Don Quixote, Part II: The End

Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, Part II (1615)

Though I did not stick very well to my chapter-a-day intention, by reading in fits and starts I have finished Don Quixote. When I last checked in, I was in the middle of Part II; Don Quixote and Sancho Panza were being deceived by their aristocratic hosts, who wanted to encourage them in their role as knight errant and squire. This went on for a good while longer, and included Don Quixote having the opportunity to defend his virtue against a lovely young admirer, along with Sancho finally getting to be the governor of his insula.

The latter was one of the most successfully conceived episodes, I thought, with Sancho showing surprising acumen in his role, yet soon wisely deciding the responsibility of governing is not for him (largely because the doctor in charge of the governor’s health won’t let him eat anything he likes). He goes back to serving his master and they have a few more adventures which end in Don Quixote being sent back to his village, where he comes into his right mind at last.

Don Quixote Consulting the Enchanted Head – Charles-Antoine Corypel IV, ca. 1714

If that sounds a bit anticlimactic, it is. Overall, I found the pacing of this part of the novel decidedly odd. Where the first part suffered from layers of interpolated tales, this part was full of false starts and red herrings, plot threads that Cervantes seemed to lose interest in and quickly abandon. For example, in one chapter Sancho gets stuck in a cave, which would seem to promise some trials or other escapades … but in the next chapter Don Quixote hears him calling and he is released without further ado. Ho, hum.

The promise of playing with multiple realities and points of view also dissipated. There were a few piquant observations — for example that the Duke and Duchess are as mad as their knightly guest, for taking so much trouble to deceive him — but otherwise I had the sense the author was getting bored and just wanting to wrap up. After a peculiar meeting with a man who has supposedly met the “other” Don Quixote and Sancho Panza from the pirated second half of the tale (to which Cervantes is constantly referring in this part, as well as to the “real” version by a Moorish author), the Don just goes home and — dies? Perhaps this was an attempt to put an end to further literary piracy, but for me it was something of a letdown.

Don Quixote – Paula Modersohn-Becker, 1900

And what about Dulcinea? After being the subject of so much of the action and conversation within the novel, and after Sancho’s finally pretending to give himself the blows supposedly needed to release her from her enchantment, she never appears — which is logical enough, as she doesn’t exist. And yet I wish she could have been more than a figment, that there could have been some interesting clash with the reality of an actual woman. But as usual, it’s only Sancho and his wife who provide us with anything close to a real-life relationship in the novel.

This is all very postmodern, and I’m sure there is much to be drawn from the subverting of my narrative expectations, but in the end I was left with a sense of disappointment. Maybe another read-through, now that I have the overall picture, would grant me more insight into this famous story. But for now, I’m going to move onto other quests.

Thanks to Emma of Words and Peace for reading along with me. You helped me to get going, and I hope you reach your own goal!

Classics Club List #71


My first Jane Gardam: Bilgewater

Jane Gardam, Bilgewater (1976)

The first book you read by a favorite author has a special quality. Even if there are other books by the same author that you realize are more worthy of recognition, the joy of discovery lends your “first” a lingering glow. Sometimes, the particular circumstances of finding the book are stamped on the memory as well. I’m revisiting some of these “first reads” and giving some second (or fifth or twentieth) impressions.

I first became interested in Jane Gardam upon reading Michele Landsberg’s description of Bilgewater in her wonderful guide to children’s literature, Reading for the Love of It:

The characters are a gallery of endearing and sometimes buffoonish eccentrics, and all of them, young and old, reticent or extravagant, act out the various and extravagant follies to which they are driven by love.

By now, having read all the Jane Gardam books I could get my hands on, the “gallery of endearing and sometimes buffoonish eccentrics” to which she has introduced me has greatly expanded, as this is one of the strengths of all her writing. But Bilgewater was my first, and I’m still very fond of her.

The title refers to the nickname bestowed upon the novel’s narrator by the boys of the boarding school where she lives with her widowed father, a housemaster. (“Bill’s daughter” = Bilgewater, to a schoolboy’s sense of humor.) Her real name is Marigold, a sunny, cheerful name that contrasts with her image of herself as an ugly, froglike creature suitable to be dismissively called “Bilgie.” But the radiant side of her being is manifest to us from the first chapter, in the energy and verve of her narration.

