A woman of impeccably loose morals.
Julia ,’by marriage Mrs Packett, by courtesy Mrs Macdermot’ is the central character of three strongly delineated women, in Margery Sharp’s delightful The Nutmeg Tree.
Sharp, a deliciously witty writer of rather eccentric English romances and childrens’ books, from the 1930s to the 1970s, had sadly gone out of print, and was only available as lucky finds in second hand shops or sometimes on line at some eye-watering prices.
Fortunately, Open Road Integrated Media who have a wonderful reputation for reissuing ‘minor’ classics in good, digital format, have now reissued a generous couple of handfuls of her titles.
And this is one of them, and I was delighted to be offered The Nutmeg Tree by Open Road, as a copy for review
Julia is a middle-aged actress, member of the chorus, and any kind of vaguely theatre related work she can get. She is a woman of impeccably loose morals. Promiscuous in part because she has a generous heart (and even more generous bosoms), she cannot bear to disappoint or embarrass a suitor. Not to mention the fact that she is hopeless with money, will squander what she has on a good time and good friends, and, when treading the boards work is slender, a man might take her out for a meal. She is not averse to undertaking the odd swindle, to part a fool from his money, either
It is Sharp’s particular genius, her wit and her warmth, to take this seemingly unprincipled woman, and make us root for her, delight in her, and understand exactly why so many who meet her, both men and women, happily fall under the spell of her charms. Despite her dishonesty, she is remarkably honest with herself about her failings, and really dislikes hurting or offending those whom she fleeces.
The opening paragraph of the book immediately showed me this was going to be a sparkling and good humoured read:
Julia, by marriage Mrs, Packett, by courtesy Mrs Macdermot, lay in her bath singing the Marseillaise. Her fine robust contralto, however, was less resonant than usual, for on this particular summer morning the bathroom, in addition to the ordinary fittings, contained a lacquer coffee table, seven hatboxes, half a dinner service, a small grandfather clock, all Julia’s clothes, a single bed mattress, thirty-five novelettes, three suitcases, and a copy of a Landseer stag
I was already laughing so hard by this point, with the tune of ‘On the twelfth day of Christmas’, rather than the Marseillaise, playing in my mind, that I half expected the sentence to end with the proverbial partridge, pear tree and all.
Julia, on her uppers again is the mother of a grown-up and extremely intelligent daughter, presently at Girton. She was never the most motherly of women, and Susanne, or Susan as she is now called, has been brought up by Julia’s mother-in-law, a well-to-do woman whom Julia admires, and who has always treated Julia kindly. Even if she does nurture a rather peculiar fantasy that her daughter–in-law would make a great success if she would only open a cake-shop in Knightsbridge.
Julia hasn’t seen her daughter for years, but Sue wants to get married to a man, whilst her grandmother wants her to wait till she is twenty one. Susan sends a letter to her mother asking her to come to France (where she and her grandmother are holidaying) to help persuade Mrs Packett senior to accept Sue’s beau, Bryan, and a speedy marriage.
Dormant mother love is wakened, and the story follows Julia’s eventful journey to France, and the amusing encounters which await her there
In a neat twist, it is Julia, and even the older Mrs Packett, who are the flexible and adventurous ones, whilst Susan, bar a desire to marry a little young is implacably rigid and insufferably worthy
Susan was a prig. Not an objectionable prig, not a proselytising prig, but a prig from very excess of good qualities.. Like all the right-minded young, she wanted perfection; the difficulty was that her standards of perfection were unusually high. Exquisite in her own integrity, she demanded an equal delicacy and uprightness from her fellows
Susan – unlike Julia – is not a lot of fun, Take, for example, this typical throwaway Margery Sharp gem, about Julia’s pecuniary embarrassment and the detail of her underwear :
Julia decided to take single instead of return tickets, and to buy a new dinner dress with the money saved. She also purchased a linen suit, a Matron’s model hat, and three pairs of cami-knickers. She had indeed plenty of these already, but all with policemen embroidered on the legs
I shan’t (of course) reveal spoilers, but do just need to say that I thought the ending was utterly brilliant, and done with panache.
A film version, or should I say an extreme ‘based on’ was made, starring Greer Garson. Whatever the merits of the film, most of the elements of Sharp’s novel have been bent into unrecognisable shape. The title of the film was Julia Misbehaves
I enjoyed this book enormously; though Sharp is writing light, witty romance, it is in a unique and wonderfully executed manner. Her characterisations are brilliant, her humour never laboured and, knowing more Margery’s are waiting for me, accessible, and reasonably priced is enchanting.
Thank you Open Road! And thank you to Jane at beyondedenrock, who probably woke us all up to Margery
The Nutmeg Tree, and other Margery titles are being published on April 12th. Not long to wait!