In 1900, Charles Lillywhite left his family’s ancestral home in Somerset to settle in France. He didn’t return until 1946, when he took up lodgings in North London with his daughter, Amelie, and his orphaned granddaughter, Lise.
Lise Lillywhite had been brought up in the best traditions of French and English society, she was watched over by her fiercely protective Tante Amelie, and her family’s dearest wish was that she would take her place in high society as the wife of a great and good man.
It was quite possible – Lise was beautiful, demure, poised and accomplished.
Her days were spent:
“In domestic duties, in the study of Italian, in selected French and English reading: in listening to classical music on the wireless: in visits to museums and picture galleries, always accompanied by her aunt: and in fine needlework.”
The trouble was, she had been brought up for a world that didn’t exist anymore; a world that had been irrevocably changed by two wars.
Her grandfather hoped that his family would help to launch Lise, but the ancestral home that he had left nearly half a century earlier had changed too. The fortunes of the Lillywhite family had faded and the ancestral home had been turned into a pig and poultry farm.
And so Margery Sharp asked one of her favourite questions, about a young woman slightly out of step with the world:
“What’s to become of her?”
The answering of that question makes a lovely romantic comedy.
The Somerset Lillywhites – Luke who ran the farm, his lovely wife, Kate, and his unmarried sister, Susanna – are much too busy getting on with things to be interested in relations they had never met; but Luke’s younger brother, Martin, is a rather dull bachelor who lives and works in London, and he is charmed by young Lise.
The ever vigilant Tante Amelie spots that, and she is quick to take advantage. She secures an invitation to Somerset, where she hopes that Lise will charm young Lord Mull. She makes use of his London contacts and positions Lise to catch the eye of his friend Stan – a Polish refugee who is more formally known as Count Stanislav.
It was unfortunate that Lord Mull was a rather vacant young man who wanted only to escape to a Scottish Island.
It was even more unfortunate that Stan was a racketeer who would face criminal charges if he tried to go home to his castle in Poland.
Margery Sharp drew all of these characters – and others – so very well. She dropped little details of what they said, what they did, what they looked like, so cleverly that I felt I knew them all wonderfully well.
She spins a story around them just as cleverly.
It’s a wonderfully light and bright social comedy, with just enough weight and reality to stop it floating away.
It paints a wonderful picture of a time when the war is over and done with, but nobody quite knows what the future will hold.
There are themes and details here that are familiar from reading Margery Sharp’s other books, but this book has more than enough that is different to make it distinctive.
At first it seems that Lise Lillywhite is quiet and passive; her voice is rarely heard and she follows the course set out for her.
In time though it becomes clear that Lise is a very clever girl, and when she was being education and acquiring all of those wonderful accomplishments she was learning the most important things of all. She was learning to think for herself, and she was learning what she really wanted from life and how she might get it.
She was all the things she had been brought up to be, but she was also had the one essential attribute of a Margery Sharp heroine.
Lise Lillywhite would chart her own course through life!
I was delighted when I read:
“It is time to enter Lise Lillywhite’s mind. So far its workings, at any rate in result, have easily been reflected in the minds of others: now what Lise thought about was strictly her own business. She was in fact engaged upon a most important and difficult enterprise….”
I loved the way that Lise twisted her own story, and brought it to the most wonderful ending.
The more I thought about it the more I liked it; and it was exactly the right conclusion for Lise, for her times, and for the future.