REVIEW: Clothes-Pegs by Susan Scarlett
“Do you live permanently in yellow evening frocks and court gowns, or have you anything else?”
Annabel laughed shakily.
“Of course. My own clothes.”
“Then go and put them on. Lovely ladies who fall over their trains need cocktails to restore them. And that’s just what I’m going to take you to have.”
Annabel Brown has taken a job in the sewing room at Bertna’s, a high-end dressmaker, to help her family’s finances. When one of the “mannequins” employed downstairs quits unexpectedly, Tania Petoff, the shop’s owner, decides to try lovely Annabel in her place, to the chagrin of her catty fellow models. Annabel’s improved status leads to tension in her close-knit family, then (following a wardrobe malfunction) she catches the eye of wealthy Lord David de Bett-and the ire of the dreadful Honourable Octavia Glaye. How things work themselves out is as delicious a bit of frothy fun as one could well imagine.
I’ve never read anything by Susan Scarlett (aka Noel Streatfeild) but this blurb sounded like fun and I decided to take a chance on it. After finishing it, I can say that anyone who likes Mary Burchell, Bettie Neels, or D.E. Stevenson will probably enjoy this.
Written and originally released in 1939, “Clothes-Pegs” takes us back to a quieter and more simple time. Even though the time frame is from late 1938-June-ish 1939, there is no mention of any impending political doom. It’s just a sweet, family centered story of a young working class woman who unexpectedly gets promoted at work from a seamstress to a “mannequin” (as models were called in those days). This bit reminded me of Burchell’s Florian series. This was the age when designers created their dresses with a certain mannequin in mind to model them and when the brilliant and hardworking Miss Pettof finds herself in need of a dark haired brunette mannequin, she thinks of unassuming but also hardworking Annabel Brown.
Stunned at being asked to become a mannequin (with the amazing pay of £3 a week!), Annabel is lost at first, never having seen clothes being “shown” before. It goes far beyond merely walking around a room as the mannequins are supposed to show the line of a garment, indicate the cleverly sewn pockets (a dress with pockets!), the cuffs, the linings, everything. But Annabel is an immediate hit with the customers once she “gets it.”
On the same day she meets a wonderful man who appears to admire her as much as she (she thinks) yearns for a man she knows she could never have, she gains a spiteful, catty enemy to go along with the other two mannequins who delight in making snide comments to her. Luckily one other mannequin is kind to her. Bernadette is a bit cynical and worldworn but she takes Annabel under her wing. Unfortunately, her experience almost derails things later on.
Because yes, of course the man Annabel loves is a Lord and Bernadette feels she must warn her friend about how men of his social standing often view mannequins. The catty Honorable Octavia also does her share as well to upend any chance David de Bett and Annabel have. There was a third act conflict that seemed way out of proportion when it happened but the instigator quickly realized their error and repented. YMMV about that person’s feelings and actions.
But wait, what about the family centered sections? A few Betty Neels books like “Visiting Consultant” and “Damsel in Green,” come to mind. Annabel’s family are working class but not ashamed of themselves or their house. When catty Honorable Octavia tries to turn them into a joke to share with David, he shows his true colors and discovers hers. Mum Ethel is the glue of the household and a delight to have on the page. When we see Annabel’s family, we see why she’s the sweet and unassuming person she is. Annabel would never put on airs or lie because of the way she’s been brought up. The Brown family sticks beside each other, looks after each member, and won’t stand for nonsense. That’s why when one of them does get into trouble, they don’t turn against that person while also making sure that things are put to right.
Yes, in the story it’s a little easy to see what’s coming. There are no major plot twists that will be much of a surprise but it’s lovely to see how things play out. Them what deserves happiness get it while the bad ‘uns get their comeuppance. In the older style of the authors I mentioned, the story has a lot of telling but I enjoyed it nonetheless and will be looking at more “Susan Scarlett” books. B