I chose to read The Innocents for Jane’s third Margery Sharp day. It was a novel I was prompted to buy following her lovely review of it last year.
It is a much later Margery Sharp novel, first published in 1972 – it has a rather different feel to the two I have read before. The style is much simpler in many ways, and yet there was something about the writing style that jarred with me a little. I felt some sentences were rather awkward (it could have been me!) and the simplicity irritated me after a while. However, the story itself is lovely, engrossing and readable, and quite moving. Margery Sharp tells a touchingly brave story, one I suspect was not often told even in the 1970s.
The story is narrated by an ageing spinster who lives happily in a small village in East Anglia. She has lived her whole life in this village, which has a wonderfully relaxed and tolerant attitude to their neighbours. Our narrator introduces us to Cecilia the village beauty – who for a long time seemed to have little time for the men who mooned after her, but who suddenly up and married a visiting Scottish millionaire, who now lived in America.
Just before the outbreak of the Second World War Cecilia and her husband return to the village on another visit. They bring their little daughter with them, Antoinette is three, and not quite like other children. She is what our narrator calls – an innocent – she has some unspecified learning difficulty. Antoinette dislikes loud noises, she is easily frightened and isn’t speaking yet.
“At three, she should have been able to untie my shoelaces quite easily. She should have not only uttered, but prattled. At three, Antoinette had still no more vocabulary than—a baby. She was also as physically clumsy as a baby. If I had visualized her carrying bowl of eggs, basket of oranges, with serious, safe care, I soon discovered my error. Anything Antoinette was given to carry she dropped. It was as though her powers of concentration had an unusually limited span.”
While her parents go to Europe for a month, Antoinette is left in the care of our narrator, and despite admitting that she doesn’t give her love easily, she is instantly drawn to the child. She adapts to Antoinette’s ways, understands what the child needs. As the time draws near for Antoinette’s parents to come back for her, our narrator begins to dread handing her back. However, with hostilities starting, Antoinette’s parents head straight back to the US, leaving their daughter where she is, fearful of risking her life on a sea voyage. Antoinette spends the duration of the war in the village with her fond, elderly carer.
“It was a happy time. I even felt a certain guilt, to be so happy; for all this while the wind of war was blowing.”
As Antoinette gets older, she learns five words, experiences horse riding, and settles happily into a quiet life, where her needs are catered to. Her little cot is extended with a piano stool – because Antoinette doesn’t want to sleep anywhere else, when she brings dead frogs into the house to present as gifts they are accepted with equanimity and she is allowed to play Tiddlywinks with rabbit droppings. Antoinette adores the garden, finding little places in which to hide herself away, she loves the wildlife and is never more content than when rootling around in the garden.
“Spoken to always quietly and slowly, Antoinette understood perfectly. All that was needed was patience. She liked hearing poetry, if it had a strong rhythm, as in the Lays of Ancient Rome. I also introduced her—a rather abrupt declension, I fear!—to such easy nursery rhymes as “Pussy-cat, pussy-cat, where have you been?”—still substituting for the rather awkward monosyllable “queen” an easier disyllable: “I’ve been up to London to buy a tureen.” Antoinette knew what a tureen was, because it was what I served our soup from. She also appeared to like the word for itself, for its soothing, crooning sound. (“Tureen, tureen!” I once heard her cajole a hedgehog.)”
In time, of course, Cecilia comes back for Antoinette, the war is over, Cecilia is a widow. However, she is a stranger to Antoinette, Cecilia doesn’t understand the child like the woman who has been caring for her does. Cecilia talks about taking Antoinette back to New York, organising speech therapy and counselling, she seems almost oblivious to her daughter’s real needs, seeming almost to blame our narrator for what she sees as Antoinette’s deficiencies. Cecilia wants her daughter to be someone she will never be. Our gentle narrator has no claim on the child she has dutifully cared for and loved; who she thinks of as her own. What – if anything can she do to help her now?
The ending is cleverly ambiguous, leaving the reader with some tantalising questions.