Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Great Expectations and the women in white...

Great Expectations -- a book that demands to be re-read at the beginning of any New Year -- is my favourite of all Dickens' novels, and Miss Havisham survives (for me, as for legions of other readers) as one of the most remarkably potent literary creations; the quintessential gothic bride, the eeriest woman in white, who has haunted my own writing and dreams since the first time I discovered Great Expectations as a child. So it was always going to be difficult to watch the BBC's new adaptation without some feeling of disappointment at what, inevitably, had to be left out. And yes, I missed the scene in which Magwitch rises up from the graves of Pip's family, and the kindly Biddy (although perhaps she will appear in the second episode tonight?); but thus far, it has been brilliantly executed. Gillian Anderson is inspired as Miss Havisham, and the landscape of the muddy marshes is as powerfully evocative as the shadowy Satis House and its abandoned wedding feast, still untouched, even as it decays and turns to dust.
All of which reminds me of the threads between several other women in white that intrigued and perplexed me while I was writing 'My Mother's Wedding Dress'; from the Brontës to Emily Dickinson, Hans Christian Andersen's Snow Queen to the White Witch of Narnia; and in Daphne du Maurier, of course. (For more on the role of the Snow Queen in Daphne, and the uncanny connection between Du Maurier and De Winter, read here). It was my mother -- a courageous radical who chose to be married in black -- that introduced me to Emily Dickinson’s poetry when I was nine or ten, around about the same time that I was having nightmares of a porcelain woman in white who fell down a gothic staircase, and lay smashed at the bottom; not that the two were necessarily connected, but when I remember them – the book and the dream – they seem to reflect each other. Oddly, although I now find Dickinson's meaning increasingly elusive (in a wonderfully tantalizing way), as a child, the effort to understand was less. The anthology my mother gave me was for children (its unforgettable title taken from the poem I’m Nobody! Who are you?); and also contained biographical details, including a brief account of Dickinson’s life within her father’s house in Amherst, Massachusetts: a woman who wore only white dresses, unseen and hidden behind closed doors or in the shadows. I’d been told that one of her white dresses remains in her father’s house, now a museum; though it seemed to me by the time I was a teenager that Dickinson had turned her room into a kind of museum when she was still alive, shutting herself away in it to write her poetry; not that she had planned to make an exhibition of herself, but nevertheless, I wondered whether she realized that interest in her would intensify after her decision to withdraw from view.
When my mother gave me the anthology, however, I was too young to think about what prompted Dickinson to become a white-clad recluse. (And I hadn’t yet read Ted Hughes’ description of her, in the introduction to his selection of her poetry: ‘she wore white, proper for a bride of the spirit, and she daily composed poems that read like devotions’). I was more interested in the poem that gave the title to my book, and also the one that began, ‘I started Early – Took my Dog – / And visited the Sea – / The Mermaids in the Basement / Came out to look at me – ’. I imagined Emily in her white dress, creeping out of her father’s house at dawn, her dog by her side, when no one else could see her; and walking to the seaside, to find the mermaids, with their long pale hair, and beckoning hands. And the water was lapping around her feet, and higher (‘ – till the Tide / Went past my simple Shoe – / And past my Apron – and my Belt / And past my Bodice – too – ’); so that she was up to her neck, her hair floating in the water like the mermaids’.
I don’t remember reading her more opaque poetry at the time; it was only later that it got under my skin (her impenetrability finding its way into me, yet remaining intact). But whenever I read it now, there are still lines that I recognize as if from childhood; for I have never studied Dickinson in a formal sense, tending to avoid critical dissection of her work (which may mean, of course, that my response to her is simply childish; though I am also inclined to agree with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who wrote in the Atlantic Monthly, twenty years after meeting Dickinson, that her enshrouding was too complete to undo: ‘She was much too enigmatical a being for me to solve in an hour’s interview . . . I could only sit still and watch, as one does in the woods; I must name my bird without a gun, as recommended by Emerson’).
