Margery Sharp Day 2016: Cluny Brown

clunySo sorry that this is a day late, but I had a very busy day yesterday and didn’t find the time to finish up my post – better late than never, I suppose!

I was so pleased when Jane from Beyond Eden Rock announced her second annual Margery Sharp Day. I really enjoyed reading Britannia Mews last year and had good intentions to read another of Sharp’s novels before 2015 ended. However, we all know how good intentions can fall by the wayside when it comes to reading. So, I was happy to have this opportunity to try Sharp again and fortunate to find a 1944 copy of Cluny Brown at Tumbleweed Books in Pueblo, Colorado.

Cluny Brown is set in 1938 and starts off in London. We first learn about the main character, Cluny Brown, from other’s opinions and views of her. Her Uncle Arn, with whom she lives, strikes up a conversation with an older woman in Kensington Gardens and tells this woman that Cluny ‘doesn’t know her place’. And that is the crux of Cluny’s problems – she thinks she can do things that young women of her station and skills wouldn’t normally do. It perplexes her uncle and frustrates other relations and after she makes an ill-advised decision regarding an older man and his bathroom her uncle and his sister-in-law steer her into service.

She lands in Devon at Friars Carmel, the home of Sir Henry, Lady Carmel and their son Andrew. Mostly resigned to her fate she settles in as a housemaid among the very gracious family, their Polish refugee house guest, Adam Belinksi, and the other household staff. She also meets a kind if dull chemist who gives her hope for a different life.

In the end, Cluny makes a decision that is wholly unexpected yet wholly and utterly perfect. She’s known all along that she doesn’t want the life most expected for women of her status and the reader doesn’t want that for her either. For Cluny is curious and energetic, unafraid and full of natural charm. She’s meant for more than the life of a housemaid.

Like Britannia Mews, Cluny Brown is a dream. I loved all of the characters so much that I didn’t want to leave them. Sharp creates real and delightful worlds with a slightly fairy tale quality that completely envelop the reader – I was enchanted.

Now to decide – wait for next year’s Margery Sharp Day to read another of her novels or jump straight in to one now?

They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple

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The past two weeks at work have been pretty stressful, with people on vacation, out sick or at meetings. The kids in our community are out of school next week and preparations for our summer reading program are in high gear, which also makes things slightly tense around the library. We’re all loaded down with tasks and have to cover the desk as well and it all gets to be a bit too much when lots of people are out. In order to relieve the stress every evening I turned to They Were Sisters, an excellent novel by an author I don’t think I’ve much appreciated up to this point.

Lucy, Vera and Charlotte grow up in a well-to-do-family with a lawyer father, in comfort and safety. Lucy is the nurturer (especially after their mother passes away), Vera is the beauty and Charlotte the gentle, fun-loving sister. When the sisters marry their lives take separate paths yet Lucy continues to look after her troubled sisters. High-spirited Vera marries a dull man and their unsuitability makes them both miserable. Charlotte has a harder life; her husband Geoffrey is emotionally and mentally abusive, a true sadist who enjoys making her unhappy and humiliating her and their children. Lucy, married to good William, watches her sisters’ lives fall apart with despair. As the years go on Vera and Charlotte fall further into troubles and Lucy endeavors to save both them (without much success) and their children.

Published in 1943 this novel was a bestseller and I can just imagine people reading it to escape their daily reality, much as I did. It is completely engrossing, filled with very colorful, well-drawn characters, lots of drama and lovely domestic details. It is also – and this was one of my main reasons for loving it so much – full of goodness. Lucy is a woman to be admired as she goes about her life trying to do good, be good and think good about others. She is now one of my all-time favorite characters from literature and one I aspire to be like and learn from.

Until now I’d never really loved a Whipple novel. I enjoyed Greenbanks and Someone at a Distance and liked The Priory, but I was missing the connection that I know others have felt to her writing. They Were Sisters is the book that’s put me in the Whipple fan club forever. Now it’s on to Because of the Lockwoods.

How do you feel about Dorothy Whipple? Fan or no?

Margery Sharp Day: Britannia Mews

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Today is Margery Sharp Day hosted at Fleur in Her World. I’d never really heard of Margery Sharp until reading Jane’s posts, but I am always up for trying a new author especially one who wrote in the first half of the twentieth century, which is turning out to be my favorite of all time periods, book-wise. I found this 1946 copy of Britannia Mews online and it not only looks gorgeous but was a thoroughly engrossing and entertaining tale.

