Brolliology: the history of umbrellas in all their ingenuity and weirdness

Marion Rankine writes that, in death, the brolly “is good for very little else”.

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A few years ago, I was accosted at a bookshop event by a man with a familiar gleam in his eye. Like so many non-writers who keep abreast of other people’s book sales, he was sure he had conceived the perfect idea for a copycat bestseller. “You know how there are those books about commodities that changed the world, like cod and salt?” he said. “Well, no one’s done tortoises, have they?”

Without wishing to be mean about tortoises, after reading Brolliology I can’t help thinking that the umbrella is a much more rewarding choice of subject. Take just three examples:

1) Umbrellas routinely metamorphose in a radical way: from being a plain bit of stick with fabric furled round it, they open up miraculously into a broad protective canopy. Sadly, tortoises have no equivalent capacity for shape-shifting. (And they aren’t very useful in a downpour.)

2) Since the introduction of umbrellas in the 18th century, brolly ownership has shiftingly denoted social class and gender in fascinating ways. Not so the possession of the tortoise.

3) In EM Forster’s Howards End, a whole plot famously kicks off because a girl from a wealthy bohemian background carelessly walks off with someone else’s shabby umbrella. Again, had it been Leonard Bast’s small, wrinkly-skinned pet reptile from the order Testudinidae that had been stolen from beside him at that fateful concert – well, let’s just say it would have raised narrative issues of a very different sort.

Any reader of a book like this starts out by being competitive. How many cultural references to umbrellas can you name? Mrs Gamp in Martin Chuzzlewit springs to mind (does anyone find her funny?), plus perhaps Robinson Crusoe with his massive rustic parasol. When Captain Wentworth finally offers shelter to Anne in Persuasion, it’s very lovely and makes you cry. Personally, I waited in vain for TV’s The Avengers to show up, but you can’t have everything. Marion Rankine’s original idea was a straight anthology of literary umbrellas, but then the project one day opened up (with a satisfying whoosh, perhaps, like an automatic umbrella) to become the present attractive artefact: a well-illustrated and wide-ranging essay on the history of an everyday object that in today’s world is both essential and discardable.

What I like most about the book is its determination to make us look at umbrellas in all their ingenuity and weirdness. They are both weapon and defence, for example. You can poke someone with your umbrella, but you can also protect yourself. Rankine repeats a story of the Raj in which a quick-thinking colonial woman defended herself against a Bengal tiger by opening her umbrella in its face. Famously, a furled umbrella can go up a chimney while an open umbrella won’t come down. And I know what you’re thinking here: oh, that Freud were living at this hour. But perhaps we find ourselves now in a post-post-Freudian world, because the erotic symbolism of the brolly is surprisingly underplayed in Brolliology. Passages from Will Self’s novel Umbrella suggest that he would have taken a very different line on the whole business, but Marion Rankine is clearly too nice a woman to join in.

It’s churlish to point out what’s not in the book, but I can’t help dwelling on The Avengers. John Steed’s umbrella with its integrated sword-stick – what a gift! Also, there is little in the book about the feel of the open umbrella in one’s hand; the trick of flipping it; or its traditional use in juggling. And what about the weight and smell of the wet umbrella, and superstitions about opening umbrellas indoors? When did the tiny telescope umbrella get invented? Who came up with the button release? How many injuries are caused by people opening their umbrellas without due care and attention? When did the last umbrella-mender die?

My favourite part of the book concerns the umbrella that is lost, broken, or stolen. It’s quite an emotional chapter. People simply don’t love their umbrellas enough. Look around for cruelly abandoned umbrellas and you will spot them everywhere. Rankine includes a series of poignant memento mori photos of dead brollies on the streets of London: spiny, sunken, damp, condemned by their own inexpensiveness. She writes that, in death, the brolly “is good for very little else”, but she’s being charitable: a dead brolly is good for nothing else at all. Meanwhile the casual taking of other people’s umbrellas demonstrates an interesting moral relativism, along the lines of the anti-piracy videos on DVDs: the ones that begin, “You wouldn’t steal… a handbag.” Rankine quotes William Sangster, author of Umbrellas and their History, on “the frightful morality that exists with regard to umbrellas”, and also a ditty I learned as a child:

The rain it raineth every day
Upon the just and unjust fella,
But mostly on the just because
The unjust stole the just’s umbrella.

Though slightly marred by a few proof-reading errors (there should be no apostrophe in Howards End, and there was no Catholicism to speak of in “the 8th century BCE”) and, in my edition, an odd printing problem, Brolliology is a thought-provoking little book. Rankine brings in everything from Japanese art of the Edo period, through ancient Egyptian cosmology, to 20th-century political history (in particular, Neville Chamberlain’s umbrella, as discussed so brilliantly by historian David Cannadine on Radio 4
last year). There is no doubt that tortoises would have returned paltry dividends by comparison.

Lynne Truss’s most recent book is “The Lunar Cats” (Arrow)

Brolliology: A History of the Umbrella in Life and Literature
Marion Rankine
Melville House, 176pp, £12.99

This article appears in the 07 December 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special