Dressed For War
Julie Summers S&S, £20
Having owned every issue of Vogue published since September 1977, as well as having devoured numerous books on the subject, I had thought I was an expert. To my surprise, Julie Summers’s biography of Audrey Withers, British Vogue’s editor from 1940 to 1960, was a revelation.
First, Audrey was not a debutante, but a blue-stocking who got the job – aged 35 – because of her editing skills, head for business and ideas. Condé Nast himself, the founder of the magazine empire which published Vogue, wrote at the time of her appointment: ‘I’d rather have an editor who can edit, than an editor who can mix with society.’
Second, she was a feminist, keen for women to continue in their careers after marriage (as late as 1944, female teachers had to resign upon marriage). At the helm of ‘Brogue’ (British Vogue), so nicknamed by employees at its launch here in 1916 because the American version could no longer cross the Atlantic due to German submarines, she hired former model Lee Miller, and sent her to report on the war in Europe, publishing page after groundbreaking page of her photographs and essays, beating male reporters at every turn: Miller was the first female photographer to enter Dachau.
Audrey Withers (photographed above in her office in 1948) was not a debutante, but a blue-stocking who got the job – aged 35 – because of her editing skills, head for business and ideas
It was a shortage of paper that meant ‘Brogue’, formerly fortnightly, turned monthly, and prospective subscribers had to wait until an existing one died. But the shortage sharpened Audrey’s pencil: only the best made it inside, the opposite of today, where magazines are able to disgorge unendingly online.
Audrey’s editorship was deemed vital by the War Office. Writes Summers: ‘They realised it was more effective to appeal to women through magazines they trusted than through the pages of daily papers, which could be ignored…’
Today, even Vogue, whose job it is to sell us things we don’t need and can’t afford, is scrabbling to save the planet. But again, Audrey Withers got there first, championing the idea of quality over quantity, publishing articles on knitting hats, bed jackets and even swimming costumes, and how to liven up a much-seen garment with a different hat, or gloves.
Withers championed the idea of quality over quantity, publishing articles on knitting hats, bed jackets and even swimming costumes (above, advice on good posture)
While Vogue’s current editor, Edward Enninful, is all about diversity, it’s interesting to note Audrey was never an elitist snob, but was crazy about inclusivity while Europe was being torn apart, writing: ‘That part of our population which looked askance at “foreigners” has grown used to strange uniforms and strange speech. The Poles in Scotland; the Czechs in the Midlands; Free French fishermen in Cornwall.’
There was a transatlantic tug-of-war over the Royals in those days, too: US Vogue wanted help with a feature about the 18-year-old Princess Elizabeth entitled ‘The world’s most famous bride-to-be’.
Audrey drew a blank with photos, sending a memo: ‘You will remember the retiring habits of the British aristocracy… sorry to sound so stuffy.’
Condé Nast himself (above), the founder of the magazine empire which published Vogue, wrote at the time of Withers’ appointment: ‘I’d rather have an editor who can edit.’
When I was editor of Marie Claire 20 years ago, I thought it revolutionary to rail against skinny models. Yup. Audrey got there first again, introducing a section entitled, tactfully, ‘Above Average’.
For her, being thin would for ever be tarnished by what she saw not just in Lee Miller’s photos of the victims of concentration camps, but also in the faces of the women on the streets of Paris after liberation who moved so slowly about their daily lives due to hunger.
Perhaps that’s why, in 1960, on the cusp of a decade that would see women turned yet again into little girls, she’d had enough.
I’d have liked more gossip and I’d have loved more photos, but this meticulously detailed, fascinating book should be read by every young woman starting out so they might realise hard work, not connections, will get you anywhere.
Long Way Home
Dan Jarvis Little Brown, £18.99
Meeting people at times that really test them is the best way to see what they’re made of.
I’m not talking about the past three years in Parliament during which I’ve sat opposite Dan Jarvis, the Labour MP for Barnsley Central.
I first met him in 2007 in Helmand, Afghanistan, when he was an officer in the Parachute Regiment.
There are tales of training and command and of the relationships that bind men together as they execute the orders of our elected governments (Dan Jarvis serving in Afghanistan, above)
As he rightly guessed, I had been sent from British HQ in Kabul to check up on him. He was training a small unit of unkempt Afghans in a remote firebase, moulding them into a highly capable fighting force.
In the silence of the desert, we spoke about his wife Caroline, her cancer, his family, and the tough decisions he had to take in command of the men we served with. Over the days and nights on patrol, we got to know each other.
But even there, and at Caroline’s funeral in 2010, seeing his quiet strength with their young son and daughter at the family’s lowest moment, I learned only part of what shaped him. This memoir reveals so much more.
It starts with the then 14-year-old author and his younger brother being left alone on an uninhabited Scottish island overnight by their parents as a character-building exercise and takes us through his time at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst.
IT’S A FACT
Dan Jarvis became the first serving politician in over 60 years to be awarded a military honour when he was made an MBE in 2011.
Then he is off to operations in Kosovo as the aide-de-camp to General Mike Jackson, and to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and on to new, political, campaigns in Yorkshire – as well as being an MP, he is mayor of Sheffield City Region.
There are tales of training and command and of the relationships that bind men together as they execute the orders of our elected governments, but this is not just a memoir about his professional life.
Long Way Home is also about love and family and hope. It is about how he dealt with the loss of his wife on what he describes as ‘the worst day of my life’. He likens the impact of her death at the age of just 43 to being pulled over the edge of a waterfall ‘and into a terrifying free fall’.
But throughout this book, which has taken him several years to write, his integrity, courage and passion shine through.
Dan and I may disagree about politics but we are lucky to have people like him speaking for our communities in Parliament today. The legitimacy of our democracy and armed forces relies on ethos and principle more than simple rules.
His service, like this book, gives hope.
Tom Tugendhat is a Conservative MP and a former British Army officer
Conan Doyle’s Wide World
Andrew Lycett Tauris Parke, £20
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle will for ever be associated with the fog of Baker Street, but while Sherlock Holmes brought the author global fame, he was about so much more than the great detective: physician, campaigner, spiritualist and prolific contributor to a variety of publications.
He was also an intrepid and prodigious traveller who wrote extensively of his adventures and incorporated many of these experiences into his fiction.
This is an anthology of his travel writing, selected by his biographer, and organised geographically. Starting with his early accounts for the British Journal Of Photography of his visits to the Arctic in the company of whalers and sealers, the book then accompanies him across the globe, at the zenith of the British Empire, by train, ship, camel and carriage, from continent to continent, through swamps and jungles, up the Nile, down a diamond mine, in a train crossing the vast prairie lands of North America.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was also an intrepid and prodigious traveller who wrote extensively of his adventures (above visiting New York in 1926 with his wife Jean and children)
For Holmes die-hards there are visits to the Reichenbach Falls and the Baskerville moors.
As this volume amply demonstrates, Conan Doyle was a shrewd observer of people, able to evoke a real sense of place. His observations are generally trenchant and perceptive and there is a lot of humour.
He was also a man of his time and though in many ways enlightened, some of his conservative, patrician views reflect the prevailing attitudes.
Although most of the extracts are wonderfully entertaining and well-selected, Andrew Lycett, a respected authority on Conan Doyle, appears to be operating on auto-pilot, providing the minimum in terms of linking commentary.
This is definitely one for the fans: a romantic paean to a lost age. The Sherlock Holmes industry marches on.