Reviewed by Harriet
This has been my first book by Susan Scarlett, but not my first book by its author. Because, if you didn’t already know, Susan Scarlett was a pseudonym adopted by one of my favourite childhood writers, the great Noel Streatfeild. Although she had started her career in 1931 as an author of adult fiction, which she continued to write throughout her life, it was her Ballet Shoes (1936) that started a parallel career in novels for children which are now much better known than her adult fiction. But a fact not known at all to most of her contemporary readers was that she also wrote the twelve ‘definitely unreal, delightfully impossible’ romantic novels published as Susan Scarlett between 1939 and 1951. The first of these was Clothes Pegs, now republished along with the other eleven by Dean Street Press.
Clothes Pegs tells the story of seventeen-year-old Annabel Brown. The eldest daughter of Ethel and George Brown, she has taken a job as a seamstress at Bertna’s, a fashionable West End couturier. She’s a gentle, kind-hearted girl, devoted to her parents and her three younger siblings, and happy to add a few coppers each week to her mother’s savings box. For Ethel Brown is saving up for some green velvet curtains. It’s been seven years since she started, but times have been hard in the Brown’s Coulsden house, what with the hardware shop where George is assistant manager suffering a slump, and young Alfie ending up in hospital. But Ethel is house proud, and takes care to have everything nice when her husband and daughter come home from work, and Annabel is glad to contribute from her relatively meagre earnings. She’s not interested in being ‘taken out by boys’, as her younger sister Lorna puts it. Secretly, though, she has a firm belief:
Somewhere in the world was the man she would marry. She knew, as who that reads novels and sees films does not know, that it was easy to make a mistake and fall in love with the wrong man. But in her was faith that she would not make a mistake: when she met him she would know.
On a Saturday before Christmas, while Annabel is quietly stitching upstairs at Bertna’s, downstairs there’s a crisis to be solved. One of their models has left suddenly, and they need a girl to replace her. When Tania, the Russian boss, suggests a girl who already works there, her saleswoman is shocked: ‘Not in the workroom!’. Yes, says Tania, for ‘in the workroom we have one of the most beautiful girls I have ever seen’. And this, of course is Annabel Brown. Annabel is shocked when she’s told she will be joining those ‘fabulous creatures’ the models, but she submits to the training and is happy to be able to earn more so she can help out her family.
The other three fabulous creatures are not impressed when told they will be joined by a workroom girl, and though she is befriended by the kindly Bernadette, Elizabeth and Freda continue to despise her for her lowly origins. Nevertheless, after a shaky start, she learns the ropes and works hard. And the three pounds a week she earns will be very useful, especially as she needs to buy suitable underclothes. Bernadette gives her a list:
One pair beige satin shoes. (Very good ones. Cheap ones mean corns).
Very long fine stockings.
A small satin suspender belt.
Step-ins, as sheer as you can buy.
A dressing-gown to live in at Bertna’s.
Unsurprisingly Annabel meets a man soon after starting her new. job. Not just any man, though – this is Lord David Brett, not only handsome and charming but also good-hearted and ‘as rich as Rothschild’. What could possibly go wrong? Plenty, of course – will the confusions and misunderstanding ever get sorted out?
The Susan Scarlett novels provided much-needed escapism for readers during the war and post-war years. But though this is a typical rags-to-riches love story, Streatfeild’s bright and witty prose and her perceptive portrait of a humble suburban family lift it onto another level. As for the dress shop where Annabel works, it derives its authenticity from being clearly modelled on couturiers where the young author, then a struggling actress, had worked herself as a mannequin And then there are the clothes! From Annabel’s first underwear purchase, ‘sheer triple ninon step-ins, cut on the cross, so that they fitted like a glove’, through the backless green and blue chiffon evening dress she wears for her first trial, through the jumper and coat she wears for a lesson -‘The jumper had reversible cuffs and belt. The coat could be worn open, closed, or with a cape. The skirt had a new kind of inverted pleat, which needed careful showing’ – the crimson evening dress and the royal blue tulle frock, to the two-piece she buys with her first salary, ‘a ridiculously simple but enchantingly well-cut garment, lightened by a scrap of red on one pocket and a tiny red bow on the left breast’, Clothes Pegs is an absolute feast for anyone who loves period details. All in all, this was a hugely enjoyable read.
Harriet is one of the founders and co-editor of Shiny New Books, and as a child used to cut out photos of mannequins to pin on the wall.
Susan Scarlett, Clothes Pegs (Dean Street Press, 2022). 978-1915393081, 196pp., paperback original.
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