The Rustle of Silk

July 28, 2010

My mental file on Cosmo Hamilton, up until recently, read something like this: brother-in-law of C. Aubrey Smith, wrote Who Cares?, not really named Cosmo Hamilton. I’d read other things about him — that he was a playwright, that he wasn’t actually C. Aubrey Smith’s brother-in-law for very long, etc., but those were the ones that stuck. And now I have something new to add: he took himself very, very seriously, or so The Rustle of Silk leads me to conclude. Unfortunately, that’s the only thing The Rustle of Silk leads me to conclude.

So. This is what The Rustle of Silk is about: Lola Breezy is in love with a politician named Fallaray. Her life’s ambition is to be his mistress

Lola is descended from a French courtesan called Madame de Brézé, but Brézé became Breezy, and the shop in Battersea where the Breezys live has been owned by their family for several generations.

Fallaray is super serious, and kind of intense — he’s got that whole “one honest man” thing going on — and he has a very attractive profile. He also has a wife, Lady Feodorovna — Feo for short — who is as English as her name is not, and married him on the basis of the profile and his tennis skills. They live on separate sides of the same house, Fallaray being all serious and idealistic, and Lady Feo leading a gang of eccentric aristocrats and wearing a lot of peculiar clothing.

Mostly the book is about how Lola kind of stalks Fallaray, but it’s also about politics, and the aftermath of World War I, and Lady Feo’s empty, pointless life.

The first item on Lola’s stalkerish agenda is becoming Lady Feo’s lady’s maid. This is helpful in two ways: it lets her get closer to Fallaray, and hanging out with Lady Feo and her friends helps her learn to behave like a lady. Also, Feo gives her some clothes she doesn’t want, and Lola wears them out around town on her nights off, pretending to be a war widow named — of course — Madame de Brézé. Eventually she manages to invite herself to a country house with gardens adjoining Fallaray’s and they meet and begin an affair.

Lola’s aim has always been to make Fallaray’s lonely life easier, and to strengthen him for his political work, but after meeting her, he decides he wants to leave politics altogether. It’s weird, because part of him knows that he’s just infatuated with her and hopes that eventually he’ll get to know her better and fall in love with her properly, but that’s mentioned once and never addressed again, and all of a sudden he’s going to Feo and asking for a divorce so that he can marry Lola and telling her that if he dies first he’ll wait for her before “crossing the bridge” or something.

Oddly enough, no one wants Fallaray to divorce Feo. Lola and Feo and Fallaray’s friend Lytham band together to convince him that it’s a bad idea, and he should continue his political career. Lola only ever planned on being his mistress, and Feo and Lytham seem to think that’s a good idea, so I’m not sure why Lola and Fallaray end up promising to see each other again when they’re dead, but that’s what happens. And then Lola goes home to the shop and works for her parents and starts hanging out again with her first and nicest suitor, budding poet Ernest Treadwell.

It was a pretty confusing ending, but it did explain the sense of impending tragedy that runs through the entire book. A little bit anyway.

Honestly, though, the Lola/Fallaray storyline doesn’t even take up half the book. There’s the politics stuff, for starters — the Irish question, and Lloyd George, and Lytham and his magazine. And then there are Lola’s suitors, because she has an excess of sex appeal, and men fall violently in love with her at the drop of a hat. Treadwell is, as I said, the nicest, and in a way, Lola is at her nicest with him. She genuinely believes in his talent, and wants to use the influence she hopes to gain with Fallaray to help him out. Peter Chalfont, a youngish, wealthy war hero with a cork arm, is pretty nice too, which makes it sort of painful when he falls in love with Lola after one meeting and she uses him to get closer to Fallaray. The third in the trio is Simpkins, Fallaray’s butler. Hamilton tells us that Simpkins is nice too, but less convincingly somehow. I can’t bring myself to like him, and I don’t even like Lola very much when she’s with him, although that might mostly be because she calls him “Simpky.”

And then there’s Lady Feo, who is pretty awesome. She’s tall and broad-shouldered and somehow masculine, vibrant and attractive and given to “fads” — her fads were profiles and tennis the year she married Fallaray. She also has a sense of humor, which comes to her rescue when she, say, finds her lady’s maid dining at the Carlton with Sir Peter Chalfont. She likes Lola, and helps her with her masquerade, although obviously she doesn’t know that Lola is after her husband. Her sense of humor is also helpful when she realizes that her new boyfriend is kind of a jerk, or when her best friend decides she’s boring, or when she falls in love for the first time, and the object of her affections has no respect for her. Lousy things keep happening to Feo, and she’s well equipped to deal with them, but it seems pretty unfair. No one got a happy ending, but I wish Feo had, more than anyone else.

Anyway, things I liked: Feo, Treadwell, Chalfont, and Lola’s creepy habit of sitting in her room pretending to be Madame de Brézé and talking to herself in French.

Things I did not like: Simpkins, the way the book dragged at times, the bit where Treadwell and Simpkins decide to figure out what’s up with Lola, and how that’s never mentioned again. And the way Cosmo Hamilton thought he was writing a Serious Post-War Novel, the way he squeezes in the phrase “the rustle of silk” as often as possible, and how he’s the kind of writer who you remember as having capitalized all instances of the word “love,” even when he hasn’t.

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