Sometimes I feel irritated with myself, with my failure to make sense of her work; but I also like the fact that it remains out of reach, not analysed, not unfolded. And when I don’t understand the poems, there are things – white dresses, named and made manifest – within them that can be recognized with the clarity of an often-repeated dream. So that now, when I read the poem that begins: ‘Because I could not stop for Death – / He kindly stopped for me’ (lines that I remember as well as a nursery rhyme), I cannot help but see the translucent figure that emerges between the lines: ‘For only Gossamer, my Gown – / My Tippet – only Tulle – ’.
It was, perhaps, inevitable that I would progress from the Brontës and Emily Dickinson to an equally mythic Sylvia, who describes herself in ‘Tulips’ in hospital, on her sickbed; a patient, seeking the patience of a nun, colourless, day-clothes gone. (‘Look how white everything is . . .’) ‘I am nobody,’ says Plath in the same poem, echoing Emily Dickinson; and speaks of learning peacefulness. But as I kept on reading more of her poetry (as one does, in gloomy adolescence), she didn’t seem very peaceful to me, unless you accepted that death bestowed peace (not that she did rest in peace); and the whiteness in her poems was as likely to signify bleached bones and death (though I was touched, not long ago, to see a less tortured picture of Plath, wearing white, with her children and spring flowers, and to read her daughter's own words).
Thus poetry was an antidote to cult of happy-ever-after brides; for the more I looked (or rather, read), the more it seemed that women in white were inverted angels, mad, bad and dangerous to know; from the suicidal Anne Sexton, whose reworking of Snow White I had discovered amongst my mother’s books of poetry, alongside Sylvia Plath, all the way back to Miss Havisham, who looms over Great Expectations like a risen corpse. (At first, when Pip makes her out in the gloom of her darkened, shuttered room, he believes her to be an entirely white figure: dress, shoes, veil, even her hair. But as his eyes grow accustomed to the shadows, ‘I saw that everything within my view which ought to be white, had been white long ago, and had lost its lustre, and was faded and yellow. I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes. I saw that the dress had been put upon the rounded figure of a young woman, and that the figure upon which it now hung loose, had shrunk to skin and bone.’)
Two decades after the publication of Great Expectations, Emily Dickinson was directly compared to Miss Havisham by Mabel Todd, the family friend who later undertook the editing of Dickinson’s poetry; she noted in her journal of 1882 that ‘Emily is called in Amherst “the myth”. She has not been out of the house for fifteen years. One inevitably thinks of Miss Haversham [sic] in speaking of her . . . She wears always white, & has her hair arranged as was the fashion fifteen years ago, when she went into retirement.’)
At some point in that periodically gloomy, typically tempestuous adolescence (such a relief to be mostly beyond its reach, into the calmer waters of middle age; although I remain grateful for the reading I undertook at the time, which was perhaps the making of me), I discovered that Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes had gone to Haworth together, weaving poetry out of their walks through the graveyard beside the Brontë parsonage and up onto the moors of Wuthering Heights. And I knew, too, that Emily Dickinson was an admirer of Emily Brontë, whose poetry had been read at her funeral, and that Plath and Hughes were fans of both Emilys, and that you could draw threads between all four poets (and Dickens and Wilkie Collins, as well); white threads, of course.
All of which reminds me to broadcast the appeal from the church in Haworth where Charlotte and Emily Brontë are buried. Their white shrouds are almost certainly turned to dust, but their words are vibrantly alive, which is miraculous, is it not?
Speaking of miracles, I am very happy to announce that my thoughts are turning to a summer wedding dress, preferably not of the tattered design favoured by Miss Havisham; for an interest in gothic narrative has failed to obliterate my belief in the continuing possibilities of happiness and contentment, and the undeniable magic of the greatest expectations of all.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Twas the night before Christmas...

