Saturday, 18 May 2013

"Disgrace" by Barbara Hulanicki - A 'Swinging London' Novel







Before I start discussing the book, I just want to say that in the past few weeks, I have been forced to take a temporary hiatus from blogging. Unfortunately, my laptop broke down, and  my girlfriend's laptop which I am using at the moment, is incompatible with my obsolete scanner. So, until I've sorted it out, the posts will be less frequent, although I'll try to post as often as I can...

Anyway...

We all know Barbara Hulanicki as a founder of Biba and one of the most influential fashion designers of  late 1960's/ early 1970's. Those more interested in her story know that from late 1970's onwards, she also had a very succesul career as an interior/product designer in Miami (very well summarised in the recent book Seamless From Biba).  But how many people know that on top of all that she also wrote a novel? And I don't mean her autobiography From A To Biba, but the actual novel?  It was titled Disgrace and it was published in 1990. There is very little information about it online, and since I've read it recently, I thought I could do a little post about it...

I would lie if I said I had particularly high expectations. Fashion designer turned author? That awful 1980's - style cover design did not help my initial impression, either. But when I started reading the book, I was pleasantly surprised. While certainly not a great piece of literature, Disgrace has a well-constructed and engaging storyline. What's more, it provides an interesting insight into the period which Barbara Hulanicki must know so well - the 1960's Swinging London.

Disgrace is a story of two young women - sisters Milla and Georgia Frayne, and their aunt Eva Lubinski. Milla and Georgia were raised by Eva after their mother  - and Eva'a sister - died in a car accident along with her husband. Rich, aristocratic and very grand Eva brings up Milla and Georgia in a mansion in Knightsbridge. All three ladies are the last surviving members of once-great Polish aristocratic family, The Lubinskis. Although girls' father was a middle class English doctor, Eva wants to make true aristocratic ladies out of Milla and Georgia - a future wife material for a prince or a viscount. But then, well...The Sixties happen.

Out of two sisters, Milla is the rebellious one. She hates her aunt and everything she stands for. She doesn't care much for her obedient little sister Georgia, either. Desperate to make her own way in the world, Milla runs away from home when she's sixteen. Georgia, on the other hand only lives to please her aunt. She gets sent by Eva to Le Circle - a finishing school for young ladies from high society. The main purpose of Le Circle is to provide a young girl with an opportunity to meet a suitable, aristocratic husband. Georgia enters the world of debutante balls, and quickly becomes a 'toast of town' in the microcosm of Chelsea aristocracy.  She gets infatuated with a young baronet - Sir Cosmo Manting. Aunt Eva is delighted. In her world, somebody like Sir Cosmo is a great husband material for Georgia. But it's 1965, and reality is much different. Penniless aristocrat Cosmo fancies himself a little bit of a bohemian. He hangs around in beatnik coffee bars, he does a lot of drugs, and he has shady dealings with East End gangsters. At one point he takes Georgia to a sleazy Soho nightclub (which he co-runs), where she is drugged and nearly raped by Cosmo's business associates. She gets discovered following morning by the police - naked and unconscious in a Soho back alley. She ends up on the front pages of a gutter press. Aunt Eva is devastated. She would expect this sort of thing of Milla, but not Georgia. Eva sends Georgia to South of France until things cool off. But it turns out to be a very bad move. Within days of arriving, Georgia meets shady French film director, who used to hang out with Roger Vadim before he got famous. He promises to turn Georgia into a film star - the next Brigitte Bardot. Soon Georgia finds herself at the centre of another scandal...

At the same time, Milla, completely estranged from her family, works in a dead-end job in a big department store. Her posh accent sets her apart from her co-workers, and she has few friends. When she reads about her sister in tabloids, she has a feeling that  life is passing her by.  And yet, Milla is determined to succeed  - she has a great idea for her own business , and she comes up with an elaborate scheme, involving seduction and blackmail, to make her dream come true.

Finally there is Aunt Eva. In the series of flashbacks to 1930's Poland, we find out about her life and what made her a person she is. She was an illegitimate child of Count Lubinski. As such she was not allowed to bear Lubinski name , and although she was brought up in the Lubinski's mansion, most of the family was not aware that she was Count's daughter. Eva spent her early years forced to live a humiliating life of a personal servant to her own half sister, Aleksandra. She wasn't bitter, though. She adored her family, and thanks to this attitude, gradually she gained her father's respect. And then the scandal happened. Her half brother, not realising that they were, in fact, related, fell in love with her. Although the scandal brings her closer to her father - she is finally allowed to take Lubinski name - she cannot stay in the mansion , and the Count sends her to Paris, where he owns a townhouse. In Paris, Eva is introduced to Paris high society and does what any young girl from her background would do - she tries to find a suitable husband. After a few unsuccessful 'matches' she meets a an older (and very rich) American banker, whom she promptly marries. When the Second World War breaks, her husband takes her from occupied Paris to a safety in Switzerland. In the last months of the War, Eva's husband dies of cancer, and leaves Eva his entire fortune. After the War, Eva discovers that her entire family was killed during the war - with an exception of Aleksandra, whom Eva finds in a refugee camp in Austria.  Aleksandra's wartime experiences (she was involved in the insurrection in Warsaw) leave her in a very bad physical and mental condition. She has spent some time as a street beggar eating out of the dustbins. After Eva and Aleksandra's reunion, their pre-war roles are reversed - this time Eva is the rich sister in control. Eva feels a tremendous responsibility on herself - she wants to save what's left of the Lubinski family. She hires a young English doctor to care for Aleksandra. Soon Dr. Frayne and his patient fall in love....And, as we find out, Eva also has a dark secret of her own. In the early days of her marriage, something happens to Eva that would change her life forever...

