The Foolish Gentlewoman was Margery Sharp’s thirteenth novel in a seemingly long and prolific writing career, yet it is the first that I’ve read. Judging by this novel alone, I feel I have made a discovery; another author I will want to read more of and like so many authors of this era is crying out to be re-issued. Today of course is Margery Sharp day, and I can’t wait to read lots more reviews of books I will almost certainly want to get my hands on.
The Foolish Gentlewoman is set soon after the end of World War Two, when houses are still being repaired from the bombing, and young men and women are slowly picking up the threads of their lives. When Isabel Brocken makes a rare visit to church, she hears one particular line of an otherwise unmemorable sermon, and takes to heart its message. It is a message that will have a lasting effect on the inhabitants of her household, and even upon her own future.
Isabel Brocken is the foolish gentlewoman of the title, a wealthy, childless widow in her mid-fifties. Isabel returns to her home, Chipping Lodge, after seeing the war out in Bath. A former ATS girl Jacqueline lives with her as companion and in another part of the house live the Pooles, a mother and her teenage daughter Greta, originally employed by Simon as caretakers for Isabel during her absence. Mrs Poole, likes to dress up and go dancing, Greta loves film magazines, they are devoted to one another. As the novel begins, Simon Brocken, unmarried, sixty, a little pompous and set in his ways, comes to stay while repairs are undertaken on his own home. Also staying is Isabel’s nephew Humphrey, recently de-mobbed, he is the son of Isabel’s sister, Ruth in New Zealand. Simon considers his sister-in-law to be entirely foolish, and is at a loss to understand why Isabel treats him so kindly and with obvious affection.
Simon remembers a perfect time, before the first war, when Isabel and her sister were girls, and he and his brother Mark were regular visitors at Chipping Lodge. In these days there were dances and house parties, and visitors, the girls had a poor relation as companion, Tilly Cuff, who left later for a lifetime in similar positions.
Now with Isabel certain that she once did Tilly Cuff a great wrong back in those long ago halcyon days, and the memory of that sermon ringing in her ears, Isabel determines to set things right. Her astounded household are soon made aware that Isabel intends to invite Tilly to come and live with them, and further, that in time, she will tell Tilly of her intention to give Tilly almost all her money. Simon is beside himself with disapproval; Isabel’s money had once been his dear brother’s money after all. Humphrey and Jacqueline are a little more sympathetic.
No one it seems is quite ready for the Tilly Cuff of the 1940’s. A lifetime of needing to secure positions for herself in other people’s homes has soured Tilly, and her appearance is stuck firmly and rather incongruously in the past.
“As a rule the chosen style is that of the wearer’s prime, women go on dressing as they dressed when they liked their clothes. The unfortunate thing about Tilly Cuff was that this sartorial turning-point, or rather sticking-point, marked a period not of complacency but of fear. In 1928 Tilly Cuff was forty; it was the period of all others when a youthful appearance was most prized, when all women tried to look like little girls if they could not look like little boys; for six months Tilly was out of employment. She knew then that if she were to survive she must stay young. All advertisements demanded young, bright companions. Young and bright therefore she became; and she still clung to the fashions that had helped her to seem so. “
Tilly is duly installed at Chipping Lodge, and her presence is soon, very much felt by everyone. Tilly insinuates herself everywhere, used to be employed, with things expected of her; Tilly has little to fill her time, and so finds things to do. Tilly is interfering, she involves herself in things she has no need to, she completely monopolises Isabel’s dog and changes the entire atmosphere of Chipping Lodge with her thoroughly unlikeable, disruptive presence. Simon, Humphrey and Jacqueline take to hiding in a bathroom to discuss everything to do with Tilly or Isabel, as Tilly has a rather unnerving habit of appearing whenever she isn’t wanted. In Jacqueline and Humphrey, Tilly recognises a young couple beginning slowly to develop feelings for one another, however in Jacqueline, Tilly thinks she recognises the difficult position, she herself once held, and starts to plant seeds of doubt in Jacqueline’s mind. The Pooles, companionable existence is also threatened by Tilly, who sensing a secret and having nothing better to do, is determined to winkle it out, somehow.
Isabel has to admit that Tilly is not as nice as she had thought she would be, however she is endlessly patient, and despite Simon’s continued disapproval is determined to go ahead with her plan to give Tilly her money.
“He looked across at his sister-in-law. Isabel sat plump and innocent beside Miss Cuff like a pigeon by a battered macaw; her simple face wore an expression of bewilderment. For once Mr Brocken sympathised with her. In the old days Tilly’s chief characteristics had all been negative: she was unassuming, undemonstrative, unobtrusive; now it was as though she had turned herself inside out.”
Living nearby is Dora Tremayne, another contemporary of Isabel, Ruth and Tilly’s she knew them all as girls, and now, having lost all her own money through unwise investment, works as a receptionist at a beauty salon. Dora understands where Simon is scathing, her view of the future for both Tilly and Isabel is rather more positive than the residents of Chipping Lodge believe.
I am so glad that I chose The Foolish Gentlewoman for Margery Sharp day; I loved every bit of it. It is a novel of great insight, humour and warmth; it is a truly delightful read.