Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Swans, Snow and a Talking Mole

Edred and Elfrida walking down the street before
their adventures begin.
Oh Lordy, I must be getting old. Or growing up or something. That’s three children’s ‘classics’ I’ve read recently, and I hated all of them, even though they ticked all the right boxes. Which is odd when you consider my weakness for children’s literature.

First up is Edith Nesbit. I’ve always loved The Railway Children, and the Bastable stories, and Five Children and It and its two follow-ups, so I thought I’d love The House of Arden, which just shows how wrong you can be. I know there are lots of people out there who really rate this book, but it didn’t do anything for me, except make me cross. 

Brother and sister Edred and Elfrida Arden live with their aunt, who lets lodgings, which is ‘one of the most unpleasant ways to make a living’. They’ve got no money, their mother is dead, and their father has disappeared on an exploration to South America, accompanied by the aunt’s fiancé. Strange how many children’s books feature absent parents, either one, or the other, or both. Obviously this enables children to go off and have adventures, but I do wonder if there’s some deeper significance. 

Anyway, it turns out that Edred is heir of the Ardens, so they move to their ancestral home, a crumbling castle which luckily includes a habitable (but run-down) house. To restore the fortunes of family and castle Edred and Elfrida must find the Arden treasure, hidden away centuries ago.  
Prisoners in the Tower: Edred meets Sir Walter Raleigh
while they are both imprisoned in the Tower of London.
Helped by pigeons they don garments found in old chests and are transported back in time to periods matching the clothes. And wherever they go in time there are two children who look just like them, and are their ages, with their names, and they become those children. 

This was what I really, really hated about this book. I couldn’t get my head round the way they travelled through time taking over other children’s lives, like some kind of cosmic hijackers. It’s Quantum Leap a century earlier, but unlike Dr Sam Baker they not allowed to change history. Personally, I thought it was really spooky. And in case you wonder what happens to the other children (well, I certainly did) they pop off and hang around somewhere else until they can return. And they don’t notice anything is happening because they’re not special like Edred and Elfrida…  

And don’t get me started on the magical talking mole (the White Mouldiwarp from the Badge of Arden). Or the magical clocks which appear, made of daisies and such like. Or the magical swans pulling a magical carriage made of magical snowflakes.

Actually, the magical elements in this book really annoyed me because, on the whole, they’re twee and fluffy and pretty, and pulled out of nowhere, like a rabbit from a hat. Children trapped on top of a tower in a snowstorm? No problem, let’s conjure up a swan drawn snow-carriage to rescue them. Why swans and snow? Because all things white obey the Mouldiwarp. Well that’s OK I suppose, and after all it’s not really so very different from Cinderella going to the ball in a pumpkin coach pulled by mice-horses, and I’ve no problem with that.  
Time traveller: Elfrida in the Georgian era.
So why don’t I like this? I’ve tried to analyse my response, and I’m really not sure, but I think it has to with the fact that I feel magic should be grounded in some kind of reality or mythology, if that makes sense. Authors like Diana Wynne Jones, JRR Tolkien and Ursula le Guin created characters who wield enormous magical powers, which they use only in dire need. There is an emphasis on balance, a sense that there is a cost to be paid for using magic, because it can upset the equilibrium of the world, and have unforeseen consequences. They have a responsibility to use their powers wisely, and they don’t magic something out of nothing, or change the essential nature of something. If they are not to be perverted to the dark good magicians must abide by some kind of rules or guidelines. Even in fairy tales magic can be a dangerous business, and you may not always get what you wish for.  

The final chapter (which involves a lot of magic) is one of the daftest and most unbelievable things I’ve ever read. And there is, of course, a happy ending, which has nothing to do with the treasure, and includes a repetition (or recycling, if I’m being kind) of the most famous lines in The Railway Children, which is sloppy writing, and I would have expected better from Nesbit.  

Actually, this post hasn’t gone in the direction I planned. I was going to write a few concise paragraphs on The House of Arden, and a little bit more on Elizabeth Goudge’s The Runaways, which I also hated, but that will have to wait for another day. And I didn’t mention Richard Arden, a mysterious boy from the past who knows about Edred and Elfrida’s time. However, his tale is revealed in Harding’s Luck, the follow-up to The House of Arden and deserves post of its own.

*The illustrations are by Harold Robert Millar, from the original 1908 edition of the book. 

