Novella a Day in May 2019 #20

Highland Fling – Nancy Mitford (1931) 199 pages

Highland Fling was Nancy Mitford’s first novel and while not as sparkling as her later works there’s still much to enjoy here. It’s familiar Mitford territory: insane upper classes, Bright Young Things, serious issues treated lightly, light issues treated seriously, and it all works out in the end.

Walter is married to Sally and is entirely useless with money, powering through both their allowances so that he has to ponder “why shouldn’t I do some work? If you come to think of it, lots of people do. I might bring out a book of poems in handwriting with corrections.”

Thankfully for the reading public, they are asked instead to look after Sally’s relative’s enormous country pile in Scotland. They take their friend Albert, who has no idea what to do with himself after Eton and Oxford until “It had come to him during the night that he wished to be a great abstract painter”; and Jane, who “had taste without much intellect, her brain was like a mirror, reflecting the thoughts and ideas of her more intelligent friends and the books she read.”

Keeping company with these Bright Young Things are all the ancient types who descend on Dulloch Castle every year for the shooting season.

“Lord Prague, it may be noted, was to all intents and purposes dead, except on shooting days when he would come to life in the most astonishing manner”

There’s also the massively racist General Murgatroyd who is violent to his dog and didn’t get the come-uppance I’d hoped for (his racism is never condoned, although some portraits of Scottish locals leave a lot to be desired), Lady Prague who is astonishingly rude to all, and Lady Brenda who has the appearance of “an overbred horse”, not helped by her habit of blowing smoke through her nostrils.

What follows is this unlikely crowd getting on each other’s nerves, lying about a missing picnic, getting pregnant, getting engaged…

Thankfully the blood sports are not described in great detail, it’s more about the ridiculous antics of people on the shoot. I do wish someone had rescued Murgatroyd’s poor dog though.

Obviously you need a high tolerance for silly toffs to read Mitford. I enjoy her writing and I did think this was fun, but as I said at the start, not quite as incisive or as funny as she would later achieve.

“Nobody dies in childbirth now, my dear. It’s considered quite vieux jeu.”

To end, something that was absolutely nothing to do with the plot, but did make me smile. For those of us irritated by schoolkids playing music out loud on their mobile phones on public transport, Albert has this experience on the train:

“They then began to play vulgar jazz tunes on a portable gramophone, a noise which Albert found more supportable than their chatter.”

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose 😀

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“There is nothing more tedious than a constant round of gaiety.” (Margery Sharp)

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:

Novella a Day in May #24

The Pursuit of Love – Nancy Mitford (1945, 192 pages)

The Pursuit of Love was Nancy Mitford’s first novel in a trilogy about the Radletts, a bonkers upper class family.

“My Uncle Matthew had four magnificent bloodhounds, with which he used to hunt his children. Two of us would go off with a good start to lay the trail, and Uncle Matthew and the rest would follow the hounds on horseback. It was great fun. Once he came to my home and hunted Linda and me all over Shenley Common. This caused the most tremendous stir locally, the Kentish weekenders on their way to church were appalled by the sight of four great hounds in full cry after two little girls.”

The narrator is Fanny, cousin to the Radletts and rather different in temperament. Her mother leads a peripatetic life according to which man she is with, earning her the nickname The Bolter. Fanny is therefore raised by her lovely Aunt Emily, and the two have a placid, ordered existence, but it is the chaotic holidays Fanny spends with the Radletts which occupy the story.

“The Radletts were always either on a peak of happiness or drowning in black waves of despair; their emotions were on no ordinary plane, they loved or they loathed, they laughed or they cried, they lived in a world of superlatives.”

It’s thinly disguised biograpy of course. The Radletts are home educated along similar lines to Nancy and her famous sisters: in French and horsewomanship, and not much else.

“They picked up a great deal of heterogeneous information, and gilded it with their own originality, while they bridged gulfs of ignorance with their charm and high spirits, they never acquired any habit of concentration, they were incapable of solid hard work. One result, in later life, was that they could not stand boredom, Storms and difficulties left them unmoved, but day after day of ordinary existence produced an unbearable torture of ennui, because they completely lacked any form of mental discipline.”

Fanny focuses the story on that of Linda, her cousin and best friend. Linda is more like The Bolter than Fanny ever is, and has a disastrous marriage to a Tory followed by a disastrous affair with a communist, before finding a true love. The Pursuit of Love is not romantic though, Mitford’s comic eye is far too sharp for that. If it wasn’t for this, my inverted snobbery may have come to the fore and left me thinking ‘So what? Who wants to read about a bunch of ill-educated, over-privileged idiots?’ Well, as it turns out, I do. I find Mitford truly funny and accomplished in her writing. No-one escapes her wit, least of all the upper-classes and their mores:

“The behaviour of civilised man really has nothing to do with nature … all is artificiality and art more or less perfected.”

She’s not above the downright silly either, such as describing a baby as “the usual horrid sight of a howling orange in a fine black wig”.

