Britannia Mews by Margery Sharp

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.

Margery Sharp Day: The Flowering Thorn

margery-2017My first introduction to Margery Sharp’s work came this time last year when I read The Nutmeg Tree for the Margery Sharp Day hosted by Jane at Beyond Eden Rock.  I enjoyed it and went on to read Cluny Brown a few months later.  Now Jane is hosting another celebration for Margery’s birthday (which is today – 25th January) and this seemed the perfect opportunity to read another of her books.  There were plenty to choose from – it’s much easier to find Margery Sharp books now than it was a year ago, thanks to Open Road Media reissuing them in digital form – and I settled on her 1933 novel The Flowering Thorn, one which sounded particularly appealing to me.  

the-flowering-thornThe Flowering Thorn introduces us to Lesley Frewen, a twenty-eight-year-old socialite living in London.  Lesley’s days and nights are a whirl of bridge parties, lunch engagements, shopping trips, hair appointments and visits to matinees and art exhibitions.  Despite all of this, there’s still something missing from her life: love.  Having discovered that the one man she really wants appears to be the one man she can’t have, Lesley is still in low spirits when she joins her aunt for afternoon tea the next day.  This could explain why, when her aunt introduces her to Patrick, the orphaned child of a servant who has recently died, Lesley finds herself volunteering to adopt the boy.

Lesley has no experience of young children and can’t imagine what possessed her to make such an offer, but she knows that now the decision has been made, there’s no turning back.  Children aren’t allowed in her luxury flat, however, so the first thing to do is to look for a new home for herself and Patrick – but finding somewhere in London which is both affordable and suitable for a four-year-old boy proves to be more difficult than she’d expected.  Eventually, a solution presents itself: she and Patrick will go and live in a cottage in the Buckinghamshire countryside.  It will be cheaper, her friends will still be able to visit – and besides, it will only be for a few years, until Patrick is old enough to go away to school…

I have enjoyed all three of the Margery Sharp novels I have read so far, but I think this might be my favourite.  I wasn’t sure about the book at first; I found Lesley’s lifestyle quite tedious to read about and Lesley herself (as she was at the beginning of the book) shallow and irresponsible.  A few chapters in, though, when Lesley takes Patrick to live in the country, I immediately warmed to both the character and the novel.  It was similar to the experience I had with Julia in The Nutmeg Tree.  As the story progressed, I watched Lesley slowly adapt to life in the country and found that as she formed new friendships, rearranged her priorities and adjusted her outlook on the world, she became a much nicer person, an opinion shared by her elderly uncle when he meets her again after an absence of several years.

I was surprised by the lack of romance in the novel.  Although Lesley does have one or two love interests, things tend to be one-sided and it’s not until the very end of the book that there’s a hint of an actual romance for her.  I found this quite refreshing as it meant the focus was on other things, such as Lesley’s growth as a person and the development of her relationship with Patrick – and this was a surprise too as there’s nothing sentimental or affectionate in this relationship; Lesley doesn’t even seem to particularly like Patrick, and yet it’s obvious that she does understand and care about him in her own way.

The Flowering Thorn is a lovely story and was a good choice for this year’s Margery Sharp Day!

Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp

Cluny Brown After reading The Nutmeg Tree a few months ago, I was desperate to read more books by Margery Sharp, so the news that several of her novels were being reissued by Open Road Media came just at the right time for me. I have been lucky enough to receive a copy of Cluny Brown for review via NetGalley, but official release day is Tuesday 12th April so not long to wait!

What I remember most from The Nutmeg Tree is its heroine, the wonderful Julia Packett. Cluny Brown is another memorable character – an intelligent, free-spirited young woman who refuses to ‘know her place’. To the dismay of Uncle Arn, who has brought up the orphaned Cluny, she’s the sort of girl who goes for tea at the Ritz on her own just to see what it’s like and who spends a whole day in bed eating oranges because she’s read in a magazine that it provides revitalisation. Uncle Arn is a plumber, a hard-working man leading a conventional life, and he’s unsure of the best way to deal with Cluny.

It is eventually decided that what Cluny needs is a job – and so she finds herself taking up a position as parlourmaid at Friars Carmel, a country house in Devon which is home to Sir Henry and Lady Carmel and their son, Andrew. With her ‘height, plainness and perfectly blank expression’, Cluny makes a perfect Tall Parlourmaid and soon settles into her new life, taking the neighbour’s dog for walks on her day off and forming a friendship with Mr Wilson, the local pharmacist.

But Cluny is not the only new arrival at Friars Carmel. The Polish academic Adam Belinski has been invited to Devon by Andrew, who is afraid for his friend’s safety. It’s 1938 and with the situation in Europe growing increasingly unsettled, Belinski (who becomes known to the family as The Professor) needs refuge from the Nazis. Andrew himself is still a bachelor but contemplating marriage with the beautiful Betty Cream….and it’s not long before Betty also decides to visit. Life at Friars Carmel is about to become much more complicated!

I loved Cluny Brown as a character. Like Julia in The Nutmeg Tree, she’s a real individual and doesn’t conform to the expectations of others, but at the same time she’s friendly, warm-hearted and always has the best of intentions. Her story is played out during a time of social change and unrest with Britain on the brink of war – and as the novel itself was published in 1944, this adds an interesting angle.

The conclusion to Cluny’s story surprised me, all the more so because what eventually happened was what I had initially expected to happen before Margery Sharp began to lead things in a different direction. I was quite happy with the ending, but I’m not sure whether Cluny would be happy with it once a few years had gone by; it would have been nice if Sharp had written a sequel, both for the pleasure of meeting this set of characters again and also so we could see whether everything did work out for Cluny.

I think I enjoyed The Nutmeg Tree slightly more than this one, but I have been impressed by both of the Margery Sharp books I’ve read so far and am looking forward to reading more of them. I just need to decide which to read next, now that so many tempting titles are being made available to us again.

My commonplace book: January 2016

commonplace book
Definition:
noun
a notebook in which quotations, poems, remarks, etc, that catch the owner’s attention are entered

Collins English Dictionary

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A summary of this month’s reading, in words and pictures.

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I hated the mountains and the hills, the rivers and the rain. I hated the sunsets of whatever colour, I hated its beauty and its magic and the secret I would never know. I hated its indifference and the cruelty which was part of its loveliness. Above all I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness. She had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I found it.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (1966)

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Roger had learned from Mr. Gray that this particular kind of rhododendron was called Ponticum, so the secret hiding-place was called Ponticum House. It was used for all sorts of activities and gradually it was furnished with odds and ends of furniture.

Amberwell by D.E. Stevenson (1955)

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There was the rub: that Julia, who could get intimate with a trapeze artist after five minutes’ conversation – who was intimate with a salesman after buying a pair of shoes – had talked for an hour to her own daughter, about the girl’s own father and lover, without the least intimacy at all.

“I’m a fool,” thought Julia, again. “It’s just because she’s such a perfect lady. And what I need is a good sleep.”

The Nutmeg Tree by Margery Sharp (1937)

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So fine was the morning except for a streak of wind here and there that the sea and sky looked all one fabric, as if sails were stuck high up in the sky, or the clouds had dropped down into the sea. A steamer far out at sea had drawn in the air a great scroll of smoke which stayed there curving and circling decoratively, as if the air were a fine gauze which held things and kept them softly in its mesh, only gently swaying them this way and that.

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927)

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Come, Joanna. I can wait no longer.

There it was, Henry’s declaration, as clear as my reflection in my mirror. Neither, I decided, could I wait.

I sent for my uncle of Burgundy. I had an urgent negotiation to undertake.

The Queen’s Choice by Anne O’Brien (2016)

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Meantime, all around me is violence and robbery, coarse delight and savage pain, reckless joke and hopeless death. Is it any wonder that I cannot sink with these, that I cannot so forget my soul, as to live the life of brutes, and die the death more horrible because it dreams of waking? There is none to lead me forward, there is none to teach me right; young as I am, I live beneath a curse that lasts for ever.

Lorna Doone by R.D. Blackmore (1869)

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“It is the women who lay clothes to dry on the rooftops of Troy,” I continued. “It is the fishermen who catch the silver fish in the bay,” I gestured out over the plain towards the sea, sparkling blue in the sunlight, “and sell them on the stalls of the marketplace. It is the princes who live in the palaces on the windy heights of the city, and the slaves who draw water from the wells. This, my king – this is Troy. And if we act now, we may still be able to save our city before it is too late.”

For the Most Beautiful by Emily Hauser (2016)

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The desolation struck me like a blow, fresh and painful, as if all this destruction had been newly made yesterday, and as if this were my first sight of it. It was grief, I think, nothing more or less. I knew it was absurd. But I had noticed this reaction in others as well as in myself: that we mourned for our ravaged city as if for a mother.

The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor (2016) – Review to follow

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“And you cannot move at all in Time, you cannot get away from the present moment.”

“My dear sir, that is just where you are wrong. That is just where the whole world has gone wrong. We are always getting away from the present moment. Our mental existences, which are immaterial and have no dimensions, are passing along the Time-Dimension with a uniform velocity from the cradle to the grave. Just as we should travel down if we began our existence fifty miles above the earth’s surface.”

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (1895)

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Favourite books this month: Lorna Doone and Amberwell

Margery Sharp Day: The Nutmeg Tree

One of the things I love about book blogging is being introduced to authors I would otherwise never have thought about reading. Margery Sharp is one of those authors. Jane at Beyond Eden Rock hosted a celebration of Margery’s work on her birthday (25th January) last year but I wasn’t able to take part, so I was pleased to see that she was doing it again this year. Not knowing much about any of her books, I picked her 1937 novel The Nutmeg Tree, which I hoped would be a good place to start.

And it was a good place to start! I found it a light, entertaining and witty story with a main character I loved. Her name is Julia (“by marriage Mrs. Packett, by courtesy Mrs. Macdermot”) and as the novel opens, she is in the bath singing the Marseillaise while men from the Bayswater Hire Furniture Company are removing her furniture. The reason for this is that she needs money for a journey to France to visit her daughter, Susan. Susan was the product of Julia’s brief marriage to a soldier who was killed in action, and being young and keen to pursue a career as an actress, Julia had left her daughter to be raised by her in-laws. Now, after nearly twenty years, Susan has sent a letter to her mother, begging her to come to visit the family in France. She wants to get married, she says, “and Grandmother objects”.

Reunited with her daughter after such a long absence, Julia finds that Susan is very different from herself: sensible, reliable and with strong principles. However, when she meets Bryan, the man Susan intends to marry, Julia immediately knows he is one of “her sort”. She is sure he won’t make Susan happy, so she has a decision to make. Should she support the marriage or oppose it? To make things worse, Bryan also recognises Julia as a kindred spirit. Will he expose her true character to her in-laws, to whom she has been trying to pass herself off as a respectable lady?

I wasn’t sure at first whether Julia would be a character I was going to like, but I did warm to her very quickly and enjoyed reading about her exploits as she stumbled from one disaster to another. She has such a mixture of qualities, some good and some bad: she can be irresponsible and often acts without thinking, but she’s also warm, friendly and fun-loving. She may have made mistakes in the past (and continues to make them in the present) but her heart is in the right place and she tries so hard to be ‘good’ that it’s easy to forgive her. I ended up loving Julia, though I couldn’t help but wonder what readers in 1937 would have thought of her!

Julia is the star of the story, but some of the other characters are wonderful too, particularly Susan’s grandmother who is convinced that Julia is going to open a cake-shop (and even starts collecting recipes on her behalf), and Sir William, Susan’s guardian, who is also visiting the family and with whom Julia finds herself falling in love. I desperately wanted Julia and Sir William to get the happy ending they deserved, though I’m not going to tell you whether that happens or not, of course! I did think the ending seemed quite abrupt, which I found slightly disappointing at first, but on reflection it was probably the best way the story could have ended.

I’m so pleased that my first experience of Margery Sharp’s work has been a good one and I’m sure I’ll be reading more of her books in the future.