Friday 25 October 2019

The Clara Vine series, by Jane Thynne: Sue Purkiss

I first came across the Clara Vine books a couple of years ago. I’ve just re-read them and caught up the newest one, Solitaire - and I think I’ve enjoyed them even more this time round.

The story - because it is one story, albeit with different, wholly engrossing episodes - begins in Berlin in 1933 with the arrival of a young Englishwoman, Clara Vine. A rather unsuccessful actress, she has heard that the film industry in Berlin is expanding, and, as this coincides with a wish to put a distance between herself and an unwanted suitor, she decides to try her luck. 

She comes to the attention of Goebbels, the minister for propaganda who also has responsibility for the film industry. Through him she meets his wife, and through her the wives of the other men at the top of the Nazi Party - a potentially useful situation which is not lost on British intelligence. Clara, in short, becomes a spy  at the heart of the Nazi war machine.

There’s so much to enjoy in these books. Clara is a fascinating character. Jane Thynne explores the elements of her upbringing and character which have led her to be a good spy: her reserve, her self-sufficiency, her ability to inhabit different personas, to hide behind a mask. She’s a subtle creation: she isn’t an expert in self-defence, she doesn’t get into fights: she survives on her instinct, her intelligence and her quick wits. She’s kind and loyal, and she is in some ways vulnerable. She’s a character you come to care for. 

Each book centres on a mystery of some kind - a murder, a missing person, a plot that has to be uncovered. But all this is set very firmly in the context of Berlin in the years of the Nazi ascendancy. Clara is right at the centre of things, so through her Jane Thynne can tell us how they managed to coerce a whole population to go along with their awful creed: how they convinced the people that they were under threat from enemies within and without, and that the only chance of salvation was to trust in a charismatic leader. It makes chilling reading - more so now than when I first read the books a few years ago. 

The research behind all this is formidable. Jane Thynne is immensely knowledgeable and informative about life in Germany during this period: both the big historical events and the minutiae of everyday life, down to the name of a popular lipstick, the details of the food people ate, the cut of a uniform. She weaves actual incidents - the capture of two spies which almost destroyed the British intelligence operation in Europe, a plot to kidnap the Windsors, Eva Braun’s suicide attempts - into Clara’s story, and does this with such skill that it seems completely likely and natural. 

I think she’s a really excellent writer. I’m astonished that no-one’s made the books into a TV series as yet, and it surprises me that they aren’t far better known. Black Roses is the first one, and it's an absolute cracker.

Friday 18 October 2019

'You really must get some flounces'

By Susan Vincent

Okay, here’s the thing. According to the United Nations, a truck full of textiles and garments gets dumped or burnt every second. Measuring this way, how many trucks full of waste clothing got thrown away in the time it took you to read to this point? Maybe around ten?

We all know that fast fashion is an ethical and environmental disaster. We know we have to consume less and reuse more. So let’s take a look back in time and see if we can learn anything from the practices of the past.

Any curator of costume will tell you that many – perhaps most ­– of the garments in their collections bear the signs of repair and alteration. For those skilled enough to read them, these seams and stitches are eloquent testimony to a garment’s changing life and also to the changing age, shape and desires of its wearer. Clothes are astonishingly malleable, although most of us have forgotten this. They can be made bigger or smaller; they can be augmented to assume a different shape; they can be cut apart into new incarnations. Surface decoration comes and goes, function changes, and one colour transforms to another.

Here are just four examples, one for each century.


This Armenian cope – an ecclesiastical vestment – dates from the seventeenth century. It is made from Persian velvet with an embroidered panel, or orphrey, edging the front. But the main body of the cope is constructed of joined-together pieces. Their shape and size – as you can see in the close-up – show clearly that they were once part of other garments. One or more of these was cut up, its scraps and panels husbanded, and carefully pieced together to form this new item.

The second example is a baby’s jacket that may have originated in India. It is made of a linen chintz, with four ties added as closures – both practical and jaunty – and dates from the second part of the eighteenth century. Like the cope, it has been sewn from reused fabric, either unpicked from an adult’s garment or cut out from a bed cover.

Here is a dress from the nineteenth century. Unlike most of the garments in museum collections, it has a documented provenance: we know exactly who wore it and when, and how it was altered and why. It belonged to a young woman called Amelia Beard (1844–1918; married to John Welles Hollenback in 1874), who lived in Brooklyn, New York. She first wore it in 1862, to be bridesmaid at the wedding of friends. Around ten years later, in response to a last-minute party invitation and finding herself with ‘nothing to wear’, Amelia adapted the gown to its present Polanaise style, the fine cotton muslin re-sewn as an overskirt cut away at the front and gathered high behind. 

