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One Author, Two Books: Margery Sharp

I have been thinking for quite a while about scheduling some posts which take a single author as their focus. Rather than read an entire oeuvre and report my findings and feelings – something which I was considering for a while, and then decided against mainly due to time constraints – I have decided to choose two rather different books by my author of choice, and will then review both. This, therefore, will be my first post in the ‘One Author, Two Books series’.

Margery Sharp seemed like the obvious choice as a first author in this series. I have been drawn to Sharp for such a long time, ever since I first saw the lovely Jane at Beyond Eden Rock wax lyrical about her. I have sadly found it quite difficult to pick up the author’s books in the past, but luckily, my local library had a handful in stock in their county archives. I therefore chose her most famous children’s book, The Rescuers, and a novel for adults entitled The Flowering Thorn.

The Rescuers (1959)

Like so many children, I adored the animated film version of The Rescuers, and watched it over and over again. When I began to explain the story to my boyfriend, who had never seen it, he thought it sounded a little bizarre for an adult to read. Regardless, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and found The Rescuers just as charming as I expected to. What I was not expecting, however, was the wonderful humour which suffuses the piece, and quite the level of imagination which has been woven into it.

The Rescuers, which was first published in 1959, is the first book in a series. The primary storyline of this initial volume is that a series of innovative mice, all of whom are members of the Prisoners’ Aid Society, decide to rescue a Norwegian poet who has been imprisoned. They undertake ‘a mission to recruit the bravest mouse they can find – someone who can outwit the fearsome jailer and avoid the jaws of his cruel cat.’ The Black Castle, in which the man finds himself, is windowless and imposing.

The Rescuers is filled with any amount of darling details; brave mice receive the ‘Jean Fromage’ award, and the chairwoman of the Prisoners’ Aid Society is ‘descended in a direct line from the senior of the Three Blind Mice’. She recruits a brave mouse named Bernard to find Miss Bianca, who belongs to the son of an Ambassador, to head the mission; it is thought that this revered mouse ‘lived in a porcelain pagoda: that she fed exclusively on cream cheese from a silver bonbon dish: that she wore a silver chain round her neck, and on Sundays a gold one.’

I am surprised that I did not read this as a child, drawn as I was to books featuring adventurous talking animals, from The Chronicles of Narnia (which, incidentally, has its own fearsome mouse, named Reepicheep) and The Incredible Journey, to several series of anthropomorphic creatures by the likes of Lucy Daniels and Dick King-Smith. I would have been absolutely enchanted by The Rescuers as a child, and must admit that I rather am as an adult.

The Flowering Thorn (1948)

I did not know a great deal about The Flowering Thorn before placing my library reservation, and I chose deliberately not to look into it too much before beginning. The novel, written very much for adults, centres upon a ‘Jazz Age socialite’, a woman in her late twenties named Lesley Frewen. At a point in her life where she is feeling ‘disillusioned and unhappy’, Lesley takes the rash decision to look after an orphaned four-year-old boy named Patrick.

Lesley soon realises that taking Patrick on clashes horribly with her life in London, from her flat in an exclusive block which does not accept children – ‘The management, indeed, worked, and worked successfully, on the basic assumption that their tenants as a class were not intended by nature to boil eggs, wash socks, sew on buttons, walk up or down stairs, have children, keep dogs, or put up friends on the sofa’ – to her old friends who do not even try to understand her choice. Finding that even ‘the flattering attention of the opposite sex’ must be relinquished, Lesley decides to move to a cottage in rural Buckinghamshire, for the very specific period of five years. As she settles into her new home, which is initially described as ‘hideously ugly and hopelessly inconvenient’, there is an enormous shift, from her selfish and unlikeable character to someone far more accommodating, who has given herself the chance to feel free.

The Flowering Thorn begins in 1929, and follows Lesley from her fateful decision – she ‘had little doubt that the Problem, as raw material, was of exceptional quality’ – all the way through to her becoming settled in her countryside home after a number of years have passed. In this time, Lesley grows from an highly irresponsible figure, to a far more acceptable one, treasured by those around her. Discovery is at the heart of this novel. Sharp writes: ‘In fact, it might almost be said that she was never bored at all. There was a constant intercourse, a continual deepening of acquaintance; instead of knowing a hundred people by sight she would soon know half a dozen by heart. An eventual return to Town was still, so to speak, the vanishing point of her perspective; but the lines were four years long, and in the meantime, for her consolation, there was this new and startling discovery: that the country is populated by really quite interesting persons.’

Throughout, I loved Sharp’s attention to detail; her thorough descriptions throughout the novel make The Flowering Thorn feel truly tangible, and quite atmospheric at times too. Sharp is highly aware of her protagonist, and her changing feelings, and has a real eye for building realistic characters. I enjoyed this novel a great deal, and I hope to spend far more time with the rest of Sharp’s oeuvre in future. She is a long overlooked, highly considerate, and really quite underappreciated author, and I would urge you to pick at least one of her books up – and soon.

If you have any recommendations for other authors I could include in future, and books which I could select, please do let me know.

0

One From the Archive: ‘In Pious Memory’ by Margery Sharp ****

Read for Margery Sharp Day, 2016.

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. margery

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.in-pious-memory-margery-sharp-001

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.

5

Margery Sharp Day: ‘In Pious Memory’ by Margery Sharp

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. margery

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.in-pious-memory-margery-sharp-001

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.

14

Margery Sharp Day: ‘The Innocents’ ****

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.

the-innocents-margery-sharp-001Published 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.