Pearls and a Fur Jacket

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Anne Scott-James was one of the ‘First Ladies’ of Fleet Street, though she preferred the title ‘one of the first career girls’. Her novel In the Mink, published in 1952, is a thinly disguised portrait of her pre-war and post-war years as a journalist. Richard Boston, writing her obituary in 2009, remarked of it disapprovingly that ‘her characters are uniformly lifeless. Whatever value it may have for the fashion historian, it is scarcely readable as a novel.’ Later on he adds that she had once not only fused, but actually melted his coffee-maker. Clearly this still rankled.

It’s true that In the Mink is not a brilliant novel, but it is much more than an entertaining period piece and I’ve continued to re-read it over the years with great pleasure. The worlds it describes are markedly different from our own, but the issues raised – how women handle power, how they are perceived in top jobs, how you cope with marriage, children and career, and, perhaps most interestingly of all, what the value of fashion is – are addressed with the prescience and clear-sighted intelligence you would expect from a woman with a First from Oxford. Her fictional counterpart, Elizabeth Gaskell, applies, as Scott-James did herself, for a first job as a copywriter on Venus, aka Vogue, in 1938. There follows this unnerving and arcane scrutiny by the Managing Director:

‘There is a lot against you, Miss Gaskell,’ he said. ‘You have no experience and you are not well dressed.’ (Alas for the garish tartan suit my mother and I had thought so smart.) ‘At the same time you can spell, your shoes are good and you write on die-stamped notepaper. You can come on a week’s trial and your salary will be two pounds ten a week.’

Within a month Elizabeth knows she has found her métier. She quickly masters fashion journalese circa 1938 (‘Invest in a dark brown brassière! Be courageous

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About the contributor

Frances Donnelly lives in Suffolk and is eternally grateful to Sally Thompson, née Sylvia Waterhouse, who (herself an intern on Vogue in 1952) first lent her this book in 1975. She will return it shortly.

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