Certain People of Importance

by Erin on December 9, 2007


The Beloved Woman

(image from The Beloved Woman)

Google Books (and Project Gutenberg, too) now has quite a few novels from one of my favorite guilty pleasures, Kathleen Norris. (Not the Kathleen Norris who is a poet and essayist, and who is still alive, but the Kathleen Norris who was the most popular women's novelist of the 1930s and 1940s (selling 10,000,000 books), peace activist, and early woman journalist.)

All her novels revolve around the same romantic linchpin: that marriage is sacred (she was a devout Catholic). I may snort at the plots that seem to tie up neatly with the convenient death of the bounder who is making the heroine unhappy (or, conversely, with the heroine's selfless realization that the bounder is her burden to bear and that her happiness will come, masochistically, from cooking that same burden hot dinners) but I really read them for her wonderful descriptions of the clothes and food of California society from the turn of the last century to the 1940s.

Ella thought her handsome, in a rather bold, savage way. Victoria was dark and rosy, with flashing eyes and [a] vivacious, almost nervous manner. She wore a dress of dark blue cloth trimmed about the high collar and wide cuffs and about the thick panniers of the skirt with scallops of gray silk, and a high straw turban turned back sharply from the face with two triangles of brim and massed with roses. This somewhat elaborate dress was snugly fitted into a narrow waist line; Victoria wore tan kid gloves, and high scalloped boots of tan kid. Her forehead, like her mother's, was covered with curled hair, and bangles jangled on her wrists, about her neck was a long gold chain that held the little watch that was thrust into her bosom. She was twenty-one.

from Certain People of Importance

"'Cucumbers, olives, salted nuts, currant jelly'", Mrs. Carew was
reading her list, "'ginger chutney, saltines, bar-le-duc, cream
cheese', those are for the salad, you know, 'dinner rolls, sandwich
bread, fancy cakes, Maraschino cherries, maple sugar,' that's to go
hot on the ice, I'm going to serve it in melons, and 'candy'–just
pink and green wafers, I think. All that before it comes to the
actual dinner at all, and it's all so fussy!"

from The Rich Mrs Burgoyne

Norris has a way of writing about dimity ruffles and oyster stew and silk "Chinese" pajamas that engender such a longing for you in those articles that it's hard not to book the first seat on the next train (not plane, mind you) to San Francisco, where, in her books, all these things are in such oversupply that it's the rare young woman who doesn't have at least two, if not all three, in her possession. If you have a little time (and don't mind reading on-screen) go ahead and click.

And, in fundraising news, a couple of folks have asked me to set up a Paypal button to donate; I don't mind doing so — are there other people interested? If the widget below doesn't work for you, here's the link directly to the ChangingThePresent page …we're up to $1000! Thank you!


{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

janlorraine December 10, 2007 at 6:40 am

Haha. I remember reading at least one of her books years ago called ‘The World is Like That.’ I know I thought at the time that it was silly and predictable, but I have to admit that the plot (and some of its moral lessons) has stayed with me since I occasionally still think about it. I think I have read some of her short stories, too, in anthologies, but can’t think of a single title. I’ve been meaning to read some books by another California writer, Nellie Sims Beckman, my great, great, great aunt, but haven’t gotten around to it.

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Thoughts on Life and Millinery. December 10, 2007 at 9:10 am

My grandparents were socialite types in SF during that time period. And yeah, I totally love pictures of clothes from that era. Another mega Christian writer of the time was Grace Livingston Hill. She may have been pushing romance and religion, but the girl knew dresses. Wow. Details galore! And hats…she spent two pages in one book describing the thoughts of the leading lady fretting about arriving without her hat after it was lost in the train station.

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BJ December 10, 2007 at 9:38 am

I don’t mean to criticize your fundraising efforts – I love this charity, I have told everyone and their cousin and my students about it and tried to get them to donate (with minimal success.) But if I recall last year’s heifer goal, it was much lower originally, and then you started posting drabbles, and people kept chucking money to it, which completely blew the top off the thermometer. Is there any chance of perhaps giving us an early taste of the Secret Lives, which will let people know what they will get for donating? (In addition to the good feeling of helping those who are in dire need.)In other words, I’m impatient, and not above whining. I mourn the passage of drabble-less days.(I did donate, by the way.)

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Jody December 10, 2007 at 1:06 pm

A Paypal button would be great! I’d like to donate, but I’m very leery of having to register anywhere because of spam.

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Beadissimo December 10, 2007 at 2:07 pm

My Favorite Kathleen Norris is Shining Windows…great clothes descriptions and life on the Pennisula in general in the 30′s.

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Fiona December 10, 2007 at 2:10 pm

The mouth-watering paragraph on food caught my eye – thanks for the link explaining “bar-le-duc”.I’m familiar with the town of that name – I’ve got friends near there – but I had never heard of the preserve. Upon further investigation (thanks to Bar le Duc’s own web-site) it turns out that to make a kilo of gooseberries ready for turning into chutney, you have to spend three hours de-pipping them using the sharp end of a goose feather. Phew! The friend I know there uses (gasp!) automatic milking machines on the family’s herd of cows, so I think this rather labour-intensive treat is one I will never be offered at that house!Wow, your site is educational!

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Maggi B December 10, 2007 at 2:54 pm

While I was wandering the web I stumbled across this pic and thought it was a dress you really should see. http://cocoachronicles.blogspot.comOf course it doesn’t fit any of your criteria – no pockets, fitted bodice, etc. but it’s still pretty amazing.

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Anonymous December 10, 2007 at 3:05 pm

Thank you for posting such wonderful thoughts on my great-grandmother. She was an icon in our family and kept it together no matter what through thick and thin. Two of my cousins, a late aunt, and our younger daughter are named after her. I’m so glad her work lives on and continues to makes people happy!

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CrysCrys December 11, 2007 at 1:15 pm

Erin, I just found this web-page today, and I think it may be one you would appreciate. I won’t spoil it by giving an inept write-up; I’ll just let you see for yourself.http://www.revampvintage.com/index1.html

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Meg December 11, 2007 at 2:05 pm

UNBELIEVABLE!!! I’ve just returned from the library where I was searching IN VAIN for a book about clothes. Something like this or a biography of a fashion icon. My friend, you should be a salesperson, because I’m getting the credit card out RIGHT NOW!!!!!!!

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Cel Petro December 12, 2007 at 3:38 pm

I haven’t thought about Kathleen Norris books for ages, and I remember being snide about them at the time. Since then, I’ve written a little about food in fiction, but didn’t think of her. (going to ABE now, bye…)

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