I’m a big fan of Margery Sharp and I enjoyed In Pious Memory a lot. It has her gentle sense of the ridiculous and her fond acceptance of human foibles to the fore, making it a solid comfort read.
It opens with the death of Arthur Prelude, a man who, while inoffensive, seems to have been a monumental bore to all who knew him personally, giving all his energies to his professional life.
“His giant intellect was housed in but an average body – indeed rather below average; average only in the sense of being unremarkable: all the more startling therefore was the effect when on rostrum or at banquet board he suddenly rose to his feet and let his intellect loose like a line from a mouse-trap. Mrs Prelude naturally never witnessed this transformation herself, she was always at home in the hotel bedroom sterilising his inhaling-apparatus with water boiled over a portable methylated-spirit stove; but other wives told her about it.”
His wife was utterly devoted, his adult children a lot more clear-sighted:
“‘Well. of course,’ said Elizabeth. ‘Mother’s of her generation. She behaved quite marvellously, after the crash, and if she’s been crying ever since, it’s only natural.’
‘As it’s natural for us to remain dry eyed?’
‘I suppose so,’ said Elizabeth. ‘After all we didn’t know father very well.’”
Despite Elizabeth and William’s resolution that “‘We must all be very kind to mother, and find her that flat in Hove at once.’”, their younger sister Lydia – determinedly romantic, and set for a career on the stage – decides her father is wandering around the Alps and needs to be found. In this endeavour, she enlists the help of her cousin Toby, and they go biking off across mainland Europe.
Meanwhile, Arthur Prelude is becoming a lot more likable in death than in life, as fictitious memories of his warmth and affection grow and take on a life of their own:
‘We should have lied to mother sooner,’ said Elizabeth.
‘How could we, while father was still alive?’ countered William.
Will Mrs Prelude be able to see past the false memories of her crashing bore husband towards new romantic opportunities? Will Lydia and Toby find Arthur wandering round the mountains in amnesiac shock? Will William get married and will Elizabeth avoid marriage? Absolutely nothing of serious consequence occurs, thank goodness.
In Pious Memory gently ribs questionable veneration of the dead and reminds us all to appreciate the now, imperfect as it may be.
You can read Simon’s thoughts on this novella here.
The 1954 Club is running all this week, hosted by Simon and Kaggsy. Do take a look at the posts and join in if you can, the Club weeks are always great events 😊
For this contribution, I thought I’d look at two books on a domestic theme. Firstly, The Gipsy in the Parlour by Margery Sharp. Despite the concerning title I can confirm while there is definitely dated language, it’s not prevalent throughout the novel.
The story is set in the 1870s and told from the point of view of an unnamed cousin of the family, looking back on her childhood as an adult now in the 1920s. This means Sharp manages a 11 year-old’s point of view without getting too caught by it, and it works well.
The child loves visiting her family in Devon, leaving behind the fog and grime of London for a West Country summer. She also leaves behind her cold, distant parents for her beloved aunts, Charlotte, Grace and Rachel. They have all married into the Sylvester family and form a capable team who run the domestic affairs of the farm with good-natured hard work.
“Nature had so cheerfully designed them that even wash-day left them fair-tempered: before the high festivity of a marriage their spirits rose, expanded and bloomed to a solar pitch of jollification.”
At the start of the novel they await the arrival of a fourth sister-in-law, who is going to marry Stephen Sylvester, the kindest of the male members of the family (who feature very little in the child’s world, due to their “effortlessly preserved complete inscrutability”). However, when Fanny Davis arrives, she is very different to the rest of the family – thin and pale rather than hale and hearty.
“She seemed to have nothing to say. She had neither opinions nor tastes. She hadn’t even an appetite. The amount she left on her plate would have fed a plough-boy – I believe often did feed a plough-boy”
The family know very little about Fanny “the most that could be discovered was a sort of shadow-novelette” but they welcome her in. However, it isn’t long before trouble strikes. Although Fanny attends a dance with family, whirling around quite happily, it isn’t long before she enters a Decline, and has to spend her days laying in the parlour.
The 11 year-old enlightens us:
“I knew a good deal about declines. A friend of my mother’s had a daughter who had been in one for years. Declines also occurred frequently in cook’s novelettes”
“No common person ever went into one. Common persons couldn’t afford to. Also, there needed to be a sofa. No sofa, no decline.”
