A Book for Margery Sharp Day: The Innocents (1972)

I have loved many of Margery Sharp’s books for many different reasons and, though I could argue with myself for a long time over the question, I think that if I had to pick just one favourite, one book to take with me to a desert island, it would be ‘The Innocents’.

I read it twice and each time I didn’t write about it, because I wasn’t sure that I could find the words to do it justice. And now I’ve read it for a third time, and I know that I must start to write, because this book is so special and I have to share it with others.

It’s a later work, it’s a quieter and simpler work than many of her others, and it speaks so profoundly.

the-innocents-margery-sharp-001The story is told by a middle-aged – almost elderly spinster living in a quiet country village. She had lived there all her life, first as the only child of the vicarage, and then as a lady of independent means. She was content with her life and with her position in village society; not at the forefront but always with a role to play.

Margery Sharp drew her character so well, and all of the characters who had parts to play in the story she has to tell. She had the ability to draw a real, living, breathing person with just a few lines, and in this case an account of a particular village fete. I can’t explain them nearly so well and so I shan’t even try. You need to read this book, and somebody needs to reissue it, please.

What she didn’t do was tell me her narrator’s name, and so I must continue to refer to her as ‘she’.

She recalled a visit from friends in the summer of 1939. A younger friend, who had been the belle of the village, had a whirlwind romance with an older Scottish businessman and they had settled in the USA. They had come home for business reasons, with their infant daughter in tow, and they had plans to tour continental Europe before they travelled back across the Atlantic. They realised that it had been a mistake to bring a young child without her nanny, and they wondered if could leave her, safe in the care of their older friend, while they holidayed.

She was pleased to say yes, she was quite taken with the child, and arrangements were quickly put into place.

She had already recognised what the parents had left unsaid: the child – Antoinette – Toni – had learning difficulties, or, in her own preferred terminology, she was ‘an innocent.’

This was when the story really struck a chord with me; because I had a brother who was ‘an innocent’. And that is why it means a great deal for me to say that everything rang true, that it was emotionally honest without ever being sentimental, and that ….

It made me think of many of the lovely people I met who were involved in my brother’s care, and it made me think of my mother and wish that I had discovered that book when my mother would have still been able to read it.

Now, back to the story.

Toni was blessed with a guardian who took such good care of her. She borrowed a basket of tabby kittens in case a distraction was needed when the parents left; it wasn’t, but Toni loved them anyway. She borrowed a cot from the WI and she took great care to understand what made her charge happy. What she loved was to spend her days wandering in the garden, to come into the house to eat when she was hungry, and to sleep securely in her cot at night. And so that was what happened.

A lovely understanding grew between the two. Toni had only a small number of words, and she used them to express herself rather than applying their conventional meaning; but of course true understanding doesn’t need words.

This arrangement lasted for much longer than had been originally planned. Because Britain declared war on Germany before that holiday was over, and an anxious employer arranged flights back to the USA, post haste. There was no time to collect Toni, and so she stayed just where she was until the war was over.

Her guardian learned, as more arrangements were put in place, that Toni’s father understood her condition and its implications,  that he was anxious to do whatever was best for her; and that her mother did not, that she thought that counselling and speech therapy would transform Toni into the model daughter to follow her into society.

Toni’s father died just before the end of the war, and her mother arrived to take her home. She didn’t understand her child; she could not – or maybe would not – Margery Sharp is far to clever a writer to let me decide which, but she made me care so much.

The way that the story played out then was heart-rending. The guardian persuaded the mother to stay a while, to help the child’s transition; she wished to do more but she knew she could not; The child was unhappy, she tried to cling to the secure world she knew and loved, but it was clear that at some level she knew that she could; and the mother’s presence, living in a world where she no longer really belonged, sent ripples through the village community.

The conclusion is dramatic, and it could be interpreted in more than one way. I can’t quite decide; but I can tell you that thinking about it brings a lump to my throat.

Margery Sharp was such a perceptive writer; she understood all of her characters so well, and she knew that there were no heroes and no villains, just fallible human beings, some wiser than others.

Even though I knew this story it held me, it had my heart rising and falling, from the first page to the last.

I can’t do it justice, but I can say that it really is a gem.

