A Book for Margery Sharp Day: Britannia Mews (1946)

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.

30 thoughts on “A Book for Margery Sharp Day: Britannia Mews (1946)

  1. Having read a few Sharps and always on the hunt for more, I happened to pick up five of her books a few days ago, including this one, so I shall make it the first I read.


  2. I didn’t get on with this book at all, the first time I tried to read it – which surprised me, because I remember Anbolyn loved it, and now I’ve read your review & Helen’s. I will try it again one day.


    1. There’s a difference in tone from the other Margery Sharp books of the era, and it caught me by surprise but I soon found myself caught up in in. It might be one of those books that needed the right moment, so I hope you’ll try it again and enjoy it more.


  3. She never writes the same novel twice, does she? Lovely review, thank you. I myself am mid-way through The Foolish Gentlewoman and am hoping to write a little something about it tonight. Happy Birthday, Margery!


      1. I’ve just now finished it, and yes, I savoured every word! I might not write about it tonight after all – bed is calling and I may heed that call. (With another book in hand, of course.) And tomorrow is looking very full – a town trip and then we are going to a theatrical production in the evening – so I am aiming for Saturday to post. But at least I *read* a Margery Sharp on the Birthday Day!

        And while I am in commenting mode, I want to say thank you for your book recommendations; I hugely enjoy your reviews.


  4. I really enjoyed Britannia Mews when I read it a few years ago. I could see why it was made into a film, it had something of the quality of those old films about it.


    1. I remember reading your thought about this book, and it pushed up it right up my list of reading priorities. I’ve read mixed reports about the film but I’d still love to see it, and I can’t help thinking that a remake would make wonderful Sunday night television.


  5. Enjoyed your review very much – I loved Britannia Mews when I read it. But I have joined in with a bit about The Innocents, which is a little garbled because I’m feeling a little below par!


  6. I reviewed The Foolish Gentlewoman today. So happy to be introduced to this author. In this particular book, I loved her characters and the journey she put them through. And like Simon, I wanted peace and quiet, too, in the end 🙂


  7. I was so tempted to try my first Margery Sharp this year, Jane, inspired by your wonderful idea year of celebrations. And perhaps I still will. I certainly hope to read some of the authors you have lined up. As I was reading your review, I kept thinking that I’ve seen a film of this story – and the comments thread confirmed that there is indeed a film. It’s unusual for me to remember the story from a film quite so well; it obviously made an impression. Perhaps when I do get to choose a Margery Sharp, I’ll begin with this one. It sounds wonderful.


      1. One of the more unexpected joys of moving to Cornwall has been the wonderful library service. I’ve ordered a number of Cornish books from the reserve stock. That’s a good place for me to start, Jane.

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  8. I am so sorry I missed this event, but I bought Britannia Mews on your recommendation, some time back but never got around to reading it. But your and Helen’s review now makes me want to start reading it immediately which is what I am off to do!


  9. I really liked this one last year. I was impressed how Sharp managed to portray the societal change during those years, in rather a short novel. I didn’t read anything new for this year’s celebration (I’m having a book acquisition ban) but I look forward to more delightful reads in future!


  10. I was so inspired by your enthusiasm for Margery Sharp, I placed a book on hold at the library. Alas, it’s not “Britannia Mews”, but I was able to secure “The Foolish Gentlewoman”. I’ll let you know how it goes. 🙂


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