I emerged into this cold house in this cold school in this cold seaside town where you can scarcely even get the telly for the height of the hills behind — I emerged into this great sea of boys and masters at my father’s school (St Wilfrid’s) an orange-haired, short-sighted, frog-bodied ancient, a square and solemn baby, a stolid, blinking, slithery-pupilled (it was before they got the glasses which straightened the left eye out) two-year-old, a glooming ten-year-old hanging about the school cloisters (“Hi Bilgie, where’s your broomstick?”) and a strange, thick-set, hopeless adolescent, friendless and given to taking long idle walks by the sea.

As readers, we don’t see or care what she looks like; what matters is that here is a brilliant, original mind, able to look at herself and the world with humor and insight that far transcends the ordinary. But at seventeen, looks are paramount — so when she’s given a makeover by the glamorous headmaster’s daughter, it seems possible her life might take a turn for the better.

Fortunately, things do not develop in any dull, conventional way, but go badly astray with hilarious, tumultuous results. Along the way we meet many of those endearing eccentrics, chief among whom is the indispensable Paula, whirlwind of a house matron and the closest thing Bilgewater has to a mother. Though she has no dress sense and is given to handing out items from the rag bag, we can tell Paula’s love is the real thing, however blind those around her may be to her true worth.

And then there is the “great sea of boys and masters,” some of whom give Bilgewater/Marigold her first painful, confusing experiences of attraction and repulsion, love and loss. As she negotiates these treacherous waters, trying to discern what is real and life-sustaining in the midst of deception, falseness and dishonesty, we are reminded of our own journey towards truth — a journey that can be taken up at any age.

I can’t possibly write as well as Jane Gardam does, or explain how she manages to make us laugh while treading on the edge of despair. I can only say that once I found her funny, warm-hearted, and verbally dexterous writing, I didn’t want to stop reading it. If you haven’t already, I hope I’ve intrigued you enough to pick up this or another book by one of the great comic novelists of our time.

And please, don’t be misled into thinking this is only a book for adolescents to read, just because it’s about one. A blurb on my edition insultingly says “Here is a brilliant talent that, if it appeared in adult fiction would be noisily greeted and deserve to be.” Such a talent should be greeted wherever it appears, and the theme of making individual human connections in the face of all the forces that seek to divide and estrange us (or conversely, submerge us in conventional sameness) never loses its relevance, even after the teenage years are long past.


Classics Club: Excellent Women

Barbara Pym, Excellent Women (1952)

As I read Excellent Women, the best-known work by the once-neglected, now widely praised English novelist Barbara Pym, I was reminded of another acclaimed comic novel that I read not long ago: Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. On the surface, Amis’s hard-drinking, buffoonish misogynist Jim Dixon may seem to have little in common with Pym’s un-effusive, church-going “excellent woman,” Mildred Lathbury. But the two books shadow and reflect each other in a fascinating way.

Jim is an exercise in how uncongenial one can make a main character, while still attempting to elicit our sympathy for him. An English professor who apparently despises English literature, he goes on epic benders when he’s supposed to be giving a lecture, leaves cigarette burns in the sheets when he’s a houseguest, and is unable to disentangle himself from a woman he doesn’t love or respect — she’s marginally better than no girlfriend at all, it seems, in his “woman-as-object” universe. Some readers find him so awful, he’s adorable; I just found him awful.

Mildred, meanwhile, is about as self-effacing as a character presented in the first person can be. Set in postwar London, the book opens with new neighbors moving in upstairs, and as Mildred becomes a witness to and sometimes participant in their disordered lives, so much more glamorous and seedy than her own, we find us asking ourselves what she really thinks about all this. Other characters in the novel are always eager to tell her what she should be feeling, seeming to find the sensibilities of an unmarried woman over a certain age to be public property; she quietly expresses annoyance at this, while baffling us with sideways expressions and half-uncoverings of her true self.

In both books, though, the opposite sex is a total mystery. The masculine Jim approaches this riddle with bluff and bravado, the feminine Mildred with puzzlement and a sort of understated obstinacy. And both stories left me with a sense of melancholy, a sadness that human beings must so often miss and misunderstand one another. This was in many ways the source of the comedy, as in a screwball plot where everyone is running in circles after each other, and yet there was an undercurrent of tragedy in spite of the guardedly optimistic endings. Can either Jim or Mildred ever find a satisfying relationship that gets beyond the surface differences which separate us? I’m not so sure.

