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.

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.

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.

The Story of Finding the Book that I had Thought Would Always be Just Out of Reach

Do you have a book like that?

A book that you really want but that you think you will probably never be able to hold in your hand and read?

I did.

I discovered the author ten years or so ago, when one of her books was reissued as a Virago Modern Classics. I loved it, and I went looking for the two sequels. The library had one and I found an inexpensive paperback copy of the other.

I loved those two sequels too.

I couldn’t understand why only one book was in print.

The library had more of the author’s books in reserve stock, so I began to order them in, and it wasn’t very long at all before I had found an author to cherish.

I never could pick a single favourite of anything, but if I did have to pick a favourite author she would be on the shortlist.

The library didn’t have all of her books and, anyway, I wanted copies to keep.

I steadily tracked down most of her books, but I found that some of them were very difficult to come by.

The author was very successful, a few of her books were made into films, and so those were printed in large numbers, most of her subsequent books were too, and some of her earlier work was reissued.

Her first two books were never reissued.

I was lucky enough to find one of them a year or two ago, but that first book remained elusive. Copies did appear online occasionally, but they were so highly priced that I really couldn’t justify the cost.

Some of the authors books were reissued it digital form a while back. It was lovely to see them reappear, but all of the books that the publisher chose were already in my collection.

I continued to look for a copy of the book that I thought would always be just out of reach, but my hopes weren’t high.

Then a copy appeared, in the hands of a reputable American bookseller, at a much more reasonable price. It was far from cheap – cost what I might have spent on several brand new books – but I told myself that a chance like this might never come my way again.

I placed my order and I waited patiently for my book to fly across the Atlantic.

You may – if you have known me for any length of time – have a good idea of the name of the author and the name of the book.

The author is Margery Sharp, and the title of her very first novel was ‘Rhododendron Pie.’

The book begins like this

‘The Laventies’ garden was unusual in Sussex, being planted French-fashion with green-barked limes, eight rows of eight trees at a distance of six feet. The shady grass between them was dappled in due season with crocus, daffodil and wild hyacinth, but they had no successors. All the other flowers were in the lower garden, where Ann’s tenth birthday party was drawing to a rapturous close.

The young Gayfords were even then being led out of the great gate in the west wall, a gate almost as wide as the garden itself and surviving from the days before the stables had gone to make way for rhododendrons. It was of iron, man-wrought, with a beautiful design of fruit and foliage, and Mr Laventie used it as his back door.

With the departure of the guests a change came over the garden: the Laventie family settled back into itself with a breath of content. They had been exquisitely, lavishly hospitable, but when Dick pulled to the gate and leant back against it it was as though he barred our every everything that could mar the beauty of the hour.

“Now!” said Elizabeth.’

I may not read much more than that for a while, because I still can’t quite believe I have the book, because I want to savour the anticipation for a while, and because life isn’t leaving me too much reading time at the moment.

But I think, when things settle down a little, it is definitely time I read another one of Margery Sharp’s books …

A Book for the 1951 Club: Lise Lillywhite by Margery Sharp

In 1900, Charles Lillywhite left his family’s ancestral home in Somerset to settle in France. He didn’t return until 1946, when he took up lodgings in North London with his daughter, Amelie, and his orphaned granddaughter, Lise.

Lise Lillywhite had been brought up in the best traditions of French and English society, she was watched over by her fiercely protective Tante Amelie, and her family’s dearest wish was that she would take her place in high society as the wife of a great and good man.

It was quite possible – Lise was beautiful, demure, poised and accomplished.

Her days were spent:

“In domestic duties, in the study of Italian, in selected French and English reading: in listening to classical music on the wireless: in visits to museums and picture galleries, always accompanied by her aunt: and in fine needlework.”

The trouble was, she had been brought up for a world that didn’t exist anymore; a world that had been irrevocably changed by two wars.

Her grandfather hoped that his family would help to launch Lise, but the ancestral home that he had left nearly half a century earlier had changed too. The fortunes of the Lillywhite family had faded and the ancestral home had been turned into a pig and poultry farm.

