In today’s world of cutthroat publishing it’s some feat for a first time author to not only have their debut book snapped up by a renowned indie publisher like New York’s Melville House, but also have the head of said company approach you themselves about the project. But this was just the case for Australian writer Marion Rankine, whose book Brolliology: A History of the Umbrella in Life and Literature was published by the prizewinning publisher in November. Though umbrellas may sound an odd subject, Rankine’s quirky and beautifully illustrated book proves that there’s more to the humble brolly than simply a means to keep dry. As she explained to me when we spoke recently, writing about them has opened up a whole new world of the strange and bizarre.
CLEAVER PATTERSON: What is Brolliology? I’d never heard of the term before reading the book.
MARION RANKINE: Brolliology is a word which doesn’t technically exist. I encountered it at some stage during my reading for the book. If you Google it, it does turn up. It’s unofficially the study of umbrellas, although it’s not actually in the O.E.D. It was my working title for a very long time, and I thought that’ll be a good title when I think of something better. Then after a while it just couldn’t be called anything else.
Who’d have thought there was so much to say about the humble umbrella.
Certainly not me. The book originally started life as an essay. I was intending to write just a small thing on umbrellas that I’d read about in various works of literature, such as The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, where there’s a wonderful scene with some umbrellas. Then all these other little instances started popping up. Enough of them turned up that I felt, “there’s something here, I should explore this.” After researching the subject, more and more examples kept turning up until I realized that it was going to be a very long essay indeed. So I thought I’d better just turn this into a book.
What is it that interests you about the place of the umbrella in literature, history and various cultures? Correct me if I’m wrong, but Australia — where you’re from originally — isn’t known for its umbrella weather?
Actually I’m going to correct you. I grew up in Brisbane which is very sub-tropical. The downpours there are quite astonishing. I’ve only learned this since moving to England where the downpours are very mean in comparison. Where I grew up you could have an umbrella in the rain and it would be of very little use because it was raining so hard. At one point in the book I say that I rarely used to use umbrellas in Brisbane because it’s so warm that it doesn’t really matter if you get soaked through. In England though if you get rained on you really have the chance of catching pneumonia. So being in England brought me round to the practicalities of an umbrella.
What fascinates me is their enormous history. They’ve got this universality and have been so integral to different ways of being all over the world. You think of them as a more or less recent invention, which in the UK they are, as they only came here in the 18th century or thereabouts. But in terms of world history they’re much, much older, dating back to the ancient Egyptians and Assyrians. They’ve had associations with religion, divinity and kingship, but have also been reviled, scorned and ridiculed, so their amazing contradictory nature and the variousness of their form and function intrigues me no end.
You’re Australian. You live in Britain and are having your first book published by an American company. Different cultures and people clearly interest you. Maybe this is what appeals about the “universality” of the umbrella?
Absolutely. I’ve always loved traveling and being on the move. I think and write best when I’m walking, or on a train or bus. I love exploring and hate being in the same place for too long. Something I love about travelling is how you see the world differently through different people’s eyes and the eyes of other cultures. It’s so easy to become stuck in customs or the way things are done in your own corner of the world, but there are so many different approaches to things. Human umbrella use and human umbrella interaction is very typical of that diversity of possibility.
An umbrella is probably one of the few everyday objects everyone recognizes, no matter where they’re from. Yet, as you point out in the book, it’s looked at differently all over the world. There’s clearly more to the umbrella than what we think of as simply something to grab when there’s a shower of rain?
These days in England they are, for the most part, quite disposable objects. We only need an umbrella when it’s raining, and for the rest of the time we can forget about them. Go back a century or so and every gentleman in the city had one — a bowler hat and an umbrella were the uniform of a gentleman. There were so many rules to how you folded and held them, and all sorts of social ills could be read into the poor carriage of an umbrella. But go back even further to when they were introduced to England, and people were scorned and mocked for using them. Go back further still and in Egypt and parts of Asia they were only ever held over kings and rulers. The dome shape of the umbrella represented the dome shape of the heavens and hence the king’s divinity.
Considering the way it has developed, do you think there’ll come a time when umbrellas will become obsolete?
That’s a fascinating question. I would have said no, except for the fact that a few years ago I went to the Rain Room exhibition at the Barbican in London, which also showed at MOMA in New York later the same year. They basically had an indoor rainstorm where every sprinkler had an inbuilt sensor that would shut off the moment it detected a person moving beneath it. As soon as you put your hand out the rain would stop instantly, so you could walk through the whole room of water without getting wet at all. It was an uncanny feeling walking through it, and it was the only time I’ve been in ‘rain’ and never felt the necessity for an umbrella. So the only substitute I could see for an umbrella would be the equivalent of your own personal forcefield that repels the rain. One of the writers I reference, Charlie Connelly — who wrote a book on the English weather called Bring Me Sunshine — said “you can’t download an app to replace the umbrella.”
People often overlook umbrellas. But, as your book points out, they’ve been written about and discussed by everyone from writers like Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson to philosophers such as Derrida and Nietzsche. How does it feel that your thoughts and writing could soon be sitting amongst such literary greats?
I wouldn’t for a moment presume that it’s near the level of them. I think it’s more of a tribute to the umbrella and its diversity, adaptability and the way they seem to get into everyone’s lives. If you wanted to be a really good secret agent I think you’d be an umbrella, surely. The fact that they’ve been written about by so many people is a testament to their enduring appeal.