In Disgrace there is an interesting juxtaposition of two worlds -a hedonistic, swinging 60's world in which Milla and Georgia live, and older world of grand aristocracy in which Eva had lived - a past which she refuses to let go. She is blind to the changes happening in the world and it affects her judgement and her relationship with Milla and Georgia. Strangely enough, the book seems to be much more nostalgic after Eva's times, rather than the 1960's. But there are few interesting observations about the 1960's as well.

There is one bit which readers of this blog should find interesting. When Georgia comes back from France, she gets back in touch with Cosmo, who by now runs a hip boutique just off King's Road called The Teapot - which judging from description was blatantly based on Hung On You or Granny Takes A Trip: She had never seen a shop like it. It was in a side street, not far from Sloane Square, and she would have missed it completely if she had been driving past. As it was , she thought she must have come to the wrong place. There was no name on the front, just a big painting of a pink teapot covering the entire window so you couldn't see what there was inside. Cosmo must have seen her dithering on the pavement, because he came rushing out and gave her a big hug and a very mushy mushy kiss on the mouth. He was a surprise, as well. He was wearing an old-fashioned army jacket, scarlet, with a high collar and brass buttons down the front. His hair was long and shaggy and he had the beginning of a little goatee beard. He bowed deeply and ushered her inside. 'Welcome to the Teapot' he said (...) It was even stranger inside. The whole place was full of dark drapes printed with exotic designs, with matching pillows all over the floor and a platform at the one end where Cosmo went t sit, crossed legged like buddha. (...) There was a smell of joss sticks hanging over everything and a smell of something else that she thought must be pot, judging from the name of the shop (...) Georgia couldn't see many very many clothes hanging up in the shop. There were two long dresses in plain ecru cotton with high lace necks and pearl buttons down the front, and a black silk jacket, with heavy gold epaulettes and gold piping, was draped over a dressmaker's dummy in the centre of the room. She asked Cosmo where the rest of the stock was and he said they didn't do stock, just made things to order for very special people. The jacket was for Wilfred, of Wilfred and The Wonderboys, who were on at the Palladium the next week. He was going to wear it for the show. He was coming to collect it in a minute, and another one like it, only in red. He looked at her, waiting for her to be impressed, and she said, 'Oh, wow.' A lot seemed to have happened while she was away (p 236 - 237). 
 Cosmo may or may have not been based on Michael Rainey - the aristocratic owner of Hung On You, who , just like Cosmo in the novel, sold his shop and went to live in a hippie commune...

In the book, Milla opens her own King's Road boutique as well. Impressed by her success, Cosmo talks to Georgia about Milla: Don't you believe it, she's a sharp one, your sister. There is a big change happening here (...) Fashion and shopkeeping is a whole new game and everybody is trying to cash in on it, opening boutiques all over the place but charging the same sort of prices they've been doing for years. Milla was different. She bought designs from people (...) and made them up cheaply so all the little dollies could afford them, and when the designers didn't like their stuff being sold so cheaply, she told them to fuck off and started to do it herself (...) I sometimes wish I'd had the same ideas (p 244).                    
Doesn't that sound like what Barbara Hulanicki herself did in Biba?

I don't doubt that a lot of motives in Disgrace were semi-autobiographical. Barbara Hulanicki herself was a daughter of upper-class Polish diplomat, and the character of Eva Lubinski, might have been based on somebody she knew, perhaps even somebody from her own family.

All in all, Disgrace makes an enjoyable reading, especially if you're into the 60's Swinging London. Hip aristos in kaftans, King's Road boutiques, Coffee bars, Soho nightclubs, deb balls, East End gangsters, hippie communes, French film directors, stories involving sex, drugs, blackmail, incest, love - it's all there.
The book would make a basis for a really cool and stylish TV series. I've always thought that Britain should have it's own equivalent of Mad Men... 








2 comments:

Annie-Is-A-Mod-Rocker said...

Brilliant! I'm always looking for novels that take place in the '60s or are about music. Thanks for bringing up this book!

Catherine Alekna said...

Sounds like an interesting book! ill defiantly be checking that one out. thanks!