A Book for Margery Sharp’s Birthday: Harlequin House (1939)

I think it is fair to say that this book is not Margery Sharp at the very top of her game, but it does have its own distinctive charms.

It opens in Dortmouth Bay, a seaside resort town with a rather unlikely hero. Mr Partridge is an elderly widower, who has abandoned his duties to stroll along the seafront, hoping to find something interesting happening.

‘The walk along their top was bounded on one side by a row of equally white palings, on the other by a stretch of perfectly-kept lawn adorned with moon- or star-shaped flower-beds. The beds made patterns on the lawn, the flowers made patterns in the beds, geometry and horticulture clasped hands. Upon all these things the sun, as Mr. Partridge sallied forth on the second afternoon in July, shone brightly down. (It had to: Dormouth Bay boasted a higher average of sunshine than any other town on the south coast.) The sea lapped gently in a neat blue crescent. A passing schoolchild stopped to pick up a paper bag and deposit it in a box marked LITTER. Every object in sight conformed unhesitatingly to either natural or municipal orders. Only Mr. Partridge was lawless.

His very presence on those lawns, at that hour, was a scandal. Already three infuriated subscribers had clamoured in vain at the door of his twopenny Library in Cliff Street; already two widows and a maid were facing the prospect of a lonely evening unsolaced by literature. One of them, who had just discovered the works of Miss E. M. Dell, and who had hastened back for more, rattled the knob with such violence that the BACK SHORTLY notice fell to the ground. This would have annoyed Mr. Partridge had he known, for he considered the phrase “Back shortly” to be the commercial equivalent of the social “Not at home” – something to be accepted without question, and with a good grace. In this, as in so much else, he was of course wrong. It was part of his lawlessness.

He did not look lawless. In height he was five foot four, in shape oval. His attire was inconspicuous – pepper-and-salt trousers, black alpaca jacket, panama hat – except about the feet. Mr. Partridge wore brown-and-white shoes, the white brilliantly pure, the brown chocolate-dark, and scarlet socks; and these added a peculiar touch of frivolity to his whole appearance. They were the single outward sign that the scenery of Dormouth Bay had for once fallen down on its job.

Mr. Partridge strolled across the grass and approached one of the star-shaped parterres. From its margin sprouted three notice boards. Two were municipal, bearing the injunctions “Please do not pick,” “Please keep off the beds”; on the third, donated by the Dormouth Bay Rose-Growers Association, it said, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene II, l. 43. D. B. R.-G. A.” Mr. Partridge read all three, took out his penknife, and stepped between the bushes to cut a button-hole ….’

I was to grow very fond of this Mr. Partridge, and I miss him and wonder what he might be doing now that the story is over.

His progress led him to an elderly maiden lady, and she introduces him her niece, the lovely Lisbeth Campion, who she has brought to the seaside to keep her safe from the temptations and dangers of London while her new fiancé, a military man, is carrying out a terribly important secret assignment in the Middle East.

He was very taken with Lisbeth, who was beautiful and charming, and who dealt  with any number of hopeful young men who fell at her feet kindly and firmly.

Later that day, Mr. Partridge sees Lisbeth driving off with one of her admirers.

‘Mr. Partridge’s first thought was purely instinctive. Because he acted on it, it was to have far-reaching effect, it was to turn the course of several lives; but it was based neither on reason nor even on common sense.

“Can’t have that,” thought Mr. Partridge.

For all he knew Miss Campion and Mr. Lambert were simply going for a run along the cliff. If he had stopped to consider, some such innocent explanation would at once have presented itself. But he did not stop. The car had almost drawn clear. Its rumble, open to accommodate an up-ended suitcase, was already all of it that Mr. Partridge could see. He had no time to consider, he had time only to jump forward and grip and scramble over the smooth side. He had certainly no time to settle himself. The car, leaping from first to second gear, did all the settling for him.

It wasn’t going along the cliff. It was going to London …’

In London – in Trafalgar Square, to be exact – Mr Partridge discovered that there was much more to Lisbeth than met the eye. She had a loyal heart, a quiet determination, and a wonderful ability to mislead and misdirect people without actually telling lies.

She had come to London to meet her younger brother Ronny, who was as charming and attractive as his sister,  and who she had been told by her aunts to forget. He was just out of prison after getting caught up in a cocaine-trafficking scandal, and his sister had decided to get him back on his feet again so that she could introduce him to her fiancé on his return.

The trio set up house together at Harlequin House.

Mr Partridge finds a job that is much more to his liking than that of small-town librarian, and Lisbeth finds a  job that suits her just as well.

‘Under Victoria the Good, even under Edward the Peacemaker, it would have been unthinkable; for in those days there was still an adequate supply of active single women ready to run about and perform extra tasks for the more fortunate married. (Miss Pickering, taking charge of her sister’s two children, and being dispatched with Lisabeth to Dormouth Bay, was a good example.) But since then times had changed: the ranks of these useful creatures had been thinned: some had entered the professions, some preferred to work for (and be paid by) strangers, some had simply not been born. Wanted Women stepped into the breach. It would supply, on the shortest notice, a competent gentlewoman to supervise spring-cleaning, take children to school, shew country-cousins the town, meet trains, exercise dogs. The shades of a thousand Victorian aunts must have been constantly wringing their hands at this intrusion of hired help into the family circle; but Wanted Women was prosperous and busy.’

Isn’t that wonderful?