Do you think the umbrella has been forgotten as an object of fashion? Queen Elizabeth II is said to have various umbrellas to match whatever outfit she is wearing.
I don’t really see people now as matching their umbrellas with their clothes, and if they do it tends to be with a very retro approach. There was a period, early in the 20th century, when parasols got ridiculous and reached their peak of public embrace, to the extent that it was as much about the woman’s parasol as her dress. Then there was a sudden shift which saw it become very fashionable to have a suntan which really made the use of the parasol very old-fashioned indeed. The advent of the world wars also saw the decline in the manufacture of parasols and umbrellas for a while. When umbrellas re-emerged in the 1950s, I think they’d lost much of their power in the public’s imagination. Now, in terms of affordable, fashionable umbrellas, the ones available from art galleries and museums are some of the most creative and imaginative.
Which are your favorite umbrellas from literature, television, or film?
That’s a tricky one. I’m very fond of the umbrellas in E. M. Forster’s Howards End — one in particular is stolen, which forms the catalyst for the whole book. The way Forster writes about umbrellas is just wonderful — he says at one point in A Room With A View, “Lucy was all parasol,” which I think is just delightful. Then someone on Twitter alerted me also to the Japanese umbrella monster, or ghost, with one foot and a big red tongue called kasa-obake, which I really love as well.
Has writing a book on umbrellas changed how you look at and think about them?
Absolutely. It has given me a deeper appreciation for them. Understanding the different cultural meanings invested in them makes you look at them in different ways. It has also given me a lot more respect for the industry and work that goes into making them. They’re deceptively simple objects, but when you consider how they’re made you gain a lot more respect for them.
What have people’s reactions been when you tell them you’ve written a book about umbrellas? What do your family and friends think of your interest in the subject?
Generally amused and positive. I think there’s something captivating about umbrellas. Something unusual enough that makes people do a second take, but then common enough that they say, “oh yeah, I’ve read about that,” or “yeah, there’s that moment in that film.” As soon as you mention it people always have examples, and can see what you’re talking about and why it interests you. It’s not so specific that it shuts anyone out. There have been one or two people who’ve gone, “god, you’re weird.” But for the most part people have been intrigued. I’ve had nothing but love and support from my family and friends for the book, though my suggestion that I might do one on mops next didn’t go down so well.
What do you hope people will take away from reading Brolliology?
I hope they enjoy it and find it even a little bit as fascinating as I do. Not that I’m any kind of spokeswoman for umbrellas, but it would be nice if it helped people find a new respect for them. I hope readers find something which delights or intrigues them. Perhaps it’ll inspire them to pick up a book which they haven’t read in a while and see it with fresh eyes. It’s always a risk when you write something so specific that people won’t be interested, but this seems to have struck a chord.
Do you think there’s a place in publishing for authors who want to bring attention to, lets say, more unusual things? Perhaps writing about obscure subjects is the way to go now to get noticed?
I certainly wouldn’t claim to have any authority on what it is that gets you noticed. How I ended up getting published was just sheer good luck really. As a bookseller — which I’ve been — you do see patterns emerge. As soon as something does well, there’s a crop of about six to 10 other books claiming to do the same thing, again. I don’t think there’s been a period in my adult life where I’ve been a casual book buyer without having the experience of bookselling as well, so I find it difficult to step into the shoes of someone who’s just looking for a book, without that huge body of information and experience behind me which I’ve picked up from bookselling. That said, it’s always exciting when you find a new angle and perspective which hasn’t been explored before. It’s always worthwhile questioning things which we mightn’t usually — both generally and in writing.
It takes many people years to get published and particularly “break” the American market. Yet you’re having your debut book brought out by the respected New York publisher Melville House. Quite an achievement for a first time writer?
Again it was just luck. Basically I’d written this book and then looked at it and thought “what have I done?” So I put it in a drawer for a while to think about it, and give myself a rest. During that period the London Book Fair was happening, during which time publishers from all over the world are in London and quite often come into Foyles, where I worked. I was tidying the front of house area one day and a man came in and asked me for a copy of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. It happened to be one of my favorite books from last year, and I was standing just beside some, so I picked one up and began raving about it, telling him how wonderful it was and how he had to read it immediately. He looked at me a bit oddly and said how pleased he was that I felt that way as he was its publisher. He was there with Valerie, his partner and co-founder of Melville House. We had a brief discussion and then I left them to it. I went home and looked him up, read his blog and then followed him on Twitter. Then I thought nothing more of it. A few weeks later he followed me back, then messaged me saying that he’d seen me talk about my book on my feed and whether I had a publisher. And it all followed on from that. So it was all this tremendous co-incidence, and him who approached me first.
I’m very fond of Melville House and had admired them for a long time. They’re an unusual business in that they really stand up for what they believe in. A lot of companies won’t bring politics into their marketing. If they have a political stance they’ll just keep it quiet. But Melville House have a set of values and stick by them, which I think has become increasingly clear to people since the U.S. elections last year. They’ve been quite vocal about the president and politics in general, and they have an integrity which I really admire.
What I’m working on next is a book exploring the role of caring in society, and all of its various definitions. I’m keen to investigate the role of care in social and human relationships. It’ll encompass psychology, philosophy, and cultural studies, so will be a complete departure from my current book.