And so Margery Sharp asked one of her favourite questions, about a young woman slightly out of step with the world:

“What’s to become of her?”

The answering of that question makes a lovely romantic comedy.

The Somerset Lillywhites – Luke who ran the farm, his lovely wife, Kate, and his unmarried sister, Susanna – are much too busy getting on with things to be interested in relations they had never met; but Luke’s younger brother, Martin, is a rather dull bachelor who lives and works in London, and he is charmed by young Lise.

The ever vigilant Tante Amelie spots that, and she is quick to take advantage. She secures an invitation to Somerset, where she hopes that Lise will charm young Lord Mull. She makes use of his London contacts and positions Lise to catch the eye of his friend Stan – a Polish refugee who is more formally known as Count Stanislav.

It was unfortunate that Lord Mull was a rather vacant young man who wanted only to escape to a Scottish Island.

It was even more unfortunate that Stan was a racketeer who would face criminal charges if he tried to go home to his castle in Poland.

Margery Sharp drew all of these characters – and others – so very well. She dropped little details of what they said, what they did, what they looked like, so cleverly that I felt I knew them all wonderfully well.

She spins a story around them just as cleverly.

It’s a wonderfully light and bright social comedy, with just enough weight and reality to stop it floating away.

It paints a wonderful picture of a time when the war is over and done with, but nobody quite knows what the future will hold.

There are themes and details here that are familiar from reading Margery Sharp’s other books, but this book has more than enough that is different to make it distinctive.

At first it seems that Lise Lillywhite is quiet and passive; her voice is rarely heard and she follows the course set out for her.

In time though it becomes clear that Lise is a very clever girl, and when she was being education and acquiring all of those wonderful accomplishments she was learning the most important things of all. She was learning to think for herself, and she was learning what she really wanted from life and how she might get it.

She was all the things she had been brought up to be, but she was also had the one essential attribute of a Margery Sharp heroine.

Lise Lillywhite would chart her own course through life!

I was delighted when I read:

“It is time to enter Lise Lillywhite’s mind. So far its workings, at any rate in result, have easily been reflected in the minds of others: now what Lise thought about was strictly her own business. She was in fact engaged upon a most important and difficult enterprise….”

I loved the way that Lise twisted her own story, and brought it to the most wonderful ending.

The more I thought about it the more I liked it; and it was exactly the right conclusion for Lise, for her times, and for the future.

A Thank You Letter After Margery Sharp Day

I want to say thank you to everyone who played a part in this celebration of the lovely legacy of books that Margery Sharp left to the world.

flowersThank you to everyone who found a book to read, and everyone who spread them the world.

I found some spring flowers for you all.

And for her, of course.

I’m delighted that ten titles have reissued as e-books since last year’s Margery Sharp Day; making her work much more accessible than it had been.

I hope that there will be more reissues – and paper books too – so that we can read many more of Margery Sharp’s wonderful words, and draw others into her world.

We covered a wonderful range of titles between us.

The Flowering Thorn (1933)

Liz said

“A charming, funny and rather moving novel. Socialite Lesley Frewen decides on a whim to adopt the orphaned Patrick, a somewhat stolid child, much to the surprise and horror of her relatives and somewhat vapid friends. This precipitates a move to the country, and all the travails that come with this”

Helen said

“I was surprised by the lack of romance in the novel.  Although Lesley does have one or two love interests, things tend to be one-sided and it’s not until the very end of the book that there’s a hint of an actual romance for her.  I found this quite refreshing as it meant the focus was on other things.”

The Stone of Chastity (1940)

I said

“I found it easy to believe in these people, the things they said and the things they did, and that the Stone of Chastity might be sitting somewhere in the very real village of Gillenham; even though I knew that it was the product of the author’s wonderful imagination and that her plot was exceedingly improbable!”

Lisa said

“There are many funny scenes in this book. My favorite came late in the story, as the Professor plans to cap his research with a public trial of the Stone. He forces the reluctant Nicholas to draw a poster inviting the local women to take part, which he posts (over Nicholas’s objections) on the church door.”

