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.

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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.