Seetons, Lobelias and Brokkenbroll: the umbrellas that got away

Guest posts
09/01/2018 | POSTED BY Abbie

We’re delighted to welcome to the Farrago Books blog Marion Rankine, unrivalled expert in all things umbrella-related in the literary world. Marion’s wonderful book Brolliology was published in November by Melville House.   

One of the beautiful and terrible things about your book going to print is that you can’t do anything to it any more. No more corrections, no more last-minute edits, no more fiddling about with word choice. It’s a bit like getting on a plane for a meticulously planned trip: you hope you’ve packed what you need, organised All The Things, but if you didn’t, there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. A feeling of immense relief, laced with a horrible crawling anxiety. 

My book, Brolliology: A History of the Umbrella in Life and Literature, was published by Melville House in November 2017. It’s an exploration of umbrellaness – the wonderfully varied meanings that umbrellas have held for us over thousands of years, and how these meanings manifest in literature. It sprung from an impulse of literary collectorship: stung by an insatiable curiosity about bookish umbrellas, I embarked on a long period of umbrella-hunting in my reading, spurred on by hints and allusions in texts, literary criticism and from fellow readers. All in all, the book features passages from over forty essays and novels.  

Despite its anthological impulse, Brolliology was never meant to be encyclopaedic, a complete catalogue of All The Umbrellas In All The Books Ever. Such an attempt would be immense, and rather contrary to the spirit of gentle inquiry I was writing in. However, I have always known that there would be some left-out brollies, some yet-to-be-discovered gems, that would haunt me after the final edits were done. And sure enough, just a few weeks before publication – and long after I could do anything about writing them into my book – they started popping up. Samuel Beckett was the first to rear his head when a colleague tipped me off to a wonderful walking stick/umbrella duality which appears in Molloy, where an umbrella’s natural function as a shelter is complicated by its extreme usefulness as a walking aid: “Was I to go on leaning on my umbrella and get drenched or was I to stop and take shelter under my open umbrella?” 

Then there’s Hopscotch, by Argentinian novelist Julio Cortázar, which contains some of the most poetic writing about a failed umbrella you’re ever likely to see: “you tried to open your umbrella in the park in a proud sort of way, but your hand got all wrapped up in a catastrophe of cold lightning shafts and black clouds, strips of torn cloth falling from the ruins of unfrocked spokes…” 

There’s a section in my book about umbrella sentience (yes, it’s a thing) and it’s a shame I hadn’t yet encountered China Miéville’s YA novel Un Lun Dun, which features the treacherous Brokkenbroll – master of the broken brollies which have crossed into UnLondon from the streets of London – and the umbrellas (or rather, unbrellas) he gives out to UnLondon citizens to defend themselves against the sentient Smog preying on their world. 

However, having not previously read Molloy, Hopscotch or Un Lun Dun I couldn’t feel too guilty for overlooking them. Something I have read – and am very cross with myself for forgetting – is Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, in which the odious Lobelia Sackville-Baggins is known for deploying her accessory in near-criminal ways: “[Frodo] escorted her firmly off the premises, after he had relieved her of several small (but rather valuable) articles that had somehow fallen inside her umbrella.” 

Indeed, so attached is Lobelia to her brolly that, when she is later rescued from a lengthy and unjust incarceration, she emerges from prison “still clutching her umbrella.” In so doing, she joins a long tradition of literary characters – Mary Poppins, Father Brown, Robinson Crusoe and Mrs Gamp being some of the best-known – who are almost inseparably identified with their brollies. Which brings us to one of the literary umbrellas I’m most pained to have missed out – that carried by the titular character of Heron Carvic’s Miss Seeton series (recently republished by Farrago). Miss Seeton has a habit of dispensing poetic justice to wrongdoers with her rolled umbrella – so much so that she is referred to as “The Battling Brolly” in newspapers. “That woman gets her umbrella into everything,” comments the superintendent of police, but it is well that she does: more than once, her umbrella saves her life. It certainly aids the police in their investigations, even if Miss Seeton herself is terribly ashamed of the small physical violences she inflicts on hardened criminals. It’s a source of some amusement to certain members of the local police force, but as the superintendent gravely puts it, “The Miss Seetons of this world don’t biff people; they indicate displeasure with the ferrule of an umbrella.” In fact, had the Miss Seeton books been penned a century earlier, umbrellas may well have found themselves with a new moniker: robinsons, gamps, hanways (after Jonas Hanway, a pioneer of umbrella use among the British) and chamberlains (after umbrella-toting British PM Neville Chamberlain) all entered the language by dint of association with the fictional or real-world characters who carried them. 

So, there’s just five spectacular literary umbrellas I missed. Having written this, I will no doubt encounter another in the next book I pick up. It’s one of the more endearing, exasperating qualities of umbrellas: never quite visible when you need one, and glaringly obvious – tripping you up at the top of the stairs, or slathered across a pavement, flapping feebly – when you don’t. 

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