Cluny Brown (1944)

Madame Bibi Lophile said:

“Comic and affectionate, Cluny Brown would be easy to dismiss as lacking depth. But it is so superbly written, with such verve and understanding of human beings, that to do so would be mistake. Invite Cluny into your life, she’ll charm you, I promise…”

Rosemary said:

“Although her uncle had hoped learning how to clean and serve would sober her, Cluny, of course, brings her zest and curiosity with her – and changes the lives of everyone around her, including a few gentlemen who are not prepared for her influence – one in particular.  Of course, the ending is happily ever after – but with a surprising twist.”

Arpita said

“Margery Sharp’s Cluny is truly memorable. She’s slightly ‘off’ just like Sharp’s Martha of the ‘Martha trilogy ‘ and that makes her totally endearing to me. She doesn’t follow societal norms but does follow her instincts. And if that means that she will never know her place in life, then so be it.”

And I know that Juliana and Leaves and Pages have been reading Cluny’s story too.

Britannia Mews (1946)

Lory said:

“The pace of the novel never lets up, and the large jumps in time make it feel a bit breathless occasionally. Overall, though, Sharp makes it work, and packs a huge variety of incident and plot, and also of thought and passion and artistry, into a remarkably compact space — not unlike the Mews themselves. I enjoyed every page of this delightful book, probably my favorite Margery Sharp so far.”

 The Eye of Love (1957)

Audrey said:

“Being someone who’s addicted to series mysteries, I’m always so happy to find the Thirkells and Trollopes and other fictions that work this way, too, and normally I’d try to read them in order, but in this case I started in the middle, then went back, and then went forward.  It didn’t seem to matter: Martha was so well formed that meeting her as a fledgling artist, then a child, then a famous painter made perfect sense.”

Pam said:

“I really enjoyed this book. A quirky tale, concisely told with enough subplots to keep me interested …  There is humour in it. The writing is descriptive enough without being over bearing and the characters came to life for me.”

Madame Bibi Lophile said:

“I adored Martha. Stubborn, self-possessed, strong-willed and lacking any sentimentality, she was just wonderful. Sharp wrote two sequels about this unforthcoming heroine,  ‘Martha in Paris’ and ‘Martha, Eric and George’, which I will hunt down forthwith.”

And Poppy spent the afternoon with this book.

Martha, Eric and George (1963)

Mary said

“A charming book with wonderful characters. It opens with Eric coming home for lunch finding a carrycot with a baby in  …Ten years later Martha returns to Paris with an exhibition of her work. You will just have to read this lovely book to find out if all ends well.”

Audrey said:

“In reading these two books, I was reminded how skilled Margery Sharp is at drawing her characters. Sometimes, it’s because they resolutely remain themselves; other times, it’s because they reveal something surprising, and in Martha, at least, wonderfully, it’s a little of both.”

The Innocents (1972)

Ali said

“It is a much later Margery Sharp novel, first published in 1972 – it has a rather different feel to the two I have read before. The style is much simpler in many ways, and yet there was something about the writing style that jarred with me a little … However, the story itself is lovely, engrossing and readable, and quite moving. Margery Sharp tells a touchingly brave story, one I suspect was not often told even in the 1970s.”

Anna said:

“I loved the descriptions of the village, its physical appearance as well as its spirit, its people. The first part of the novel, which deals with getting to know the child and getting to learn how to meet its needs, is wonderful. (And can be used as a textbook.) Sharp writes well and has a great command over her story.”

The Rescuers (1977)

BuriedinPrint said

“Margery Sharp puts her female mice on centre stage. Madame Chairperson in the Prisoner’s Aid Society dares to speak out of turn, in order to have the case of a particular prisoner heard … In some ways, Miss Bianca is a mouse of the 1950s. She recognises that “there is nothing like housework for calming the nerves”. But in other ways, she is quite the revolutionary.”

Now I think that’s everyone, but if it isn’t let me know and I’ll put things right.

I’m looking forward to seeing who reads what next.

I’m still dreaming of finding a copy of ‘Rhododendron Pie’, that oh so elusive first novel.

And I’m really hoping that more of Margery Sharp’s books will be sent back out into the world soon ….

