"Brolliology" is not, blessedly, one of those ambitious tomes that purports to explain the whole of civilization via some quotidian element such as salt or coffee. Instead, Rankine deftly combines a sociological touch with a survey of the umbrella in literature from Defoe to Roald Dahl and beyond, explaining that "it was not the objects themselves — beautiful as they may be — that fascinated me, but the meanings behind them."
The author begins by considering the class and gender implications inherent in the humble accessory. A delightful raconteur, Rankine points out that umbrellas have at various times signified both status and lack of status, with one observer writing in 1894 that "it is the habitual carriage of the umbrella that is the stamp of Respectability," while another considers them the hallmark of "the more fussy and nervous type of old fellow." In an adroit close reading of a passage from "Howards End," a misplaced umbrella comes to signify unbridgeable chasms of economics and education.
A typical chapter skims the metaphysical and the dialectical, with the umbrella described variously as creating a "portable room," as a "private sky" and "a hat with a handle." Its combination of replaceability and contingency even "reads like a textbook symptom of late capitalism." An early-19th-century article by J.S. Duncan classified umbrella wielders into familiar types such as the Sky-Striker and the Shield-Bearer, both of which species remain alas all too common to this day. And Rankine does not neglect such memorably sinister instances as the mysterious Umbrella Man present at Kennedy's assassination and the 1978 murder of Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov by way of a poisoned ferrule.
The color illustrations throughout "Brolliology" are marvelously selected and reproduced, leaning heavily toward the opulent style of commercial illustration common to Edwardian Britain. And like the umbrella itself, which seems in some essential way both eccentric and comical, Rankine's book has a very English affect — both amused and amusing, droll in temperament, maybe slightly dotty.
The performance is so polished as to skirt weightlessness. One comes away from "Brolliology" with a quiverful of cocktail-party-ready facts: Did you know that umbrella parts were found in a Chinese tomb dated to 25 B.C.? That Japanese folklore features evil, sentient umbrellas known as "kasa-obake"?
But best of all, "Brolliology" offers the feeling of having consumed something delicious but light: a tea sandwich, perhaps.
Michael Lindgren is a frequent contributor to The Washington Post.
A History of the Umbrella in Life and Literature
By Marion Rankine
Melville. 192 pp. $16.99