FICTION READING - RUMER GODDEN'S - this is an extract from Rumer Godden's novel Black Narcissus set in an English convent in India. It describes a young Indian man's interest in European dress.
BLACK NARCISSUS. RUMER GODDEN. 1939.
Sister Clodagh was sitting upright at her desk, another table and chair were ready for him and the embroidery frame was pushed against the wall.
'I am to sit here?' he asked, puzzled.
'Yes,' she said, 'and before we begin, General, I have something to say to you,' Without glancing at his work she told him that he must come more suitably dressed to lessons.
'I've wanted to consult with you about that,' he said, looking up with eyes as large and lustrous as the antelope's who stood at St Francis's hand in the embroidery frame. 'I've been thinking of it all through the holidays and I wrote for this.' He took a catalogue from his pocket. 'I've been thinking that, as I'm planning to go to England, and when I'm visiting and receiving instruction from European ladies, it would be very polite of me if I wore European clothes. Like this. It was the algebra lesson that reminded me. Sister Clodagh, why are they called plus fours?'
Sister Clodagh frowned at the picture of the young man in plus fours. She did not want to talk. 'We must get on with your lesson, General,' she said.
'One minute, Sister. Perhaps it's a mathematical measurement,' he suggested. 'It looks a kind of knickerbocker suit. That's what my Narayan Babu often talked about, a knickerbocker suit. Perhaps these are plus four inches bigger on every side than the usual kind of knickerbocker. They certainly look very big. This is another that I have thought of.' He flipped over the pages. 'You see what it says. "A very gentlemanlike suit. Highly recommended. Double-breasted, pin striped, in a choice of colours. A nice quality material that hangs well." That sounds nice, doesn't it, Sister Clodagh? But what does it mean?'
'A pin stripe is a very narrow stripe, almost a thread, and a suit is said to hang well when it's well cut.'
'Well cut out, you mean.'
'It looks very nice in the illustration.'
'But is it the thing?' he asked anxiously. 'I do want to go about as fashionably as possible.'
'The catalogue's a new one, so that it's sure to be up to date,' she soothed him. 'And now General - '
'Shall I have to wear braces?' he interrupted her.
'Not if you don't want to, but really, General - '
'But I do want to,' he broke in. 'I've always wanted to. And I must have some underclothes. Here are some pictures and you see it says "Viyella is best for underwear." I believe what it says because this is a printed catalogue so it must be true, but what is Viyella, Sister Clodagh?'
'Really, General Rai, you must ask someone else these questions,' said Sister Clodagh. 'In the Convent we can't - '
'Why, have I said anything not right?' he asked in confusion and distress. 'Is Viyella not a proper subject? Oh I am so sorry.'
'No, no,' said Sister Clodagh. 'Viyella is only a kind of flannel, but I meant that we are not suitable people to advise you on your clothes.'
'But who is to help me if you won't? I was depending on you. Why, already I've ordered a box of shirts and ties and socks and pyjamas to be sent here to you on approval, so that you and all the Sisters could help me to choose them.'
'You ordered them to be sent here?' she asked faintly.
'Yes. I thought we should have such fun choosing them. You mustn't say you won't help me. You see, my uncle doesn't care for English clothes, and the only European gentleman I know is Mr Dean and he isn't very tidy, is he? I mean he doesn't look at all like these gentlemen in the pictures. I only know what Narayan Babu taught me and I do want to be charmingly dressed, Sister.'
'You are charmingly dressed,' she said helplessly. 'You shouldn't change it. You look nicest as you are.'
'But I want to wear English clothes. I want to be just like they are in England. My cousin Pratap lives there in London. He has a valet and a flat and a car. It's a Delage. My uncle would buy me a Delage if there were a road here for it to go on.'
'General,' she said, 'we must start your lesson. You don't come here to talk to me, you know...' (Godden, 1994, pp.162-4).
Godden, R. (1994) Black Narcissus. First published 1939. London: Pan.