Category Archives: Joanna Rees

The dancing dress that inspired a novel

There’s no doubt that in these lockdown days, one of the things I’m missing most is wearing a frock.  I can’t wait for the moment I’ll be able to crack one out and flounce up to town for a fancy lunch, or shimmy my way to a night of dancing.

I have some lovely dresses, but there are four that have major historical significance.  The first is the midnight blue shot taffeta affair which I wore to a May ball in Cambridge in 1988 and felt utterly fabulous.  Then there was my wedding dress that I based on a fifties dress of my aunt’s and the glamorous dress I had designed for my Platinum book launch, complete with rhinestones and a slit up to the thigh.  And now this beauty – the dress that inspired a whole book.

When I was writing The Hidden Wife, which is set in Paris in 1928, I needed my character Vita to be immersed in the world of fashion and to learn the ropes from a real-life couturier.  I didn’t want it to be Coco Chanel, as everyone knows so much about her, so I was very pleased when I came across an article in an old copy of Vogue about a designer called Jenny Sacerdote.

Looking up the company, I realised they still had a website and wrote, explaining that I was an author and asking for more information.

I had the most fantastic reply from Anne Vogt-Bordure, the CEO of La Suite Jenny Sacerdote and I jumped on the Eurostar to Paris to meet her.

Anne met me at the Gare du Nord and we hit it off immediately.  She took me to Dreyfuss, the incredible material emporium I feature in the book and then to the Champs-Élysées where Jenny’s once famous salon is now a Marriott Hotel.  Over lunch in an achingly cool terrace restaurant with a view of the Eiffel Tower, she told me Jenny’s story.

The Marriott hotel now
How it was in Jenny’s day

Jenny Sacerdote

Jeanne AdèleBernard was quite a woman, it seems. Born in 1868 to a single mother, she showed early promise. Being very bright, she followed a path to academia, but at the of 39 she decided to open her own fashion house and styled herself as Jenny Sacerdote. 

By the mid 1920’s Madame Jenny produced as many as 800 pieces a year, including coats, daytime dresses, wedding dresses, bathing suits and lingerie and it was actually Jenny who invented the ‘little black dress’ before Chanel.  By 1928, she’d become a worldwide celebrity, and won the coveted Grand Prix de l’Elegance. 

The women who made Jenny’s dresses. It was easy to see my character, Vita, fitting in with them.

Everyone who was anyone came to her modern salon on Paris’s famous avenue, where I had my character Vita, looking in awe at the beautiful gates and then blagging her way inside for an interview.  Vita even spots Hollywood starlet Mary Pickford, who was a big Madame Jenny fan. I have Vita looking through the visitors book, which really did include the cream of Parisian society, along with the sister and mother of Fred Astaire and even the Empress of Japan.

It was so brilliant to have these images and to be able to write Vita into this wonderful world. This is the sofa where she first meets debonaire Irving King, who Vita thinks might be the solution to all her problems (he’s not!).

In 1940 when the war came, Jenny, who didn’t have any descendants, closed the business and left Paris. It was the end of an incredible era.

But, inspired by Jenny’s fashion legacy Anne Vogt-Bordure revived the brand and in 2018 formed La Suite Jenny Sacerdote paying tribute to her name. Just like Jenny – movement is at the heart of the design.

Behind an unassuming door in one of those large Parisian buildings, Anne showed me into a flower garlanded courtyard where she has her studio. She showed me lots of old pictures of Jenny’s designs and her modern interpretations of them. The resulting dresses were just glorious.

Anne Vogt-Bordure, CEO of La Suite Jenny Sacerdote with one of Jenny’s original designs
This pink tennis-inspired dress appears in the book

This black dress was so chic, but I fell for this beautiful silk dress that is simply made for dancing.

It inspired the plot of the book, because in it, I have Vita at her interview with Jenny who asks Vita to decide where the braiding should be placed on this very dress.  It’s a test that Vita passes and she joins Jenny’s team.

The original dress in 1928 which I featured in the book
The dress now. I chose the red one.