And from the 1920s–30s, here is a delicious pair of silk lounging pyjamas. (The item is not in the public domain so I can’t include the image, but you can see it on the Met’s website here.) When originally made the legs were wide; sometime later they were narrowed for a new look.

While the signs of reuse lie within existing garments like these, they live also in documentary evidence. Letters are a great source for this. Look at Jane Austen’s to her sister Cassandra, for instance. 
The trend at the time was for dresses to be cut fuller towards the hem and increasingly trimmed at the bottom 
with frills and borders. When Jane reports to Cassandra on the modishness of this, she adds:

‘You really must get some flounces. Are not some of your large stock of white morning gowns just in a happy state for a flounce, too short?’(Letter dated 14 Oct. 1813)
Cassandra must have agreed and got busy with her needle, for twelve days later Jane enquired: ‘How do you like your flounce?’

The Austens also adapted the colour of garments, to change the purpose or extend their life. But dyeing – undertaken by a more or less skilled professional – could be expensive and the process hazardous for fabrics:

‘My Mother is preparing mourning for Mrs. E. K. – she has picked her old silk pelisse to peices [sic], & means to have it dyed black for a gown [...] how is your blue gown? – Mine is all to peices. [sic] – I think there must have been something wrong in the dye, for in places it divided with a Touch. – There was four shillings thrown away; – to be added to my subjects of never failing regret.’ (Letter 7 Oct. 1808)

Should we be trying to copy the reuse employed by Jane and Cassandra and almost every other wearer in the past? Is it possible to move forward to the future by going back to older ways?

We mustn’t kid ourselves that the Austens or any of our other forebears were any better than us. I’m sure that if they’d had the opportunity, they would have done precisely as we have. Theirs was a practice of necessity; ours – until environmental disaster forces our hand – is a moral choice. And in our time-poor and materially rich lives, it will take both commitment and resolve to change our habits, and the investment of buying better-made garments in the first place.

But one thing is certain. In producing cheaply, buying easily, and discarding without thought, we have not only misused our resources and polluted on a global scale. We have also killed the wonderful, ongoing life of our clothing.

1. Waistcoat (close-up on armhole alteration), 1610–20, silk and linen, V&A Museum, London, no. 179-1900

2. Cope, first half of 17th century, velvet. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1914, no. 14.67

3. Detail of cope

4. Baby’s jacket, c. 1760–c.1800, linen chintz. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Gift of Jonkvrouw C.I. Six, 's-Graveland, no. BK-1978-784

5. Evening dress, c.1877, cotton. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection, Gift of Amelia Beard Hollenback, 1966, no. 2009.300.3290

6. Evening dress, back

7. Journal des Dames et des Modes, 5 October 1813, Costume Parisien: ‘Coeffe à la Chartreuse. Par-dessus de Perkale’. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, no. RP-P-2009-2432

Friday 11 October 2019

A New Emperor for Japan - by Lesley Downer

Amaterasu Omikami, the Sun Goddess, by Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865)
In Japan the accession of a new emperor initiates a whole new era. Year 1 of the Reiwa Era, the Era of Beautiful Harmony, began on May 1st this year, the day that Emperor Naruhito took the throne. His father, Akihito, abdicated the previous day.

The emperors of Japan are said to be descended in an unbroken line from the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu Omikami. For many centuries the emperors had a ritual rather than a political status; they were more like popes than kings. The emperor (and the occasional empress) acted as an intermediary with the gods, offering up prayers to protect Japan and ensure good crops, and at some periods they were worshipped as gods themselves.
Naruhito in his enthronement robes

As a result the emperor’s enthronement is a bit different from the coronation of a temporal monarch like Elizabeth II. There are no crown jewels, no golden carriage, no public procession.

There are three successive ceremonies.

Presentation of the Three Sacred Treasures
The first ceremony is the presentation of the Three Sacred Treasures - the sword, the jewel and the mirror - which were given by the Sun Goddess to her grandson when he descended to earth to become the founder of the imperial dynasty. All three once belonged to the Sun Goddess and date from legendary times.

The day Naruhito took the throne, he was formally presented with the sword and the jewel as proof of his rightful succession. The Sword is a replica. The original Grasscutter Sword is enshrined at Atsuta Shrine in Nagoya. The Jewel is an ancient and profoundly symbolic necklace. But the most important of the three, the Sacred Mirror, never leaves the Grand Shrine at Ise, Japan’s holiest shrine, akin to the Vatican or Canterbury Cathedral. Where western religions have an altar, at the heart of every shrine in Japan is a mirror, embodying the god. The Sacred Mirror embodies the Sun Goddess herself.

