“What can go up a chimney down but can’t go down a chimney up?” Marion Rankine begins her wide-ranging survey of the umbrella and its significance with this riddle. It nicely establishes her theme: just as umbrellas undergo, in the everyday use of them, a transformation, so too looking at this familiar, even forgettable object from multiple perspectives transforms our view of it.
Subtitle notwithstanding, Rankine’s book is more a review of histories of the umbrella than a history: an umbrella of umbrella studies. This isn’t a criticism (though at times she relies too heavily on T. S. Crawford’s A History of the Umbrella, 1970). Her contribution consists of an imaginative and provocative way of organizing existing historical and fictional works, shaped by her own observations and conclusions.
Rankin structures her book by seven attributes or states of umbrellas (plus an introduction and coda): the umbrella and social status, the device’s disreputable period in European history, its primary functions to shelter and protect, umbrellas and gender, individualism and the umbrella, forgotten and neglected umbrellas, and umbrellas transcending form and function.
The umbrella as we know it today dates from the mid-19th century, when steel replaced whalebone as the structural material of choice, making production easier and bringing down the cost. But the device had a long history leading up to that watershed moment. Rankin traces key appearances of the umbrellas in myth, history, and literature.
In Egyptian cosmology, sibling deities Nut (the sky) and Get (the earth) are kept apart by their father, Shu, maintaining the separation of heavens and earth; in illustrations Nut and Shu recall an umbrella, with Nut arching her back to create the curve of the sky and Get holding her up with both hands. The myth imbued the umbrellas used to protect monarchs from the sun with significance and power.
Japanese folklore holds that neglected objects can come to life. Among this class of supernatural being (tsukumogami) is the umbrella-ghost (kasa-obake), depicted as a tattered, partially opened brolly—with human head and arms protruding through the fabric, and a single leg supporting the creature.
Rankine traces the transformation of British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, a brolly enthusiast, from hero to pariah as his efforts to avoid conflict with rising Nazi Germany in the pre–World War II years were first supported, then maligned by Britain. An umbrella was, “like Thatcher’s handbag and Churchill’s cigar, Chamberlain’s signal prop”, Rankine holds.
After the Munich Agreement Chamberlain was ascendant; umbrellas were known as “chamberlains” and a cocktail named for the object became popular. After war broke out, the celebrated brolly lost its luster as the world concurred with Hitler’s assessment of Chamberlain as “that silly old man with his umbrella”.
E. M. Forster and Charles Dickens emerge as premier literary brolliologists. “Nowhere in literature,” Rankine argues, “are the umbrella’s class associations more painfully obvious than in Howard’s End“, in which an unintentionally filched umbrella lays bare the rigid class hierarchy that Leonard Bast, with his shabby umbrella, cannot hope to transcend.
In Dickens, via critic John Bowen, Rankine finds a number of female characters — among them Mrs. Gamp, whose close association with her umbrella and memorable use of it led to a new nickname for the device — who push gender boundaries by wielding an umbrella as a “hermaphroditic spur” (the term is Jacques Derrida’s).
The very short chapter on gender and umbrellas feels forced. “Heteronormativity”, “homoerotic”, and “queering” appear on the first page, and though she uses the phrase “pluvial bukkake” at one point, Rankine concludes that brollies and the relationships they accompany or enable in popular culture are pretty conventional.
“This is a book that will never—could never—be complete”, Rankine admits in the introduction. Each reader will, no doubt, find an omission. In my case it’s Patrick MacNee’s John Steed from the 1960s TV series The Avengers. The dapper Steed, in a bowler hat and suit, confronted the forces of evil with an umbrella featuring a sword hidden in the handle.
Steed’s archetypal Englishness, like James Bond’s very different brand of masculinity, seems an apt instance of cultural fare compensating for a nation in imperial decline (and an example of a hyper-gendered brolly).
This is a perfect book for a rainy afternoon. I felt completely safe opening it indoors.