Thursday, February 15, 2007

My Mother's Wedding Dress - a review

Justine Picardie generously sent to BrontëBlog a copy of her book My Mother's Wedding Dress, which includes a chapter called 'Charlotte Brontë's Ring'. Justine Picardie is currently working in her book Daphne, scheduled for May 2008.

The complete title of this book is My Mother's Wedding Dress: The Life and Afterlife of Clothes. As you can see at first sight this book has nothing to do with the Brontës. A connection can be found through Charlotte's remaining dresses and complements and other Brontë family items of clothing. That wouldn't be too far fetched. The book, however, is not just about clothes in themselves, but about the events and people they evoke. It's that connection that Justine Picardie uses to write this unique book. Clothes evoke family, friends, writers, books, arts, stories, tales, journeys and, of course, fashion designers and trends.

The premise of the book is very original and varied. What starts as a family memoir threaded together by clothes, develops into much more than that. Brontë mentions are not only confined to the chapter called 'Charlotte Brontë's Ring' but appear everywhere throughout the book, showing Justine Picardie to be the Brontëite that we know her to be. It hardly seems possible that Emily Brontë, known to have said, 'I wish to be as God made me' when her dressing style was scorned at by other, more fashionable, pupils in Brussels features in the same chapter as Karl Lagerfeld. But Justine Picardie makes it not just possible but coherent too.

The Brontë-mentions are on all kinds of subjects and for all types of occasions. Justine Picardie is very familiar with the Brontë story. This is not a book where the Brontës have been made to fit in, rather the opposite. The Brontës drift coherently into Justine Picardie's fabulous gift for story-tealling, inextricably woven into the fabric (to borrow one of the many metaphors aptly used by Ms. Picardie).

Justine Picardie explores connections and themes to their very end. Be it a ring or feather, be it a dress or a colour, she picks at the knot until it finally gives way to a fascinating subject. Said subject is then illustrated by quotations and anecdotes springing from family letters, poems by Emily Dickinson, short stories by Charles Dickens, Gothic settings by Daphne du Maurier or conversations with her former Vogue colleagues, to name just a few.

In 'Scarlet Women' Justine Picardie reflects about the colour red in narratives and looks into Jane Eyre at length. Jane, Bertha, the fire, the red room are all carefully examined in their own context as well as that of fairy tales for instance, leaving readers with questions they might have never even considered but which are suddenly there, unavoidable. My Mother's Wedding Dress was released about a year before Jane Eyre 2006 was broadcast and we know it was Sandy Welch who came up with the idea of Bertha's red scarf and Andrea Galer who made it possible, but Justine Picardie could have come up with the same thing, and we are pretty sure that she must have liked the resource in the series.

And so we get to what we initially thought would be the only Brontë-related chapter in the book. 'Charlotte Brontë's Ring' was a family heirloom that was sadly stolen in a burglary. Justine Picardie, after a conversation with her mother, decided to try to find out how a ring which had supposedly belonged to Charlotte Brontë had ended up in her family. Thanks to the ring, she takes us in a journey through a fascinating piece of family history. Justine Picardie is descended from a, now obscure but not so in her own time, Victorian writer and lecturer called Clara Lucas Balfour. Her journey takes her into Clara Lucas Balfour's carefully kept archives as well as into the Brontë Parsonage Museum, library and storeroom, with no other than Juliet Barker as her guide. Everything in the book comes together when Justine Picardie pauses to read a newly-discovered, incomplete letter written by Charlotte Brontë to an unknown recipient, possibly Mrs Gaskell. BrontëBlog has long cherished this letter and found it extremely easy to relate to what Justine Picardie was feeling, especially after having read the rest of the book.

So did the now-lost family heirloom actually belong to Charlotte Brontë? You have to read the book to find out. We can guarantee that you will love it. Reading this wonderful book is like meeting up with an old friend for a cup of tea while she tells you about her extremely moving and fascinating family history, about her worries and her favourite things, about books and childhood, about fashion and trends, about secrets and discoveries. In short, about everything in life, with the Brontës cropping up in the most unexpected places. By the time you turn the last page you will have been subtly advised on how to dress better and you will feel that glowing feeling you have when you say goodbye to a dear friend after an unforgettable evening.

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