Of Rags and Richness

I seem to have become infected with some sort of reverse-Midas touch which means pretty much everything I touch is breaking down. This includes the fridge-freezer, the oven door, the car (or at least a warning light has come on) and the laptop which has ‘lost’ its word processing system. And yesterday, when I was teaching my daughter to sew, the sewing machine stopped working.

In the early hours of this morning when I was trying to formulate a short story and realising it was rapidly turning into a novel, I returned my thoughts to sewing, which as a creative activity, helps me zone out completely. Right now, the more I can tune out the better.

I learnt to sew very young. Until I married I made a lot of my own clothes, partly because I was an odd shape: short, thin, with no hips but an ample bust. After marriage I largely stopped because we had a small house and it wasn’t as easy having bits of sewing over the place and living on toast for a couple of days while I was making something. And the way I mutter to myself when things go wrong drove my husband mad. Now that my son has pretty much moved out though, I’ve reconfigured his bedroom as a sewing room and am starting afresh.

As I was thinking about this at six a.m., I considered my characters and their relationship with clothes.

Aunt Alice in the Caster & Fleet books is partly drawn from my paternal grandmother only with added primness and shockability (my grandmother wasn’t prim and not especially shockable although that might have been because she didn’t really realise what was going on). My grandmother had been brought up to be a housewife. It would be her husband’s job to  support her, while she played her part by being thrifty and skilled in cooking, sewing and parenting. Which she was. She adored pretty, bright, well-fitting clothes, took a lively interest in prevailing fashion and delighted in discussing dress-making ideas and helping develop my skills. This filtered into Aunt Alice.

Katherine in the same books is even shorter than I am, but doesn’t have a bust worth talking about. While that would have been an advantage to me, it wasn’t to her in the late 19th Century.  She’s also in a situation where the rug has been pulled out from under her financially. She can no longer afford a dressmaker but must rely on Aunt Alice’s skills. She herself can sew of course, but she’s not really patient enough to put as much effort in as she would need to, not to mention the fact that she has a job keeping her occupied every day. She’s very conscious in the early books that what she’s wearing is very slightly out of style, or has been re-modelled. While she’s grateful to Aunt Alice, she’s also a little envious of her better off friends, particularly Connie. Katherine also struggles with fashions which don’t really suit small, flat-chested women. This is pretty much a reflection of how I felt in my younger years when fashions didn’t really suit small, busty women and I didn’t have any money for new clothes.

Her younger sister Margaret, who appears from time to time in the Caster & Fleet books and now has a book all of her own set in 1910 is positively clothes obsessed. She remembers her teenage years when she was always a little out of style, and now she’s fully grown up and has a professional career, she will splash out on the latest hats and a few evening dresses that she perhaps can’t quite afford, simply because they’re beautiful. She has the advantage over Katherine of being taller and busty. She may find the bust a nuisance in the 1920s, but right now, she’s quite happy in clothes that are elegant and perfectly skim her figure. (Yes, I’m jealous of Margaret. She reflects how I wish I was and has a confidence in her appearance I won’t have if I live till I’m 100.)

Moving back several hundred years Lucretia, is also obsessed with the latest fashion (as soon as it arrives from Rome to West Britain). Her mental self image is fixed around eighteen. Then she was small and curvaceous with long dark, wavy hair and while probably not exactly pretty, she was certainly striking. Nowadays – the wrong side of fifty – she’s very curvaceous and says the appearance of the odd silver strand of hair is a trick of the light. Just in case though, she has a collection of wigs sourced from all over the empire: one with black Indian hair, one with blonde German hair, one with red hair (the source of which may be a henna plant) and one which mixes them up a bit. She also wears as much make-up as she can without falling forwards under the weight of it. Most of the cosmetics are lead based and therefore toxic, but even if she realised, she’d probably say beauty has its price. It’s perhaps as well she doesn’t have access to a full-length mirror and can keep in her head the image of herself as young and beautiful and not have it dashed by reality – though of course, she’d say that was a trick of the light too.

Nowadays of course, I’m probably closer to Lucretia than Katherine in looks, though I couldn’t bear all that make-up. I’d say I couldn’t bear the thought of a wig either but not having seen a hairdresser since January, my silver strands are rather taking over.

I am still short, with no hips and an ample bust. Sadly I am no longer thin. And equally sadly, unlike Lucretia I do have a full-length mirror and am not deluded enough to think I still look eighteen. Oh well – I’m ready for a different dress-making challenge. Bobbins at the ready sewing machine – I’m coming to fix you.

Welsh costume

(This is from a rather blurry polaroid of me and my sister in a Welsh costume made by my mother for St David’s Day when we lived in Wales. All the other little girls wore short skirts but my father was determined we should be ‘authentic’. As we were English this seemed a bit pointless but that was Dad for you. My sister is now taller than me.)

Words and photograph copyright 2020 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

 

Some Daughters (in-law) Do ‘ave ’em

I have been very lucky with my mother-in-law. She treats me exactly like the daughter she wanted but never had, loving me, spoiling me, supporting me and periodically telling me to shut up when I’m talking nonsense.

One of her best attributes is that she never ever criticises the abysmal state of my house-wifery and says as long as I provide her with lovely home-cooked meals when she visits and she has a comfortable bed to sleep in and a book or three to read, a glass of wine and some lively conversation, she is never going to complain about anything as irrelevant as dust.  I happily manage my side of the bargain.

She quite appreciates, I think, the fact that after all years living in a male dominated home, she now has an ally. In general, she’s happy to gang up on her own son in my defence, although she says his failings are now my responsibility as he’s now been with me longer than he was with her. I say that Aristotle said all the damage is done by the time a child is seven, so it’s her fault. This is the sort of moment she tells me to shut up.

Several years ago, in my lunch-break, I started writing out a scene in a Romano-British home where a daughter-in-law is enduring the insults of her loathsome mother-in-law. I thought at the time, it might form part of a novel written along the same lines as a Golden Era country house murder mystery. You know, the sort where pretty much every character is a suspect yet somehow indifferent to the mayhem around them. (‘Oh goodness Papa is dead. Does anyone else know where the key to the drinks cabinet is?’ – that sort of thing.) Well, I developed this idea eventually and now MURDER BRITANNICA is finally for sale. It has plenty of murders, a lot (I hope) of merriment and a monstrous mother/mother-in-law Lucretia. I really enjoyed writing Lucretia. I have no idea on whom she’s based, although I’ve met plenty of bullying women in my time. She’s certainly not based on my mother or mother-in-law – they are the basis of two of the other older female characters: enigmatic Tullia and practical Tryssa.

While looking for a cover picture for the book I came across the one below (although I didn’t use it in the end). I like to think that these are the three younger women who have to endure Lucretia as her schemes unfold. Seventeen year old Camilla has pinched her brother’s lyre (although she has no idea what to do with it) and is considering how awful it must be to be as old as Poppaea (who’s twenty-five) or Prisca who is thirty-something. Prisca is thinking of gladiators and Poppaea is wondering … well no-one ever quite knows what she’s wondering.

The men (and there are quite a few of them too) are probably looking for food because there’s a bit of a culinary crisis going on.

I hope if you read Murder Britannica, you’ll enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it. It was great fun. And I’ve dedicated it to my mother-in-law because she loves murder mysteries and is NOTHING like Lucretia.

roman-women-33046_1280 copy

Words copyright 2018 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Picture from Pixabay.