This is the desperately rare, long out of print, first Margery Sharp novel. It is the book that I described as ‘the book that I had thought would always be just out of reach’and I know that I was wonderfully lucky to spot and secure a copy that was not quite so expensive as some of the copies you might see online.
I have to tell you that it is a joy to read, and that it so very deserving of being sent back out into the world again, to delight another generation of readers.
It tells the story of Ann Laventie, the youngest of three children of a family of aesthetes and snobs. Ann is a little different from the rest of her family, because though she loves them dearly and shares their love of art and beauty she is not a snob, and she has a strong practical streak and a lively curiosity about the world.
That is beautifully illuminated by the much-loved family tradition of floral pies. It began when six years-old Elizabeth Laventie, Ann’s elder sister, wept over the cherry pie that she had requested for her birthday.
It transpired that she had expected the pie to contain not cherries, but heliotropes. However the confusion has arisen in her infant mine it was now firmly rooted. The fact that flowers were inedible did not concern her; Elizabeth was determined that her birthday pie should contain them or nothing, It was at such a moment that Mr. Laventie’s quality showed itself. With instant resource he swiftly removed the crust, disposed of the cherries in a convenient parterre, and crammed the dish with a mass of sweet-smelling heliotrope. His daughter was bidden try again, and this time true delight lay under the pie crust.
Ann saw the beauty of her own birthday pie, a rhododendron pie, but she knew that something was missing.
Every year she had hoped against hope, and every year the lovely inedible petals have cheated her. For she has a fundamental, instinctive conviction that they are out of place, Flowers are beautiful in gardens … and in houses, of course … but in a pie you want fruit. Apples. Hot and fragrant and faintly pink, with lots of juice … and cloves. She wished there had been apples in her pie.
When Elizabeth grew up she became a writer, when brother Dick grew up he became a sculptor, but Ann couldn’t identify a particular talent of her own or a career that she could pursue. She did have a talent for friendship, she was as at home with the down-to-earth Gayford family who lived next door as she was with her siblings’ bohemian circle of friends, and she had a suitor who she knew her parents would love as a son-in-law and another one she knew they would not understand at all.
Margery Sharp tells Ann’s story with warmth, wit and wisdom; and that story is both of its age and written to resonante long into the future. In time, Ann finds that she has a good idea what she wants, but she knows that she cannot please all of the people she loves, and that maybe there is no path through life open to her that will give her everything she would like.
‘What I want,’ continued Ann recklessly, ‘is a nice wedding in the village church, with a white frock and orange blossom and lots of flowers and ‘The Voice that Breathed’ and two bridesmaids in cyclamen pink and rose petals afterwards and a reception in the drawing-room with a string quartet playing selections from Gilbert and Sullivan. In June. And a honeymoon in the Italian Lakes.
‘Where does Gilbert come in?’
‘He doesn’t. And I want to live in a house, not a flat, even if it’s only a little one in a suburb where there’s no-one amusing, with a back garden to dig in. And have bird pattern chintzes in the drawing-room and cold supper on Sundays because the maid’s out. I shall probably,’ finished Ann defiantly, ‘take a stall at the church bazaar.’
I just had to love Ann, I felt such empathy and understanding, and I would have loved to be her friend. Not that she lacked for friends, and her story had a wonderful and diverse cast, with every character perfectly realised. They lived and breathed; I believe that they had many more tales that could have been told and perspectives that could have been used; and I could easily believe that some of the bohemian Londoners were around for the London scenes in The Flowering Thorn and that the last of the Four Gardens might be nearby.
It was lovely to spot themes and ideas that would echo through Margery Sharp’s novels. Many of those novels are more accomplished than this one, but ‘Rhododendron Pie’ is a particularly accomplished first novel. There could have been a little more subtlety, a little more sophistication in the way that Ann determined her future ; but this book is beautifully constructed, the quality of the writing and the use of language is sublime, and that carries the day.
What I think really makes this story sing, what makes it distinctive in the company of Margery Sharp’s other books, is the depth of feeling in its telling; and I have to think that it must have been particularly close to her heart.
The final scene is a master-stroke; and the book as a whole is a delight.