Frivolous, charming, frothy perfection, but, nonetheless, with crunch and bite.
I came to Margery Sharp, a writer who was deservedly popular as a fine writer of children’s books and books for adults, from the interwar years, through Jane, of Beyond Eden Rock, a blogger who has been championing her writing, most of which is now out of print. A couple of her books had made her more widely known when they were filmed, The Nutmeg Tree, (by all accounts a disastrous adaptation) and this one, Cluny Brown. Having had a quick look at clips on YouTube, I was not minded to include them. The film is very much ‘based on’ which means, of course, liberties. taken
Back to the book: As Jane runs an annual ‘celebrate Margery Sharp day’ (the author’s birthday), I thought I would try and see what all the fuss is about, track down a Sharp book, and roll up with my Happy Birthday, Margery, review
And I am so very glad I tracked down a modestly priced old copy of Cluny Brown. Some of Sharp’s books are now so rare that they are offered for four figure sums! I can only say that I hope Sharp’s dedicated champions can persuade a publishing house to re-issue her books, so more of us have a chance to read more of them. She is a delightful, nicely sharp, well-crafted, light-touch writer of wit. I have seen her described as a kind of ‘early chick-lit’ All I can say is there is an irony, a kind of delicate and barbed mockery of the class system, that is a million miles away from the (admittedly few) chick-lit books I have read.
Published in 1944, but set a good 6 years earlier, when the idea of war was beginning to rumble away in people’s minds, but war had not been declared, this must have been some kind of much-needed temporary escape from the darkness of the world at war.
Clover (Cluny) Brown is a young, working class woman, only just out of her teens. She is an orphan, presently living with her Uncle, Mr Porritt, a plumber. Cluny is Porritt’s secretary/clerk/message taker. She is, everyone around her insists, remarkably plain. ‘Plain As A Boot’ And very tall. Except, she is really what the French call ‘Jolie Laide’ and certainly her vitality, intelligence and forthrightness are much more alluring and attractive than might be imagined at first glance. One of the major problems with Cluny, at least from the perspective of the more conventionally minded in her world, is that she just doesn’t seem to ‘know her place’. She acts unconventionally, out of class and out of gender – taking herself for tea at the Ritz, having far too much confidence and lack of becoming deference, so that those far above her in class occasionally think she is one of them, making friends with a colonel who doesn’t realise she is only ‘a tall parlourmaid’ The despairing cry from all around is ‘Cluny Brown – Who Does She Think She Is?’ The answer is, alive, enchanting, exhilarating. Following an event where she decides to pick up one of her Uncle’s plumbing jobs, and discovers the attractions of a dry martini, her Uncle decides the safest thing is to make sure she fits in to her proper and expected station in life. And goes into service. She becomes The Tall Parlourmaid for an Aristocratic Devonshire Family.
A Golden Retriever (Wiki, Commons) happily advances the plot. NOTE for readers of a sensitive disposition the author does not cause any harm to come to her fictional animals in the course of this book
Margery Sharp assembles a cast of strong and quirky characters, all of whom might seem to be examples of ‘types’ – the stunningly beautiful vamp, the scion of the aristocratic house who espouses radical socialist ideas, a louche Polish literary hero, the lady of the manor, all gardening and good works – but Sharp renders them all much more interesting, much more contradictory, and, all of them, much more likeable. Her pen is sharp, but it is also fizzy, joyous, expansive. There is no spitefulness, no meanness of spirit in her writing.
What I most appreciated is that Cluny gets the journey the reader wants her to have – the journey she deserves. There is, I’m sure, a destination which we might discover we are fearing. Perhaps another author would have given her a different outcome. I’m so pleased that Sharp is not a punitive author. Neither is she saccharine, but she views humanity with warmth, I feel.
I definitely want to read more of the wise, warm, witty Ms Sharp. Lacking the funds for four figure sums of stray existing copies, I shall be hoping for treasures in charity shops. Or, perhaps some kind and techy savvy soul could get the oeuvre a Kindled
If you want to know more about Margery Sharp, visit Jane’s blog or this blog, which is 100% Margery