As the narrator boldly plans to cure Fanny, in the manner of an Angel-Child in a novelette, the reader knows more is going on than the characters realise. Quite what Fanny is up to only gradually emerges, and in the meantime Sharp shows how destructive one person can be for previously happy family. Fanny may be persistently reclined but she is never passive, and she causes a great deal of stress and heartache for the Sylvesters.
Meanwhile, the narrator back in London is making a great friend of Clara Blow, the sort-of landlady to her handsome cousin Charlie. Despite Fanny’s frequent assurances to the young girl that they are “special friends”, it is loyalty to Clara that causes conflict for the narrator and makes her question what is actually happening back in Devon.
Will Fanny’s machinations come to light? Will the Sylvester family find a way back to happiness? Will everything work out in the end? Despite this being not as broadly comic as other Sharp novels I’ve read, I was never in any doubt that all would come right. Which it did 😊
Secondly, a slight departure, as I’m going to review a cookery book. Except it’s not really a review of the recipes in The Alice B Toklas Cookbook. There are plenty of recipes, but the book is a memoir too, which is what makes it all the more interesting. Alice B Toklas was the life-partner of Gertrude Stein, and as she reminisces about growing and eating food, she records their life together and meals taken with the many well-known artists who crossed their path, such as decorating a bass fish to entertain Picasso (we’ve all been there, desperately trying to create piscine entertainment for a Cubist in a Rose Period).
She also recalls living through France during the war: “In the beginning, like camels, we lived on our past.” They live through rationing: trading cigarettes with soldiers, and Gertrude Stein acquiring food on the black market through force of personality.
“When in 1916 Gertrude Stein commenced driving Aunt Pauline for the American Fund for the French Wounded, she was a responsible if not an experienced driver. She knew how to do everything but go in reverse.”
Aunt Pauline is their Model T Ford, succeeded by Godiva:
“Even though Godiva was what a friend ironically called a gentleman’s car, she took us into the woods and fields as Auntie had. We gathered the early wildflowers, violets at Versailles, daffodils at Fontainebleau, hyacinths (the bluebells of Scotland) in the forest of Saint Germain. For these excursions there were two picnic lunches I used to prepare.”
But just in case this excursion sounds too idyllic…
“Back in Godiva on the road again it was obvious that somewhere we had made a wrong turning. Was Godiva or Gertrude Stein at fault? In the discussion that followed we came to no conclusion.”
One of my favourite stories was of Alice making raspberry flummery for a friend in the resistance who has a sweet tooth. It leads to a conversation about gelatine, the friend borrowing several sheets. Alice later finds out this is because it is essential for making false papers.
This is not the book to read if you want some easy, quick recipes to cook after work (and of course Alice and Gertrude had domestic staff to help them, several described in the book). There is more than one recipe that calls for 100 frogs legs, but as Maureen Duffy points out in her introduction, is that the legs of 100 frogs, or 100 legs in total? There’s also the detailing of how to prepare a leg of mutton by injecting it with orange juice and brandy for a week.
In case it’s not already apparent, this is also not the book to support a plant-based diet. Toklas acknowledges this, naming Chapter 4 “Murder in the Kitchen”. A vast quantity of eggs seem necessary to many recipes. When I came across a recipe for frangipane tart I thought I’d finally found something I’d enjoy, but it was like no frangipane I’d ever encountered. However, Chapter 5Beautiful Soup, was quite tempting with its descriptions of various ways to make gazpacho.
I didn’t know this before I read the book, but the interwebs tell me that the recipe for haschich fudge is the most famous. Apparently the first publisher didn’t realise what it was and so allowed it to be printed, perhaps misled by Alice’s mischievous suggestion that “it might provide an entertaining refreshment for Ladies Bridge Club or a chapter of the DAR”.
My favourite chapter was 13, “The Vegetable Gardens at Bilignin”. Alice’s passion for the garden shone through:
“For fourteen successive years the gardens at Bilignin were my joy, working in them during the summers and planning and dreaming of them during the winters”
Her descriptions of the gardens and produce were absolutely lovely:
“The day the huge baskets were packed was my proudest in all the year. The cold sun would shine on the orange-coloured carrots, the green, the yellow and white pumpkins and squash, the purple eggplants and a few last red tomatoes. They made for me a more poignant colour than any post-Impressionist picture.”
Again, the love of Alice’s life undercuts the romanticism:
“Gertrude Stein took a more practical attitude. She came out into the denuded wet cold garden and, looking at the number of baskets and crates, asked if they were all being sent to Paris, that if they were the expressage would ruin us.”
