Today is Margery Sharp’s birthday, which I know thanks to Jane from Beyond Eden Rock; I’ve joined in the celebrations with Jane the last few years and I find starting the year with Margery is a sound way to begin if ever there was one 😊
Two years ago I looked at The Eye of Love, which introduced the character of Martha, a strong-willed, self-possessed child. Sharp continues Martha’s story in two sequels, which I thought I’d look at today. These short novels work well individually but also when read together, as I did, the second giving more satisfying conclusion to the story.
Firstly, Martha in Paris (1962) which sees Martha aged 18, pursuing her art under the patronage of her childhood friend Mr Joyce, who recognises her for the genius she is and the future star she will become. He feels that to develop as an artist, she must go to Paris. Martha isn’t keen on Paris, but the prospect of staying forever with her sweet-natured Aunt Dolores means she agrees to go:
“Contrary to Mr Joyce’s prophesy, she learned to speak practically no French at all. She learnt to understand it; but […]it wasn’t as though she had anything she particularly wanted to say. The power of expressing thoughts, or emotions, was unnecessary to her; and not to be able to answer questions a positive advantage.”
Martha is still very much the stolid child we met in The Eye of Love. She is single-minded and focussed entirely on her work. She has feelings for a few people but they are deeply buried, clear-sighted and unsentimental. She is inexpressive because in the main other people are of no real consequence to her; she is indifferent to them and so has no need to seek an understanding with them.
She seems an unlikely candidate for love, but fellow Brit, bank clerk Eric Taylor falls for Martha. Or rather, he falls for who he thinks Martha is: a shy, self-effacing virgin like himself. Martha doesn’t deliberately mislead him, because she doesn’t really bother with him at all.
“Eric Taylor, in love, still wasn’t ready to make love. He felt himself he hadn’t yet quite got the hang…a parting pressure of the hand was the most he attempted; which upon Martha, who had a grip like a navvy’s, left no impression at all.”
Despite these inauspicious circumstances, their relationship develops because Martha is drawn to visit Eric and his mother at their flat, due to the prospect of nice bath. Now onto huge SPOILERS – if you don’t want to know, you’ll need to skip to the end of the post.
Inevitably, these two naïve people end up in a predictable fix: Martha gets pregnant. She carries on going to art class and doing well; she is overweight and wears baggy smocks so her pregnancy is easy to hide. She also decides that although she enjoys sex, she loves her work more, and so she is done with that side of life.
“It was time for Martha to gather her forces. No prospect had ever appalled her more, not even that of painting Christmas cards at Richmond, than this loyally-offered prospect of honourable matrimony.”
Martha is not an easily likeable character, as she disregards almost everyone she encounters. However, she never does this out of cruelty and never intends to hurt anyone. If you like Saga Noren from The Bridge (which I do), you’ll like Martha.
Some things have dated in Martha in Paris: a rather flippant treatment of the prospect of rape and a horrible racist phrase used in passing by one character. But in its treatment of sexual politics and gender roles it is remarkably progressive for its time. Martha is shown to find joy in sex without love. She is also shown to prioritise her career over all else. Sharp suggests that Martha behaves as men have done for centuries, and asks if we judge her harshly, are we doing so because she is a woman who resolutely fails to fulfil traditional gender roles?
Sharp continues to expand on the theme of gender expectations in the sequel Martha, Eric and George (1964); as a comic writer she does this explicitly but with wit so it’s never didactic.
“Young men are not accustomed to being loved and left, abandoned to bear alone the consequences of their folly, just as if they were young women.”
But this is exactly what happens to Eric Taylor. Martha leaves the baby with him and his mother to be raised, while she returns to England to focus on her painting.
“No dashing hussar abandoning a village maiden could have behaved more cavalierly. Not that Martha was in any other sense dashing, far from it; her outstanding characteristic was rather a blunt stolidity which only Eric in his innocence could have seen as virginal shyness.”
His mother, as Martha foresaw, embraces this new challenge to become a doting grandmother. She also revels in her status as rescuer of a poor abandoned baby.
“There were no such compensations for Eric. For once, it was the man who paid.”
Martha meanwhile, has become a hugely successful artist. Events conspire to send her back to Paris ten years after she left her son on the Taylors doorstep. She has no plans to see Eric or her son ever again, but of course things work out otherwise. George has grown up very much like his mother in temperament: self-possessed and single-minded. Martha has no maternal feelings whatsoever.
“She desired neither husband nor lover, nor to be admired, nor to make other women envious. All she wanted was to be unencumbered.”
What will happen to this disparate trio? I think Sharp is brilliant at endings: things work out well, without diminishing the characters or retreating into sentimentality. Martha, Eric and George was no exception to this.
To end, a sentiment with which Martha would certainly not agree: