A longer (abridged) quote today, dear readers, from The Paying Guests, set in 1920s London:
‘Oh, Frances, you look lovely. Oh, the colour suits you. You’re lucky. If I wear green it makes me look like a corpse. But, yes, it suits you. All it needs is a bit of work.’ Coming close, she began to tug the frock into shape with brisk, professional fingers. ‘The waist wants lowering, for a start. It’ll be quite a different gown, then. It’ll show how lovely and slim you are – oh, I’d give anything be slender like you! – but the line will be softer…’
She spoke without a blush, quite unself-conscious, as if it were perfectly natural that she should have been studying and forming opinions on Frances’s ankles, Frances’s hips, the style of Frances’s underwear. But then, of course, women like Lilian gazed at other women all the time. They gazed at them, really, far more often than men did. They noticed, they judged, they admired and damned, they coveted bosoms, complexions, mouths … She was drawing up the hem now. ‘This ought to be raised. See how it’s better?’
‘But I don’t want it raised.’
‘Just an inch or two, for the party? I should have thought you’d like ladies to have shorter skirts. You don’t want us to go out hobbled.’
‘Stay just like this, while I fetch my pins!’
There was no resisting her. She ran for her work-basket and returned to measure and mark, moving Frances’s limbs about as if they were those of an artist’s dummy. She loaded the frock with so many pins that when it was time for Frances to remove it she had to inch herself out of it, afraid for her skin.
There is SO much going on in this extract. I love how Sarah evokes the quite business-like intimacy of fitting another woman’s dress to her body. In my experience, any concern about personal space disappears when I need help with a bodice fitting. I’ve happily climbed in and out of clothes in front of fellow sewing students.
Also, the assessing way in which Lilian inspects Frances’s body – partly with a technical gaze, but partly because that’s just what other women do. My ex-boyfriend’s mum always says, ‘Women dress for other women.’ Is this true?
And then there is the subtext. (Look away now if you don’t want a spoiler!) This re-fashioning of a tired party dress is part of an intricate preamble to seduction. Lilian and Frances are soon to become lovers. Never has the danger of a piercing pin prick been more emblematic, as Frances worries for her skin. Skin about to spring to life under a very different touch.
Have you read any Sarah Waters? I love this historical novelist who brings her own interesting twist. I wish I could ask if she’s ever sat at a sewing machine.