‘Awwwww…. Mum….. one’s got stuck under the sofa,’ said my adorable nephew at the weekend, after a round of pelting me with foam balls, issued from some kind of plastic AK47.
Sure enough, one of the yellow foam missiles had rolled off me and under the sofa, where it remained obstinately out of a seven-year-old’s reach. Indeed it was out of a twenty-seven-year-old’s reach too.
As the seven-year-old’s patience was stretched to breaking point, the urge to unleash another volley of foam balls from the plastic gun growing unbearably strong, the mother and I knew we had about thirty seconds to retrieve the missing ball.
‘Now what can we use?’ the Mother wondered, eyes casting around the room.
I saw a tall black umbrella leaning in the hall. Luckily, it proved to be the perfect instrument for retrieving the ball.
‘I’m reading Howard’s End,’ I remarked, thoughtfully, returning the umbrella to its place in the hall.
I returned to the sofa, where amidst a shower of foam balls, my niece climbed up next to me to show me her collection of Narnia books. She informed me that she was reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. She had, apparently, just met Mr Tumnus.
Another character with an umbrella, I thought.
It is peculiar, really, how this ribbed, dome-like accessory has proved so vital in works of literature. (See John Mullan’s Top 10 literary brolleys for the Guardian.)
An umbrella is an instrument of shelter – of umbrage. It stems from the Latin ‘umbella’, meaning ‘sunshade, parasol’ and also the diminutive of ‘umbra’, meaning ‘shade, shadow’. A literary word indeed, it first appeared in English in one of Donne’s letters of 1609:
We have an earthly cave, our bodies, to go into by consideration, and cool our selves: and … we have within us a torch, a soul, lighter and warmer then any without: we are therefore our own umbrella’s and our own suns.
Typical. He could never settle for a humdrum comment about the weather, when there are metaphysical comparisons to be made.
In Howard’s End, it is Leonard Bast’s umbrella that leads to his fateful involvement with the Schlegels. His retrieval of his umbrella from the Schlegels is, to my mind, one of the most brilliant scenes in literature. Helen Schlegel is blustering around the hall, ‘ramshackly … all her hair flying’:
‘I do nothing but steal umbrellas. I am so very sorry! Do come in and choose one. Is yours a hooky or a nobbly? Mine’s a nobbly – at least I think it is.’
They search the hall, while Helen continues to chatter.
‘What about this umbrella?’ She opened it. ‘No, it’s all gone along the seams. It’s an appalling umbrella. It must be mine.’
But it was not.
He took it from her, murmured a few words of thanks, and then fled, with the lilting step of the clerk.
Helen’s chatter is non-stop. Forster uses it to portray her as confident, childish and careless and it is perfectly contrasted with Leonard’s reticence. He doesn’t get a single word of direct speech here; instead Forster reports Leonard’s ‘murmured’, ‘few’, words of thanks.
If words (or lack of) weren’t enough, Forster uses actions to betray Leonard’s humble background – ‘the lilting step of the clerk’ – just as Helen, who ‘flung herself into the big dining-room chair’, is cushioned by her wealth.
The two ends of the middle-classes couldn’t be more sharply contrasted.
Mr Tumnus’s umbrella was part of C.S. Lewis’s inspiration for all the Narnia books:
At first they were not a story, just pictures. They all began with a picture of a Faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood. This picture had been in my mind since I was about sixteen. Then one day, when I was about forty, I said to myself: ‘Let’s try to make a story about it.’
True to English form, both Mr Tumnus’s umbrella and Leonard Bast’s are tied to invitations to tea. Mr Tumnus asks Lucy to his for tea, sheltering her from the snow en route with his umbrella. And Margaret Schlegel has decided that once Leonard has got his umbrella she will ask him to stay to tea. But, of course, he runs off, embarrassed and insulted by the gulf between himself and the Schlegels, before she has a chance to proffer the invitation.
What with Mr Tumnus then drugging Lucy, planning to give her over to the White Witch, and Leonard’s subsequent undoing due to the Schlegel’s interference, the umbrella as a symbol of shelter seems like rather a treacherous one.
Paradoxically, it is only when the umbrella is turned on its head that it truly offers shelter.
In the charming and genuinely touching Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers, a young boy finds a penguin at his door. He deduces that the penguin must be lost, and, one thing leading to another, rows the penguin, who carries an umbrella, all the way to the South Pole.
The boy said goodbye and floated away. But as he looked back the penguin looked sadder than ever.
The penguin, ingeniously, turns his umbrella upside-down and uses it as a boat, paddling after the boy. When they find each other, after a hug, the umbrella is the perfect mode of transport, protecting them from the sea, as they go back home together.
Perhaps there is a moral here. Even if you can’t always trust an umbrella, you can always trust a penguin.