09 November 2010


A Rainy Day Post

When was the last time you looked at an umbrella--really looked at it? Seriously. If it has been too long, you should step away from your PC right now, look for one to study, and take as long as you need to appreciate its form as well as its function.

I'd say the umbrella is one of the craziest and most fantastic triumphs of engineering ever. If the Ancient Greeks had had it, they would have credited Athena, Goddess of Wisdom, for its design. We take it for granted now, but it's not the most obvious design in the world, is it? All those little joints and shiny metal arms, underneath that deceptively straightforward canopy . . . It's almost like a robot, isn't it? And the relatively new pop button for instant unfurling? My favourite part!

And if anyone is wondering where this post came from, let's just say it's my way of dealing with the big umbrella I leave the house with every day.

My Top 5 Umbrellas in Literature

1) Mary Poppins' Umbrella (Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers)

Let's begin with the most famous fictional umbrella of all, one of a mysterious nanny's magical accessories.

Mary Poppins seems to take her own fantastic nature for granted; and for her, this umbrella is just another aid in her seemingly ordinary commitment to look her best at all times. And let's admit it: an umbrella can make or break an ensemble--which is why those collapsible umbrellas that fit into a lady's purse and come in discreet, classic colours are so popular among women. But Mary Poppins has a different sense of style. She dresses to impress and she wants to be seen.

And so our favourite nanny's umbrella of choice has . . . a handle shaped like a parrot's head! Doubt not that she pulls it off with panache!

But that's not even the best part, which is that this remarkable umbrella helps her to fly on the wind! She simply catches the wind with the canopy the way a boat's sails would, holds on tightly, and has lift off. As someone who works with small children on a near-daily basis, I vote for her umbrella as the most useful magical item in her arsenal, for its ability to impress any child who has ever seen it in action.

2) Friedrich Bhaer's Umbrella (Good Wives by Louisa May Alcott)

Louisa May Alcottt tends to be very literal with her symbols. The only imagery she is really mistress of is the kind you find in allegories. Only Meg manages to escape with an utterly prosaic marriage proposal (despite the presence of an umbrella!); everyone else gets a vehicle for some sappy message.

We have rowboat imagery for Laurie and Amy, cart and donkey imagery for Tommy and Dora, lifeboat imagery for Emil and Mary, and of course, umbrella imagery for Professor Bhaer and Jo. (All very different allegories for marriage! I shall leave it to the married people reading this to judge each of them.) Of course, my favourite is the umbrella, which is a romantic classic.

It is full-on pathetic fallacy the evening a despondent Jo runs into Professor Bhaer, whom she thought had gone away without saying goodbye. Her arms are full of parcels she can barely manage, she is about to be soaked to the bone, and she thinks the love of her life will never offer for her . . . when out of the blue, he shows up with a handy umbrella and no greater desire than to shelter her with it. You can be sure Alcott milks this romantic angle with everything she's got.

There is something sweet, tender and chivalrous in a man's sheltering a woman from pouring rain; it is hard to find anything else to match it.

3) Alexia Tarabotti's Umbrella (Soulless by Gail Carriger)

There is something so Steampunk about the umbrella--and its fraternal twin the parasol. But a Steampunk novel worth its SF twist won't have just any type of "parasol": in Soulless, the spunky heroine is armed with a brass umbrella of her own design, which may or may not be tipped with silver. (You know: for werewolves.)

Finally, we get to see an umbrella used as a weapon: in the very first chapter, it is instrumental in the death of a vampire. Never mind that it was an accident: the message is that umbrellas must be respected and feared.

Kind of the way spinsters should be respected and feared? Carriger's arch insistence on reminding the reader every few pages (or paragraphs) that Alexia is on the shelf because of her strong features and assertive manner is the weakest aspect of this novel. (Hush up already! I get it!) Carriger could have just concentrated on the umbrella.

Both Alexia and her parasol are unfairly underestimated, needing a dramatic turn of events to make anyone see them differently. For the umbrella, it was the vampire slaying; for Alexia . . . Well, I wish I could say it was the solving of a mystery that had an entire government bureau at a total loss, but the dyed-in-the-wool feminist Carriger still made it about this spinster's snaring of one of the most eligible bachelors in England. I can, however, live with that. ;-)

4) Leonard Bast's Umbrella (Howards End by E.M. Forster)

It should be the beginning of a beautiful friendship when Helen Schlegel absentmindedly walks off with Leonard Bast's umbrella, and he has to chase her all the way home for it. Not quite an umbrella-in-the-rain, but still a decent meet-cute. Unfortunately, Leonard is the tragically embarrassing figure of this Forster novel (Don't they all have one?) and we won't have that desired ending.

Helen mistakes his umbrella for her own because both are so threadbare: she might be comfortably genteel, but she's not very careful with her possessions and doesn't care what anyone else thinks. Leonard, on the other hand, has no choice but to put up with the shabby article--and it is a deep source of shame to him. He desperately wants to be like the Schlegel sisters: cultured, well-read, articulate, arrived. But he has no idea that the key to such a blissful state might include a proper, more poetic appreciation of the unlikely object that brought about their meeting.