The Pursuit of Love does provide some intriguing insights into the mid-twentieth century landowning classes though, such as their attitude to travel in the post-war period:

“it would never have occurred to the Alconleighs to visit the continent for any other purpose than that of fighting”

The Pursuit of Love is very funny but there is a brittleness there; a sense that things easily splinter and true sadness and tragedy are only ever just below the surface. The ending emphasises this element and is truly moving, all the more so as it is something of a jolt given what has gone before.

Novella a Day in May #7

After Claude – Iris Owens (1973) 206 pages (cheating my own criteria by 6 pages)

Trigger warning: mentions rape

I bought this one day when I finished the book I was reading more quickly than expected and I was waiting for a friend, who was late. I don’t like being without a book to read on my person and I found a late-opening charity shop. Amongst the Da Vinci Codes and James Patterson’s entire back catalogue I was thankful to spy a New York Review of Books logo. They’re a reliable, interesting publisher and so I found myself launched into the acerbic wit of Iris Owens, totally unprepared.

After Claude is funny, but it also features a despicable heroine. Kudos to Owens for not feeling it is necessary to write an attractive, likeable female for her lead, but really, Harriet Daimler is one of the most infuriating, obnoxious and unpleasant people ever committed to paper. She moves from friend to friend, sponging off them until her unrelenting selfishness alienates them and they chuck her out. She may be depressed: she sleeps all day, watches trashy quiz shows and eats, that’s it. But any sympathy the reader may feel is limited by her rudeness, prejudice and manipulations towards all who cross her path. She frequently uses homophobic language; she is racist; she denies her own Jewishness without realising that her denials illuminate that which she is trying to hide:

“ ‘Mazeltov,’ he congratulated me in an unfamiliar tongue.”

Who doesn’t know what Mazeltov means?  Harriet is also completely delusional. The story begins “I left Claude, the French rat.” What quickly emerges is that Claude has thrown her out, sick of her utter selfishness and bitterness.

“Claude, who had learned his English in England, spoke with one of those snotty, superior accents, stuffed into a slimy French accent, the whole mess flavoured with an occasional American hipsterism, making him sound like an extremely rich, self-employed spy.”

What Claude quickly learns is that trying to throw someone out who won’t listen and is totally self-interested, is no mean feat.

“ ‘Me a bore?’ I laughed, amazed that the rat would resort to such a bizarre accusation. I have since learned never to be amazed at what men will resort to when cornered by a woman’s intelligence.”

Over the course of the story we learn how Harriet and Claude met, when she was thrown out of her friend Rhoda’s house, for something horrific which I won’t include for fear of spoilers, but would you live with someone who treated you thus?

“Had I been insensitive when I told her ‘Rhoda, I have nothing per se against your karate classes but rather than pin all your hopes on a rapist, wouldn’t a cruise make more sense?’”

What kept me reading was partly wanting to see what would happen to someone so extremely selfish and self-serving that normal rules don’t apply: Harriet could do anything. Also, amongst the rancour are some bitingly funny observations, such as this regarding a friend’s marriage:

“It goes without saying that though ideally suited and ecstatically happy, Jerry and Maxine had flown directly from their wedding ceremony to group therapy, paying top prices for the privilege of insulting each other in front of an audience.”

What happens to Harriet after Claude is bizarre. She meets a guru-type and ends up begging to be allowed to join their cult, even after suffering sexual humiliation at their hands. Ultimately then, Harriet is both horrible and pitiful, extremely vulnerable but bent on destroying anyone who might want to help.

Like a pratfall in which someone ends up genuinely hurt, After Claude is funny but you feel you shouldn’t laugh; it’s painful and you want to tear your eyes away. Owens is an accomplished writer but I’m not sure I could have stood a much longer novel.

“Would you like a little cheesy-pineapple one?” (Beverly, Abigail’s Party, 1977)

Trigger warning: This post mentions rape

Here’s my contribution to the 1977 Club, hosted by Kaggsy at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book. It’s running all week, do join in!

Firstly, Penelope Fitzgerald’s first novel, The Golden Child, which she published aged 60 (it’s never too late, budding writers!) This is a typically slim Fitzgerald novel, just 189 pages, and while I didn’t love it as much as the others by her which I’ve read (The Bookshop; At Freddies) there’s still a lot to enjoy.

The title refers to an exhibit that is on loan to a London museum. It is hugely popular with people queueing for hours on end to see the tiny dead Garamatian king covered in gold, and his ball of gold twine. The story concentrates on behind the scenes: the relationships and internal politics of the museum.

“At the sight of his tiresomely energetic subordinate, Hawthorne-Mannering felt his thin blood rise, like faint green sap, with distaste. He closed his eyes, so as not to see Waring Smith.”

It is from the energetic Waring Smith’s viewpoint that the story unfolds. He realises that certain deals have been done, certain backs have been scratched, in order for the museum to gain the exhibit.