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Girl in the Dark

Imagine yourself forced to live in total darkness. Not the normal curtains-pulled sort of night-time darkness, but total, impenetrable blackness, so dark that you must feel your way around. That’s what happened to Anna Lindsey (a pseudonym) when she developed a severe sensitivity to all forms of light, natural and artificial. Exposure to light, however small or dim, caused excruciating pain, as if her skin were being burned by a blowtorch.

Girl in the Dark is her account of how life changed. It’s not a misery memoir. Although Lindsey admits she gets depressed – and has even, on occasions, thought of suicide – generally she remains upbeat, and her book is both uplifting and life affirming. She is no longer angry about her condition, and she has stopped seeking reasons or answers. She explains: “‘Why me?’ is the question of an idiot. The sensible person says simply, ‘Why not?’”
Girl In The Dark: Anna Lindsey's beautiful, moving
account of living with a severe sensitivity to light.
As her photosensitivity worsened, her world contracted to a single blacked-out room in the house of her boyfriend (now her husband). “It is extraordinarily difficult to black out a room,” she tells us.  

“First I line the curtains with blackout material, a heavy, plasticky fabric, strange flesh-like magnolia in colour, not actually black. But the light slips in easily, up and over the gap between the rail and the wall, and at the bottom through the loops made by the hanging folds. 

“So I add a blackout roller blind, inside the window alcove. But the light creeps in around the sides, and shimmies through the slit at the top. 

“So I tackle the panes themselves. I cut sheets of cooking foil, press them against the glass, tape them to the window frames. But the foil wrinkles and rips, refuses to lie flat. Gaps persist around the edges, pinpricks and tears across the middle.” 

Eventually, with curtains, blind, layer upon layer of foil and tape, and a rolled towel along the crack at the bottom of the door, she has blackness. But even that is not enough. To protect her skin from light rays that cannot be seen, but can still be felt, she must cover herself from head to toe in an assortment of garments, discovering through trial and error that some materials and styles are a more effective barrier than others. 

The room is small, but when she is first in the dark she often gets lost, for ‘the darkness can cause disorientation that is total, and terrifying’. She develops strategies to cope and listens to audio books and Radio 4 – plays, readings, debates, current affairs but, to start with at any rate, not music. At the beginning music ‘unhinges’ her, reminds her of what she has lost. 

And she plays word games in her mind, sometimes on her own, sometimes with visitors. Most tricky is the word grid, five squares by five, forming five letter words down and across - difficult enough when you have pen, paper and light, but well nigh impossible without them.

During the 10-year period covered by the book Lindsey has periods of remission when she is able to emerge from her room and venture to other heavily veiled parts of the house. In semi-darkness she cooks and reads, and is even able to creep outside in the dark. There are some memorable moments, like a night-time walk in the garden in the falling rain. She tells us:

“From the crown of my hat to the toes of my boots, an indescribable thrill runs through me. I stand poised at the edge of the lawn, and my starved senses open to this delicious, half-forgotten joy... 

I let myself be soaked. Like a young plant, I let myself be watered well in. It is as though I am being kissed by the world, welcomed back to life.” 
Roses at Montisfont. (Pic from National Trust website)
And on another occasion Mottisfont, a National Trust property near her home, arranges an extra-late midsummer opening so she and her husband can visit the walled rose garden. As they go through the door the smell ‘wallops’ them in the face. 

“It is as though we have passed from air to some new substance, formed of a thousand interlocking scents that twist languorously about each other, like invisible smoke.” 

It’s a magical interlude and as they leave she says: 

“…on the inside of my eyelids I carry with me the imprint of glorious flowers, and in my nostrils, the ghosts of their perfume.” 

It’s a shadowy sort of existence, and timings become all important during her good spells: her life is ruled by sunsets and sunrises. A photographic light meter helps track the amount of light she can tolerate. For example, f1 is almost dark; f4 is more or less when street lights come on; f8 is the sun just above horizon on a clear day. Light levels at noon are f200 plus, which she cannot cope with. She is, she says, ‘nibbling at the edges of the day’.  

Sadly, these periods of remission are all too brief, and she is always forced to retreat back to the sanctuary of her dark room. She looks back on them, grateful for the respite, but never lets herself hope for more, because she is unsure they will ever be repeated. 

Girl in the Dark is very moving, and very lyrical. Lindsey writes with great warmth and lucidity, and is able to consider her consider her situation and analyse her feelings in way which reveals more general truths about humanity. It made me laugh and cry - moments of high drama and intense sadness and despair are juxtaposed alongside interludes full of joy, and almost farcical episodes, for Lindsey retains her sense of humour, and is well aware how ludicrous her life can seem.  