Interestingly enough, the two authors had a friend in common — the poet Philip Larkin, who both provided the model for Amis’s antihero, and had a warm admiration for Ms. Pym, whom he called one of the most criminally underrated writers of our time. This connection seems most suitable, as she helped me to see poor old Jim in a different light, and maybe even forgive some of his excesses. I’ll certainly be seeking out more of her novels, continuing to ponder her subtle perspective on men, women, the gulf between us, and the fragile bridges that we try to build.


Margery Sharp Day: Britannia Mews

Margery Sharp, Britannia Mews (1946)

For the third year in a row, Jane of Beyond Eden Rock is hosting a birthday celebration in honor of the author Margery Sharp, to encourage everyone to read and enjoy her witty, entertaining novels. As Jane notes in her announcement post, for the first time in quite a while many of these are now easier to find (at least for those of us with e-readers) since ten of them have been released as e-books by Open Road Media. I took advantage of this fact to snag the only one that wasn’t already checked out from my library, Britannia Mews. It turned out to be the perfect book to beguile me for a few wintry hours, immersing me in the titular London neighborhood and its colorful cast of characters.

Though not a long novel, it takes us over a span of many years, from the Victorian age to the second world war, following the life of the central character, Adelaide. From a sheltered young girl who defies her parents with an ill-advised elopement, she evolves into a strong woman who has weathered many ups and downs of life, and learned one of its most essential lessons: there’s no use in trying to escape, because you always take yourself with you. With such a theme, it’s appropriate that the book is named after the run-down former stable area that Adelaide’s upwardly mobile family once moved away from, but that drew her back and would not let her go. Accepting her fate leads to some unexpected transformations, both in Adelaide and in the Mews.

The latter part of the book leaves Adelaide in the background to focus on her niece, Dodo, who is coming of age in a very different era leading up to the Second World War. Still, the need to find a sense of integrity is timeless, and Dodo goes through her own process of growth. Along the way she discovers some (but not all) of the secrets that lurk in her family cupboard, as Sharp slyly makes us question which truths really matter.

The pace of the novel never lets up, and the large jumps in time make it feel a bit breathless occasionally. Overall, though, Sharp makes it work, and packs a huge variety of incident and plot, and also of thought and passion and artistry, into a remarkably compact space — not unlike the Mews themselves.

I enjoyed every page of this delightful book, probably my favorite Margery Sharp so far. What’s yours?


Tea and Philosophy: Diary of a Provincial Lady

E. M. Delafield, Diary of a Provincial Lady (1930)

dplI’ve seen this book mentioned as a favorite by many, and lauded as a comic classic, and when a Folio Society edition came my way at a very reasonable price, I couldn’t resist. So I finally got to encounter the “provincial lady” and see what she had to say.

From the title alone, one can tell this is a very British book, with its slightly derogatory “provincial” (as opposed to fashionable London society) and the class-conscious “lady.” It’s a “diary,” though, so the lady is defining and perhaps poking fun at herself, another very British activity. In her entries, she chronicles a series of upper-middle-class concerns and woes: worrying over the best way to grow flower bulbs; brief, taxing encounters with her energetic children, who are normally taken care of by governess or boarding school; run-ins with the odiously superior Lady B.

I found these mildly amusing rather than hilarious. Many of the episodes revolve around financial troubles — pawning jewelry to pay off debts, being scared to tell the husband after buying too many clothes — which frankly annoyed me, coming from someone who thinks nothing of employing a live-in French governess, a parlourmaid, and a cook. This is not a purely British phenomenon (I had a similar response to Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House) but it did smack of a certain class and era to which I simply do not belong.

To me, the funniest and most enjoyable parts were when the Lady addressed the more philosophical and existential questions that confront her in ordinary life:

“Arrival of train, and I say good-bye to Robert, and madly enquire if he would rather I gave up going at all? He rightly ignores this altogether.

[Query: Would not extremely distressing situation arise if similar impulsive offer were one day to be accepted? This gives rise to unavoidable speculation in regard to sincerity of such offers, and here again, issue too painful to be frankly faced, and am obliged to shelve train of thought altogether.]”

Who hasn’t had a similar experience with one’s spouse or partner — without being able to put it into such perfectly absurd terms?