A Book for Margery Sharp Day: The Stone of Chastity (1940)

I have loved many of Margery Sharp’s books for many different reasons ; and the book I have chosen for Margery Sharp Day this year is the book I love for its wonderful mix of satire and silliness.

Professor Pounce, a scholar of literary antiquities held in the highest regard, has always dreamed of publishing a monograph that will dazzle his contemporaries. He thinks that he may have finally found his subject when he learns of the local legend of the ancient village of Gillenham. It is said that there was stepping stone in stream there that would ensure that virgin girls and faithful wives would never slip, while the unchaste would invariably trip into the water.

He formed a wonderfully scientific plan. He would have all of  the ladies of the village fill out a questionnaire to ascertain their understanding of the local legend and state of their chastity. And then there would be an event by the stream, with all of the ladies in turn stepping on the alleged Stone of Chastity, so that he could properly establish what its powers might or might not be.

33954186Then refreshments wouldl be served.

It doesn’t occur to Professor Pounce that anyone might be reluctant to take part, or that they might be offended by his proposal; because he really was that caught up in his academic bubble.

Life in the sleepy village of Gillenham will never be the same again. The vicar’s wife is outrages by the revival of paganism, and the vicar is inclined to agree. The Pye family at the farm cut off supplies to the manor house that the Professor had rented for the summer.  The ladies of the Women’s’ Institute marched out to confront the perpetrator of this outrage ….

The Professor ploughed on, sweetly oblivious.

He had brought his nephew, Nicholas, along to act as his secretary; and he had to deal with all of the practical issues while being horribly aware of what the villagers were likely to think of his uncle’s plan. He had to organise the questionnaires, recover the Stone itself from Mrs Thirkettle’s scullery floor, and publicise the grand testing of said Stone.

He also had to juggle three romantic interests: a statuesque beauty, a bookish blue-stocking, and a bright young thing.

That was fun, but as Nicholas was a rather unremarkable young man I’d rather have had a little less time with his love life and a little more time with the villagers and the main plot.

That’s my main reason for saying that this isn’t Margery Sharp’s best work.

But it is wonderfully entertaining.

Margery Sharp drew humour from her story beautifully, and she judged her material perfectly. She was as acute and as witty as she always was, but she was never judgemental or prurient.

I found it easy to believe in these people, the things they said and the things they did, and that the Stone of Chastity might be sitting somewhere in the very real village of Gillenham; even though I knew that it was the product of the author’s wonderful imagination and that her plot was exceedingly improbable!

I happily turned the pages, with some idea of where things were going but not much idea at all how they would all end up.

I was charmed by a wonderful cast of characters.

Carmen, an artists’ model, was a wonderful comic creation, a typical Sharp heroine who always followed her heart and her instincts. She caused quite a stir in the village.

Mrs Crowner, the vicar’s wife made me think of Trollope’s Mrs Proudie. She wasn’t quite as formidable, but the vicar clearly knew that it was best to nod and agree with her.

Mrs Pounce, the Professor’s widowed sister-in law, was a very nice lady, who always acted properly and wanted to enjoy her summer in the country.

I could pick out others, but maybe its time I just said that Margery Sharp created a wonderful ensemble.

I should also say that there were so many wonderful incidents, that the set pieces were so well done, and that the plotting really was quite clever.

The ending felt a little downbeat at first; but there was a nice, gentle twist that I loved, there was a really pleasing realisation for a particular character and it seemed that something had changed in village.

The more I thought about it, the more I liked it.

And I think I might say that about this book as a whole.

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Now, please do tell me if you’ve read a book for Margery Sharp Day. I’ll post a round up once the day is done.

And please don’t worry if you haven’t – Margery Sharp posts are welcome on any day of the year!

The Eye of Love by Margery Sharp (1957)

‘The Eye of Love’was the first of Margery Sharp’s books I read, back in the days when it was a Virago Modern Classic. The founder of the Library Thing Virago group – a lovely lady named Paola – mentioned that Margery Sharp was one of her favourite authors, I liked the sound of this book, and so I picked up a copy.

I loved it!

I loved the two sequels!