There are a million quotable and notable passages in this cookbook. If you’ve any interest in Stein and Toklas, in interwar France, or in generation perdu, I’d urge you to get this. You can just dip into it and there’s always something to entertain, but probably not much to cook…
“From Madame Bourgeois I learned much of what great French cooking was and had been but because she was a genius in her way, I did not learn from her any one single dish. The inspiration of genius is neither learned nor taught.”
To end, Dorothy Dandridge in an Oscar-nominated performance in 1954’s Carmen Jones:
It is a truth universally acknowledged that 2020 has been a big old pile of pants. Initially I felt guilty about seeking some escapism – it seemed to be another facet of privilege that escapism was available to me – but now I think if it keeps you sane, do whatever works to come out the other side (and I need to keep reminding myself that there will be the other side…) So here are two enjoyable, light comic novels that have helped me keep possession of my remaining marbles.
It opens with the death of Lucia’s aunt by marriage, who had been very unwell for many years and lived to a ripe old age. All things considered:
“it had been generally and perhaps reasonably hoped among his friends and those of his wife that the bereavement would not be regarded by either of them as an intolerable tragedy.”
But to do so would deny Lucia a chance at self-dramatisation, so of course she goes all out for grief. Her donning of black and a pained expression is wonderfully satirised by Benson, as are the social niceties of bereavement when no-one genuinely cares for the departed:
“Georgie held her hand a moment longer than was usual, and gave it a little extra pressure for the conveyance of sympathy. Lucia, to acknowledge that, pressed a little more, and Georgie tightened his grip again to show that he understood, until their respective finger-nails grew white with the conveyance and reception of sympathy. It was rather agonising, because a bit of skin on his little finger had got caught between two of the rings on his third finger, and he was glad when they quite understood each other.”
It soon becomes clear that Lucia plans to decamp to London, to the aunt’s very swish home, leaving Riseholme reeling. Georgie understands the impulse but is surprised that Lucia is quite so keen to leave:
“He wanted, ever so much, to have a little flat in London (or a couple of rooms would serve) just for a dip every now and then in the life which Lucia found so vapid. But he knew he wasn’t a strong, serious character like Lucia, whose only frivolities were artistic or Elizabethan.”
As readers we know that Lucia is entirely frivolous of course, and she throws herself into the contemporary London scene with gusto.
“What she wanted was the foam of the wave, the topmost, the most sunlit of the billows that rode the sea. Anything that had proved itself billowish was her game, and anything which showed signs of being a billow, even if it entailed a vegetarian lunch with cocktails and the possible necessity of being painted like the artist’s wife with an eyebrow in one corner of the picture and a substance like desiccated cauliflower in the centre.”
As a Londoner myself it struck me that nothing changes: 93 years on and the silliness of the fashionable London scene is still ripe for satirising. Benson pokes gentle fun, nobody is truly despicable or utterly destroyed. Personally I enjoyed the ongoing saga of Georgie’s Oxford bags, bought during “a moment of reckless sartorial courage”. Not everyone can carry off Oxford bags with the aplomb of Buster Keaton, after all:
Life at Riseholme continues at its usual pace – that is, a snail’s. It is a life they all enjoyed, one filled with enough little dramas and crises to keep them all amused. Now however, something is missing:
“Yet none of these things which, together with plenty of conversation and a little housekeeping and manicuring, had long made life such a busy and strenuous performance, seemed to offer an adequate stimulus. And he knew well enough what rendered them devoid of tonic: it was that Lucia was not here, and however much he told himself he did not want her, he like all the rest of Riseholme was beginning to miss her dreadfully. She aggravated and exasperated them: she was a hypocrite (all that pretence of not having read the Mozart duet, and desolation at Auntie’s death), a poseuse, a sham and a snob, but there was something about her that stirred you into violent though protesting activity, and though she might infuriate you, she prevented your being dull.”
Will Lucia make a splash in London? Will Riseholme find their way without her? Will she ever return? What do you think?
“Aren’t you feeling more Luciaphil? I’m sure you are. You must enjoy her: it shows such a want of humour to be annoyed with her.”
Now a musical interlude, but one of which I’m certain Lucia would not remotely approve. You can’t get more London than Chas and Dave:
Secondly, Ali’s lovely post 10 vintage books of joy reminded me I had Something Light by Margery Sharp (1960) in the TBR, and so I dug it out forthwith. I adore Margery Sharp and her well-observed but gentle humour was just what I needed.
It opens “Louisa Mary Datchett was very fond of men.” Unfortunately for Louisa, this means she keeps running round after various wet blankets, helping them keep on track, buying them yogurt and mopping their brows. She’s getting older and her profession as a dog photographer only just keeps her afloat, so she decides she needs to get married.
