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