FICTION READING - ANITA BROOKNER - this is an extract from Anita Brookner's novel Providence. It describes a young woman having a dress made for her by her french dressmaker grandmother. Kitty is a university lecturer and the dress is for a formal lecture which she has to present to her department. The making of a special dress has been a rite of passage which she has grown up with.
PROVIDENCE. ANITA BROOKNER. 1982.
Kitty Maule, her expression absent, her eyes apparently dazzled by the reflection of the sun on the round rim of a small silver bowl containing rocky pieces of a sweetmeat fabricated by her grandfather, stood very still on a sheet in the middle of her grandparents' sitting room. A bolt of raw silk, the colour of honey, had been breached and now hung about her, firmly tacked. Louise, her expression equally absent, stood with a yardstick in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Vadim his lips pursed, his fingers stroking his jaw, nodded from time to time.
For Kitty, this rite of passage, which she found tiring, uncomfortable, and inappropriate, was nevertheless an essential preliminary to any important occasion. It had been thus all her life: before going to a party, or to her relations in France, or on her birthday, she had had a dress made for her by Louise. The ritual was so familiar as to be unnoticeable: the silent consultation, the gravity of expression, the lengthy fingering of the material, the draping, the pinning, the minute adjustments to a shoulder seam, to the hang of a skirt, to a sleeve, tiny pinchings at the back of the waist, the weighting of the hem. There was never any discussion over the design and colour of these garments, for Louise had always been dictatorial in her professional life. She knew better than anyone else what would be suitable for a particular occasion. She, the product of the rue Saint-Denis and Percy Street, was on more intimate terms with the rituals of society than her many clients, at home with the requirements of royal garden parties, wedding receptions, Glyndebourne, the south of France, Scotland. She had not, it was true, yet designed any clothes suitable for someone giving a talk but she did not doubt that she would be equal to the task. She saw that this might be the last dress she would ever make, and although her eyes were no longer good, although her fingers were getting stiff, although she could no longer kneel, she knew that she would in fact kneel, and pin, and measure, and that the honey-coloured silk, which had been wrapped in black tissue paper since the death of Marie-Therese, for whom it had been destined, would finally be made into a dress not only in keeping with her own professional career, now vanished, now hardly remembered, but which would tip the scales in favour of her grand-daughter's future. What that future could be, Louise had little idea. It seemed to her absurd that an event so far outside her own experience that she could not even imagine it - some sort of formal occasion, she gathered, at Therese's place of work - should preoccupy her grand-daughter so or indeed have anything to do with their shared life at all. And yet she knew that however outlandish Kitty's activities might seem, she must be there in the form of a guide, of designer; whatever happened to Kitty, Louise would see to it that she was, on this occasion at lest, perfectly dressed.
The design that Louise had in mind, a plain shift with long sleeves, was undeniably elegant but seemed to Kitty too fashionable, too positive a statement, too glamorous. There had been a slight argument about this, which was unprecedented, for Louise always knew best and was never questioned, but Kitty had been adamant. 'I need room to move in,' she had said. 'I need a fuller skirt. I need pockets. Is there enough material for a jacket? Maman Louise, don't look at me like that. It will be beautiful, I know, but I can't look too expensive.' She meant, I can't look too old-fashioned, too obvious. She thought of Pauline, indifferent to her baggy skirt, and of how much easier she was to be with than Caroline with her fearless colours and cunning arrangements. She thought, what will Maurice like? Certainly not something tight and straight, like something worn by a model. For myself, I think the material is too elaborate, too noticeable. And yet I need a dress suitable for a formal dinner. Oh, I don't know, I am uneasy about this. 'Maman Louise,' she said, 'give me some of your pleats.' Louise had been famous for her pleats. ... Louise had been unwilling. 'Le tissue est trop important,' she had murmured, and then she had seen the look in Kitty's eyes, and for the first time in her life she had allowed the girl to have her own way, and the dress had been cut, and pinned, and sewn. And after this fitting it would be finished and she would never see it again. None of these thoughts had shown on her face, which was expressionless. But she had sat up late into the night, too late, perhaps, and the result would be something of which she could be proud. ...
The heavy dull yellow silk lay in a pool in her grandmother's lap, although the jacket was finished, had been pressed by Vadim, and was now displayed on the dressmaker's dummy in the spare room, where it strained over the descending swan-like bosom and flared over the unindented hips. But the dress, the dress! Sometimes it seemed to Kitty as though it would never be finished, as if the minute stitches would go on for ever, as if there were always another seam, another pleat, as if it might have to be dismantled and started again. ...
Standing on a sheet in the middle of the floor, she submitted while Louise dropped the dress over her head, while Vadim turned her round and secured it, while Louise then lifted the dress on the shoulders and let it settle. She stood quite still as Louise stepped back, lit a cigarette, and contemplated her handiwork. She stood until the cigarette was smoked, the inspection finished. Not a word was exchanged. The Louise turned to Vadim and nodded to him. His face broke into his great smile and he kissed her cheek. Then Kitty was allowed to see herself in the glass. The dress was exquisite, so light, so easy, with the famous pleats breaking about the knees, and the long graceful jacket. ... Then she turned to her grandmother who motioned her to walk up and down, and then when she was back on the sheet and her grandmother seated, she said, 'It's perfect.' (Brookner, 1983, pp.140-150).
Brookner, A. (1983) Providence. London: Triad Grafton.
Brookner, A. (1983) Providence. London: Triad Grafton.