sustaining both a far-reaching examination of living after war and a poignant account of one man’s struggle to preserve, after marriage, the continuity and expression of paternal love.
Attitudes to sexuality, marriage and parenthood are destabilised in this increasingly fractured social circle.