Delafield’s humor is often compared to that of P.G. Wodehouse, and they certainly have a sort of family resemblance, but the latter holds more appeal for me personally. The Provincial Lady is constantly reminding me of all the ways in which I am not like her, while Wodehouse somehow manages to make me forget that I’m not a rather dim young bachelor with a valet of unusual mental brilliance. He also plays with the English language in a more exuberant way, running rings around Delafield’s more restrained prose. Some find her style subtle and deceptively simple; to me, it too often induced yawns rather than amusement.

But taken on her own terms, the Provincial Lady does provide some quiet chuckles, and I’m glad to have met her at last. Have you? What did you think?

Classics Club List #50


Three by Betty MacDonald

Betty MacDonald, The Plague and I (1948)
Betty MacDonald, Anybody Can Do Anything (1950)
Betty MacDonald, Onions in the Stew (1955)

bettymacdonaldbooksSince reading the biography Looking for Betty MacDonald, I’ve been eager to read MacDonald’s lesser-known autobiographical works. And with the new editions from the University of Washington Press, now I can!

Originally published within the short dozen years between the smash success of her first book, The Egg and I (1945), and her sadly early death from cancer, these three books form a fascinating window onto the past of the Pacific Northwest, and still have the power to entertain and amuse us today.

The Plague and I was first to be published, in 1948, and its title was an obvious attempt to reproduce the success of the earlier book. But it’s not a direct chronological sequel — several years had gone by since Betty left her “Egg” husband and their chicken farm in the Olympic mountains, and returned with two young daughters to her mother and siblings in Seattle. These years are chronicled in Anybody Can Do Anything (see below), but as her biography reveals, Plague is based on a diary Betty kept during her subsequent time in a tuberculosis sanatorium. Thus she had a head start on it when a second book was demanded by publishers and public.

It’s certainly an unlikely subject for a humorous memoir, and I spent much of the reading feeling less amused than astonished and humbled by what many people had to go through in the days when the “white plague” was a real menace. There was no way to battle the disease except to give the lungs complete rest so that they would form barriers around the parts invaded by bacteria. Surgical procedures involved collapsing the lungs so they would be immobile (it is still an open question to me how the patients were able to breathe after this). In Betty’s sanatorium, patients were forbidden to talk, to cough, to laugh, even to read and write until they had begun to recover, and nurses enforced the rules with semi-sadistic military discipline.

bettyvashonCan you imagine writing a whole book about being forbidden to do anything other than lie in bed? But Betty does, and she somehow makes it a riveting chronicle. She’s helped by the presence of some memorable characters, including her Japanese roommate “Kimi,” one of the smartest and funniest invalids you could hope to have in the next bed. (Though Betty betrayed her unfortunate prejudice against Native Americans in The Egg and I, she shows more liberal views in this book — she’s placed in rooms with both Kimi and an African American woman because nobody else was willing to get that close to them.) Brave, foolish, rebellious, sly, charming, defeated, defiant — in the intense environment of the sanatorium, many different sides of human nature come to light. It’s not unlike a war chronicle, and like survivors of a war, Betty and her friends feel they are now members of a “club” that no one else can truly understand.

Humor, here, is not a matter of mere silliness or belly laughs, but a way of standing apart from overwhelming experiences, not letting them get the better of you. That ability also serves Betty well when she comes to record how her family survived the Depression in Anybody Can Do Anything (1950). Her older sister Mary is determined that Betty can do anything that she (Mary, that is) sets her mind to, and so she struggles through a series of odd and unsuitable jobs, from hand-coloring photographs to selling direct mail advertising to assisting a gangster. In the midst of these episodic reminiscences, the constant is the presence of Betty’s warm, loving, if somewhat eccentric family, who keep things lively:

In addition to good health, my family possessed a great capacity for happiness. We managed to be happy eating Grammy’s dreadful food or Mother’s delicious cooking; in spite of cold baths and health programs; with Gammy’s awful forebodings about the future hanging over our heads; in private schools or public; in large or medium-sized houses; with dull bores or bright friends; with or without money; keeping warm by burning books (chiefly large thick collections of sermons, left to us by some of the many defunct religious members of the family) or anthracite coal in the furnace; in love or just thrown over; in or out of employment; being good sports or cheats; fat or thin; young or old; in the city or in the country; with or without lights; with or without husbands.