Reading it took me on an emotional journey which left me exhausted, and I cannot begin to envisage what it must be like for Lindsey to live like this. Yet she seems to have achieved a degree of serenity, a feeling that what will be will be, and she is thankful for small pleasures in life. I was left with the feeling that we should all put a higher value on things we take for granted, like the feel of rain, the smell of a flower, the warmth of the sun – and having enough light to sit and read a book.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

The Gipsy in the Parlour

In the heat of a spacious August noon, in the great summer of 1870, the three famous Sylvester women waited in their parlour to receive and make welcome the fourth. 

The three famous Sylvester women – Charlotte, Grace and Rachel – are sisters-in-law who married (and tamed) three of the wild Sylvester brothers. They are big and blonde, hard-working and warm-hearted, and they are about to meet the youngest brother’s bride-to-be. But Miss Fanny Davis, is not a bit like them. And her arrival brings discord and change, threatening the happiness and well-being of the farm… 

The Gipsy in the Parlour is written with Margery Sharp’s usual light touch, but I think it’s a little darker than The Nutmeg Tree. The story is related by an unnamed narrator, looking back on her lonely childhood, when she spent idyllic summers with her Sylvester relatives on their Devon farm. The book covers two years of her life, and three visits to the farm. Our narrator is 11 when Fanny Davies comes to wed the youngest brother, and she tells us: 

I marvelled how my uncle Stephen, used to the splendid Sylvester women, could have fallen in love with such a thin, pale, dusky little gypsy. 

Fanny is: 

…small, very slender, rather limply dressed in black or grey, on her head a small black straw hat. There was an air of the town about her; and of something else which, I (coming out from behind my aunts), couldn’t immediately define. 

That undefined ‘something else’ is slightly worrying, a hint perhaps that things are not quite right. And what is she doing down by the crab apple tree in the middle of the night? And her voice may be sweet and musical, but it is ‘wooing’, as if casting a spell over her listeners. She certainly bedazzles our narrator, making ‘a ‘little friend’ of her, gaining her trust with sweets and endearments. But she doesn’t take any part in family life, and she doesn’t help around the farm or the house. She does absolutely nothing.  

And when our narrator returns to the following year she learns there has been no wedding, for Fanny has been struck down by a mysterious malady - a ‘decline’, the aunts explain. Our narrator is puzzled by the sudden illness, but says: 

It wasn’t at that time, particularly uncommon. Ladies lay in declines all up and down the country… 

She is relieved to see Fanny doesn’t look ill: 

She had always appeared both weakly and genteel - the two essential conditions one couldn’t go into a decline without. (No common person went into one. Common persons couldn’t afford to. Also, there needed to be a sofa. No sofa, no decline.) 

Was the young narrator perceptive enough (and cynical enough) to make that comment I wonder? Or is it an adult reflection, composed with the benefit of hindsight? Anyway, there is Fanny, firmly ensconced on a new sofa in the parlour, using the lustre-ware from the china cabinet, picking at the daintiest food, her every need attended tot.  The sunny room (the aunts’ pride and joy) is dimmed and silent: even the clock has been stopped, because its chimes’ bruise’ Fanny’s nerves.  And the aunts have curbed their natural ebullience and speak in hushed whispers as they creep about their home. The harmony of the house is broken, the Sylvester women are no longer in total accord with each other, and there is grey in Aunt Charlotte’s hair.  
Back home in London the narrator receives a note from Fanny, with a letter for Cousin Charles (Aunt Charlotte’s estranged son). Believing Fanny is trying to heal the rift, our narrator delivers the letter herself and finds Charlie working as a chucker-out at Jackson’s Economical Saloon. She becomes friendly with his lady friend, Clara Blow, who runs the establishment, and is as big, capable and warm-hearted as the Sylvester women. Charlie, according to Clara, is pining for the farm - but something (or someone) is preventing his return… 

Our narrator, whose experience of life and love is derived largely from romantic novelettes borrowed from the succession of cooks at her parents’ home, decides that Charlie must marry Clara and return to the farm. And she wants to cure Fanny.  

It’s a shame to reveal what happens on the next trip to Devon, but Fanny, as we suspected, has a cunning plan and when this is exposed Aunt Charlotte whisks her off to London for a showdown with Charlie. Actually, whisks is the wrong word, because preparations for the trip take five days. Aunt Charlotte travels with her own food, so the aunts bake pasties and cakes, and she packs eggs and a tea-caddy (for breakfasts) – imagine how a modern hotel if you did that! Then there are her clothes: 

All the flowers were cut from her best bonnet, steamed and re-attached, the strings were treated similarly, also ironed. Her skirt and bodice were sponged with vinegar. Her underlinen required no attention at all, the store was so great and so immaculate we had to pick out the best, two of each, and one dozen cambric handkerchiefs, still bearing her maiden cypher.  