The pair work together  to find a useful occupation for Ronny, and to get him on a legal and independent footing, but it isn’t easy because Ronny is indolent and skilled at sliding through life on charm. Even the two of them – even the admirers that Lisbeth continues to attract – are susceptible.

There are many twists and turns before a lovely finale, when Lisbeth’s fiance comes home rather sooner than he was expected.

This book doesn’t have the sparkling wit of many of the authors’ better-known works, and it has less to say and less plot than those books, but it held me from start to finish. I loved and cared about the characters, I was very taken with its mixture of light and dark, and there are lovely Margery-isms scattered through the pages.

Turns of phrase, details of character, wry observations, little plot details ….

This is Margery Sharp in a minor key.

Not the book to pick up if you haven’t read her before, but definitely a book to look out for if you like her style.

My Cousin Justin – or, Turn Ever Northward – by Margaret Barrington (1939)

This is the Irish Virago Modern Classic that wasn’t that I wrote about a few days ago.

I had been reading ‘The House on Clewe Street’ by Mary Lavin, and I noticed that there was a list of books by other Irish authors. I saw many familiar names and titles, but  I also saw an unfamiliar title and the name of an author that I thought – no, I knew – that Virago hadn’t published.

‘My Cousin Justin’ by Margaret Barrington.

I couldn’t find out much at all about the author or the book, but I saw reasonable priced copies, and so I decided to take a chance.

When my book arrived, when I started to read, I found that  had bought a historical novel set during turbulent years in the early years of the twentieth century.

The Thorauld family made its fortune on spinning mills and built a large, grand, stone house on the north-west coast of Ireland.

“North the land lies in great tongues out into the sea, protected by walls of black basalt, heave, rounded, smooth as a belly. When these bens do not present an even front to the ocean, the sea pours in over rocks and sand-bars, forming long, sandy bays which lie golden and blue under the summer sun, bleak and wind-swept in the winter storms.

At the foot of one of these little bays, sheltered by green hills lay the little village of Glasthule. Beyond the hills stretched the great moors rising gradually to the heights of the Slieve Dhu range. It lay cosy and snug, like an egg in the nest, forty houses or so, squat whitewashed buldings, golden-thatched, the roofs fasten with ropes and weighed down with stones. They surrounded a triangular green on which geese of unknown age and ownership grazed.

At the south corner of the green, near the church, there stood, apart from the other houses, a grey stone building. It was built in the French stly, surrounding a cobbled courtyard, and showed a bare front and shuttered windows to the world ….”

It was here, “forgotten and it seemed abandoned” by parents who lived abroad, that cousins Loulie Delahaie and Justin Thorauld grew up. They were educated at home by their grandfather, in a household that was managed by his unmarried daughter. They were set apart from the village children, because they were gentry and because they were different; and so they grew wild and they grew close.

61qHoaW1cOL__SL500_SX373_BO1,204,203,200_Loulie tells the story, and her account of these childhood years is rich and it is very well told. She catches the atmosphere of the old house, the dynamics of the small family group, the wild bleak landscape, and so many adventures that the cousins share.

The story loses a little when they are parted.

Justin is sent away to school, and then he is sent away to fight in the Great War. He marries in haste, believing that he will not return from the front, and his bride creates a sensation when she appear at his grandfather’s house.

Loulie’s parents return to Ireland and she is sent to live with them in a very different part of the country. Unhappy there, she escapes to college in Dublin. Then she finds work on a newspaper, she is drawn into the Republican movement, and that brings Egan – a boy from the village who had clashed with Justin – back into her life. He is a Republican too, a gunman on the run from the Black and Tans. She hides him, she falls in love with him, and they marry.

But Loulie finds that she and her husband are as mismatched as Justin and his bride; and that their shared cause was more important to him than it was to her.

The arc of their relationship is caught beautifully.

“I knew full well that Egan was slipping away from me, that I did not possess the wisdom to hold him, and if I did I could not use it. I knew that it would be better to leave him now than to watch him drift away, but I could not. There were times when I wished I could kill him to rid myself of this tyranny of love, yet I knew that not even death would set me free. It was a tyranny born as much in the mind as in the senses. I was caught up like a rabbit in a snare, and I did not know which way to turn.”

The human story is always at the forefront, but the bigger history is well explained.

I felt that I knew Loulie well, but I would have liked to have seen a little more of Justin’s and Owen’s lives and to understand a little better how they became the men they were.

But I understood enough to empathise with Loulie when she thought:

“As I watched my husband and my cousin, I realised for the first time that each was as badly mulilated as if he had lost an arm or leg. What they had lost was more because one could not see it. The scars of war lay on their souls, and old wounds ache.”

The story was a little contrived, but the lives and times felt real and true.

Margaret Barrington wrote well, and I am sorry that her first novel was also her last. She might have grown into a very interesting novelist, but she chose life as a journalist, an interpreter and a political activist.

I have no idea why his book didn’t become a Virago Modern Classic; but I’m glad that it at least made the ‘forthcoming’ list and that I found it.

The arc of Loulie’s story might not have entirely pleased a feminist publishing house, but I could say that same thing for quite a few books that Virago has published.

And yes, there are weaknesses – contrivances and a lack of depth in parts of the story – but I will remember this books for its strengths.

It gave me a greater understanding of Irish views of those conflicts, without ever lecturing; it wrapped those arguments up in an engaging human drama; and it described the setting of this drama, the place that Louilie and Justin would always think of as home, wonderfully well.