And I've been admiring the trees outside Tillypronie, as well as the glorious one inside the house. There has been time to walk across the hills -- such a luxury, to feel the Highland air upon my cheeks -- in between the wrapping of presents and the eating of chocolate brownies and meringues. My beloved sons are with me -- the best present of all -- and I feel blessed to have reached this point in my life; to be here, after five decades of previous Christmases. To be 50 -- how did that happen? -- and to love and be loved... such a simple blessing, such a miraculous joy...
If you have a chance, please do read Carol Ann Duffy's 'Another Night Before Christmas' before you go to sleep tonight. It's wonderful, and here's the opening verses, to bring you good cheer:
'On the night before Christmas, a child in the house,
As the whole family slept, behaved just like a mouse...
And crept on soft toes down red-carpeted stairs.
Her hand held the paw of her favourite bear.

The Christmas tree posed with its lights in its arms,
Newly tinselled and baubled with glittering charms;
Flirting in flickers of crimson and green
Against the dull glass of the mute TV screen.'

I love this poem, and Rob Ryan's illustrations for the Picador edition; do look up page 18, of the hare, if you can...

'Then a shooting star whizzed down the sky from the North.
It was fizzing and sparkling as it fell to earth,
And growing in size. A young hare in a field
Gazed up at the sky where it brightened and swelled.'

As for my own Christmas message to the lovely readers that contribute so much to this small community; I am so grateful to you all, for friendship and insights and the best ideas on what to read, and why to read it. If Christmas is a time to remember that life is made up of the small yet precious moments of communication -- only connect, as E.M Forster reminded us -- then tonight is a moment to cherish. Christmas -- like life itself -- is imperfect, sometimes jagged, and all the better for it. Our griefs and disappointments are present, but so too are our hopes and expectations and pleasures. Tonight, I hope you are happy, my friends and comrades, whatever the unhappiness that might have beset you in the last year; courage, mes amis... and let us celebrate the threads that we have woven together, in this, another year...

Saturday, 17 December 2011

I Capture the Castle

Have been hither and thither, with last minute deadlines and all the shenanigans of Christmas. One small disappointment -- my Uniqlo order hasn't turned up yet (where are my Heat-Tech tops, not to mention the presents?). But this has been out-weighed by the seasonal blessings: a Christmas carol service at the Parish Church in Hampstead, with a choir to gladden the heart (I was reminded, again, of how inspiring it is to hear children singing Gaudete). And yesterday I made a cranberry and almond cake, which I ate with my friends and family this afternoon (it slipped down nicely with prosecco and freshly squeezed mandarin juice; delicious...).
Anyway, here is this week's Closet Thinker. I took the pictures at Cockermouth Castle at little while ago (a wildly romantic place, in a beautiful little town) -- in search of the spirit of Wordsworth -- though it reminded me most of all of my beloved Dodie Smith novel...

If Sunday is no longer the day of rest, then today is likely to be particularly agitated, for retailers and shoppers alike. This is, traditionally, a weekend when we are expected to rush around, buying Christmas presents in a flurry of seasonal consumerism, but glad tidings are currently thin on the ground. You already know the headlines, and the reality of rising costs and falling income may well feel more personal by now. Not that I’m encouraging undue pessimism, nor recommending pre-rehabilitation Scrooge; simply acknowledging that these are uncertain times, and splashing out on a party dress won’t necessarily solve anyone’s anxiety about how to pay the bills.

What does seem more important is staying warm; obvious, I know, but cold feet induce misery, as do icy hands. Hence my attachment to a cosy pair of FitFlop furry boots; still going strong after enduring several freezing winters, and also good for toning the bottom. (Speaking of which, poor Pippa Middleton, condemned by the press for – allegedly – crimes against fashion on a skating rink. Apparently she shalt not wear a white princess coat. Treason!)

The best winter survival kit will bring good cheer, as well as a level temperature; a formula that requires comforting kit, without making you look like a hibernating arctic beast. In fashion, as in life, it’s all a question of balance: just as high heels don’t work with too much uncovering of flesh elsewhere (the overkill of cleavage, bare thighs and stilettos), so too the bigger the boot, the narrower the leg should be. Hence Kate Moss’s de facto winter uniform of furry footwear plus skinny trousers. I rely on layers of Uniqlo Heat Tech underwear, so fine that they don’t add bulk; then an ancient Holland & Holland green parka on top, which is padded, but miraculously lightweight.

Brown, I think, can be too depressingly muddy a colour for a winter coat, though pink puffas are only good on little girls; better to go for ivory, olive, navy or black. And when all else fails, I return for advice to one of my favourite books, Dodie Smith’s ‘I Capture The Castle’, in particular the scene wherein Rose Mortmain is mistaken for a bear in her great grandmother’s beaver-lined coat. Rose longs for the luxuries of wealth – couture suits, silk stockings, bluebell scent, pale suede gloves -- and becomes engaged to a man who can afford these, then finally realizes her heart lies elsewhere; ‘her trousseau turned into fairy gold’, but true love is revealed to be more heart-warming than expensive new presents.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Coco and Capote and Christmas...