Fanny is not so splendid. She possesses the dress she stands up in, two limp dresses more, and a peacock silk ball-gown. Her underlinen is ‘charitably’ ignored by everyone. She has no mantle, only a shawl, and her black straw hat is too far gone to steam into better shape. 

What Fanny does have is the ability to seize an opportunity, but it’s her manipulative powers which give the novel a dark edge. She rules the household, while seeming to be weak, defenceless and passive, so the aunts must bend their will to her and subdue their real nature. And in an odd way they are complicit in this situation. They are aware of what is happening, but they go along with it. They won’t turn Fanny out or treat her badly because she is Stephen’s betrothed, and they don’t want to bring shame on the Sylvester name. 

I loved this. I like Sharp’s writing style, amusing and light-hearted with (if you’ll excuse the pun) a sharp edge. Her descriptions of people (even the minor characters) are very astute. And while the ultimate outcome may be in little doubt – Aunt Charlotte, after all, is a force to be reckoned with – there’s enough tension to keep you reading to the very last page. All in all it was a very satisfying read.

PS: I'm just wondering I could link this to the Reading England Challenge, over at Behold the Stars. The aim is to travel England reading, and read at least one classic book per however many counties of England you decide to read. I think this counts, since it is set largely in Devon. But to be honest, much as I like Margery Sharp I  don't really think she counts as a classic, so maybe not.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Nostalgia Rules - OK!

A day trip to London last week resulted in the acquisition of just one book, which is pretty unusual for me – normally I return home aching in every limb after staggering around with a backpack stuffed full of books, and heaving it on and off the train. Anyway, I was very restrained this time around, and just bought this, from a vintage toy stall in Greenwich Market, and it was only £1, which is an absolute bargain.
Apparently, The Ladybird Book of London has now been updated, with additional pictures, but this is an original (retro, as my younger daughter would say) in remarkably good condition, although it is missing the dust-jacket, which had a picture of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament - the same image was printed on the board covers of later editions, and which also appears inside the book.
According to a note inside, this was ‘First published in 1961’, but Ladybirds are notoriously difficult to date, so it's not necessarily a first edition. However, the company stopped publishing books with dust-jackets in 1965, when coloured illustrations were printed directly on to the board covers, so that narrows the sating field a bit! 

Not only do I remember this book from my childhood, I also recall visiting most of the places featured – we were a short train ride from London, and had relatives there, so we ‘went to town’ quite a bit. OK, I know I’m wallowing in nostalgia, and this a self-indulgent post, but as far as I’m concerned The Ladybird Book of London is a real classic, with 24 illustrations showing London’s best-known sights as they were when I was small, and I love it!  

The information still holds good, and illustrator John Berry focuses very much on the subject of each picture, so you don't see much traffic, or many other buildings. I suppose they're rather idealised images, but it does mean he places are recognisable, despite London’s changing skyline and altered streetscapes. And only one attraction has disappeared - the wonderful Planetarium next to Madame Tussaud's has closed, but the building survives, providing a home for a Marvel Superheroes 4D display. It would be interesting to go round with a camera, and take shots from the same angles as Berry's paintings.

One thing which has altered quite dramatically since the book was published is the River Thames. It appears in several pictures, generally as a busy waterway, packed with cargo ships and barges, but it really doesn't look like that any more. The closure of the docks has completely transformed the Thames, and these days great stretches of the river are empty, and the main traffic seems to be commercial pleasure craft. I hadn't grasped the scale of the change until I looked at this book. I suppose changes don't happen overnight - they creep up on you unawares, over a period of time, so slowly that you hardly notice.
Then... John Berry's portrayal of the Cutty Sark.
 Since we’re talking boats, I’m pleased to see the Cutty Sark draws tourists to Greenwich just as it has always done. There’s a new visitor centre on what was once the quayside and the surrounding area has been landscaped, but the view of the ship’s masts standing proud against the sky is the same. 
Now... My portrayal of the Cutty Sark, taken last week. It was painstakingly restored after a
devastating fire in 2007. You can say the Visitor Centre, behind the plants, stretching along
the quay in front of the ship. The view hasn't changed a lot, but it's more commercial now.
And there are still ducks, geese and swans on the lake at St James’s Park, as well as pelicans - a Russian Ambassador gave some to Charles II way back in the 17th century, and they’ve been breeding ever since. You can feed the birds, or enjoy a picnic, or read a book under the shade of a tree, or just sit and watch the world go by. London’s parks are fantastic, and this is one of the nicest, as lovely now as it was 55 years ago when The Ladybird Book of London was first published, and you can still find spots which offer a vista with few intrusions from the modern world. 
An unchanging scene in St James's Park. 
Trafalgar Square also remains pretty similar, although the empty fourth plinth is now used as temporary exhibition space for artworks, which is a great improvement, and you’re not allowed to paddle in the fountains, which is a shame. And, of course, the streets around the square are full of tall modern buildings. 

