The Sun in Scorpio by Margery Sharp (1965)

In 1965, when she was sixty years old, Margery Sharp published a lovely novel that drew on her memories of a spell of her childhood that she spent in Malta.

It was clear from her opening words that they were warm and happy memories.

Everything sparkled.

Below the low stone wall, beyond the rocks, sun-pennies danced on the blue Mediterranean; so dazzlingly, they could be looked at only between dropped lashes. (In 1913, the pre-sunglass era, light was permitted to assault the naked eye.) opposite, across the road called Victoria Avenue, great bolts of sunlight struck at the white stone buildings and ricocheted off the windows. A puff of dust was a puff of gold-dust, an orange spilled from a basket like a windfall from the Hesperides.

Everything sparkled, from the sun-pennies on the sea to the buckles on a cab horse’s harness, from the buttons on a child’s reefer jacket to the heavy gold pendant at a girl’s ear.

Everything sparkled or shone, even the stiff black hoods of the old women; serge or alpaca, worn smooth by use, under that sun a glossy blackbird-plumage.

Mr Pennon  had a small private income, and that allowed him to move his family to the Next-Door-Island – next door to Malta. They were all happy there, but their feelings about the place would differ. Mr and Mrs Pennon, Muriel – their eldest child – and Alan – their youngest child – would always be expats. Only Cathy – their middle child – became a real islander. She was a true child of the sun and she thrived in the heat.

This is Cathy’s story.

It was lovely to watch as she enthusiastically joined the parade that her siblings ducked into a shop to avoid, and to see that she was was so completely at home that the approached and conversed with her island’s governor.

‘Aren’t you glad,’ began Cathy, ‘we’ve an Empire the sun never sets on?’

To her surprise, the Governor appeared to meditate. For a moment she wondered if age might have suddenly have turned him deaf. He was actually in his early forties, but to Cathy old as the hills.

‘Very,’ said the Governor at last. We Anglo-Saxons need the sun more than most, to warm and civilize us.’

‘I thought it was us who civilized the others,’ said Cathy, surprised again.

‘There are two ways of looking at everything, said the governor, ‘Suppose an Indian told you it was they who taught us to wash?’

‘I shouldn’t believe it,’ said Cathy at once.

‘You would be wrong,’ said the Governor, ‘and even the Army admits they taught us to play polo. Hows that for a civilizing influence?’

Cathy, struggling to follow him, scented irony …

When war seemed likely, Mr Pennon decided they that it was time to take his family ‘home.’ None of the children remembered England,  but they had read about it in books by Kate Greenaway. Stories about warmth, community, fields, maypole dancing ….

‘Spring’ by Kate Greenaway

The reality that faced them, in a dull London suburb, was rather different..

Everything dripped.

The skies dripped, the lampposts dripped, the pillar boxes dripped and the handles of the errand-boys’ bicycles. The ivy on the front of the house dripped, in the garden behind the the roof of the summer-house dripped and the derelict raspberry-canes surrounding it. Everything dripped, except when it froze.

Everything was cold. The streets were cold, it was cold on the trams and cold in the shops. A puff of breath showed on the cold air like a puff of smoke without a fire, the icy bite from the pavement penetrated leather sole and woollen stocking ….

Muriel and Alan adapted to a new way of life, but Cathy withered without the warmth of the sun and the air of her island.

The story follows Cathy, and it keeps an eye on Muriel and Alan, as they grow up, establish themselves as adults, and go their separate ways. Muriel chooses a husband from a band of suitors and is happy as a wife and mother. Alan enjoys the bachelor life and appreciated the things that a successful career in banking gives him. Cathy drifts through life, until her sister steers her into a position as a governess and lady’s companion at a country house. It is a nice niche, she can move between the family upstairs and the staff downstairs as she likes, she achieves much while doing very little, but her heart remains with the Next-Door-Island.

