Not at Home

Doris Langley Moore

Published by Dean Street Press 3 January 2020

298pp, paperback, £11.99

Reviewed by Elizabeth Hilliard Selka

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Before one even begins to consider this hilarious novel by Doris Langley Moore, a rich period piece spiced with the sort of humanity and humour that never goes out of date, it is worth first paying attention to the author herself. The fascinating Doris Langley Moore OBE (1902-1989) was a person of passion and unconventional brilliance any part of whose life and achievements could themselves make the subject of a book or film.

Born in Liverpool, she was the book-hungry daughter of a newspaper editor who lived from the age of eight in South Africa and received no formal education. Her first volume, written in her 20s, by which time she was in London, was a translation of Odes from the Ancient Greek, followed by the tongue-in-cheek Technique of the Love Affair, now incidentally back in print. Dorothy Parker reviewed this for the New York Times in 1928 and wrote of it: ‘If only it had been placed in my hands years ago, maybe I could have been successful instead of just successive.’ Other lifestyle tomes followed.

Moore was a Byron scholar and biographer, author of four books on the poet and one on his daughter Ada Lovelace (who, with Charles Babbage, designed the first computer). She also wrote other biographies, of E. Nesbit (author of The Railway Children and Five Children and It, amongst many other novels), the nineteenth-century ballerina Carlotta Grisi, and Marie Bashkirtseff, the Russian sculptor and diarist.

Moore was passionate about ballet and created The Quest, based on Spenser’s poem The Faerie Queene, which was staged at Sadler’s Wells in London in 1943 with, in true Doris style, choreography by Frederick Ashton and designs by John Piper, danced by such legends of British ballet as Beryl Grey (later the first Western guest to dance with the Bolshoi), Robert Helpmann, Moirer Shearer (she of The Red Shoes) and Margot Fonteyn.

She also passionately loved clothes, which brings us to possibly Doris’s greatest achievement – as one of the first historians, curators and collectors of original costume. She bought and was given such quantities of clothes that she apparently had to move out of her London house and live in a flat nearby, leaving the house overflowing with garments. Ultimately she raised the profile of costume to such an extent, and the funds, to found the Museum of Costume, now the Fashion Museum housed in the Assembly Rooms in Bath. In one of her many books, The Woman in Fashion (1949), she debunked the myth that Victorian women all had tiny waists by actually measuring hundreds of dresses and revealing that the average waist was a healthy 20-30 inches. She designed costumes including Katharine Hepburn’s for the film The African Queen.

Doris Langley Moore found time to write six novels between 1932 and 1959, of which Not At Home was published in 1948 and is now reissued alongside her others by Dean Street Press with an introduction by Sir Roy Strong. He grew up with her pioneering books on fashion and was himself a founder of The Costume Society and a friend of Doris’s before becoming Director of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

The story introduces Elinor MacFarren, a botanical artist living alone in a large London house full of beautiful things who, to defray costs, takes a lodger. To summarize the plot briefly, this is a disaster. But along the way to the climax of the adventure we are treated to an escalating catalogue of exactly how disastrous. Every time we think it can’t get worse, it inevitably does, and even includes the death of a dog. The effect of each episode piled upon the last is delicious and compelling.

Elinor herself can be annoying to the modern reader, allowing her good nature to be so obviously exploited, which only lends variety and poignancy to the suspense. How will Elinor ever get the ghastly, manipulative Antonia Bankes out of her house, and how much destruction exactly will the lodger wreak before she goes? And what will Elinor (and we) have learnt from the experience? We are almost as relieved as Elinor when the excitement is all over, and we can return, wiser, to our quiet lives, embracing dull calm routine like a long lost friend…

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