Monday, April 21, 2014

The Importance of Shoes

JK Rowling is to be on BBC's Woman's House radio programme this week, talking about shoes in literature.

I'm not very good at shoes, personally, or at least Shoes, with a capital S. Going into a shoe shop, finding one I like the look of, waiting for an interminable period while they seek out the matching one, then finding that they are excruciatingly uncomfortable and having to start again, strikes me as a form of slow torture. And I do know that to be stylish you just have to not care that it hurts, but I grew out of that a good few years ago.

But when I started to think about literary shoes, I was amazed how many examples I could immediately think of, starting with Cinderella's glass slipper.(Though this, I am given to understand, was in the original French fairy tale described as being of 'vair' – fur – which was mistaken in translation for 'verre' – glass – a lot less glamorous.  Somehow a furry slipper suggests a night in with a boxed set rather than a palace ball.)

Dorothy's red shoes, Dick Whittington's thigh-high leather boots, Sex and the City's Manolos and Jimmy Choos, Posy's mother's ballet shoes in the book of the same name – I'm sure you can fill in a lot more.

The shoes that made me think, though, were Hercule Poirot's: patent leather shoes, topped with grey spats, impeccably free of dust, always a bit too tight. Those simple details speak volumes about the man. They are shoes of the city, elegant if out-of-date; the man who wears them is fussy, old-fashioned and vain enough to put up with discomfort.  Economy in description is a great virtue in a writer and Agatha Christie was a master of the art.

One British actress was known to say that when she was trying to work up a new part the first thing she had to do was decide what the character would be wearing on her feet and the rest of it flowed from that. I didn't set out with that principle when I described my two main characters , DI Marjory Fleming and DS Tam MacNee, but Tam's trainers are definitely a part of his casual, man-of-the-people nature, just as Big Marge's neat court shoes, understated and practical, shed light on her character too.

I can think of other examples I've used, too – well-polished brogues, to establish a background of country-style wealth, stilettos with a tight pencil skirt for a cheerful Liverpudlian secretary. I'm going to focus on that more when next I have a new character to create.

There's no doubt that shoes are important to our readers. Kate Atkinson (who definitely does like shoes) tells of giving a talk about her books to a large audience. When the event was opened to questions, an eager hand instantly shot up. Kate, pleased to see someone so clearly inspired by what she'd said, smiled encouragingly. 'I just wanted to know where you got your shoes,' the woman said.


Eileen Goudge said...

Makes me wonder about the literary use of a ladies' stiletto as a murder weapon. Hmmm...

Aline Templeton said...

And what would that say about the character of the murderer, I wonder? Or even the writer...?

Carol Hutton said...

Actually, there was a recent murder case in this area in which a woman had killed a man with one. I don't think the murderer was a very nice person. :0)

Aline Templeton said...

I guess that might make any man look nervously at his wife's stilettos!

Aline Templeton said...

I guess that might make any man look nervously at his wife's stilettos!