I've been baking banana bread and ginger cake today, and thinking about Christmas shopping, but not quite getting around to doing it; though I am hoping to do most of it at the wonderful Daunt Books.
Aside from stocking up on Paul Gallico and Truman Capote, I'm also going to be buying several signed copies of Anne Sebba's absorbing biography of Wallis Simpson, as we're doing a talk together at Keats House next Wednesday (December 7th at 7pm). Keats House is a glorious place -- worth a visit, even without sharing a glass of wine with Anne and I -- so I do hope some of you can come.

Herewith today's Closet Thinker column:

Tis the season to be jolly, but not at the expense of one’s sanity, which means that I am reining in the shopping this Christmas. Well, I say that now – as I do on the first weekend of every December – and then still find myself panic-stricken on Oxford Street a fortnight later, wild-eyed with reckless anxiety. This is absurd, given my hard-won knowledge, through bitter experience of the ghosts of Christmas past, that I hate the crush of last minute shopping, the wanton futility of it all.

But neither do I feel inclined to give up on Christmas – I love the rustle of wrapping paper, the scent of pine needles, the flickering light of candles in the darkest nights of the year. And I like giving presents, too; if only to the people I love – so if any of my nearest and dearest is reading this, please stop. (Actually, the men can read on – today, at least – because I’m better at gifts for girls.) This year, I’ve decided to plan well ahead with books and little bits of luxuries, each reflecting the other; not original, I confess, as a writer, but reading is what connects us (you and me, at this very moment). First, a signed copy of my biography of Coco Chanel or Paul Morand’s recollections of the couturiere, and one of her trademark colours in nail polish or lipstick; either the limited edition Black Pearl or Peridot varnishes – each iridescent as a jewel – or Rouge Coco lip colour in the intense red christened Gabrielle (after the founder’s first name, and the shade that she chose for herself, ‘because it’s the colour of blood and we’ve so much inside us it’s only right to show a little outside’).

Alternatively, ‘Mrs Harris Goes To Paris’, Paul Gallico’s novel about a London charlady who flies to France in search of a Dior dress; and as delightful now as it was upon publication in 1958. Best given with Dior on the side; possibly ‘Merveille’ nail polish, a lustrous special edition that might just be the same colour as Mrs Harris’s heart’s desire.

Finally, Truman Capote’s ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s' (published in the same, vintage year as Gallico’s classic), preferably accompanied by a tiny Tiffany original. Capote’s narrator chooses a St Christopher’s medal for Holly Golightly’s Christmas present, to keep her safe on her wayward journey, an amulet against ‘the mean reds’, for days that are more anxious than a bout of the blues. Come to think of it, we could all do with one of those lucky charms now…

Thursday, 1 December 2011

I went to Paris to meet Carine Roitfeld...

And yes, she remains the apotheosis of chic, but warm, not chilly, even on a cold day in Paris. I got to her apartment early -- can't be late for CR -- so went for a bracing walk while I was waiting, along the streets of the lovely Left Bank. The trees in Les Invalides were looking beautiful (with a glimpse of a lamp-post, like the one in Narnia). I admired the good cheer of red geraniums, and just around the corner, a blue door, with its promise of a secret mansion on the other side... then all of a sudden, I found myself on Rue Cler, where I stayed when I first came to Paris as a teenager, and it seemed not to have changed at all, and neither had I -- in that instant, at least -- because I was still entranced by Paris.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Dancing on the edge...

Have been writing, writing, writing, scribbling in the midst of these turbulent times. Here's my piece in today's Telegraph; for more, read Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald's letters ('Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda')... and do have a look at Kerry Taylor's forthcoming auction.