Enthronement Ritual
Emperor Jimmu (660-585 BC)
by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892)
The second ceremony, the enthronement ritual, will take place on October 22nd and international royalty, including Prince Charles, and heads of state will attend. Part is public and part seen only by the emperor and a few Shinto priests. The emperor, wearing full dress regalia, ritually informs his ancestors that he has ascended the throne. He then sits with the empress in a curtained octagonal pavilion topped with a golden Phoenix. The curtains swish open and he declares his ascension to the assembled dignitaries.

The Great Thanksgiving Festival
The third and most important ceremony is a religious one. It takes place in the middle of November. This is the legendary and tantalisingly secret Great Thanksgiving Ceremony, held by torchlight in dead of night deep in the imperial palace grounds in Tokyo.

It takes months of preparation. Special sacred rice has to be grown in paddies chosen and purified by elaborate Shinto purification rituals. Two thatched huts in the ancient native Japanese building style, preceding the arrival of Chinese influence, are constructed in the palace grounds. One represents the ancient style of houses in eastern Japan, the other of western Japan. The furnishings are also in ancient Japanese style. In one there is a vestigial straw bed and the other is for musicians.

Nintoku's tomb
The ritual takes place after nightfall. The emperor, dressed in the white silk robes of a Shinto priest, enters the first darkened hut at 6.30 p.m. Surrounded by chamberlains and assisted by court maidens he offers sacred rice and sake to the Sun Goddess, partakes of them himself and prays for bumper crops and national peace.

Then, after midnight, at 12.30, he enters the second hut. No one knows precisely what goes on, but according to some accounts he receives the soul of the Sun Goddess or even joins with her in sexual union, presumably symbolic, and thus assumes his divinity.

Descent from the Sun Goddess
Emperor Nintoku (313-399AD) by
Toyohara Chikanobu (1838-1912)
According to the story the first emperor of Japan was Jimmu, descended from Ninigi, the grandson of the Sun Goddess. Traditionally his accession is dated from 660 BC. He is famous for his long bow and the three-legged crow who accompanied him on his journey to Yamato, central Japan. The next 124 emperors are said to be descended directly from him.

Dotted around central Japan, mainly in the Nara area, are some 20,000 ancient burial mounds. Among them are 896 imperial tombs, including those of the 124 emperors, from Jimmu to right up to Hirohito, who died in 1989. Every year envoys arrive to conduct Shinto rituals at the tombs and to offer gifts from the emperor. Many of the most important are in and around the two ancient capitals, Nara and Kyoto. The biggest, a vast keyhole-shaped mound near Osaka, is the tomb of Emperor Nintoku, the sixteenth emperor (313 - 399 AD).

For many years it was forbidden to excavate the imperial tombs on the grounds that they are sacred religious sites. Then twelve years ago the Imperial Household Agency, that governs all matters to do with the imperial family, gave permission for archaeologists to enter the fringes of two of the tombs but not to excavate there. One suspicion is that the Agency fears that inspection of the tombs will reveal evidence that far from being descended from the Sun Goddess, the Japanese imperial family actually originated from China and Korea. 
Emperor Naruhito and Empress
Masako wait to greet President
Trump May 2019. Official White
House photo by Andrea Hanks

In 2001, on his 68th birthday, Emperor Akihito mentioned his Korean ancestry, saying, ‘I for my part feel a certain kinship with Korea, given that it is recorded in the Chronicles of Japan that the mother of [the Japanese] Emperor Kammu was descended from the line of King Muryong of Paekche [in Korea].’ 

The new Emperor, Naruhito, is very much a twenty first century monarch. He studied at Oxford University where he wrote a thesis on river transport on the Thames and went on to marry a multilingual diplomat, now Empress Masako. He knows Prince Charles and admires the way in which the British monarchy has made itself more accessible to the public. He has said that he wants to ‘stand close to the people’ and ‘bring a fresh breeze’ to the monarchy. Nevertheless he still has to begin his reign by paying his respects to the legendary founder of his dynasty - the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu Omikami.

Lesley Downer’s latest novel, The Shogun’s Queen, is an epic tale of love and death set in nineteenth century Japan and is out now in paperback. It tells the story of how the Emperor was transformed from a reclusive religious eminence to the figurehead of the new political order in the middle of the 19th century. For more see

All pictures courtesy of Wikimedia Commons