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theinnocents

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.

margery-2017The 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.

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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.”

britannia-mews2It 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.

britannia-mews3This 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.

margery sharp day 2016

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thefoolishgentlewoman

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. “

margerysharpdayTilly 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.

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margerysharpdayI often wonder what it is that prompts publishers to re-issue the works of some authors and not others. It’s wonderful and fully justifiable that the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Pym, Muriel Spark, Angela Thirkell and some vintage mystery writers continue to be made available to new generations of readers, I’m a huge fan of all these so I would hardly complain. Yet there are dozens of other writers out there surely, equally deserving of having their work re-issued. Jane at Fleurinherworld – has declared this coming Sunday – January 25th to be Margery Sharp day, an author I think would be top of Jane’s list to be re-issued by someone out there. I hadn’t ever read Margery Sharp, until I picked up The Foolish Gentlewoman, which – at the time of writing I am enjoying enormously. So if you’re talking books on the internet on Sunday – give a little shout out to Margery Sharp – you don’t have to be a blogger, just get a bit of chat going. There will be reviews of Margery Sharp books popping up in various places, including my review of The Foolish Gentlewoman, maybe you’ll find you fancy reading some yourself. It seems creating a buzz helps in these things, and wouldn’t it be fab if Margery Sharp books were to be re-issued as a result. 20150119_192710

 

I tried to do something similar last June – for Mary Hocking, with a #rememberMary month of reading, it wasn’t a huge success, oh well. I still maintain her books deserve re-issuing too – but it seems I was a bit of a lone voice, and some people who wanted to read her books found them too hard to get hold of. Still I loved reading those I did, and I still have three tbr. It would delight me to have someone re-issue Mary Hocking – so I think I may do another #rememberMary event this coming June even if I am on my own, – in fact maybe I should bang on about her every year – until everyone starts listening. So you all have fair warning, if you want to join in with #rememberMary this year, it will be June again – maybe I should limit it to a week this time, I’ll give it some thought – and share dates with you another time. I have found second hand copies of some of her books fairly reasonably priced, although her earlier novels really do seem hard to get.

Are there authors whose out of print works you would like to see re-issued?  mary hocking

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