Now this is not a book I would usually pick up, but one of the reasons of being in a Book Club is to read books you wouldn’t normally read (and I am not so hypocritical as to dislike a book before actually reading it.)
The main aspect of the book that put me off was the fact its a romance. Don’t get me wrong I like a bit of romance every know and then, my favourite ever book is Jane Eyre closely followed by Lady Chatterley lover. But these books had substance and meanings and I was worried the Wardrobe Mistress would fall more into the realms of trashy, none-thinking, over nostalgic tat, that you throw in your bag when you go on holiday and can read on the beach. But each book has its place and, as one of my Book Club members said, ‘you cant always be in the mood for highbrow’.
The story is set in London 1945 and tells the story of Vanessa Kingcourt, a young war widow, with a passion for the theatre, laid deep by her recently deceased father. After serving her country during WW2 she has returned to the city she loves clutching the key to a mysterious inheritance. She gets a job at her fathers old haunt The Ferran as a Wardrobe Mistress, however she has no experience and no budget for supplies, leaving Vanessa to use her intuition to create beautiful costumes from whatever scraps survived the blitz. It’s a seemingly impossible task, and one which unravels family secrets sewn deep into the very fabric of the London theatre scene.
I know…its sounds terrible, but once I starting reading it I began to see there was more to this book then first meets the eye (as are the majority of the characters in the book).
I liked the connection between Oscar Wilde’S Play, Lady Windermere’s Fan and the plot that unravels in The Wardrobe Mistress (WARNING PLOT SPOILERS FOR BOTH!!!)
Lady Windermere’s Fan is the first play that the Ferran puts on when it opens after the war with Vanessa as Wardrobe Mistress and love interest Alistair as the Manager. As Alistair is still married at the time, to a wife he suspects of cheating, one of the characters (comically) points out it may be inappropriate to start with this play, as it is about a marriage on the rocks and suspicious of inferdelity. But the connections do not stop there.
Lady Windermere’s Fan was Oscar Wilde’s first play and is the first play shown at the Farran after WW2, it makes him famous and in the book the play is a success and marks a profitable return of the Farran.
Another similarity is that Oscar Wilde was notoriously sent to prison for being gay and relocated to France after his release. While the costume designer Hugo is also gay and flees to France to escape capture from the police.
I also like how Evans uses the play to look at the ideas of ‘modern and old fashioned’. For instance Oscar Wilde was seen as a modernist writer while in the story there is a lot of worry about the play being too old fashioned for the new modern crowd and at the end of the story Vanessa and Alistair open a Modern theatre. However while Oscar Wilde wrote Lady Windermere’s Fan over 50 years ago in the book and despite being seen as old fashioned for some of the characters many other characters in the story can be seen to still struggle with many of the issues raised in the original play. For example Vanessa’s real mother and adopted mother both worry about a scandal when a baby is conceived and no husband is around. Fern is also worried about her reputation both socially as a lady and from the point of view of her new in laws, as she will be a divorcee, who had an affair while married. Fern’s father is also concerned about reputation and ruins a lot of peoples lives by not granting a divorce.
The story line between the play and the novel also share other similarities. For instance there is a husband falsely accused of cheating, Lord Windermere and Alistair both of whom are actually protecting their wives. There is a mother who abandons her daughter and there are several love triangles.
However Wilde and Evans have two different emotional goals in their writing. For while Oscar Wilde was able to write about the pain of infidelity, the sadness of a mothers abandonment and seriousness nature of a persons reputation and make it light and funny. Evans tries to show us the more serious side to it, but, in my opinion, never quite getting there. For instance the very tragic character of Eve the poor original Wardrobe Mistress has a terribly sad life – her baby dies in childbirth while she wait for her useless actor boyfriend to get off the stage. He then takes her child’s identity in order to cover up her other lovers illegitimate daughter. Then five years later she is given only a few minutes with the little girl who has taken on her dead daughters life. Then to have half her face blown off while she goes to help her drunken lover, who promptly dumps her because of her disfigurement and spends the rest of her painful life in a nunnery, unable to talk because of her injuries. This poor woman is a woman to feel truly sorry for and yet we never truly do. The reason being Meg Evans writing never really lets us get there, for she is in too much of a race to get everything else done, including getting Alistair and Venessa in the sack, or find out Vanessa’s true identity or find if the Farran will survive.
The over piling of narratives continues with the novels overrun of characters, many of whom are never fully shaped. For instance the evil Miss Bovary’s never more than a caricature of herself, draped in black, holding séances in a dark empty theatre, her transition from high flying scantily clad trapeze artist to a figure often mistaken for a ghost is never explained. While her soppy sister, egotistical nephew and malice brother in law are never developed beyond a few lines. I also ended up losing track of all the different actors and there back stories-to be honest I wasn’t very interested by this point and I sympathised with Alistair when he complains that Oscar Wilde must have had a lot of actor friends as the world and his mother had parts in his play-as that is how I felt about the book-there was just too many people!
I also became very frustrated with Vanessa and Alistair’s continual will they wont they. It was beyond irritating, with one thing after another stopping them from jumping in to bed with each other, either she says the wrong thing, or he does, or they are interrupted by wives or theatre staff. And finally Evans explains (rather well) the truly moral reason why Alistair (despite his attraction to Vanessa) will not sleep with her and I thought, well that makes sense, I get that, ok so they cant sleep together until he is divorcee, only for 10 minutes later all his resolve to come crashing down as Vanessa is naked in his bed!!!!!!!!
However despite all of that I did enjoy reading it and did like the wonderful character of Fern who was beautifully self involved, I also felt Evans did a great job of transporting her readers back in to time to a post WW2 London. The details of the cloths and food and hairstyles were brilliant, with little touches of feminine knowledge, such as using coco powder for tanned legs and having to keep mark up warm to put it on correctly in the winter. And although it was far too much of a Disney movie ending I was happy to see Vanessa and Alistair getting their happy ever after, but I doubt I will be picking up another Evans book in a hurry