Friday, August 5, 2022

"People whom one knows will not say 'serviette'": KITTY VINCENT, Lipstick (1925)


I do not mean that being a duchess bestows beauty upon a plain person, but up to now at any rate our dukes have married suitable women, people whom one knows will not say 'serviette.' Personally the strain of expecting to hear the words 'serviette,' 'week-end' and so forth completely destroys for me the possibility of appreciating any beauty that the speaker may possess.

I've meant to check out the humorous 1920s work of Lady Kitty Vincent for some time, but of course time is short and the TBR is long. She was later known for her spy thrillers involving British Intelligence, but among Vincent's earliest works are Lipstick (1925), Sugar and Spice (1926), and Gin and Ginger (1927), which poke fun at the upper crust of which she was herself very much a part.


Lipstick
is composed of a series of monologues by the posh and conservative middle-aged Lady Carstairs (conversations really, but we only get her responses to an unknown interlocutor), weighing in on issues of the time and telling anecdotes about the trials and travails of high society life. In one interlude in Scotland ("Carstairs and I were staying with the Whiskies at Castle Whiskie, by Whiskie, near Whiskie. You know, really, those Scotch addresses are absurd."), she becomes stranded overnight on an island due to a sudden storm, accompanied by a handsome young man of Native American origins, and frets about the scandal it will surely cause, only to be greeted unflatteringly the next morning:

"'My dear, you must be hungry,' my hostess said, 'and so cold and tired. This is always happening to our guests … "

"Of course Lady Margaret is a very tactful woman, and I was most gratified to her for the way in which she handled the situation. Carstairs looked at me and burst out laughing: 'You look a bit of a wreck—what! You're too old for these escapades, my dear…'"


There are the inevitable servant problems, and the infidelities of Carstairs, not to mention her own near seduction in Switzerland as a result of mistaking room 155 for 135, and one hardly knows what to make of the final chapter in which Lady Carstairs utters the immortal line, ""My dear, you have never tried to get out of your stays under the seat in a railway carriage."

Not every chapter is equally successful. I did a bit of eye-rolling as well as a bit of giggling, but the most effective might be her tale of a lavish dinner party at which her butler Henry turns out to have been the Staff-Captain of her guest General Monckton, who promptly invites Henry to sit down and start mapping out wartime maneuvers using the table settings:

"'No, sir,' Henry's voice seemed quite different, 'the 6th Brigade were out of the line.'

'God bless my soul, you're right,' and believe it or not, as you like, my dear, but Monckton became so excited that he knocked the port decanter off the table. The parlour-maids looked simply flabbergasted, and at that moment the door opened, and the Dean of Ditcham was announced, with his daughter. I didn't know what to do; Henry and General Monckton were sprawling across the table, throwing the spoons and the rolls about: Carstairs was standing first on one leg and then on the other, and I became so nervous that I introduced the Dean as 'Captain' Ditcham to 'Dean' Monckton.

When the Dean's daughter saw Henry, she went quite scarlet. 'God bless my soul,' Monckton shouted, 'aren't you the young lady who served in the canteen at Etaples? Ha! ha! Martin, you haven't forgotten that canteen, have you?'

"I tried to carry off the situation lightly."


That one is pretty priceless, I admit (and happily Henry is able to move on to greener pastures). But I should reiterate that not all of Lady Carstairs' tales are equally entertaining. Plus, the book is slight in more ways than one—with really charming illustrations by popular Vanity Fair illustrator "Fish"—Anne Harriet Fish when she was at home (see here for info about her)—Lipstick still only weighs in at 80 pages. So you might hesitate before going in frantic search of it…

That said, I wouldn't be the obsessive reader I am if I didn't already have an ILL copy of Sugar and Spice in my hot little hands, so we shall see how that one compares!
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