Today marks the 110th birthday of author Margery Sharp, and to celebrate, the marvellous Fleur Fisher has decided to make this Margery Sharp Day. The idea is to read one (or more, which I sadly didn’t get around to) of Sharp’s books and write about them today, a project which I was very much on board with from the start.
Sharp was rather a prolific author for both children and adults, yet her work has sadly fallen into the chasm of time. It is only her children’s book, The Rescuers, which was turned into a Disney film some years ago, which seems to be in the public consciousness. If you are familiar with the Virago Modern Classics list, Sharp is an author who fits perfectly with their high standard of novels, and indeed, one of her books – The Eye of Love – can be found upon it. Rather than plump for this, I decided to go for The Innocents, a novel which was already scrawled on one of my vast to-read lists.
Published in 1972, The Innocents is one of Sharp’s later works. Early in the novel, Cecilia, an acquaintance of the narrator, marries and moves to New York with her husband, Rab Guthrie: ‘where she became, one heard tell, quite a leader of fashion; also bore him the daughter she now on that cool but not cold, showery but not rainy, autumn-scented April day some twelve years later came back to collect’. The said daughter, Antoinette, is left in the care of our unnamed narrator, under the pretence of her parents not wanting to be hindered on their travels around Europe.
I was rather charmed and intrigued by the beginning of The Innocents: ‘My father was a connoisseur of wine; but times and incomes change and we with them, and now I am a connoisseur of weather. Thus I remember distinctly the day of Cecilia’s return as being cool (for mid-April), but not cold; showery rather than rainy, also with a peculiar tang in the air (which I have noticed as late as May) that seems to presage not summer but autumn. Oddly enough, the day she died some five months later in October, had a rather springlike feeling – though this of course may have been subconscious on my part’.
One gets a feel for the characters – all of whom are multi-dimensional and wholly interesting constructs – who people the novel immediately. The novel’s narrator, herself a wonderfully crafted being, is at her best when describing those around her: ‘What I should have perhaps mentioned about Cecilia at once was that she was a beauty. Her colouring was pure East Anglian, and our young girls are unsurpassable for abundant russet hair and glowing, peaches-and-cream complexions… Cecilia at twenty-seven had legs long and slim as a heron’s’. Young Antoinette – or Tony, as she is affectionately known – is built vividly: ‘Her face was rather plain – a Dutch little face, I thought, round and unanimated, with a small mouth and her father’s small grey eyes’. Our narrator goes on to say that ‘Cecilia’s daughter was what in earlier times would have been called an innocent’, by way of her physical clumsiness and underdeveloped speech.
Sharp’s use of the first person perspective and its subsequent immediacy is marvellously crafted, and the whole story is rendered more believable and heartwrenching in consequence. In one or two places, I did find some of the plot elements a little predictable, but for me, that was the only downside. In its entirety, The Innocents is strong and well put together.
The Innocents is an undeservedly underread and underappreciated book; when I checked in December, it had only a dozen Goodreads ratings. I was reminded throughout of Nina Bawden in terms of the plotline and strong writing, and found Sharp an incredibly perceptive writer; one who knows every dream and wish of those she creates. One can only hope that Margery Sharp Day will bring this wonderful author back into the public eye; I, for one, shall be reading as many of her works as I can get my hands on.