Recently, when glued to the gruesome news, I veer between terrible anxiety that we are all tipping into a financial abyss, and the hope that everything will turn out to be fine; or rather, that we have survived similarly uncertain times before, dancing on the edge of a precipice. As for the reported expansion of the European Financial Stability Facility bailout fund, I confess, I tend to forget the acronym, but not the numbers: one trillion euros. I cannot conceive of what this figure means, but instead find myself thinking of a snapshot from December 1926, of two young flappers demonstrating the Charleston on a Chicago rooftop, teetering above a great drop. They were dancing three years before the Wall Street Crash, when bankrupts jumped off parapets, but just a month after American Vogue had hailed Chanel’s little black dress as the future: knee length, sleek, and modern as the new automobiles (‘Here is a Ford signed Chanel’).

Nine decades after ‘flapper’ entered the English language – to denote a girl ‘somewhat daring in conduct, speech, and dress’, according to an early dictionary reference – it is difficult to understand the consternation caused by their appearance. In 1922, the US Secretary of Labour denounced the ‘flippancy of the cigarette-smoking, cocktail-drinking flapper’; this season, the term has had some currency again, but only in relation to the resurgence of Twenties-inspired beaded party frocks. Gucci’s black and gold Jazz-Age dresses, central to the brand’s spring/summer 2012 catwalk collection, are already in evidence in Hollywood (Evan Rachel Wood channelling Clara Bow – the original ‘It-girl’ -- with cropped hair and crimson lipstick on the red carpet this month). The High Street has also paid homage to the Great Gatsby, most notably with Wallis’s 1923 collection, based on designs from the label’s pattern archives; clever Wallis, with prices at under £100, yet gleaming with the subtle patina of sartorial history.

Most authentic of all, however, is the forthcoming Kerry Taylor Auction, which will take place on Tuesday (the viewing starts tomorrow at the Royal Opera Arcade in Pall Mall). The items on sale include Elizabeth Taylor’s golden couture pieces, Audrey Hepburn’s ivory lace gown, the Duchess of Windsor’s patent leather handbag, and an early Gabrielle Chanel flapper dress, in beige crepe de chine, dating from 1920. The estimate for the latter is upwards of £6000 pounds, giving weight to the overused phrase, ‘investment dressing’, not that the lucky buyer is likely to wear such a valuable museum piece. Eurobonds or couture originals? If I had any money to invest, I know which I’d prefer…

Friday, 18 November 2011

I've been walking...

... and enjoying the autumn colours and mists. Since my last post, I've re-discovered the joy of St James' park (the ducks and swans; the great swathes of green hidden in the middle of the city), and got lost in Westminster (I thought I knew the streets of central London so well that I'd never lose my bearings again, and then all of a sudden, I was foxed by a maze of side streets between Victoria station and the back of Buckingham Palace). Up in Scotland last week, the leaves were still vivid, though falling fast, and in Berlin the day before yesterday, they were swirling across no-man-land...
My head is still reeling from my first ever trip to Germany (to Berlin and Hamburg, for the new German edition of Chanel), but my feet have kept me grounded, even on those journeys where I have lost my sense of direction, and then returned me to more familiar territory...

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Bibliotherapy: What to read when the clocks go back...

Try as I might to be a rational stoic, my heart sinks when the clocks go back, and autumn turns to winter. It's not cold outside -- rather unseasonably mild, as it happens -- but I still dread the encroaching darkness. So, time to return to The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken, which was first published in 1963, but remains as gripping as the day when I discovered it as a child (the Puffin edition in the late 60s -- do you remember the days of the Puffin Club, when a paperback cost 2 shillings and sixpence?).
If Bonnie and Sylvia can defeat the evil Miss Slighcarp -- and outrun the wolves that inhabit this alternate history of England, where King James III acceded to the throne in 1832 -- then I, too, can face up to the black shadows of winter.
Here is the opening paragraph: be of good cheer...

'It was dusk -- winter dusk. Snow lay white and shining over the pleated hills, and icicles hung from the forest trees. Snow lay piled on the dark road across Willoughby Wold, but from dawn men had been clearing it with brooms and shovels. There were hundreds of them at work, wrapped in sacking because of the bitter cold, and keeping together in groups for fear of the wolves, grown savage and reckless from hunger.'