Writing my Stitch In Time trilogy has been such a good excuse for me to channel my inner-flapper girl.  What a treat is is to have a dress that will always remind me of Vita and Paris. All I need now is a party…

For more information on these amazing dresses, please visit http://www.jennysacerdote.com

You can follow on Instagram @jennysacerdote

The Hidden Wife, by Joanna Rees is published by Pan Mac 18th March 2021. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Hidden-Wife-Stitch-Time/dp/1529018870/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1615909106&sr=8-2

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My Book Problem

This summer we had the hall painted, which meant that the enormous pile of books that are stacked on the wardrobe on the landing, from head height up to the ceiling had to come down.  I’d say, roughly, around five hundred seriously dusty books.  Hmmm, actually maybe more…possibly twice that.  And this is just the overflow stack.  The bookcases in every room are already rammed, the shelves in the loos teetering, plus the towering piles next to each side of our bed.

So I’ve had to take stock, which is not easy.  You see, if I can remember a detail from a book – like a character, or an atmosphere or setting, or even just a good line of dialogue – it’s like they’re part of me.  They’re my friends and it pains me to get rid of them, even though I’ll shortly be taking boxes and boxes of them to charity. 

I’m a writer, primarily because I like writing, but also because I love books.  For me, there is simply no better form of escapism. I can’t be doing with electronic books, or taking a tablet to bed. No, I need a physical book, where I fold over the corner of the page before I go to sleep, or leave it splayed on the sand next to my beach towel.  Books whose pages get slightly crinkly with moisture as I gallop through them whilst reading in the bath.  Books that have red wine, or gravy splattered on them as I’ve stood by the stove stirring a pot. 

I’m not a deliberate book hoarder.  If I read a book and love it, I pass it on immediately to a friend with strict instructions for them to read it.  I often end up missing the book so much, though, that I buy another copy of the book, just to have it.

Keeping books I love isn’t necessarily a problem in itself, it’s just after thirty odd years of collecting books, the problem is sheer volume.  And it doesn’t help that I’m married to a man who is exactly the same.

Problem one is of course, of my own making.  I’m talking about all of my own books and the ones I’ve written with Emlyn.  This is not meant as a humble brag, or even a brag, but as an author, it feels immoral to throw one’s own books away.  Do I need two Polish copies of A Twist Of Fate? Can I even read the title? No, but even so.  Someone, somewhere in another country, speaking another language I’ll never understand actually read the words I wrote.  It’s a fact that doesn’t get less amazing with time. 

Then there are the books of friends who are authors.  There are a lot of them, many of them personally signed at launches.  I have to keep those out of sheer solidarity with our fellow scribes.  I’ve been dusting off rare proofs, celebrating the life of these books that went out into the world, full of potential and hope.

Also in the collection are dozens that I’ve been carting around since university.  Ones that I think make me look clever – like Milton’s Paradise Lost, a battered set of Thomas Hardys, (plus the books I actually read, rather than swatted up on the Lett’s notes), the Edith Whartons and George Elliots. 

Then there’s all the  non-fiction books  –  on all sorts of eclectic subjects, from health, to all the history of various wars, out of date travel guides, to obscure books we’ve used for research – The Mabinogion anyone?  Oh, and let’s not forget the books we’ve inherited – like my father-in-law’s grandmother’s set of embroidery books.  What to do with them?  They’re so pretty – all embossed in gold.

I think the book problem would be easier to deal with if I didn’t keep buying new books, but I can’t help myself.  Bookshops are like sweet shops for me.  I just can’t resist. 

So recently I’ve tried a new tack.  I’ve decided that I’ll try and re-read books I’ve forgotten about.  Earlier this summer, on my first post lock-down trip to the very brilliant City Books in Hove, I bought a copy of The Magus, by John Fowles.   Admittedly, this was a first stumbling block in the new strategy.  I knew I had it somewhere in ‘the pile’, but who knew where, so I treated myself to a new copy.