Not that the Schlegels are any better: their passion is for higher ideas and are useless in helping Leonard in any practical way. And thus, this totally random collision of their worlds, neither of which is quite awake when it comes to umbrellas, is doomed from the start. Not literally because of the umbrella, of course, but because of what it represents. "Only connect!" Margaret Schlegel is famous for saying. I think she missed this one link.

5) Father Brown's Umbrella (The Blue Cross by G.K. Chesterton)

Umbrellas are great in the rain, but when the weather doesn't demand their use, they can be awkward to lug around. Instant ungainliness! And if you have a really big one, it can seem like a paralysed fifth limb.

That is exactly what this story's big umbrella does for its little priest; and as in all the other cases on this list, this object becomes a commentary on his character. Everyone underestimates the clumsy cleric who keeps dropping his umbrella or leaving it behind and having to run back for it. And in the end, it is he who solves the mystery and who proves to have been several steps ahead of the experienced police detective at the very moment the latter was watching him fumble with this very tool.

In a world where there seems to be a natural explanation for everything and atheism seems a valid and wonderful choice, it is easy to think of religion as a big umbrella one doesn't really need. Science and civic development have done away with the philosophy and structures of the dark ages as effectively as the sun chases away dark clouds. So who still needs an umbrella these days?

In this first Father Brown story, G.K. Chesterton suggests that we all still do--and that we probably shouldn't leave home, or even attempt to solve a criminal case, without it.

Image Sources: a) Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers, b) Good Wives by Louisa May Alcott, c) Soulless by Gail Carriger, d) Howards End by E.M. Forster, e) Father Brown: The Essential Tales by G.K. Chesterton


Birdie said...

What a great idea!!! You are so creative! Now you've got me thinking about my favourite accoutrements in lit--Lord Peter Wimsey's monocle, Aloysius the teddy bear from Brideshead, etc.

Irena @ This Miss Loves to Read said...

This is a truly creative and original post! I have to confess, I only think about umbrellas when I need one ona rainy day, but an umbrella actually has other functions, apart from serving as a shield against rain. I find the steampunk umbrella the best one.:)

Enbrethiliel said...


Birdie: Thank you! *takes a bow*

Oh, I love Aloysius! Maybe I'll do a Top 5 Teddy Bears/Soft Toys next. (Or would you like to do that?) One thing I learned while writing this is how much we can tell about a person from the things he carries around. Here we have five different umbrellas--for they only seem the same--and they each say something very different about the person using them! Aloysius makes a similar statement; but I confess I can't think of any other toy bears off the top of my head. =(

Irena: I'm so glad you enjoyed it! And if it has opened your eyes to the sheer splendiferousness of umbrellas, so much the better! ;-)

Alexia's umbrella almost didn't make it, because Amelia Peabody's umbrella has been more famous for a much longer time (and there is part of me that finds Alexia a second-rate Amelia--Sorry, Carriger fans!); but the Steampunk element definitely made the difference in the end. =)

Salome Ellen said...

I was going to plump for Amelia Peabody's parasol, but I saw that you have (valid) reasons. "I'm Number Six, Hey!" (This is a reference to an American sports cheer "We're number one...")

Avid Reader said...

So happy Howards End made the list.

Enbrethiliel said...


Ellen: I do love her cheeky parasol! She definitely puts it to hilarious use. =)

Avid Reader: There's something about Leonard's umbrella, isn't there? Perhaps because he's so embarrassed by it and yet it's the first clue we really have to his character? He'd like to have us forget it--and maybe we'd like to forget it, too, and focus on more sublime aspects of the novel--but Forster has made that impossible!

A friend who read this post sent me this quote over chat:

Putting my weakest books to the wall last night I came across a copy of Howard's End and had a look into it. But it's not good enough. E.M.Forster never gets any further than warming the teapot. He's a rather fine hand at that. Feel this teapot. Is it not beautifully warm? Yes, but there ain't going to be no tea. And I can never be perfectly certain whether Helen was got with child by Leonard Bast or by his fatal forgotten umbrella. All things considered I think it must have been the umbrella. -- Katharine Mansfield

Birdie said...

I might do something along the lines of a top 5; I've just got to get my brain going in a straight line! LOL That might take a while!

but I confess I can't think of any other toy bears off the top of my head.

*shakes head sadly*
Winnie the Pooh?
Paddington Bear?
I wonder what it says about me that I can think of all these on the spur of the moment XD

paul bowman said...

Nice. : )

Enbrethiliel said...


Birdie: *scrambles around frantically*

Oh, I meant toy bears in books for grown ups! Obviously! =P I mean, Aloysius doesn't talk.

But if we're going in that other direction, there's also Corduroy! You'll have your Top 5 List in no time!

Paul: Thank you. =)

Lesa said...

Aah! No wonder you liked those see through umbrellas in Izzy's post!

It has already been said but what a clever original post-- I do love your ways of seeing. You remind me of Tracy (my co-blogger)-- her own blog 'cooked heads' is all about ways of seeing-- fascinating but both of you make me feel like I miss an awful lot.


Enbrethiliel said...


I wouldn't mind having one of those, to tell you the whole truth! ;-)

Now I'll go give Tracy's blog a visit. =)