Dressing down

It’s been fine weather for ducks, as they say; perhaps a little damp for the rest of us. One of the delights of the week after New Year is not being obliged to go out. The parties are all over and done with, and there’s no need for frantic last-minute shopping sprees. Instead one can spend whole days slobbing around in one’s jim-jams, snacking on Christmas leftovers, watching old, familiar movies or perhaps losing oneself in a really good, gossipy biography from the golden age of Hollywood.

One of my best gifts this year was a dressing gown. Not just your plain, ordinary sort of dressing gown, but arguably, The Greatest Dressing Gown of All Time. It’s truly magnificent – thick, velvety towelling, cut generously with a hood and wide sleeves and featuring a quasi-aboriginal design in golds, ochres and burnt umber. It’s probably the closest thing to a Russian khalat that you can get in this country – something I’ve long coveted. The traditional khalat was lined with fur and worn over skimpier European-style clothing by Russian aristocrats as they languished in draughty houses on their country estates during the long northern winters. It’s practically impossible to feel cold in one, so it was ideal for the conditions. As a garment, the khalat was immortalised by Ivan Goncharov in his novel, Oblomov. The eponymous main character is a kind of 19th century Russian Walter Mitty, though with considerably less energy, who spends his days lazing around in his khalat dreaming of all the noble and commendable things he’s going to do. This invariably leaves him so exhausted, that he’s obliged to retire to bed, leaving his neighbours and servants to help themselves to his dwindling possessions. Oblomov came to be seen as the epitome of the parasitic landowning class in pre-revolutionary Russia – well intentioned, but rendered utterly impotent by the straitjacket of autocracy; the book caused an uproar when it was first published.

Nevertheless, reading in bed when you should be up and about can feel wonderfully self-indulgent. It helps that the kids are now old enough to be able to fix themselves breakfast if they get peckish, although being teenagers, they’re quite capable of spending the whole morning in bed too. The unputdownable book in question was the first part of Anjelica Huston’s new autobiography, A Story Lately Told. I loved the honesty of it. The first part provides a moving portrait of a childhood spent semi-abandoned on a remote, country estate in the west of Ireland, surrounded by kindly retainers and a gorgeously eclectic array of flotsam and jetsam picked up by Huston’s parents as they pursued glamorous lives in distant, exotic places. It was an upbringing with much to commend it; freedom to explore the surrounding country-side, sensuously described by Huston, and to take risks, much time spent messing around with horses and other animals, hours of being left to one’s own devices. By her own admission, Huston seems to have spent many of these gazing at herself in the mirror, dreaming about what her illustrious parentage might mean for her future life.

At the core of the book, however, is an overwhelming sense of loneliness and loss. More than once, Huston mentions the coolness between her parents; she wonders why they don’t call each other “darling” when they use the term for almost everyone else. Likewise, she describes her shock and disgust when she discovers that a half-brother has unexpectedly been born to one of her father’s mistresses. Not long after this, her parents separate and Huston finds herself transported to London just as the sixties are getting into their stride. She adapts, settling into new schools and finding new friends until, at the age of seventeen, a car crash deprives her of her adored mother. Bereft and almost against her will, Huston embarks on an acting career and immediately finds herself clashing disastrously with her exacting perfectionist of a father. The resulting film garners terrible reviews. Crushed, Huston decides to become a fashion model instead. This leads her into an unhappy and destructive relationship with a man more than twice her age that drags on for four years until her father finally intervenes. The story ends with Huston’s decision to leave New York and move permanently to California.

The book’s beautifully written; Huston does a fine job of capturing the atmosphere of the time, the social mores of the rich and famous and the hollowness at its heart. There’s a carelessness about how children were treated that would be unconscionable today; they’re left alone with servants or strangers, little heed is paid to their safety or well-being and there’s absolutely no recognition of the impact, emotional or otherwise, that their parents’ actions might have on them. In many cases, children weren’t even informed about major decisions until long after the event, let alone consulted or considered. It was a gilded existence, but not a particularly warm one.

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