“He had a glimpse for the first time of the murky origins of the great golden attraction: hostilities in the Middle East, North African politics, the ill-coordinated activities of the Hopeforth-Best tobacco company. Perhaps similar forces and similar shoddy undertakings controlled every area of his life. Was it his duty to think about the report more deeply and, in that case, do something about it?”

Things take a sinister turn when someone tries to strangle him with the golden twine, and two of his colleagues end up dead in highly suspicious circumstances. Waring Smith is sent on a farcical trip to the USSR (as it then was) to consult with an expert regarding the exhibit. On his return, he becomes embroiled with Special Branch, and has to decipher a code on a clay tablet which might hold a clue as to what on earth is going on.

“The Museum, slumberous by day, sleepless by night, began to seem to him a place of dread. Apart from the two recent deaths, how many violent ways there were in the myriad of rooms of getting rid of a human being! The dizzy stairs, the plaster-grinders in the cast room, the poisons of conservation, the vast incinerators underground!”

There’s a great deal to enjoy in The Golden Child but it doesn’t quite work as a mystery – some of the solving takes place ‘off-screen’ and Waring Smith is then told about it, so it doesn’t quite match what it sets itself up to be. Its strengths are Fitzgerald’s wit and her satire of politics big (The Cold War) and small (workplace); it’s a quick, fun read.

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Disclaimer, and a note for those of you who, like me, were born around the time of this Club: I’m aware that part of my enjoyment of this novel came about because of a very specific reason, which may have coloured my view somewhat. As a child one of my favourite TV programmes was The Baker Street Boys, which showed what the Baker Street Irregulars got up to when they weren’t helping out a certain world-famous detective. My favourite episode was The Adventure of the Winged Scarab, involving mystery, museums and mummies. Anyone else who remembers this series fondly can indulge in a nostalgia-fest because I’ve just discovered some kind soul has uploaded the whole lot to YouTube.

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Secondly, Injury Time by Beryl Bainbridge, which is set over the course of one evening. Edward has agreed that his mistress Binny can give a dinner party and he will invite his colleague Simpson and Simpson’s wife Muriel along.

“He gave her so little, he denied her the simple pleasures a wife took for granted – that business of cooking his meals, remembering his sister’s birthday, putting intricate little bundles of socks into his drawer.”

I loved that line which comes early in the novel and so I settled into what I fully expected to be full of the joys of Bainbridge: acerbic wit, idiosyncratic characters, acute social observation. For much of the novel, this is exactly what Injury Time provided. None of the characters seem to know exactly what they want and the changes taking place in 1970s Britain leave them all slightly baffled.

“It was astonishing how fashionable it was to be unfaithful. He often wondered if it had anything to do with going without a hat. No sooner had the homburgs and the bowlers disappeared from the City than everyone grew their hair longer, and after that nothing was sacred.”

The dinner party never really takes place. Binny is an appalling housekeeper and her home is filthy (Bainbridge based Binny on herself and Edward on a lawyer she had an affair with). Before anyone arrives she’s thrown the hoover into the backyard and stuffed the pudding behind the fridge.

“Though most of her life she had rushed headlong into danger and excitement, she had travelled first-class, so to speak, with a carriage attendant within call. The world was less predictable now…in her day dreams, usually accompanied by a panic-stricken Edward, she was always being blown up in aeroplanes or going down in ships.”

The less predictable world erupts violently into the evening of Binny, Edward, Simpson, Muriel and Binny’s inebriated friend Alma. It’s here that I have a bit of trouble with Injury Time. A character is raped. For me, this jarred uncomfortably in what until that point had been a funny, sharp novel puncturing 1970s social mores and pretensions. The rape itself is dealt with oddly: it’s part of a section that verges on surreal and is filled with non-sequiturs; the character it happens to is weirdly detached, which may be shock but this is never made clear. Looking at reviews online, I was really surprised that so few reviewers even mentioned this event. For many Injury Time remains an unproblematic comic novel. So I wouldn’t want to put anyone off reading it; I adore Bainbridge and still do, but for me how the rape was portrayed and contextualised was a problem.

I don’t want to end on a downer when so much of Injury Time is funny, so I’ll end with this quote which is pure Bainbridge. I wonder how far Binny was based on her and whether she actually did this?

“There had been too that incident when he couldn’t see Binny because he wanted to prune his roses, and she’d threatened to come round in the night and set fire to his garden, Later, a small corner of the lawn had been found mysteriously singed, but nothing had been proved.”

To end, the UK number one from this week in 1977. AHA!

“There is nothing so intractable as a calendar.” (Margery Sharp)

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.

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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:

“It is the gift of all poets to find the commonplace astonishing, and the astonishing quite natural.” (Margery Sharp)

This is my contribution to today’s celebration of Margery Sharp Day, hosted by Jane at Beyond Eden Rock. Happy Birthday Margery!

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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…

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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?

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Image from here

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: