I thought the title quote rather apt, as I’m late to Margery Sharp Day this year, but I couldn’t let it pass after falling for the author since reading two of her novels for Margery Sharp day 2017. She’s so witty, she writes with such brio, and also with such humanity and warmth that I’m a confirmed fan.
And yet, when reading The Faithful Servants (1975), these wonders of Sharp’s writing were not quite so evident. Jane from Beyond Eden Rock, who organises Margery Sharp Day and is a great champion of her writing, had said that her later novels were not quite as good, and how right she was. The Faithful Servants is absolutely still worth reading, but Sharp’s penultimate novel is not as sparkling as her earlier work.
It’s a great idea: a trust is established at the end of the nineteenth century by dissolute Jacob Arbuthnot for aged servants down on their luck. In portraying the requests to the trust, Sharp is able to track the huge societal changes that took place between the start of the trust and well into the twentieth century, by which time the welfare state has been established and the servant class almost entirely disappeared. The various visitors to the trust’s offices are colourful and the staff only slightly less so. But…. it doesn’t quite work. The characters are all well-observed as I would expect from Sharp, and there are are some lovely touches, such as the relationship established between two beneficiaries, Miss Xavier and Miss Quartermaine, of whom “neither had the least idea that they were Lesbians.” Sharp’s wit is also in evidence:
“ ‘Lady P. simply meant that the children should drop whatever they were doing to make up the rosettes for a Tory party candidate, or sew bean bags for a Tory fete. As you know by now dear, I’ve always been a convinced Liberal; but I can assure you I didn’t object from party politics. What I objected to was the assumption that absolutely any activity took precedence over Moliere.’ ”
But it just doesn’t have the verve of her other novels. It reads more like a series of sketches, which in a sense is exactly what it is. Of course, this is a series of sketches by Margery Sharp, and so they are entertaining, sly and funny, with strong women in evidence:
“Mr Blackburn thought of her as a field flower plucked from its native heath; Mr McIntyre, as some shy little creature of the woods. Of course neither mentioned the fancy.
Then in 1874 she was arrested on a charge of murder, To be explicit, of having introduced arsenic into her employer’s night cap of tea.”
The Faithful Servants did not diminish my love for this author, but if Margery Sharp is new to you, this would not be the best place to start. A clever idea, not entirely fulfilled, but with moments of witty brilliance which act as a reminder that Sharp off her game is still better than many at their peak.
Secondly, back to 1965 and The Sun in Scorpio, which sees Sharp very much on form. The Pennon family live on a small outpost of the fading British empire, “The Next-Door Island” to Malta.
“They weren’t Army, and they weren’t Navy, they were irretrievably civilian; it was a measure of Mrs Pennon’s social insecurity that she always felt nervous before giving a dinner-party in case no-one came. At least they weren’t Trade however, and she always made a point of explaining her husband’s chest was weak.”
Sharp writes about the warm climate wonderfully and casts a similarly acute eye towards the familial relationships. The children Muriel, Cathy and Alan don’t particularly get on, and neither do their parents. Cathy especially loves the island and its warmth, and she has a formative moment with the governor, a bachelor the ex-pat ladies flutter around. However, the start of the Second World War sees Cathy wrenched away as the Pennons return to England, where their shortcomings are made even more apparent.
“Indeed, their new, heavier clothing swamped them all, diminishing individuality, and as it were underlining the fact that whereas on the Island (among some few hundred of the Ruling Race), they’d been at least petty someones, at Home (amongst some fifty millions) they were nobodies.”
Cathy in particular struggles under the grey skies of Britain. Muriel thrives as a hockey-playing school leader and Alan finds girls to fall in love with, but Cathy doesn’t excel at anything.
“In general they were a sulky lot, and Cathy was amongst the sulkiest. It was very hard on Mrs Pennon, but she had developed such a technique of losing herself in a novel, a daughter’s obvious misery disturbed her no more than a husband’s equally obvious lack of any will to live.”
Sharp follows them through the years, and while Alan is able to move away for work and Muriel turns into a unbearably smug married suburban mother, Cathy remains somewhat adrift. Once her parents are dead, she is financially bereft and has to live with Muriel. This situation depresses all involved, and when the opportunity arrives for Cathy to become a nanny to the daughter of landed gentry she gratefully escapes to Devon.
The mother of her charge is very beautiful, and very much younger than her husband.
“ ‘Alas!’ sighed Lady Jean (probably the only woman of her generation who could sigh alas and get away with it.)”
She is also manipulative and unfaithful, and her charm in referring to Cathy as her “attendant sprite” is not entirely successful. Cathy has no great affection for her small charge, but she also has no real choices in life. Sharp’s depiction of Cathy’s domestic situation is highly entertaining as she is wholly unsuited to being a nanny and has little in common with the media and image-obsessed small girl she is nannying:
“ ‘Poor gwandpa!’ lisped Elspet – out of flannel and into frills again. ‘Mummy says he’s tewwibly pwessed for money.’
‘Nonsense, he must be worth a million,’ said Cathy bracingly.
‘But all in land,’ pointed out Elspet. (It occurred to Cathy to wonder whether besides reading Vogue and Tatler her charge ever dipped into the Financial Times…..)
‘You don’t own entailed land, it owns you,’ explained Elspet. ‘Poor grandpa! I can’t go to sleep for worrying about him. You must read to me out of Peter Pan.’ “
The years pass and we see what happens to Muriel and Alan, and also Jacko, an islander who was friends with Cathy and taught her poker, who similarly finds himself in London. The main focus remains mainly on Cathy however, and Sharp doesn’t trouble to make her likable. Cathy has nothing particularly to recommend her and she isn’t very nice, but she is also unhappy, and as a woman in the early part of the twentieth-century she doesn’t have enough control over her life to try and remedy the situation. It doesn’t matter one bit that Cathy is so unlike a heroine though. It’s actually refreshing, and realistic, and told with Sharp’s wit, economy, and verve it’s a hugely enjoyable journey towards a perfectly realised ending. The Sun in Scorpio is an absolute joy.
To end, the beautiful Harry Belafonte singing a song Cathy would appreciate: