I discovered Margery Sharp through Jane of Beyond Eden Rock who, for the last few years, has been hosting an annual Margery Sharp Day on the author’s birthday. This year, Jane is doing something slightly different: she has put together a Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors to celebrate the work of some of her favourite writers throughout the year. Margery Sharp is first on the list and as I’ve enjoyed her books in the past, I wanted to join in.
Britannia Mews (1946) is my fourth Margery Sharp novel and probably my favourite so far. Beginning in the 1870s and taking us through to the 1940s, it follows the story of Adelaide Culver from childhood to old age. We first meet Adelaide as a curious ten-year-old exploring Britannia Mews, a London street inhabited by servants and coachmen – a street which is considered less than respectable and off limits to middle-class children like Adelaide. Returning to the Culver’s comfortable townhouse in nearby Albion Place, Adelaide has no idea that in just a few years’ time Britannia Mews will be her home.
It’s all cousin Alice’s fault; if she hadn’t been suffering from a cold and missed their drawing lesson, Adelaide would never have been left alone with their drawing master, Henry Lambert, and then he might never have told her that he loved her. But Alice does have a cold and Mr Lambert does declare his love for Adelaide – and Adelaide, despite knowing that her parents will disapprove, does agree to marry him.
Their marriage takes place on the day the rest of the Culver family move away to a lovely new house in the countryside. Adelaide, meanwhile, is moving into Mr Lambert’s rooms above a coach house in Britannia Mews. Estranged from her family, living in what is rapidly becoming a slum and finding that her new husband is not quite the person she thought he was, married life proves to be very challenging for Adelaide. When she finally has the opportunity to escape from Britannia Mews, however, she must decide whether she really wants to leave the street that has become her home.
Britannia Mews is very different from the other books I’ve read by Margery Sharp – The Nutmeg Tree, The Flowering Thorn and Cluny Brown. All three of those are lovely novels but they are much lighter in tone and, although Britannia Mews is not entirely without its moments of wit and humour, in general this is a darker and more serious story. I don’t want to give the impression that it’s a depressing one, though, because it isn’t. Yes, Adelaide’s life is difficult, at least at first, but it’s her own life – she has made her own choices and had to live with them, made her own mistakes and had to find her own solutions. Unlike her cousin Alice, who represents the ideal of what a Victorian woman should be, Adelaide is unconventional, independent and, by the time the twentieth century arrives, an inspiration to the younger generation.
One woman in particular who belongs to the younger generation is Dorothy – Dodo – Baker, daughter of Adelaide’s cousin Alice. Like Adelaide before her, Dodo feels stifled by the middle-class circles in which her parents move and she knows she wants something different out of life. Britannia Mews, which by the 1920s has become a lively and fashionable address, is, for Dodo as well as for Adelaide, a symbol of freedom and the opportunity to be who you want to be. The second half of the novel is very much Dodo’s story rather than Adelaide’s; it took me a while to adjust to the change of heroine but once I did I found Dodo just as interesting to read about. I enjoyed watching her get to know the Lamberts and waiting to see whether she would uncover the secret they had kept hidden for so many years.
Of course, the most important character of all is Britannia Mews itself, a street which seems to cast a spell over those who live there, pulling them back every time they might think about leaving. I loved reading about the changing nature of the street over the years and the people who inhabited it at various times in its history. I was also fascinated by the descriptions of the Puppet Theatre which Adelaide opens in one of the old coach-houses and the magnificent hand-made puppets created by Henry Lambert.
This was a wonderful choice of book to celebrate Margery Sharp’s birthday this year and I’m hoping to join in with some of Jane’s other Birthday Book authors in the months to come.