Her final work, Onions in the Stew (1955), covers a more stable time in Betty’s life, the twelve-year period when she had remarried and moved to Vashon Island with her new husband and two teenage daughters. Each of her books vividly evokes a place where she lived, and this one’s location is particularly dramatic. Beautiful and a bit remote, with no road to their house and an adventurous commute to Seattle by ferryboat, it’s a marvelous but challenging place. The pieces in this book are more loosely connected than in the others, with the common thread being “life as usual in a very unusual setting.” They could have been published as articles in a women’s magazine, but thankfully Betty’s tart sense of humor saves them from being a run-of-the-mill chronicle of 1950s domesticity — in fact, one of the pieces is a sharp critique of the ridiculous food advocated by women’s magazines of the era.

The Vashon house is still standing and is known as the Betty MacDonald Farm; the current owners run it as a B & B, with a loft room or cottage available by the night. I’ll be longing to visit on my next trip to Seattle, and if you read all of Betty’s reminiscences, I’m sure you will be too. But even if you can’t get there in person, you can get a glimpse into her world through these wonderful books.


The Pleasure of the Journey: Three Men in a Boat

Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat (1889)

Unpublished cover design by Emma Block, reproduced courtesy of the artist
Unpublished cover design by Emma Block, reproduced by permission of the artist

This summer, I finally read the comic classic Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome. As I had found references to its characters and incidents in several other books (notably To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis), there was much that was familiar to me, and I almost had a feeling of deja vu as I recognized them. The Hampton Court maze! The pineapple tin! The tow-ropes! Montmorency! They seemed like old friends, even as I was encountering them for the first time.

Yet there were still some surprises, chief among which was the fact that Jerome doesn’t always write in the same humorous vein. There are some lyrical and sentimental passages, which I was not sure whether to take as parody or as serious relief, so to speak, from the hilarity of other sections.

Indeed, the book as a whole was more digressive and varied than I had expected. The main narrative thread — the author and his two friends (to say nothing of the dog) are taking a restorative trip down the Thames — often serves merely as an excuse for Jerome to muse about matters large and small: earlier trips on the river, the peculiarities of one’s friends, canine habits, etc. I suspect that if the passages that relate to the actual “present-day” journey of the three-men-in-a-boat were extracted, they would occupy a very slim volume on their own.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s precisely Jerome’s free-associating, wide-ranging comic/lyric/philosophic ramblings that provide the pleasure of this reading experience. If you’re impatient to get to the goal, you’ve missed the point of the journey.

I’m counting this for the Adventure category of the Back to the Classics Challenge. And if you think boating on the Thames is not adventurous enough, just read the part about the pineapple tin.

Back to the Classics Challenge: Adventure Classic
Classics Club List #42


Top Ten Funniest Books by Women


When I was writing my review of Lucky Jim, one of the most acclaimed comic novels of all time, I looked around to see what else was included on lists of the funniest books. I found that they were heavily dominated by male writers; this one from AbeBooks, for example, was chosen by British readers and only includes two female authors, Helen Fielding and Sue Townsend.

Now, it’s not to say that these women’s books are not hilarious, nor to denigrate the comic talents of Wodehouse, Vonnegut, Bryson, and Pratchett, all of whom I adore, but there are some other writers out there whose works really deserve our attention as well. I find it quite depressing that when New York Times editors were asked to choose the funniest novel, not a single woman made the list. I can only imagine that those editors’ reading habits are very different than mine, because when I started making a list featuring female authors who make me laugh, I found it difficult to stop. Here are ten or so of my personal favorites — sorry, I was laughing too hard to count.

BrandonsPeriod Piece – Gwen Raverat
Written and illustrated by Charles Darwin’s granddaughter, who became a fine artist, this marvelous memoir of the Victorian age affectionately pokes fun at the habits of our ancestors.

The Brandons – Angela Thirkell
For fans of Trollope, Thirkell takes us back to Barsetshire with a social comedy full of witty phrases and sly allusions.

Friday’s Child – Georgette Heyer
One of Heyer’s funniest, sunniest Regency romances, this is about a young couple who have to grow up — and fall in love — after they get married.

Christopher and Columbus – Elizabeth von Arnim
When unsympathetic English relatives send a pair of half-German twins to America during World War I, nothing turns out quite as expected. The absurd dialogue of the Twinkler twins is the highlight here.

The Egg and I – Betty MacDonald
MacDonald turned a difficult life on a chicken farm in the Pacific Northwest into superb comedy. Her Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books for children are also both hilarious and psychologically astute, with their magical solutions to child-rearing problems.

