When the wonderful Jane at Beyond Eden Rock wrote this enticing post about celebrating Margery Sharp’s birthday once more, I leapt at the chance. Last year, I read The Innocents, which I very much enjoyed, and immediately vowed that I would read as many of her books as I could get my hands on. Needless to say, in the intervening year, I have not been able to squeeze any of her novels into my reading schedule, alas.
As ever, I was rather overambitious at the start of this year’s project, thinking that I could feasibly read five of her books and schedule them over the space of a week, as a mini-celebration of sorts. Sadly, University essays and a trip to Australia intervened, so I was only able to read and review one of her books. This year, I opted for In Pious Memory; an interesting novel, but one which I do not feel quite stood up to The Innocents.
In Pious Memory does not seem to be a very popular book; it has just a handful of Goodreads ratings, and next to nothing written about it, whether substantially or otherwise. Published in 1967 by Little, Brown and Company, the novel tells of a woman – rather brilliantly named Mrs Prelude – who has been married for thirty years, and grabs her independence where she can. Her husband, a banker who is often invited to international conferences, often invites her along under the express understanding that she will ‘look after him at the hotel’. He suffers with chronic asthma, and they thus have to travel with an awful lot of paraphernalia, which his condition requires. One gets the impression from the outside that Mrs Prelude is used to making sacrifices:
‘What with Arthur’s equally indispensable dinner jacket and tails there would have been excess baggage to pay, if Mrs. Prelude put in evening-dress and wrap. Fortunately she didn’t need to; one thin silk dress (for Rome), or of light-weight wool (Stockholm) sufficed, and Arthur was very understanding when she had to buy an umbrella at The Hague’.
The novel opens in rather a startling manner: ‘All the same whenever they travelled by plane Mrs. Prelude sat in the tail, even if Arthur couldn’t find a place beside her. She’d read somewhere that it was safer, in the tail, and events proved her right. When the jet taking them back from Geneva crashed into an Alp, Mrs. Prelude, in the tail, was but shocked and bruised, whereas of her husband there remained but the remains’.
Mrs Prelude is unconvinced of Arthur’s death, believing that the body which she viewed as his in her shock may not have belonged to him after all. Her three children set out to bring her round to what they believe is the truth. This disparity adds a level of mystery to proceedings. Despite the children believing that their mother will be more comfortable and independent in Hove, she is determined to stay in the Buckinghamshire life to which she has become accustomed.
Interesting – and often amusing – little details have been placed by Sharp at intervals. Arthur Prelude’s obituary in The Times, for instance, ‘measured five and a half inches’, the sole vegetarian fare served at the wake is muesli, and Lydia, the youngest Prelude daughter, is described as looking young enough to be able to slide down the banisters. Despite this, on occasion, Sharp’s puns are unfortunately nothing more than groan-worthy.
One of the real strengths of the novel lies in Sharp’s depiction of dialogue. The conversations which she has crafted are diverse and semi-original, and characters react to what is said with much of the spontaneity that they would in real life. In Pious Memory is nicely structured; short sections in each chapter proper follow each of the Prelude children – holiday-obsessed Elizabeth, William, who is hoping to get married, and the aforementioned Lydia. The influence spreads; we are soon introduced to other characters who have connections to the children – partners and the like – and then we meet their family and friends. In this manner, Sharp has created an almost hierarchical structure, with Arthur at its centre.
In Pious Memory is certainly an enjoyable novel, and it did keep me guessing for the mostpart. I could not help, whilst reading, to think that it would be a wonderful addition to the Persephone list; it follows similar constructs to some of my favourites of their publications. Whilst I was not entirely satisfied by the ending, In Pious Memory certainly deserves more than its current eight Goodreads reviews, and whilst not the most compelling novel, it has certainly made me more determined to read more of Sharp’s work this year.