“ ‘It’s not the suffragettes who’d be proud of me,’ thought Louisa bitterly, ‘it’s the Salvation Army. I may be the modern woman, the femme sole with all her rights, and I’m very fond of men, but it’s time I looked out for myself. In fact it’s time I looked out for a rich husband, just as though I’d been born in a Victorian novel…’”
It’s a brilliant piece of characterisation that Louisa doesn’t come across as either a doormat or as mercenary. She’s a kind person, a wee bit lost, and trying to take the best decisions she can for a happy life.
We then follow Louisa’s various adventures trying to gain what she thinks she wants. She spends a week trying to secure a rich husband, another seven days rekindling an adolescent devotion and a further week acting as a housekeeper for a man whose ready-made family are appealing.
That’s pretty much it, plot-wise and there are no real surprises. In no way is this a criticism. A comfort read for me has a nice predictability to it and I enjoy watching things play out as I expect in an entertaining way.
What further makes this such an enjoyable read are the fond portraits of the various characters, and the little details. One suitor is frequently likened to a Sealyham terrier; bamboo framed spectacles are given far too much importance; Louisa wears a “rowdy housecoat, zebras on a pink ground”; the milkman is a constant source of sympathetic wisdom as well as dairy products; Louisa has to try and sell ugly beechnut jewellery on behalf of her Bohemian artist neighbour. Everyone is flawed, believably human, gently ribbed by the author. It’s an absolute delight.
“She was constantly being either sent for, like a fire engine, or dispatched, like a lifeboat, to the scene of some masculine disaster”
To end, an 80s pop classic as always, but presented in a lip sync scene of sibling bonding that makes me smile, and we all need things that make us smile right now:
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:
When I was searching for quotes about libraries I really liked this quote by Libba Bray but it was too long to use for a title:
“The library card is a passport to wonders and miracles, glimpses into other lives, religions, experiences, the hopes and dreams and strivings of ALL human beings, and it is this passport that opens our eyes and hearts to the world beyond our front doors, that is one of our best hopes against tyranny, xenophobia, hopelessness, despair, anarchy, and ignorance.”
This week’s theme is libraries, because one of the unforeseen benefits of my 2018 book buying ban is that I have rediscovered the joy of the library. You may well be wondering what kind of moron I am not to foresee this, but I really didn’t. The purpose of the book-buying ban is to get through the piles of unread books I own. It’s working, but not quite as well as I hoped because I’ve realised my library has novels. Up until this point I’d mainly used it for non-fiction books. It’s taken the ban for me to realise I can get in the library queue for new releases and get hold of rare books I’ll never be able to afford. Libraries are amazing!
Firstly, I finally reached the top of the queue for Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor, which was published before my book buying ban last year, but I hadn’t got a copy. McGregor is one of my favourite authors and I didn’t want to wait another year before reading this, so I got on a long waiting list at the library.
Disclaimer: McGregor is never going to get anything but gushing reviews from me. I’ve loved his writing since his first novel If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things and as far as I’m concerned he can do no wrong. I understand this novel has divided people and I think its because the premise sets up certain expectations. A 13 year old girl, Becky Shaw, disappears from a village where she and her parents are holidaying for new year. However, this isn’t a thriller. It isn’t about the search for the girl, or what happened to her, or who may have taken her. What it is about is a community, the people in it, how their stories touch on one another. If like me, you’re a fan of McGregor, this won’t greatly surprise you. Although the rural setting is unusual for him, the themes are not. But if you come to it expecting a missing person puzzle to be solved, you’ll be sorely disappointed.
There are many recurring phrases and details in the book. Becky is 13, the village has 13 reservoirs, the story is set over 13 years and divided into 13 chapters. The chapters begin “At midnight when the year turned…” At intervals we are reminded “The missing girl’s name was Rebecca, or Becky, or Bex”. The effect is to show how things move on within the familiar; village lives continue but they also change. Meanwhile, Rebecca/Becky/Bex is held in a stasis, forever 13, the questions around what happened to her left hanging.
I associate McGregor with urban settings, but he writes beautifully of rural life. Old traditions are dying out: only one of the residents bothers collecting nettles for tea or elderflowers for cordial. The butchers – like so many local shops – closes due to lack of demand. Yet the seasons in their distinct beauty are there:
“On Bonfire Night there was a heavy fog, thick with woodsmoke, the fireworks seen briefly like camera flashes overhead. In the beech wood the foxes prepared their dens. The vixens dug down into old earths and reclaimed them, lining them out with grasses and leaves. In the eaves of the church the bats settled plumply into hibernation. By the river the willows shook off the last of their leaves. At night the freight trains came more often a single white leading and the wagons shadowing heavily behind. The widower asked Clive for advice over pruning his fruit trees and Clive was surprised to see the state things were in.”