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

A walk around Tillypronie

Up in the Highlands last weekend, and around every corner was a blaze of glorious autumn colour. The rose garden was still filled with pink petals, and the Michaelmas daisies blooming in the borders, alongside the rose hips and hawthorn berries. The acer leaves seemed even more vivid than I've seen anywhere else before, and the heathers brighter than August (the last time I was at Tillypronie). I walked through long grasses on the hill, and jumped over a burn, then climbed breathless across heather, and down into the woods. All was quiet, as if in a silent dream, even the roe deer, standing motionless as statues, waiting for me to pass, and then leaping up, disappearing towards the skyline...

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Keep reading...

Here's a piece I wrote for Saturday's Telegraph on the latest wave of Chanel biographies... the picture (above) is by a wonderful photographer, Shahrokh Hatami, one of the few to come close to capturing Chanel...

Given that five was Coco Chanel’s lucky number – not least because she saw it as synonymous with her best-selling perfume – she might have been pleased, as well as amused, to see that she is the subject of a quintet of new books this autumn. As the author of a previous biography of Chanel, I should, perhaps, be dismayed at the arrival of competitors. I’d like to think that mine is the only book required by those in search of the truth about Chanel; but one of the many mysteries of Chanel – the most elusive of women – is that people seem always to want more of her, rather than less (which is itself an intriguing conundrum, given her legacy of streamlined modernism, in sartorial matters, if nothing else).

Of the various stories told about Coco Chanel – born Gabrielle, misidentified as Chasnel, the illegitimate daughter of an itinerant market trader, in a provincial French poorhouse in 1883 – a great number were invented by herself. These legends were to be the undoing of the earliest of her biographies (ghosted memoirs commissioned by Mademoiselle Chanel, but never completed or published, always smothered by her at birth when she realized that the truth was less compelling, at least to her, than the self-invented creation myth). They also permeate the recollections published after her death in 1971, including ‘L’Allure de Chanel’ by her friend Paul Morand, which repeats the fairytale that she was raised by aunts, in the wake of her mother’s death. In fact (not that facts are readily available to those seeking uncover the realities of her childhood), Chanel had been abandoned by her father, along with her two sisters, in an orphanage run by nuns at Aubazine, a medieval Cistercian abbey in an isolated region of Corrèze. From these remote beginnings, via a shadowy period as seamstress, shop-girl, music-hall singer and mistress, Chanel made her way to Paris, and fame.

The fairytale remains sufficiently compelling for writers, as well as readers, to wish to make it their own; a myriad reinterpretations and variations, all of them woven out of Chanel’s raw material. Given the afterlife of her classic designs that still prevail in her own (now globally recognized) label, not to mention all the other brands, we should not be surprised; simply consider the lasting appeal and reinvention of her little black dresses, soft tweed jackets, chain straps on quilted handbags, stripy tops, pearls, camellias. Each of these can be linked to Chanel’s past: black as the colour of mourning, remade into a symbol of female independence; pearls akin to the rosary beads of the nuns that taught her to pray, and to sew; chains like the ones worn around their waists; white camellias in recognition of La Dame aux Camellias, the archetypal courtesan who died of consumption (as did her mother); tweed from the sporting garb of her lover, the Duke of Westminster; sailor stripes and trousers from her Riviera escapades.

So far this season, I have been reading these five new books, in between marvelling at the way Chanel’s language of fashion continues to shape the latest collections (just look at the Jazz Age dresses and Coco white collars atop black sweaters). Two are by serious academics: Amy de la Haye’s ‘Chanel: Couture and Industry’ (V&A Publishing) and Linda Simon’s ‘Coco Chanel’ (one of the Critical Lives series published by Reaktion); the author of the former is a professor at the London College of Fashion, the latter an English professor in New York, and both are an indication of the central status that Chanel occupies in the history and culture of the 20th century.

As for the others – Hal Vaughan’s headline grabbing account that depicts Chanel as a Nazi agent, Lisa Chaney’s ‘An Intimate Life’, and Isabelle Fiemeyer’s ‘Intimate Chanel’ – well, where to begin? I am not convinced by Vaughan’s interpretation of Intelligence sources (we have both spent much time researching military archives, but draw differing conclusions; my own view about Chanel’s wartime activities is somewhat less sensational than his, although I hope more subtle and nuanced). Of the two biographies that promise intimate truths, Chaney’s text is undeniably thorough, but Fiemeyer has the distinct advantage of having collaborated with Chanel’s closest surviving relative, her great niece Gabrielle Palasse-Labrunie, who knew her well.

Gabrielle the younger, born in 1926 (and rumoured by some to have been Chanel’s granddaughter; her father, Andre Palasse, officially Chanel’s nephew, was certainly as close as a son -- of which more in my book) was enormously helpful to me in my researches, and her memories and inheritance are displayed again here. The unhappiness of Chanel’s past is made clear – both of Coco’s sisters committed suicide, according to Madame Labrunie – but perhaps most intriguing of all are the photographs of the talismans that Chanel held most dear. If her life and work was shaped by magical signs and symbols (numerology, tarot, with the dead always close at hand), then some of her esotericism was passed on by her first great love, Boy Capel, as is evident in his handwritten notebook that she treasured after his death in a car-crash in 1919. This contains fragments from sacred texts – including theosophy, alchemy, Masonic secrets – and provides an intriguing context to Chanel’s jewellery collection, including the Egyptian medallion that she wore constantly and the child’s ring with which she was buried.

But in the end, however closely we may study these and other precious objects – and I wrote several chapters of my book surrounded by some of them, working at Chanel’s own desk in her private apartment – no one can ever fully possess Chanel, although she continues in her remarkable possession of us…

Monday, 24 October 2011

Daphne: The Guardian Reading Group discussion

I'll be online from 1 until 2pm today as part of the Guardian's Du Maurier discussion... Hope to chat to some of you there.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Autumn roses...

The temperature has dropped, but the sky is still blue over my garden, and I've been admiring the late flowers, whilst also giving the honeysuckle a gentle trim (its blossom is long gone, and the highest branches are looking bare and spindly). Every so often, the wind whips fast, and the last petals are blown away, quicker than I can capture them on camera (which makes me wonder if one should ever try to catch a rose), but then I notice another rosebud, on the verge of opening...
So I'm not feeling as apocalyptic as Emily Dickinson, but couldn't resist the temptation to quote her poetry (again).

The name—of it—is "Autumn"—
The hue—of it—is Blood—
An Artery—upon the Hill—
A Vein—along the Road—

Great Globules—in the Alleys—
And Oh, the Shower of Stain—
When Winds—upset the Basin—
And spill the Scarlet Rain—

It sprinkles Bonnets—far below—
It gathers ruddy Pools—
Then—eddies like a Rose—away—
Upon Vermilion Wheels—

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Rediscovering Daphne

Thanks to some thoughtful questions from Savidge Reads and Novel Insights, I've been absorbed in Du Maurier again. Excellent questions from Simon and Polly, and good to read along with their 'Discovering Daphne' blogs. They've taken me back to Menabilly again (and its ghosts, and mine), and from there down the track and through the tree to that cottage in the woods...

Sunday, 9 October 2011

And next to Norwich...

... where I am speaking on Tuesday at the Jarrolds Literary Lunch, alongside the distinguished Robert Shirley, 13th Earl Ferrers, and Susan Hill (whose writing is amongst the very best of contemporary authors; her brilliant ghost stories haunt me still -- they're as good as MR James or Daphne du Maurier. Her novel, 'In the Springtime of the Year' is also close to hand on my bookshelf, ever since I read it after my sister's death). Very pleased to be going to Jarrolds, an excellent department store that first opened in 1820 as a bookseller and lending library (for more about Jarrolds and other independents, read the Guardian guide here). Rather thrillingly, lunch is being held at Delia Smith's restaurant on the top floor of her Norwich City Football Club. Regular readers of this blog will know that I consider Delia's apple crumble recipe to be the best ever. And I'm also feeling inclined to try her autumn lamb recipe, now that it's colder outside...
PS. Later today. Inspired by Delia to have a baking afternoon: have made lemon cheesecake and a very dark gingerbread. The latter is my own recipe, adapted over the years, so I have no one to blame but myself if it isn't sufficiently gooey (I use black treacle, crystallised ginger, and spelt flour). If the lemon cheesecake works, then I'll post the recipe tomorrow; it has to be refrigerated overnight after baking, so the test will be in the tasting...
PPS. Just had the first slice of cheesecake -- delicious. Here is the recipe. I added far more lemon juice than suggested (the juice of two lemons, rather than a teaspoonful, as I like a properly lemony flavour; I also doubled the quantities for the biscuit base -- 85g of digestives, plus 85g ginger biscuits -- and substituted 150 grams of Greek yoghurt and 150 grams of half-fat creme fraiche for 300 grams of Philadelphia cheese, because I already had them in the fridge; in other words:
300g light soft cheese.
150g Greek yoghurt.
150g half-fat creme fraiche
175g golden caster sugar
3 tbsp cornflour
1½ tsp finely grated lemon zest
Juice from two lemons
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 eggs , room temperature, beaten
150g fromage frais

