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.

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The Duke at­tached a huia feather to his hat. That was the end of the el­e­gant black bird with the white-tipped tail feath­ers.


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.


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.


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.

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