Back in the late eighties, when I first read The Magus, it was incredibly popular and I remember loving it, but couldn’t remember very much about it.  It turned out to be a good summer holiday book – the setting is a sun-soaked Greek island. It follows the story of Nicholas Urfe, an arrogant young graduate who sets off to teach in the island’s school where he comes across a private estate, ‘Bourani’.  He soon meets its owner, the bonkers-rich recluse, Maurice Conchis. 

The Magus of the title – it was revealed about half way through – refers to a tarot card which represents a magician, and soon Conchis is conjuring up some weird mind-games that keep Nicholas – and the reader – guessing as to his purpose. The plot gets thicker and twistier. About three quarters of the way through, I nearly gave up, but I persevered and in the end, I did feel the re-read was worth it.  It’s a keeper.

Ah, but, damn it, I’m trying to create space.  So I have a copy going spare.  It’s a bit sandy, but any takers?

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Lessons of Lockdown

Sometimes, people ask me, ‘how do you write?’ This is in an interesting question, particularly as lock down has shed some light on the matter.

The truth is, I’ve always been a bit embarrassed about my writing process.  I’d like to tell you that I have a writing shed, filled with colour-coordinated shelves of erudite books, framed motivational quotes from literary greats and healthy pot plants.   I’d like to tell you that I squirrel myself away in this tasteful, Instagram-worthy shed for up to eight hours a day and write at least a thousand words in a stint.  I’m thoughtful, considered, committed.  A ‘proper’ writer.

But no.  That’s not me.  I write in my ‘study’ – which is basically the boot room by our back door.  The dog comes in and out relentlessly, as do the kids.  It’s messy, noisy and it’s where I spend most of my days faffing amongst teetering piles of paperwork, trainers and anything that’s been brought in from the garden in a hurry – usually piles of yet-to-be-folded washing, chair cushions, trowels and bags of compost, plus a skateboard I constantly trip over.

In this space, I spend a lot of time doing almost anything to avoid actually writing.  I dither and procrastinate, until (usually about thirty minutes before I have to leave the house, for a school run or social appointment) a tiny snippet of conversation will appear in my mind.  I chink of light into a scene.  Then I will sit and hastily clatter out a thousand words. 

This has always seemed to me to be a terribly shoddy way of working, even though I’ve come more and more to trust the power of my subconscious mind.

I’ve always felt embarrassed – guilty even – because writing is the thing I love doing most.  I’m utterly in love with writing…still, after a quarter of a century doing it for a living.  Surely I should treat it with more respect?  Give myself over more completely?

I’ve always thought that the problem was time.  If only I had more time to write. If only I didn’t have such a busy life and didn’t stack up my life with commitments, then my productivity would go through the roof. 

But in these past three months in lock down, this is what I’ve learnt: That the absolute opposite is true.  OK, so factoring in the issue of us being in the middle of a global pandemic and the stress that it entails (not to mention having three hungry teenagers roaming freely through my workspace),  there’s been no excuse not to work.  There’s been time.  Oodles of time to write, but my productivity has nose-dived.

A friend told me about something Elizabeth Gilbert said.  I can’t find her exact quote, but the gist is that you should treat writing like it’s an illicit lover.  That it’s best to write in snatched, pressurised moments. Write as if you’re being pressed up against a wall having a furtive snog at a dinner party.

And that’s so true.  I’ve realised that I do my best work under pressure. That my mind is firing when I’m busy.  That between phone calls, lunches, shopping, booking holidays, seeing friends, those are the snatched moments where the scenes bursts forth. Without the pressure of normal everyday life, I can’t find my writing mojo.

I’m delighted that now lock-down is going to ease, it won’t be long before I can start to make arrangements (although I know this will annoy the hell out of my husband, who loves being a hermit writer). 

With time being filled again, there’s even the possibility that my long lock-down ‘to-do’ list might finally happen.  One item has already been scratched out, though.  I’m not going to be building a writing shed anytime soon.  I’ll spend the money I’ll save on lunch.  

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