- Marion Rankine
- Melville House
Pity the poor umbrella. Too archaic to retain much cultural cachet in the 21st century, yet too functional to abandon entirely, brollies are the ultimate in awkward fashion accessories. The cheap ones are garbage, but most people don't use them enough to justify buying a good one. Plus, you'd probably just lose it anyway.
Umbrellas are so unwieldy that they're even neglected by those who would seem to need them most: rainy Seattle is famously brolly-phobic, leading to the closing of its last remaining brick-and-mortar umbrella store earlier this fall. Even app designers haven't figured out a way to disrupt the market. A Chinese umbrella-sharing startup tried, earlier in 2017, only to lose nearly all 300,000 of its stock in just three months.
Not too long ago, Marion Rankine would have agreed with all of the above. "Getting rained on has never bothered me," the London-based writer and bookseller says toward the end of Brolliology. "I have always preferred a thorough soaking to a dry torso and a pair of wet ankles, or the awkward huddling scuttle of sharing an umbrella with others." But then she kept noticing umbrellas popping up in the books she was reading. Plus, the more she looked into it, the more the history of umbrellas turned out to be a surprisingly wide-ranging one, with meanings and symbolism that "vary wildly from century to century and place to place."
The book that now follows from that curiosity is far wider in scope than a mere catalogue of literary brollies, but is nonetheless a breezy read. It's also attractively packaged. Rankine's globe-trotting text is complemented by a range of visual material, including Japanese woodblock prints, Indian cave frescoes and a series of photographs taken by the author of abandoned umbrellas around London. That international focus is welcome, as are Rankine's similarly global reference points: not just Mary Poppins and Charles Dickens (whose works alone contain more than 120 references to brollies), but also South Korea writer Han Kang, Czech/French writer Milan Kundera, and the acclaimed 2013 Angolan novel A General Theory of Oblivion.
As it turns out, brollies have held universal appeal from the very beginning. Long associated with Victorian England, the umbrella – along with its sibling, the parasol – has been used by monarchs in Egypt, Assyria and China dating back millennia. Originally, they were status symbols as much as anything. Back then, protecting oneself from the rain or the sun carried with it undertones of defying the will of the gods, an act of hubris usually reserved for royalty. By the time umbrellas were being mass produced in England, in the 1830s, they had become middle-class shorthand – providing the bearer with "the stamp of Respectability," as Robert Louis Stevenson put it.
Brollies have also long been a way of subtly working out gender roles within a given society. A rolled-up umbrella is an obvious phallic symbol, but historically umbrella and parasol use was seen as a distinctly feminine activity. The objects featured prominently in anti-suffragette messaging, for instance. But they were also symbols of individuality, and as ideas of selfhood and, later, feminism took hold in the West, brollies became a way for women to assert their own personal space. "In these temporary shelters," Rankine writes, "one creates a fleeting room of one's own."
Brolliology makes a convincing case for the odd but noble endurance of its subject. Umbrellas are inherently quirky objects, whose basic function and design has remained intact for the past 150 years. They've flourished in the margins of art and literature even longer. Why? "Perhaps it is the awkward elegance of them," Rankine writes, "these beautiful objects that are useful for so little else, that break so pathetically, that are cumbersome and accident-prone whether discarded, spread or folded."
She points out a famous line found in Nietzsche's unpublished manuscripts that reads: "I have forgotten my umbrella." Others have performed mental gymnastics trying to find philosophical significance in this one stray line, but maybe the answer is much simpler. Maybe it's just a five-word sad story, and one to which we can all relate. With umbrellas, as in life, you don't know what you've got until it's gone.
Michael Hingston is editor of the Short Story Advent Calendar and the author of a forthcoming book about Calvin and Hobbes. He lives in Edmonton.