* * * * * * *

MargeryNow, please do tell me if you’ve read a book for Margery Sharp Day. I’ll post a round up once the day is done.

And please don’t worry if you haven’t – Margery Sharp posts are welcome on any day of the year!

41 thoughts on “A Book for Margery Sharp Day: The Innocents (1972)

  1. This is soooooo wonderful. I have to get my hands on this one…that I need to figure out. Thank You so much Jane for introducing to Margery Sharpe ….as you know I LOVED her Gipsy in the Parlor and I hope to find some of her books soon!

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  2. Gosh, this sounds wonderful Jane – and very tear-inducing. What OH and I call the Bambi factor must be quite high. Sharp is such a good writer, and thank you for creating this day when we can enjoy her work.

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  3. This sounds like a wonderful book and very different from The Nutmeg Tree, which is the one I’ve been reading for Margery Sharp Day. I definitely want to read more of her books, so I’ll put this one at the top of the list.

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  4. I agree with your comment about how Margery Sharp can bring real, living people before us with so few words. These sound like some characters that I really must meet, and I will seek them out as soon as possible. This year I read The Gipsy in the Parlour, which also has such marvellous characters of a very different nature.

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  5. Well done, Jane, for your wonderful championing. I’ve read Cluny Brown, and my review should be up by the time this comment is posted. And, more to the point I want to read more and have tracked down a modestly priced pre-loved Nutmeg Tree on Amazon USA, so that should arrive in a couple of weeks. I’ve been checking local second hand book and charity shops for more Margery, but the proverbial hen’s teeth are more in evidence than she is.

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  6. Happy Birthday Margery Sharp! I posted reviews for two of her books today: the third book in the Martha trilogy, Martha, Eric and George, and Britannia Mews and the latter was such a rich novel, a departure from her light style but such a memorable novel. Thank you for initiating this event Jane. I look forward to reading all the reviews of her lovely books! We will be celebrating today over on Instagram too.

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      1. And I would suggest that it also speaks volumes for your powers of persuasion and sense for fine writing that we trust your judgement enough to go searching or impossible to find copies of books by an author we may never have read or heard of outside enthusiastic blogger world!

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  7. This year I read Something Light. Exactly as the title describes. Something light and delightful. My second book by Margery Sharp and I want to continue to read her. But, “sagacious Jew.” Do I detect a touch of anti-Semitism or was it just the times?

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    1. Well, I hope that it was the times. I’ve seen the odd stereotype in Margery Sharp’s work, and I’ve seen her poke fun at her characters, but I’ve not found her to be judgemental or unkind. In the book I read she could so easily of made the mother a villain, but she didn’t and I always wished the best for all of the characters.

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  8. This sounds absolutely wonderful yet another Margery Sharp book I really want to read.

    Someone really does need to re-issue her books.

    I’m currently bubbling over with Mary Hocking excitement (blog post soon) because her books will start to available again soon. If only Virago or someone would do the same for Margery Sharp how wonderful that would be.

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  9. After reading your review, I found a copy of this on-line. It sounds lovely. I was glad to see several copies – maybe her later books are more widely available?

    Thank you again for inviting us all to this wonderful party!

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  10. This sounds an amazing and such a perceptive read (but are the kittens OK? You know what I’m like). I so enjoyed my reading of the “Gentlewoman” and can’t wait to hunt down more. Have you alerted Bello Books to all these enthusiastic posts, as they seem quite likely candidates for the reprinting thing?

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  11. I am always rather cautious with writers like Margery Sharp. I don’t know where to put them – certainly not in the same slot as Virginia Woolf, Henry James, Marcel Proust, and other great writers of the 20th century. For me, they are refreshing minor writers who lack depth but who are perfect for comfort reading, and I need the intellectual challenge of the former and the comfort brought by the latter.
    Nevertheless, what you write about this book makes me want to read it as soon as I can.
    My two wards suffer from Down Syndrome and they are “innocents”. So, your review is touching very important in my heart and my life. Thank you to have brought forth the novel. Your review is tender and delicate.
    I have a Facebook page open to bloggers and I shall put this link there – with others of your blog that is among those I look up first thing in the morning. 🙂

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