Sunday, March 15, 2009

Character studies ....

The Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt tells a story of what was once called a 'fallen woman.' It is a genre painting depicting an up-to-the-minute interior of the 1850s in all its shiny newness furnished solely for the man's mistress. It is a moralizing painting drawing parallels between the shoddy new furnishings and the shoddiness of the woman's role as mistress. 

We don't think in the same moralizing way today - at least we don't express our judgements of character in terms of decorating, for in our society any celebrity's interior is worth photographing despite character, actions or morality, simply because these interiors are designed by a celebrity, for a celebrity and are laden with celebrity objects. We seem to have lost the requirement of judging someone by their interiors.

Yet interiors can be easy to read: take the following example from one of my favorite detective novels, The Death of a Doll, by Hilda Lawrence. It was first published in 1947 and the following is a device illustrating the character of one of the protagonists. 

"On the other side of the fire door, Miss Brady stopped. 'This is Miss Small's' she said. 'Go in and wait. Would you like coffee?'

'No thanks.' Trying to be nice, he thought. Knows she's in a bad spot. When she left, he made a shameless tour of the two rooms, telling himself that a woman's bric-a-brac said more than words, and chairs and tables could be garrulous. Little Miss Small emerged. No natural taste, he decided, but a good eye for copying. Given enough time, more money, and the right example, the arty desk with the bad veneer and the fake pearl inlay would fall into the lap of the Salvation Army. Bought it in the first place because she thought it looked opulent. 

One lamp shade in the bedroom was covered with bluebirds, meticulously feathered, and the bedspread was machine-made lace over bright blue silk. He remembered that another flock of bluebirds, in colored glass, had nested on the lapel of Miss Small's well-cut suit. Shoddy background, he told himself, but fairly quick to catch on. When she realizes that her friend is expensively unadorned, she'll chuck the fancywork too. In another two years she'll have the foolproof accent and say damn like a lady."

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