Every time I pick up one of Margery Sharp’s books I find both things that are wonderfully familiar and things that make each book feel quite distinctive.
This particular book, that I plucked from the middle of her backlist, sets out the story of one remarkable woman and one London Street. It makes a wonderful entertainment, and, along the way, it says much about how English society changed between the reign of Queen Victoria and the Second World War.
“There had always been this quality about Britannia Mews, that to step into it from Albion Alley was like stepping into a self-contained and separate small world. No one who passed under the archway ever had any doubt as to what sort of place he was entering — in 1865, model stables; in 1880, a slum; in 1900, a respectable working class court. Thus, when an address in a mews came to imply a high degree of fashion, Britannia Mews was unmistakably smart.”
Adelaide was born late in the 19th century, the only daughter of a very well to do family, she was brought up in a fashionable row of London townhouses called Albion Place, and she grew into an inquisitive and independent thinking young woman.
Her family’s carriage and horses were housed nearby in Britannia Mews. There was a row of stable for the horses on one side of an alley, there was a row of coach-houses on the other, and over the coach-houses there was living accommodation for the coachmen and their families. The residents were sensible working class people, who worked hard and took a pride in their homes, but they were worlds apart from the grand residents of Albion Place.
Adelaide loved her life, her home, and her extended family; but she came to realise that she didn’t want the conventional life that her mother was mapping out for her. Maybe that was why, when she found herself alone with her drawing master and he flirted with her quite outrageously, she saw a grand romance and began to plan to elope.
They were married before she learned that Henry Lambert wasn’t the man she thought he was; that he was better at talking about art than creating it; that he flirted with all of his students; that he was dissolute, penniless and saw nothing wrong with living in squalid rented rooms at Britannia Mews.
The Mews had deteriorated into a slum as fewer of the residents of Albion Place thought it necessary to keep their own coach and horses.
“Adelaide was very little of a fool: she had gone into the Mews as thought with her eyes open, prepared for the worst; she would have laughed as much as Henry at the idea of calling or being called on; but she had expected to be able to ignore her surroundings. They were to live in a little world of their own, in a bubble of love and hope, whose elastic, iridescent walls no squalor could penetrate. Within a week she discovered that while she could see and hear, such isolation was impossible.”
Many young women in that position would have allowed their family to rescue them from their dreadful situation, would have wept because they had made such a terrible mistake, but not Adelaide. She picked herself up; she tidied and polished and cleaned; and she did her level best to set her husband on the right track.
That was one battle she couldn’t win, but fighting it changed her life, and she began to change her life. She lost her husband but she found a new love and she found herself at the centre of a rich community of characters at Britannia Mews.
That came about in an extraordinary way. Henry Lambert left behind a valuable legacy: a basket full of exquisite, hand-crafted marionettes that had been his greatest work, that had been his pride and joy. Adelaide hated them, but her new love saw wonderful possibilities.
‘To step under the archway, in 1922, was like stepping into a toy village—a very expensive toy from Hamley’s or Harrods: with a touch of the Russian Ballet about it, as though at any moment a door might fly open upon Petroushka or the Doll, for the colours of the doors, like the colours of the window-curtains, were unusually bright and varied; green, yellow, orange. Outside them stood tubs of begonias, or little clipped bushes. The five dwarf houses facing west were two-storey, with large downstairs rooms converted from old coach-houses; opposite four stables had been thrown into one to make the Puppet Theatre. The Theatre thus dominated the scene, but with a certain sobriety; its paintwork was a dark olive, the sign above the entrance a straightforward piece of lettering…People often said that the theatre made the Mews.’
Adelaide loved it but she missed her old life. She would have loved to live in her parents’ new country house, but she knew that to go home she would have to give up her independence and admit that she had taken the wrong path in life, and she could not bring herself to do that. But she couldn’t quite let go of her family, they couldn’t quite let go of her, and certain members of her family were drawn to the wonderful puppet theatre at Britannia Mews.
The story follows Adelaide, her family, her neighbours and her puppet theatre thorough the Second World War, until she is a very old lady and a younger generation is making new plans for the people and the puppets of Britannia Mews.
That story was compelling, it loses focus a little when the story moves to the next generation, but it picks up again in the war years and for a beautifully pitched final act.
This is a quieter, more serious book than many of Margery Sharp’s, but there are flashes of her wonderful wit, and many moments that have lovely, emotional insight. She acknowledges some people have good reason to not like Adelaide, but I am not one of them. I loved her and I loved her story.
It works because the puppet theatre was a wonderful idea and its realisation was pitch perfect.
It works because it is populated by a wonderful array of characters, who take the story in some interesting and unexpected directions; and it is so cleverly crafted that it reads like a fascinating true story – a tale of people that lived and breathed, a chapter of London’s history – that had been plucked from obscurity to delight a new generation of readers.
I am so glad that I chose this book to read to mark Margery Sharp Day.