Margery Sharp became one of my favourite authors!

When a whole set of Margery Sharp’s out of print books – including this one and its  sequels – were sent back out into the world last year, by Open Road Media, I thought it might be time to revisit ‘The Eye of Love’.

It was!

I loved it all over again!

‘The Eye of Love’ is a quirky and charming fairy-tale romance like no other that I have ever read.

29372657It tells the story of a middle-aged couple: Miss Dolores Diver, a rather gawky middle-aged lady, who wears a comb in hair and shawl around her shoulders because believes she has the looks and the character of a Spanish Rose type; and Mr Harry Gibson, a rather stout gentleman who has inherited responsibility for his family business.

In the hands of some authors such characters would appear silly or foolish; but not in Margery Sharp’s hands. She writes about them with great wit, with great affection, and with understanding of their foibles and their perception of each other, looking through the eye of love.

She made me love them, and she made them utterly real.

A rather eccentrically dressed lady I see in town might be a Miss Diver; a quite unremarkable man I see dressed for business might be a Mr Gibson.

I love that!

I love that every single person I might pass in the street has their own life story to be told, and – I hope – somebody who sees them through the eye of love.

Harry & Dolores had happy years together, enjoying simple pleasures and precious hour that they spent together, but they were to be separated. Harry’s business was struggling, he had a chance to make that business – and his widowed mother’s life – secure, but that depended on his marrying the daughter of his new business partner.

He didn’t like it at all, but he knew that he had to do the right thing

The lovers are both distraught, and while Dolores struggles to manage without Harry’s financial and practical support, Harry struggles to work up any enthusiasm for the wedding and new home that his mother and his fiancée are happily planning.

What will happen?

Will true love conquer all?

cc207ceb20d74b024e2fb3160e096d40Wrapped around this romantic comedy is the beginning of the story of Martha, Miss Diver’s orphaned niece. Martha is a stolid and self-possessed little girl, a true individual who is sweetly oblivious to the cares and concerns of others and sails through life’s storms, set on the course that she knows is right for her.

Martha’s passion is art, and all she wants to do is draw the world around her. She is single-minded in her quest for the materials and the time she needs to do that, and along the way she both helps and hinders her aunt in her new role as a landlady; as well as acquiring a very interesting and very sensible patron.

Margery Sharp spins a story that is both lovely and clever in this book. Her writing has both wit and charm, and is acute without ever being unkind. I think that she understood, and that she smiled at her characters.

There are so many lovely details, and a great many moments that strike a chord.

I loved the friendship that blossomed between Harry and his future father-in law. I was entertained by the machinations of the ladies who worked in Harry’s showroom. I was concerned when Dolores’s lodger took her to be a wealthier woman that she was and began to lay plans. I had horribly mixed feeling as I saw how happy and proud Harry’s mother was during the wedding preparations. I was interested in what Martha learned as she drew the gas oven.

Those are just a few of a great many things.

Most of all,  I cared  about the plight of the star-crossed lovers.

I knew the ending I wanted –  and of course I remembered it from the first time I read the book – but I didn’t remember exactly how the story got there until it did.

That ending  – and the whole story – was so cleverly constructed and so well told.

I loved the balance of the predictable and the unpredictable.

The first time I read ‘The Eye of Love’ I saw Dolores and Harry as the stars, and it was only when I moved on the sequels that I realised how significant it was that this was the beginning of Martha’s story.

She is definitely a one-off, but she is also an archetypal Margery Sharp heroine: an honest and independent woman, following her own instincts rather that social convention, and charting her own, independent course through life.

I have to love that!

You really should meet Martha. And Harry. And Delores. And Mr Joyce ….

I’m sorry that I shall be leaving Dolores and Harry behind, but I’m looking forward to following Martha’s adventures when she goes to art school in Paris all over again.

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Margery Sharp Day is less that two weeks away – the celebration of her 112th birthday party is happening on 25th January 2017.

There’s no need to RSVP – though it would be lovely to know if you might come –  all you need to do is to read a Margery Sharp book between now and then, and post about it on the day!

Just click the picture for all of the details you might want to know.

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