The story spans more than three decades – the years of two wars and the years between – and the events of those years and the great changes that they brought are reflected. It is written with warmth and wit; it is populated by a wonderfully diverse band of characters, drawn with the understanding that comes from careful observation and thought; and that cast is deployed very effectively in a plot that appears simple and natural but is actually very cleverly constructed.

Cathy sits nicely in the pantheon of Margery Sharp heroines. She has the insouciance of Cluny Brown, the inscrutability of Lise Lillywhite, and the clear ambition of Martha Hogg – but not the means of achieving that ambition. She tries, when Muriel has a suitor who might be able to help, when she runs into other returnees from her island, but none of them share her ambition and all of them have other interests and concerns.

Her story ends at the end of WWII, with an unexpected twist and a wonderful possibility opening up.

I’d love to know what happens next, but it’s nice to be left with something to think about, and that ending – and this book – was pretty much perfect.

Airs Above the Ground by Mary Stewart (1965)

When I saw that the 100th anniversary of Mary Stewart’s birth fell last weekend I knew that it was time for me to read another of her books.

I had always liked the look of  ‘Airs Above the Ground’, and so off the shelf it came.

The story is set up beautifully.

Vanessa March is shocked to see her husband on a newsreel item about a circus fire in Austria, because she had believed him to be in Sweden on business. An old family friend saw the same newsreel and called Vanessa, asking her to escort her young relation – Timothy Lacey – to Vienna to visit his father. Vanessa hadn’t quite decided what to do, she was a little annoyed by the lady’s assumptions, but she seized the opportunity; because she really did want to find her husband and understand what  was going on.

airsabovetheground

In Austria, seventeen year-old Tim admitted that his father wasn’t expecting him – that was only a story for his grandmother – and that what he really wanted was to see the country and to visit The Spanish Riding School in Vienna. And so he and Vanessa formed a plan to find the circus, to reunite Vanessa and her husband, and then to have a wonderful holiday.

Things don’t go entirely to plan.

They are caught in a web of intrigue that has been spun around the circus. And – in particular – around an old piebald horse.

This is a classic Mary Stewart story of romance and suspense; with all of the elements you might expect and with enough to make it feel a little different to her other books.

Vanessa was bright, capable and resourceful young woman, and I found it very easy to like her and to understand her feelings and her actions. I was sorry though that she had put her career as a vet (which was integral to the story) to one side to be a housewife, and that when her husband appeared she was rather too ready to put all of her trust in him. It was a nice change, having a married leading lady, and I liked her relationship with her husband, but I didn’t see enough of him to understand why she had married him.

Her relationship with Tim was much more interesting; an initial wariness grew into friendship, and they became a wonderful team. I suspected that they were only children who were discovering that it would be rather nice to have a sibling.

The settings were beautifully evoked and described: I loved visiting the countryside, the circus, the mountains, the villages and a wonderful gothic castle.

stewart-mary_airsabovetheground_hcThere were some wonderful moments. My favourites were the time in a meadow when Vanessa made a wonderful discovery about that old piebald house; and a dramatic chase around the battlements of the castle.

But I have to say that I don’t think this is Mary Stewart’s best book, and that this story didn’t hold me as it should have.

Some of that was down to me.

This might not have been the right book at the right time, and I might have enjoyed this book more when I was younger.

But some of it was down to the book.

Having a married heroine was a lovely variation on a theme, but it diminished the romance and the suspense, and there wasn’t enough in the rest of the story to make up for that.

The pacing was uneven, with the story slow to start and over-filled with action in the later stages; there was one sequence in particular where Vanessa and Tim did not belong. I can’t say more than that without revealing too much of the plot.

And, though the story of the old piebald house was very well done, there was much less of horses and of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna that I had expected.

None of these flaws were fatal though. I found much to enjoy, and I was always going to follow the story to the end.

Mary Stewart is still a favourite author; and I’m hoping that this was a wobble rather that a sign that I’ve outgrown her books.

Do you like her writing? Do you have favourites among her books?