Written by Various Artists


Women of character

It’s World Book Day, so we asked our contributors what costume they’d be donning if we had an office dress-up session. *puts note in diary to have office dress-up session*

Fiona tries on the femme fatale look as Rachel Ashley.

Fiona tries on the femme fatale look as Rachel Ashley.

Time was, I’d have turned up to the Standard Issue World Book Day fancy dress party as Elizabeth Bennet or Catherine Earnshaw, one of those intrepid 19th-century trailblazers who kept me going through my English Literature O-Level.

Then there was a period where I found myself identifying with the rejected women in fiction: Miss Havisham, gaunt in her faded wedding gown; the feral Bertha Rochester prowling the attics of Thornfield. But these women are victims, reduced by loss and betrayal to a one-note madness.

Pride and Prejudice‘s Lady Catherine de Bourgh is no one’s victim, even though her marriage plans for her ‘sickly’ daughter are thwarted by the headstrong Lizzie. What I love best about Lady C is that, in a novel where no one is ever allowed to say what they really think, she does. She’s a brilliant villain and an unlikely Cupid.

I’d acquire a phaeton – never mind from where – and a whaleboned corset. As well as sweeping majestically through Rosings in a crinoline (I like to imagine Lady C would favour the fashions of her youth over the more austere Empire-line dresses of the 1800s) age and rank would allow me to be as rude as I please.

I’d criticise your living room, sneer at the inferiority of your connections and the waywardness of your younger sisters. For company, I’d have the dutiful – if not loving – attentions of my handsome nephews, Colonel Fitzwilliam and Mr Darcy, to keep me amused. For devotion, I’d look to Mr Collins, who may be an arse, but at least he appreciates me. And then, when World Book Day is over, I’ll go back to being polite and reasonable again.

Sarah Ledger

“She has done for me at last, Rachel, my torment…”

No one does a femme fatale like Daphne Du Maurier, and from her we got no greater femme fatale than My Cousin Rachel‘s Rachel Ashley. I know, I know, I’m such a Du Maurier hipster.

Beautiful, feminine and as vulnerable as a skinned rabbit, Rachel runs rings around the book’s clumsy, inexperienced narrator, Philip. She arrives in his home as an unexpected widow and immediately endears herself to everyone she meets. She is gentle and considerate. She is practical and sweet and funny. It’s little wonder that Philip falls for her… as a reader, so did I.

But running just underneath the current of beauty, her every move is dogged by the shadow of the book’s sinister central question: could someone like this really have murdered her husband? I change my mind every time I read. And that is why Rachel is my favourite. I’d love to play her for a day.

Fiona Longmuir

“The Honourable Margot Beste-Chetwynde was everything I ever wanted to be: chic and elegant. Her casual criminal connections just made her all the more enticing.”

When I was an angsty teen, unsure of who I was, unaware of the possibilities of who I could be, my favourite English teacher at my very English boarding school, a bonkers chap called Casey O’Hanrahan, chose the fabulous Decline and Fall for our English A-Level. From page one I was hooked by this glittering inter-war world, so clearly evoked by Evelyn Waugh.

I wasn’t aware that I actually could dress like a vintage movie star; the only gowns I had were ‘Twilight by Monsoon’ circa 1990. Then, The Honourable Margot Beste-Chetwynde stepped into my world as she emerged, stockinged and chinchilla’d, from her chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce.

Devastatingly glamorous, disgustingly decadent and utterly devilish, she had me hooked from the moment that lizard-clad foot stepped out from her car, which at the time was rakishly parked on her son’s school rugby pitch.

She was everything I ever wanted to be: chic and elegant. Her casual criminal connections just made her all the more enticing.

I would happily dress like Margot every day and revel in it – though I’d be revelling Rolls-less.

Lili La Scala

I would dress as Gytha ‘Nanny’ Ogg, from the Discworld books. I have actually played her once, in a student production of Maskerade in younger, thinner days. It was a joyful experience, involving a lot of padding and a confident, bow-legged walk.

I wouldn’t need the padding any more, but I would enjoy her walk, made all the more wide-legged by the occasional money bag, beer bottle or pork pie up the bloomer leg. Second choice after that wonderful, life-loving, one-toothed witch would be Sybil Ramkin, also from Discworld.

Again, I’d already be the right size. Bless you, PTerry, for writing so many fat women, and for making them well rounded in character as well as girth, for making them lovable, for making them desirable. Bless you for creating Samuel sex-on-legs Vimes and then having him fall utterly, eternally in love with a woman who looks like me.

Gabby Hutchinson Crouch

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Written by Various Artists

Some of Standard Issue's brilliant women's carefully crafted words for your reading pleasure.