My current read, Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, is enjoyable for numerous reasons, but one of the main pleasure factors for me is probably his incredibly human female characters. It’s typical of great American Novel style projects that they will contain multiple voices, creating an almost choral effect, but I don’t think anyone pulls off sympathetic, multifaceted women as well as Bellow. They are vivid characters who came off the page and took up residence in my head. I started imagining their wardrobes, their mannerisms, whether I would be friends with them (a thousand times yes). So I thought it might be fun to use them as a springboard for style inspiration, starting with Eleanor Klein, a girl I definitely consider to be after my own heart.
‘The one unmarried daughter, Eleanor, had gypsy style and got herself up in flaming, bursting flowers and Japanese dyes. Fat and pale, with an intelligent Circassian bow to her eyes, very humane, overreconciled to a bad lot, taking it for granted that she was too fat to get a husband and forgiving her married sisters and mobile brothers their better luck, she had a genial cry, almost male and fraternal. She was especially kind to me, called me ‘lover’ and ‘little brother’ and heartbreaker’, told my fortune in cards and knitted me a three peaked skating cap in yellow and green so that I would look like a Norwegian champion on the pond. When she was well enough – she suffered rheumatism and had female disorders- she worked int he wrapping department of a soap factory on the North branch; and when she was at home she sat with her mother in the kitchen, wrapped in a flamboyant floral material, heavy black hair slipping loose and tuberous from a topknot, drinking coffee, knitting, reading, shaving her legs, playing operettas on the gramophone, painting her nails, and doing these necessary or half necessary or superfluous things, invisibly paid herself out farther and farther into the mood of a long-seated woman.’
–Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March.
Eleanor Klein essentials: Brightly patterned Kimono for sitting around the kitchen in (£24, thisispulp.co.uk), Aztec print cardigan; a possible indicator of future Mexican marriage and cosy as (£53 topshop.co.uk), beautifully printed china for drinking all that coffee out of (£8, whittard.co.uk), Paul and Joe cat collection Nail polish(£11 asos.com), and Hothouse flower barrettes for a finishing burst of colour (£8.59 each, accessorize.co.uk).
Eleanor is one of the first non-maternal females Augie encounters and to me she seems to represent an almost hyperfemininity, albeit through the young Augie’s eyes, non-sexual. The archetypally interior nature of feminine pursuits is emphasized by her partly housebound state. In a fairly alienating and harsh landscape, Eleanor is warm, funny, kind, and just my sort of aesthete. Despite personally having written off marriage, she still ascribes to feminine practice, excessively in the case of oversized flowers and bold, bright colours. As somebody who pretty much always thinks life could be bigger, bolder, and more beautiful I fell head over heels for this. It transpires later in the novel that she did eventually marry, and move to Mexico (you can only imagine the fun a colour fiend would have there!), although it didn’t work out, and Augie, feeling a genuine affection for her early kindnesses and spirit, is saddened by this. Throughout the novel he has occasions to remember Eleanor and for him they are always tinged with sadness due to how much he wanted things to work out nicely for her.
Me, however, I read the passages about Eleanor with a fondness. As something of a homebody with an overabiding love of bright colours myself, the images of Eleanor in bright florals, knitting and drinking coffee out of patterned china and smoking, well, they struck a chord. I like the idea of somebody going to great lengths to surround themselves with colour and pattern, knitting up green and yellow insanities for younger relatives, filling the kitchen with music and makeup. It strikes a personal note with my own chaotic, somewhat spinsterish life. The witchery, the tarot cards and the gypsy style I love, that additional layer of feminine mystery displaying real strength of character and sense of humour; and I can imagine if Eleanor were a real person, we’d get on famously, sitting in the kitchen listening to pop vinyl, oohing and aahing over saved scraps of brightly patterned paper from the soap factory and telling fortunes to each other. And what could be nicer than that?