There’s a good map on the front papers, which is clear enough to use - the lay-out of the main streets can’t have altered that much! But the Tube map on the end papers is probably a museum piece, printed long before the creation of the Jubilee Line, the Docklands Light Railway, and the Piccadilly Line extension to Heathrow Airport. 

And the airport (referred to as London Airport) merits an entry, looking like a child’s model – surprisingly small for what is described as one of the largest and busiest airports in the world. And it boasted a public enclosure where people could watch ‘airliners’ arriving and taking off, as well as pony rides, a miniature railway and a sandpit! The author tells us: 

The authorities of the airport are pleased to see us, and they have arranged everything for our pleasure and interest. 

Really? This makes it sound as if air travel was an enjoyable experience, and the airport was so nice that people flocked there for days out, like some kind of theme park, and I’m not at all sure that was the case. Perhaps people who lived further away had a different perspective, but we lived nearby and were used to planes flying overhead (I think they were seen as a bit of nuisance). Lots of local residents worked at Heathrow, and people went there to catch planes, or collect relatives, but I don’t remember anyone going there just for fun.  
Does anyone remember Heathrow looking like this?
The book was written by John Lewesdon, but I can’t find any information about him. However, Ladybird used teachers, historians and other experts in addition to well-known authors, and some writers were only involved with one book, so perhaps Lewesdon was one of these.   

The paintings are by John Berry (1920-2009), one of the company’s chief illustrators for some 20 years. A former war artist, he was an acclaimed portrait painter, but also worked as an illustrator, and in advertising - he provided the tiger for Esso’s iconic ‘Put a Tiger in your tank ‘campaign. 
Portrait of an artist: John Berry, who illustrated
The Ladybird Book of London

Monday, 27 April 2015

Patricia Brent, Spinster

Think Fairy Tales…  And Love at First Sight… And Obstacles Overcome…  And Rags to Riches…  And Happy Ever After…  Patricia Brent, Spinster, by Herbert George Jenkins, is all these, and is one of the most delightful books I’ve read this year. If you liked Winifred Watson’s Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day you will love this – it’s every bit as funny and light-hearted, and features an equally unobtrusive, overlooked heroine who metamorphoses into a stunning, sophisticated beauty with a mind of her own. And, of course, it has a lovely, happy ending.

Once again I owe thanks for a new discovery to Simon at Stuck in a Book, who wrote a lovely review here but, as usual, I’m a little late to the party, because other people posted pieces about this months and months ago.  
This is a 1919 cover I stole from Simon at Stuck in a Book,
so I hope he doesn't mind. Personally, I think it looks
rather sinister with all those eyes.
Anyway, I digress. Orphaned Patricia, secretary to a rising MP (who is unlikely to rise very far), is an impoverished "paying guest" at the Galvin House Residential Hotel, where the boarders, the landlady, and the building itself are all down on their luck. One day she overhears two of her elderly fellow "guests" pitying her because she doesn’t have ‘a nice young man’ to take her out. Hitherto, whatever she may have thought about the inquisitive residents and their pretentious gentility, Patricia has always remained polite. But she’s 24, lonely, and bored - and at this point something inside snaps. 

