‘Clothes-Pegs’ by Susan Scarlett
Originally published in 1939, reissued by Furrowed Middlebrow. Buy here.
Romance. A certain place and time. So sang Josef K over those guitars that were neither too noisy nor too crude, but instead brittle and beguiling. If ever I was going to go for Romance, then, it was going to be that kind of feeling. Something with an edge of darkness and an awkward desolation. In terms of fiction romance, a little dewy eyed Falling For The Detective is fine, as are star-crossed lovers with a chip on their shoulders. Backs against the wall, you and me against the world, kiddo. But a full blown feel good slushy Romance? Get outta here.
This is one reason I have largely avoided the titles put out by the the Furrowed Middlebrow publishing house in the past. Sure, the thought of feasting on yet more texts from the 1930s, 40s and 50s was appealing, but really they were always more than enough great crime and detective fiction titles streaming from partner imprint Dean Street Press to keep me happy. Perhaps my inclination to finally try something was influenced by my enjoyment of the many great non-detective books unearthed by Persephone books. Certainly the likes of ‘Farewell Leicester Square’ and ‘Patience’ went a great way this year to encourage me to take the plunge with a Furrowed Middlebrow and I have to admit I am ever so glad that they did.
My first foray into their sizeable catalogue was Elizabeth Fair’s ‘Bramton Wick’ and what a pleasure it was. Originally published in 1952, it’s a tremendous book, a glorious little comedy of domestic life in post-war Britain and something to file alongside the likes of those Miss Buncle books by D.E. Stevenson from two decades previously. It’s the Furrowed Brow reissues of Susan Scarlett’s novels from the midst of WW2 that have really hooked me most effectively though, Scarlett being the pseudonym of renowned children’s author and ‘straight’ novelist Noel Streatfeild. It appears that Streatfeild was somewhat sniffy about her Scarlett books, which perhaps says more about the strange contempt for ‘genre’ writing in general held by many ‘serious’ artists and critics at the time. They must certainly have helped pay the bills, however, and Streatfeild would pen a total of twelve books as Susan Scarlett in the space of as many years, and the same number again under her real name.
The first Susan Scarlett novel Clothes-Pegs’ might sit somewhat pensively in the shadow of the coming conflict, but there is just enough hope that War Might Be Avoided to lend it an optimistic tinge. It’s certainly a novel that hovers between past and future in terms of its tropes of class and wealth distinctions. To an extent it is a classic Working Class Girls Makes Good type of fairy story, the kind of ‘Cinderella’ thing that Wodehouse would have Rosie M. Banks pen in ‘Bingo and The Little Woman’, but it’s none the worse for that. Indeed, the story certainly sides with more, ah, Modern attitudes to class rather than the Traditional and makes clear that Honesty and Hard Work are to be valued a great deal more than Deviousness and Money-Grabbing Desperation.
It’s essentially a duel between those two stances that marks out the book’s central fast-paced narrative. In the one corner, Annabel, a conscientious seamstress working in a high-end dressmakers, unexpectedly promoted to the giddy heights of ‘mannequin’ in the shop downstairs. In the other, the despicable Honourable Octavia Glaye, a spoilt socialite who might, a decade or so previously, have run with the Bright Young Things and been photographed by Cecil Beaton, but who is now Living Beyond Her Means and in desperate need of a rich husband to pick up the shopping bills. Caught in the middle, the wealthy Lord David de Bett, over whom Octavia fights like a cat and Annabel shies like a mouse. It’s all comedic, cartoonish and deliciously so, and whilst the outcome may never be in doubt, Scarlett does take us on an immensely pleasurable series of fairground rides to get there.
Romance, then, in a certain time and place, but this time light and bright. A reminder that there is a place for froth and flimsy just as there is for fun’n’frenzy, after all.