McGregor does this throughout the novel, going straight from describing the natural world into a detail about the lives of one of the villagers without a paragraph break. In doing so he weaves the lives into the world that surrounds them and shows how one cannot be understood without the other.
I thought Reservoir 13 was absolutely stunning. It reminded me of Virginia Woolf in the use of repeated phrases and the focus small but significant details. In his usual unshowy style, McGregor captures the beauty and fragility of everyday life.
After I finished Reservoir 13 I went straight to the library to see if they had a copy of Reservoir Tapes, the sequel of sorts, and I didn’t even have to put my name in the queue for it. Reservoir Tapes is a series of short stories connected to Reservoir 13, originally broadcast on the radio. You can listen to them here.
Secondly, I found my library had a copy of Rhododendron Pie, Margery Sharp’s first novel from 1930, which is practically impossible to find and which you pay hundreds of pounds for online. There was a copy just sitting there – I couldn’t believe I hadn’t checked before.
Rhododendron Pie tells the story of Ann Laventie, whose natural leanings towards conservatism mark her out as different from the rest of her family. Her sister Elizabeth begins the birthday tradition of inedible floral birthday pies of the title, while little Ann would prefer an apple pie.
“It had once been said of Mr Laventie that he was a traditionalist in wine and a revolutionary in morals; and indeed, this capacity for making the best of both worlds was an outstanding characteristic of the family. They combined the extremes of old-world elegance and modern freedom, tempering a belief in free verse and free love with an equal feeling for societal decorum.”
As the children grow up, Elizabeth becomes an intellectual forever having essays published in journals while her brother Dick becomes a sculptor. Ann is at a bit of a loss. She is good at admiring what the others do and she is well-liked, but she flounders in working out what she wants and where she fits in. Sharp captures how society is changing for the interwar generation; one of Ann’s friends is perfectly open about the men she lives with on occasion. While there is discussion around this which seems remarkably forward-thinking and would sit well with readers today, Ann does not want a bohemian lifestyle.
“ ‘What I want,’ continued Ann recklessly, ‘is a nice wedding in the village church, with a white frock and orange blossom and lots of flowers and ‘The Voice that Breathed’ and two bridesmaids in cyclamen pink and rose petals afterwards and a reception in the drawing-room with a string quartet playing selections from Gilbert and Sullivan. In June. And a honeymoon in the Italian Lakes.
‘Where does Gilbert come in?’
‘He doesn’t. And I want to live in a house, not a flat, even if it’s only a little one in a suburb where there’s no-one amusing, with a back garden to dig in. And have bird pattern chintzes in the drawing-room and cold supper on Sundays because the maid’s out. I shall probably,’ finished Ann defiantly, ‘take a stall at the church bazaar.’”
Ann doesn’t come across as remotely priggish or boring though. She is authentic and truthful, and struggles with her knowing, arch, ironic family
“ ‘One of your family methods. Every now and then you do something deliberately ordinary, but in inverted commas so to speak, just to see what it feels like.”
What Rhododendron Pie is about is working out who you are and what you want from the world, and how tricky this can be when you seem to be at odds with your family and the section of society you live within. Without any didacticism, Sharp captures how this is especially hard for women. New freedoms are opening up, but women are still judged more harshly by society and have their actions further circumscribed by law.
“These were the things they understood, patient hope and quiet brave endurance: these were the woman’s part.”
Rhododendron Pie is remarkably accomplished for a first novel. Sharp would hone her skills further in future novels – particularly characterisation, which is a bit weak here – but her wit is here, her warmth, and her wisdom.
“‘That’s what you clever people never understand. You talk about life as though it were something rare and surprising that one had to be careful of. It’s nothing of the sort. It’s ordinary. And it’s only when you’ve accepted it as ordinary that you begin to see the wonder of it. That a swallow or a green field should be beautiful is nothing, but that they should be common as dirt is a miracle. I am continually amazed…at the casual beauty of things.’”
To end, a woman whose name helpfully rhymes with her profession, and an annoying man who won’t shut up and let people read in peace:
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 gentle 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 wonderful Harry Belafonte singing a song Cathy would appreciate:
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?