So she tells everyone she will not be there for dinner the following evening because she is dining at the Quadrant Grill-room with her fiancé! To satisfy the boarders’ curiosity, she invents an Army major named Brown, who is home on leave from France (the book is set in 1918, before the end of the First World War). And she explains that no, she doesn’t have an engagement ring because she hates ‘badges of servitude’! 
The next night she dresses with care and sets out to dine - on her own. But, to her horror, on arrival at the posh restaurant she finds three Galvin Houseites have turned up to spy on her. Rendered reckless at the thought of the humiliation she must endure if her lie is exposed, she approaches a young staff-officer sitting on his own, and asks him to help by ‘playing up’, and he happily obliges. 
Needless to say, the young man - Lt Col Lord Peter Bowen, DSO (how fortuitous that his name is so similar to the make-believe boyfriend!) – falls in love with Patricia, and she is equally smitten, but won’t admit it. 22She’s determined not to succumb to Lord Peter’s charms: he may offer an escape from her dreary life, but she is much too proud to marry a wealthy man when she is poor.  
Looking at this 1970s cover you'd never know the
book is set in 1918!
As Lord Peter pursues Patricia, and she tries to keep him at a distance, a kind of sparring partnership develops between them, reminiscent of the relationship between Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. But there are complications because Patricia’s original story means everyone thinks she and Lord Peter are already   engaged… And life becomes even more awkward with a visit from sour, interfering Aunt Adelaide (her sole surviving relative)! 

As the novel progresses Patricia finds her voice. At the start you think she’s rather quiet and dowdy, but she’s neither. She’s intelligent, articulate, witty, very independent, and quite modern really, so it’s a bit of a shock when she turns to mush as Peter finally kisses her and she realises she loves him. Now I know things were different when this was written, but I refuse to believe any woman ever fainted when kissed. 

But that’s a small quibble, because this is such an enjoyable romantic comedy – and there’s a comedy of manners going on as well, because Jenkins is a more astute observer of social distinctions than you might expect. At Galvin House for example, residents are desperately trying to maintain some kind of social position and keep up appearances, for appearances are everything. 

At Galvin House manners were things that were worn, like a gardenia or a patent hook-and-eye. 

There’s a social hierarchy that must be observed, with rules about precedent and conduct, dress codes, table etiquette and so on. The account of the residents’ preparations when Lord Peter comes to dinner is hilarious. And it’s interesting to see how their attitude towards Patricia changes as soon as they think she is engaged to a lord. But their vulnerability is revealed during a night-time bombing raid. 

There are some wonderful characters. I particularly like Mr Triggs, father of the MP’s aspirational wife. Now retired, he’s risen from humble beginnings to make a fortune in the building trade, but remains down to earth, shrewd and kindly, equally at ease in all levels of society. But it’s his clothes that make him memorable, rather than anything he does or says. Take this for example: 

Triggs stood before her, florid and happy. He was wearing a new black and white check suit, a white waistcoat, and a red tie, while in his hand he carried a white felt top-hat with a black band... and over his black boots he wore a pair of immaculate white spats. 

Isn’t that a splendid image? Actually, Jenkins is brilliant at describing clothes. Here’s Patricia dressing for that first evening with a non-existent fiancé: 

With great deliberation Patricia selected a black charmeuse costume that Miss Wangle had already confided to the whole of Calvin House was at least two and a half inches too short; but as Patricia had explained to Mrs Hamilton, if you possess exquisitely fitting patent boots that come high up the leg, it’s a sin for the skirt to be too long. She selected a black velvet hat with a large white water-lily on the upper brim.  

“You look bad enough for a vicar’s daughter,’ she said, surveying herself in the mirror as she fastened a bunch of red carnations in her belt. “White at the wrists and on the hat, yes, it looks most improper.” 

The final touch to the ensemble is a gold wristlet watch fastened over one of her white gloves. 
I imagine Patricia's dress looking a little like the pink
one on the left, but in black, with some white trimming,
and red flowers at the waist. From Delineator May 1918
A costume was usually a two-piece outfit, but charmeuse puzzled me. I thought it might be a fashionable style, but it turned out to be very fine, satiny material, which drapes and clings, so perhaps this was one of those rather shapeless, floaty outfits that were so popular at the time, with a kind of longish jacket layered over a skirt that came above the ankle, but well below the knee. 
Or there's this, also from 1918, which is less floaty,
 and a bit more classy perhaps, and the white cuffs
 and neckline are rather nice.
And those patent boots must have been highly desirable, because in 1918 questions were raised in Parliament following an Army Council Order the previous year which effectively banned the sale and manufacture of women’s boots, presumably to free up materials and workers for the armed forces. 

I should point out that Patricia Brent, Spinster was originally published by in 1918, and re-issues were available as late as the 1970s, but print editions are hard to find. However, it is available as Ebook from Project Gutenberg.

High, shiny, black boots! These were made in America in 1918,
and I think they look pretty stylish, so perhaps Patricia wore
something similar.   Found on collections.lacma.org