Today is Margery Sharp day – started by Jane at Beyond Eden Rock it’s a day to celebrate the work of Margery Sharp on what would have been her 111th birthday. Last year I read The Foolish Gentlewoman, a book I thoroughly enjoyed. I hadn’t meant to go a whole year before reading another Margery Sharp book – but there it is – as ever too many books not enough time.
My sister did a great job at finding some lovely old books as stocking fillers for me at Christmas– and one was Britannia Mews by Margery Sharp – a 1960’s paperback (pictured above) with a rather startling portrait of a woman who looks nothing like how I pictured the central character Adelaide Lambert.
Britannia Mews is the story of Adelaide Lambert – born Adelaide Culver – from childhood to very old age. Born into a prosperous Victorian family, as a child Adelaide would sneak round to the forbidden Britannia Mews tucked between the streets of conventional middle class homes. Here the coachmen from Albion Place take care of the vehicles and live with their families above the coach houses, a working men’s pub sits on one corner. One end of the mews at this time is respectably working class while the other end is already beginning to slide into slumishness – it is certainly not considered a suitable place for Adelaide to spend her time.
The Culver family move house – and Adelaide and her cousins have many happy days playing in the park. As Adelaide grows up she is not often very happy at home, paying calls with her mother – who, when the time comes, will seek out the right kind of man for her to marry – is not the life she wants.
“Adelaide tilted her blue velvet toque, with the ermine’s head in front, till she could feel its hard rim pressing on her eyebrows. Mrs Culver nodded absently. Adelaide never expected much notice from her mother, which was odd, since Mrs Culver considered that she devoted her life to her children. She did in fact devote herself to the work of making nine hundred pounds a year do the work, or at least produce the effect of twelve, and so from one point of view was possibly right.”
As a young woman Adelaide is educated at home, while her younger brother is sent away to school. A drawing tutor is engaged to teach Adelaide and her cousin Alice – so they can chaperone each other. If Adelaide is the unconventional Victorian young woman, straining against the strictures of a rigid society then Alice is very much the good little Victorian miss. However one day Henry Lambert turns up and Alice suffering from a cold doesn’t and Henry begins to flirt outrageously with Adelaide. Adelaide is old enough to know her own mind, but desperately innocent in the ways of charming, unsuitable young men. Keen to break away from her conventional family, Adelaide elopes with Henry Lambert, marrying him in secret on the day the Culver family move again – this time to Mrs Culver’s dream house in the country. Henry Lambert takes his new young wife back to the rooms he rents above an old coach house – in Britannia Mews.
“Adelaide was very little of a fool: she had gone into the Mews as thought with her eyes open, prepared for the worst; she would have laughed as much as Henry at the idea of calling or being called on; but she had expected to be able to ignore her surroundings. They were to live in a little world of their own, in a bubble of love and hope, whose elastic, iridescent walls no squalor could penetrate. Within a week she discovered that while she could see and hear, such isolation was impossible.”
It isn’t too long before Adelaide must acknowledge her husband to be little more than a good for nothing drunk. Soon Henry as fewer pupils than ever – and is returning home in a pretty sorry state more and more often. With Adelaide refusing to admit her marriage a failure – she decides to grimly set her teeth at living with Henry – rather than leaving him and going home –where she would be welcomed with daily doses of humble pie. The Mews in now little short of a slum, filled with characters, of which the very proper imposing figure of Adelaide Lambert has become one. There’s The Sow, The Blazer and Old’un – all of whom play important roles in the life that Adelaide Lambert carves out for herself in Britannia Mews.
Adelaide’s fortunes fall and rise over the years – as does the character of the mews themselves. Events conspire to keep Adelaide in the mews – until the time comes when it’s the only place she wants to be.
In time Adelaide regains something of the position she was born to – partly responsible for the opening of a successful puppet theatre created out of two of the coach houses. Moving from the 1880’s through to the Second World War, we watch the character of the mews and its inhabitants shift from working class neighbourhood to slum, to a fashionable bohemian retreat in the 1920’s.
“There had always been this quality about Britannia Mews, that to step into it from Albion Alley was like stepping into a self-contained world. Its character might change, its Dark Ages alternate, so to speak, with its Christian Eras, but always it retained this strong individuality. No one passed under the archway had any doubt as to what sort of place they were entering – in 1865 model stables, in 1880 a slum, in 1900 a respectable working-class court. Thus when an address in a mews came to imply a high degree of fashion, Britannia Mews was unmistakably smart.”
By the time the bombs of the second world war are raining down on London, the character of the mews has changed again – the home of the famous puppet theatre who like the Windmill theatre can boast ‘we never closed’ it is a place of stubborn stoicism and grim determination. Adelaide is now eighty, and a younger generation are preparing to take the theatre and the mews forward.
This book kept me company during a very busy week – when I had rather less time for reading than usual. It was a fabulous companion; this is such a compelling novel, endlessly readable – I looked forward every day to getting back to these characters even if it was just for a short time. Margery Sharp was a very good writer; her characters are believable, with all their small flaws and quiet heroisms. I can easily see why this was made into a film – The Forbidden Street – (a rather histrionic title I thought) it lends itself to a good old fashioned epic beautifully.