Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Joy of Margery Sharp

I have adored the novels of Margery Sharp since I came across Cluny Brown in a Philadelphia used book store some 30+ years ago. When I saw it along with Sharp's The Nutmeg Tree offered on NetGalley I knew they were just what I needed to read. One needs to read all the witty, funny, lovely books one can, especially during this presidential campaign season.

Margery Sharp (1905-1991) started her career writing for Punch and serialized magazine stories. Her first novel appeared in 1930 and her last in 1977. Her novels are comedic yet insightful, witty with a deep humanity. Several of her novels were made into films, including Disney's animated versions of her children's Rescuer series. Open Roads Media is publishing ten of Shape's novels as ebooks, and I hope she finds a new generation of fans.

Set in pre-war Britain, Cluny is an orphan living with her uncle, a stolid plumber who loves but does not understand her. He describes twenty-year-old Cluny as 'plain as a boot'. He complains that she 'does not know her place'. Cluny is either very naive and unworldly or game for any new adventure.

When her uncle is away and a plumbing emergency is called in she decides to tackle the job herself.
"The correct costume for a young lady going to fix a gentleman's sink on a Sunday afternoon has never been authoritatively dealt with: Cluny had naturally to carry her uncle's tool-bag, but as an offset wore her best clothes."
She fixes the problem and requests to clean up. She is coaxed into trying out the upscale bath in the customer's bachelor pad, and then to indulge in a cocktail, and was to stay for a party when her uncle arrives. He decides that Cluny must go into service where, perhaps, she will learn her place--and stay out of trouble.

At least going into service would be an adventure.

Cluny had height and a blank expression, the making of a Tall Parlour-maid. Inexperience is a plus: she will be properly trained on the job. She is sent to Friars Carmel. Col. Duff-Graham who has met the train to pick up a Golden Labrador takes her to Friar Carmel. Cluny and the dog bond and she is invited to visit on her day off to walk the dog.

Cluny is to serve a household consisting of two Old English types: a master who has retired from hunting and now writes letters to chums across the British Empire, and a mistress whose passion is her garden. Their son Andrew is concerned with the situation in Europe and has brought home a Polish refugee, Adam Belinski. No one quite know what Belinski does, but he becomes 'The Professor' and is treated royally; he quite likes it but feels it is undeserved. His escape from Europe was not just because he was a Pole in Germany--he is also an inveterate Ladies Man.
"Within a few days Friars Carmel, for perhaps the first time in its history, boiled with passion."
Andrew is in love with Betty Cream, whose beauty attracts every male who sees her. And Belinski is one of them. On the other hand, Belinski and Cluny seem to be at odds with each other--the Pole even throws Gulliver's Travels at her from a window!

Meanwhile walking the Colonel's dog Cluny meets the village chemist who arranges his schedule so he can walk with her every week. Cluny's very plainness and simplicity meets the chemist's approval. She encourages his attention.

In an unexpected twist ending, which includes a man stealing into a woman's bedroom, screams in the night, a quick getaway, and couples ending up with their proper mate, the novel wraps up with Cluny finding her place in the world.

Cluny Brown is about a young girl discovering who she is; in The Nutmeg Tree we meet a woman who believes that her past choices limits her future.

It begins with Julia in the tub singing The Marseilles while her furnishings are being repossessed. A curvaceous thirty-seven year old, Julia loves people and men love Julia. She is broke and soon will be homeless. The bath also holds a grandfather's clock, dishes, and other things with some value--to be sold to the local antique dealer for travel funds. For after sixteen years apart Julia's daughter Susan has requested her mother's presence. Susan is in love but her paternal grandparents and guardians have other plans for her.

Julia was a nineteen-year-old chorus girl when she woke up with Sylvester Packett, a WWI soldier who was passing through. When she told him about her pregnancy he wanted to do the 'right thing' and marry her. She was sent to his parents in the country while he went France and his death.

Julia tried to fit into the refined and quiet country life. She tried for a year and seven months before returning to London and the 'bad' life of the theater. The Packetts tried, too. After Julia was fully out of Susan's life, the Packetts offered to make Susan their heir and gave Julia seven thousand pounds in stock. Mrs. Packett thought Julia should open a cake shop. Of course, Julia tried her hand at staging plays and lost everything.

Julia knows her failings and faults. Now recalled by Susan she wants to appear respectful. She buys Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga to read, the first novel she has ever bought. She fancied it was the right sort of book for a lady to be reading.

On the trip she meets a traveling trapeze artist who falls for her, and she is quite smitten herself. He wants to marry her, and a regretful Julia must leave him behind and go to her daughter.
"if she [Julia] took lovers more freely than most women it was largely because she could not bear to see men sad when it was so easy to make them happy."
She endeavors to reform herself during the visit to the Packetts and her daughter.
"She had often wanted to be good before. She had a great admiration for goodness, she loved it sincerely and humbly, as a peasant loves a saint. if she had never been good before it was not because her spirit was unwilling, but because the flesh was so remarkably weak."
She passes pretty well until she meets Susan's young man Bryan and realizes they are two of a kind, both a 'bad' sort. He is not good enough for Susan. It is an unsuitable attachment. Bryan also recognizes a fellow free spirit in Julia.  The battle for Susan is on.

Susan is a prig and a perfectionist, a college student who needs a project. Bryan has become her project. She just knows she can help him make something of himself. Bryan just wants to knock about a bit.

Julia is a delightful character, flawed and feckless and bright and joyful. There are hilarious scenes with Julia secretly reverting 'to type' and handling the men who pursue her. Both Julia and Susan undergo an experience of self-recognition, necessary to their development. Very Jane Austenish! The novel ends with a true wish fulfillment happy endings.

I am delighted to have revisited Sharp.

I received an ARC through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Read more at the Margery Sharp blog at https://margerysharp.wordpress.com

Cluny Brown, ISBN: 9781504034258
The Nutmeg Tree, ISBN: 9781504034326
by Margery Sharp
Publication April 12, 2016
Open Road Integrated Media

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