UnderfootShowPlease Don’t Eat the Daisies – Jean Kerr
The wife of New York Times drama critic Walter Kerr was a playwright and humorist in her own right. Some of the humor in her 1957 book of essays has dated, but it remains a lively and intelligent take on family life.

Underfoot in Show Business – Helene Hanff
Hanff is mostly known for 84, Charing Cross Road (which is also a very funny book), but I wish more readers would pick up her delicious memoir of trying to make it on Broadway.

The Serial Garden – Joan Aiken
For over sixty years, starting about age sixteen and continuing right up until her death in 2004, storyteller extraordinaire Joan Aiken wrote tales about an otherwise ordinary British family who just happen to become involved in magical adventures, with wild and wacky results.

Bilgewater – Jane Gardam
Jane Gardam can take the painful realities of life and turn them into comedy like nobody else. Her early coming-of-age novel about a girl growing up in a boys’ school is by turns heartbreaking and hilarious.

YearoftheGriffinYear of the Griffin – Diana Wynne Jones
Jones’s delightful send-up of the “magical school” trope is also very likely the only book ever to feature a female griffin who goes to college. Please ignore the bizarre cover art; it makes Elda look like a menacing monster, but really she’s a sweetheart.

To Say Nothing of the Dog – Connie Willis
I haven’t yet read Three Men in a Boat, a popular choice for funniest book of all time, though it’s on my list. Even so, I found Willis’s slapstick time-traveling homage to Jerome’s Victorian classic a hoot.

Thus Was Adonis Murdered – Sarah Caudwell
First in an all-too-brief mystery series, featuring a group of young British barristers and their older mentor — who, in a tantalizing twist, narrates their adventures without revealing his/her gender. As is appropriate to legal mysteries, a highly stylized, double-edged writing style is key to the humor here.

And I haven’t even mentioned Lisa Lutz, Margery Sharp, Maria Semple, Shirley Jackson, Susannah Clarke … just thinking about them makes me smile. What are your favorite funny books and writers?



Margery Sharp Day: The Gipsy in the Parlour

Margery Sharp, The Gipsy in the Parlour (1953)

GipsyHooray, it’s Margery Sharp Day! This event, formerly hosted at Fleur in Her World and now at Beyond Eden Rock, introduced me to a delightful but sadly overlooked author of the mid-twentieth century. I’m glad that Jane is once more celebrating Margery Sharp’s birthday by offering this opportunity for us to read her books and share our reviews.

My library, sadly does not have ANY of Sharp’s adult books, but I was able to track down a not-too-garbled e-book of The Gipsy in the Parlour through Open Library. The title, cover, and Victorian setting of this one intrigued me, and I was not disappointed. It was another humorous, breezy read that yet had a serious side in its closely observed characters and emotional insight.

At the beginning we’re introduced to the magnificent Sylvesters, a salt-of-the-earth family of Devonshire farmers and their formidable women who are waiting for a fourth bride to be brought to their home. Also present is our unnamed narrator, a child relation who is there from the city on one of her much-cherished holidays. It’s through her perspective that we see the ensuing events, and Sharp skillfully manages to convey her naively mistaken impressions, though the more jaded eye of adulthood gradually comes to a different interpretation.

As the bride Fanny becomes the “gipsy in the parlour,” putting off her marriage to go into a dramatic decline, and the narrator becomes her “little friend” and ally, the parallel phrase of “cuckoo in the nest” comes to mind. How the parasitical Fanny is eventually dislodged makes for a slyly comical story with a host of marvelous characters. I especially adored the quietly heroic Charlotte, oldest of the Sylvester wives, but you’ll have a wonderful time with all of them.

I also loved how Sharp artfully renders the Devonshire speech patterns without resorting to impenetrable dialect transcription. If you’re doing the Reading England challenge, be sure to consider this one for Devon.

It’s a brief novel that left me certainly wanting to read more Margery Sharp. And so I’m off on the hunt again…and looking forward to seeing what other readers have found this year.


A Party for Margery: Two by Margery Sharp

Margery Sharp, The Nutmeg Tree (1937)
Margery Sharp, Cluny Brown (1944)

When Fleur in Her World alerted me to the existence of a charming and witty but largely forgotten mid-20th-century novelist, I was glad to join in with the fun of celebrating Margery Sharp’s 110th birthday by reading and reviewing a book or two. And what fun it was! I completely agree that these books deserve to be brought back into print, and hope that someone with publishing clout will sit up and take notice.