My cheesecake took twice as long to cook at the low temperature than in the recipe, but then everyone's oven is different... you'll know by the slight wobble!

Paris diary...

A brief, yet magical trip to Paris on Tuesday for the Chanel spring/summer 2012 show, which I loved. (Both the collection, and Paris.) Firstly, apologies for the dismal qualities of the pictures, which do no justice to the glorious scenes I saw; but I thought better to have snapshots than nothing at all. (For more professional pictures, look at This is what I loved most:
1. The pearls in the Chanel show; taken back to their underwater origins, as shimmering leit-motifs in the pale dreamscape of the vast Grand Palais. Pearls are, of course, as essential to the Chanel iconography as the little black dress (indeed, they are the clues to Gabrielle's childhood in the convent at Aubazine, where the nuns' rosaries look like the religious originals of the ropes of pearls that were to become an integral element of her codes as a couturiere). In Lagerfeld's hands, they were scattered through the models' hair, dotted in a graceful line descending from their necks, threaded into belts and buttons, embellishing bags and dresses and cardigans.
2. Place Vendome on a balmy evening in October; the last warm breath of a late Indian summer. Walking across the cobbles to the Ritz, and looking up in the darkness to the suite on the top floor, where Chanel lived in the 1930s -- imagining the nights when she entertained the Duke of Westminster, Winston Churchill, Dali, Picasso, et al. Wondering who slept there now, in the grandeur of the Coco Chanel suite...
3. Following Mademoiselle's footsteps to the discreet lift at the back of the Ritz, beside the Rue Cambon entrance, and up to the sixth floor, to the smaller room where she slept for three decades, until her death in January 1971. Stepping into that room, not for the first time, but perhaps for the last; savouring the moment, wanting it to last forever, yet knowing that nothing lasts, but it can evolve and change into something even more unexpected. Waiting for the next chapter to unfold...

Monday, 26 September 2011

Flying across Arizona

Back in the air again, and high above the mountains and deserts of Arizona. It's such a big country; stating the obvious, I know, but the horizon just seems to stretch forever. I feel as if I've traveled so far in the last nine days -- London to New York, Boston, LA, and now onwards to Texas -- but when I'm in the sky, I realise what tiny inroads I've made, not even scratching the surface of this vast place.
I've never been to Dallas before, and am therefore intrigued: so far, I associate it only with the memory of screen or print images from my childhood. Speaking of screen associations, I still feel thrilled about driving along Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, and Laurel Canyon. When I get back home, I'm planning to watch one of my favourite films yet again: Chinatown. Just think of the clothes, let alone the unforgettable landscape of an imaginary past...
And then it will be time to re-read The Great Gatsby.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Chanel in Beverly Hills

Up on the rooftop at the Chanel boutique in Beverly Hills yesterday afternoon, where the sky was blue and the conversation intriguing. There I met the Costume Council from the Los Angeles Museum of Art, and we talked about Coco Chanel's visit to Hollywood in 1931, and a vault where her original black dress is still kept in another Californian archive. Guess where I want to go next? Phone calls were made on my behalf, so here's hoping.
I also asked these wonderfully well-connected women to see if they could find out what happened to the long-lost Chanel costumes that were designed for Gloria Swanson in Tonight or Never; those, and Chanel's other couture originals commissioned by Samuel Goldwyn for his Hollywood productions in the early 30s.
You never know, a little sprinkling of old-school Hollywood magic may fall from the sky before I go...
PS. More to come about the conversation with Liz Goldwyn at Soho House on Thursday evening.