This is my contribution to today’s celebration of Margery Sharp Day, hosted by Jane at Beyond Eden Rock. Happy Birthday Margery!
First, Cluny Brown (1944) which portrays one of the most original, idiosyncratic and appealing fictional heroines I’ve encountered:
“She looked like no one on earth but Cluny Brown, and at the same time, stepping in with the milk, she looked as though she belonged intimately to her surroundings.”
Cluny is a young woman, living with her plumber uncle as both her parents have died. She resolutely goes her own way and harms no-one, and can’t understand why people find her habits – such as the decision to stay in bed all day eating oranges – so objectionable.
“She had got to the Ritz. She had got as far as Chelsea – put her nose, so to speak, to a couple of doors – and each time been pulled back by Uncle Arn or Aunt Addie, people who knew what was best for her, only their idea of the best was being shut up in a box – in a series of smaller and smaller boxes until you were safe at last in the smallest box of all, with a nice tombstone on top.”
After a misunderstanding which sees Cluny fix the blocked sink of an amorous older man in Chelsea, Uncle Arn sends her away to service in Devon.
“She wasn’t resigned, for she was never that, but she felt a certain expectancy. At least something was happening to her and all her life that was the one thing Cluny Brown consistently desired.”
At the country house, Cluny encounters certain types: an upright colonel, a horticulturally obsessed matriarch, the feckless heir, a young society lady leaving a trail of broken hearts in her wake… yet in Sharp’s hands these portraits are wholly believable rather than clumsy stereotypes. A tentative love affair begins, and Cluny Brown is nothing if not contrary…
I won’t say any more for fear of spoilers. This novel is an unmitigated joy. Comic and affectionate, Cluny Brown would be easy to dismiss as lacking depth. But it is so superbly written, with such verve and understanding of human beings, that to do so would be mistake. Invite Cluny into your life, she’ll charm you, I promise…
Secondly, The Eye of Love (1957), the middle-aged love story of Harry Gibson and Dolores Diver.
“For ten years they’d given each other what each most wanted from life: romance. Now both were middle-aged, and if they looked and sounded ridiculous, it was the fault less of themselves than of time.
To be fair to Time, each had been pretty ridiculous even at the Chelsea Ball.”
To outsiders they appear ordinary, and laughable. But to one another, viewed through the eye of love, they are brave, noble and glamorous:
“ ‘My Big Harry! My King Hal!’ cried Miss Diver.
‘My Spanish rose!’ cried Mr Gibson.
They clung together in ridiculous grief, collapsed together on the Rexine settee.”
The grief is due to Harry needing to marry the daughter of a business rival, in order to amalgamate the businesses and save his shop.
“He wanted her to want to be married, as he himself wanted not to be made a bankrupt; he had an idea that as between man and woman it came to much the same thing.”
And so it is a novel with lovers parted. We follow Harry’s attempts to integrate into a new family, and Miss Diver’s attempts to earn money without his support by taking in a lodger (Mr Phillips, who finds the house – which he believes his landlady owns – very attractive). Meanwhile, around the edge of all this trauma, is Miss Diver’s niece, Martha. A self-contained child who Sharp frequently describes as “stolid” Martha does as she pleases. She doesn’t attend school – Miss Diver didn’t arrange it and Martha has no inclination to go – and instead walks around town, sees her shopkeeper friends, and soon discovers an all-consuming passion for drawing.
“To say she didn’t like the new lodger would have been an over-simplification: and the true root of her malaise lay so deeply entwined with her innermost feelings, she couldn’t bring it to light. Put briefly, while Martha didn’t mind carrying up Mr Phillips tray, to have to look at him and say Good morning represented an imposition of alien will.”
I adored Martha. Stubborn, self-possessed, strong-willed and lacking any sentimentality, she was just wonderful. Sharp wrote two sequels about this unforthcoming heroine, Martha in Paris and Martha, Eric and George, which I will hunt down forthwith.
Back to the adults. The Eye of Love is quite a feat, because while Sharp does not expect her readers to view Harry and Miss Diver as they view each other, at the same time she does not present them as harshly as the other characters judge them (particularly Miss Diver’s pretensions of Spanishness (real name Dorothy Hogg)). Her writing is acutely observed, with dry humour, but it is also kind. The foibles of the characters are funny but oh-so-human.
“At least once a day he took out Dolores’ comb, and warmed it back to life between his hands. He had to hang on hard to his Britishness, not to press it to his lips. A sad and ridiculous sight was Harry Gibson – large, stout, fifty years old – holding himself back from mumbling a wafer of tortoiseshell, as a child hangs back from sucking a forbidden sweet.”
Poor Harry. Poor Dolores. Will they find their way back to one another? All I’ll say is, as with Cluny Brown, I thought the ending of The Eye of Love was perfect.
Well, it’s early days in 2017 but already things are looking up. I’ve met a new love in my life and I make no apologies for the gushing superlatives she inspires in me. Margery: where have you been all my life?
If you’d like to know more about this wonderful author, do check out The Margery Sharp blog as well as all the other posts today 🙂
To end, I was going to go for a song from the period, but ultimately I chose this, as I think Cluny and Martha would approve of the sentiment: