The change over of winter to summer clothes is always fraught. Is it too soon to cast a clout? The garden seems to be flowering earlier and my lighter clothes are emerging earlier too. Which reminds me that it isn't only clothes that we keep in the wardrobe.
Recently I was talking to an author and publisher about re-discovering the romance books of my youth. By youth I’m talking about the very first books I read that could be described as being romantic, before I devoured Georgette Heyer or Jilly Cooper. I was about twelve years old. They included family sagas, romantic suspense – I remember Spindrift by Phyllis Whitney - and The Property of a Gentleman by Catherine Gaskin. I loved discovering the Gothic suspense of Victoria Holt, and packed amongst the historicals were some of the raunchy 1970s contemporary novels. What an education they were.
I found all these books in my grandmother’s spare room wardrobe, tucked away amongst her evening dresses and smart clothes. The same cupboard contained her scent bottles and her jewellery. Oh, and there were shoes too, beautiful shoes in different colours not like my brown school ones! My grandmother was a well-dressed lady but these were not the clothes she wore every day. These were special, packed away carefully in tissue paper and plastic bags, smelling of perfume and mothballs. As a result, the books smelled of perfume and mothballs too. They were lined up so you could see their spines yet when the wardrobe doors were closed you would not have known they were there.
My writing friends and I were discussing this and one of them recalled finding Hardacre, a classic family saga set from the Victorian era to the 1950s, in his mother’s wardrobe too. He suspected she had hidden it away because it had a single swear word in it. (Naturally he read the book and found that one word.) This set me thinking about wardrobes and the things people hide in them and why.
The first “wardrobes” were actually rooms in palaces or grand houses where the nobility kept their clothes. For royalty this meant the place that the king kept his clothes, armour and treasure, and as a result, in medieval English government the “wardrobe” grew to become the royal palace’s accounting department, hence the role of Keeper of the King’s Wardrobe being so influential.
Ordinary people however, used chests to store their clothes. It was from these cupboards the modernth century. Here is my Regency-era hanging wardrobe, which I bought from Ebay!
There’s something about wardrobes, isn’t there. Perhaps it’s the fact that you can lock things away in there. Perhaps it’s that they are big enough to hide in. And they are dark inside. The book by CS Lewis, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe uses the wardrobe as a gateway into another world. What is hidden inside is adventure and danger and an escape. In the play The Wardrobe by Sam Holcroft, the wardrobe is a place of safety and protection where for seven hundred years children have hidden from events in British history such as the Civil War and the plague.
Wardrobes aren’t just for clothes. People hide other things in them – secret diaries, money, forbidden things… Which brings us back to the books in the wardrobe. Was it simply a practical storage solution for my Nanna to keep her romance books in there? There were plenty of other bookshelves in the house, but they contained non-fiction and Readers Digest condensed editions. Was she ashamed of reading romance and so she hid the books away? Romance novels were hugely popular at that time and with her group of friends but perhaps they were made to feel inferior in the way that some people still look down on romance today. Or perhaps it does come back to the sex and the swearing. Knowing that she had a curious and avid reader for a granddaughter maybe she wanted to hide the books away from me! However, finding them in the wardrobe with all those lovely clothes and the perfume and the jewellery just made me see romance books as impossibly exotic and glamorous, exciting, an escape from real life. I guess I still see them that way today.