The two books I chose to start with, The Nutmeg Tree and Cluny Brown, are perhaps more widely available than some others because they were both made into films (Julia Misbehaves with Greer Garson and Cluny Brown with Jennifer Jones). At any rate, I had no trouble finding decent used copies online for a very reasonable price. Each beguiled me for a day, putting a smile on my face with a series of absurd situations encountered by some engaging characters. As with all the best comedy, this is not completely mindless entertainment; Sharp’s unconventional women shake up the world around them, and may make us question some of our cherished assumptions as well.

The first memorable heroine I encountered was the title character of Cluny Brown, a London plumber’s niece whose fatal flaw is “not knowing her place” — she took herself to tea at the Ritz because she wanted to see what it was like, imagine! When her uncle ships her off to a country house to be trained as a parlormaid, he thinks his troubles are over, but naturally Cluny has other ideas.

Sharp does an excellent job at the tricky task of capturing the accents and sensibilities of both the masters and servants of the house, as well as of Cluny, a true original who blithely ignores the strictures that should bind her to her social class and its expectations. This leads to some delightful bits of dialogue:

“Come up, you black cat,” said Adam Belinski.

Cluny shook her head.

“Why not? Are you afraid of me?”

“Ought I to be?” said Cluny interestedly.

“That depends on what you consider the object of existence. What is your object of existence?”

Cluny considered; for this was a subject on which every one else seemed to have so much more definite opinions than she did herself. Mrs Maile and Aunt Addie Trumper and Mr Porritt, for instance, were all unanimous: in their view the object of her existence was to become a well-trained parlourmaid. Mr Ames thought she ought to go to parties. A gentleman in a ‘bus had once advised her to become a model. But Cluny herself was still uncertain.

“I want something to happen,” she said vaguely. “I want things happening all the time. . .”

“Then make them happen. Why not?”

“You don’t know my Uncle Arn,” said Cluny sombrely. “The minute anything happens, he stops it. I dare say it’s on account of being a plumber. The way he goes on, I might be a burst pipe.”

Though published in 1944, Cluny Brown is set six years earlier, in an England on the brink of war and of the destruction of many of its ancient ways of life, and the coming change is foreshadowed in Cluny’s subtly disruptive nature. This serious strain anchors the comedy, and gives it a slightly darker touch that keeps it from being too silly and bright.

At the end of Cluny’s adventures, an abrupt denouement with a swift change of heart might seem clumsy or inopportune in the hands of a less confident writer. Here, it perfectly suits the character of Cluny, and the glimpse given into her future assures us that she will continue to spread her insouciant spirit wherever she goes.

In my next Margery Sharp novel, The Nutmeg Tree, our heroine is Julia Packett, a very different but equally idiosyncratic character. Summoned to the south of France by an impulsive message from the daughter she hasn’t seen since infancy, who is seeking approval of her intended marriage, Julia immediately identifies the young man in question as a “wrong one,” but how can she convince her besotted daughter? And how can a former showgirl pull off the role of a respectable member of a very proper family, when in fact she is nothing of the sort?

Greer Garson as Julia in the 1948 film

Julia’s “misbehavior” (leaving her daughter to be raised by the father’s family,  taking up with a series of male companions, and ending up having to sell off furniture to pay the rent) might not seem utterly damning today, but on the novel’s publication in 1937 this lifestyle would have raised some eyebrows. Julia is portrayed with so much sympathy and humor, though, that we embrace her follies as part of her inimitable verve and zest for life. In her outer and inner battles, we root for her and forgive her many lapses, which if we are honest may remind us of our own efforts to “be good.”

But can Julia forgive herself? In contrast to Cluny, whose youthful imperviousness to criticism is part of her charm, the more world-worn Julia is struggling toward a new level of self-knowledge. Because this is a comedy, this is symbolized by the possibility of union with a man who can complement and appreciate her. And because this is Margery Sharp, their story is told in a way that is both larger-than-life funny, and relevant to deeper human concerns. How can Julia “marry” the experience that has given her insight and compassion for other people (but left her a bit worse for wear), with what remains unspoiled in her, still worthy of love and honor? It’s a question we all have to resolve in our own way — though we may not all do it through dealings with acrobats met on trains.

For more about Margery Sharp and her books, be sure to check out this lovely blog created by a devoted fan. And if you enjoy humorous romances with a twist, do seek out these and more of her sadly out-of-print novels. Be warned, I’ll be giving you some competition for them.