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?
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.