I suppose this could be termed a ‘family saga’ as it relates the story of two families, the Culvers and the Hambros, from the late nineteenth century up through World War II. But it’s also the story of one small area of London, Britannia Mews, and how it changes over 70 years from a genteel, middle-class neighborhood, to an unquestionable slum then to a haven for artists and rebels. One member of the family, Adelaide Culver, receives most of the narrative attention as she is the first to break from the conventions of Victorian England and move into a more bohemian world, living nearly all her days in the Mews. Addie’s been raised in the Mews as a young child until her family moved to a more respectable house in Kensington. But when she elopes with an alcoholic artist when she is barely out of her teens and moves back into Britannia Mews she becomes a fixture of the neighborhood for the next half century.

Her rather unorthodox life is contrasted with that of her cousin, Alice, who marries a nice accountant and moves to Surbiton. Over the years Addie shuns her family and the family turn their backs on her even when she suffers some really terrible trials. As the years go by Addie maintains her distance, but the family inevitably draws back together as they age and war closes many of the gaps in their relationships.

I was constantly surprised by this novel. The characters were very unpredictable and the many unexpected turnings of the plot made this a fresh and exciting reading experience. Sharp’s writing is straight forward and fantastically descriptive and the dialogue is frank and vigorous. I always love multi-generational stories and this one is so satisfying. I turned the last page sad to leave the family behind.

Thanks to Jane for introducing me to a fantastic author whom I look forward to reading more of in the coming year and Happy Birthday to Margery Sharp.

At Mrs. Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor

Mrs. Lippincote's

“Did the old man die here? What do you think?” Julia asked, as her husband began to come upstairs.

One Christmas break when I was in college I house sat for a neighbor while she was on vacation. For two weeks I slept in her bed, cooked in her kitchen, watched her tv,  read on her porch and snuggled with her dogs. It was nice to be on my own and to have a break from my roommates, but it was also a bit uncomfortable to inhabit a relative stranger’s home and unsettling to live among objects that were not my own. In Elizabeth Taylor’s debut novel At Mrs. Lippincote’s the Davenant family experiences much the same uneasiness.

Towards the end of the second world war Roddy Davenant is transferred to a new town (he’s in the RAF) and moves his wife Julia, son Oliver and cousin Eleanor into a rented home that belongs to Mrs. Lippincote. All of her furniture and belongings are left behind in the house and Julia and Eleanor set about setting up a home in these borrowed surroundings. The plot follows the characters as they question their lives and learn things about each other that change their relationships and family dynamic, mostly not for the good.

Julia is a remarkable character, a woman who is private, harsh and blunt yet a romantic. She doesn’t suffer fools, but she has a soft heart that leads her to connect with unlikely people. Roddy is your typical husband and soldier of this era and, though she loves him, she has no interest in playing the role of the typical wife and conflict ensues. Add to this mix Roddy’s cousin Eleanor, a single middle-aged woman who takes up with a band of Communists and conceals the friendship from Roddy who will not approve. Basically, the women in this novel rebel, perhaps because they don’t feel comfortable or in control of their own home.

Julia’s relationship with her young son Oliver is also rocky as he is precocious and sickly with a huge appetite for books (he’s seven and has read Jane Eyre) and causes her much worry and resentment. Their relationship, though, is really charming and I loved reading about Oliver’s favorite books and their conversations about his reading. It is one of the most delightful parts of the novel especially when Roddy’s boss, the Wing Commander, joins in the discussion.

Taylor’s writing continues to feel stiff to me and not easy to read, but reading her short stories alerted me to her style so I was ready for this novel. If you don’t like short stories and want to read her I would suggest this as a first try because it is short and not as hard to get into as some of her other novels that I’ve tried.

From what I’ve read to this point I’d say that her books are full of subversive women. They may not march down the middle of main street to protest the mistreatment, disrespect and boredom they endure, but they certainly act out in small ways within their own spheres. I am intrigued by them and will continue to read Taylor to meet more of these interesting women.

Other thoughts:

The Captive Reader

Harriet Devine

Heavenali

Stuck in a Book

Will you try Elizabeth Taylor?

Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey

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In the winter of 2008 I served on my very first jury. The case was at the Superior Court of Maricopa County in Phoenix and the defendant was a twenty-five -year old man who was accused of auto theft. He had stolen a truck from an apartment complex and when he was pulled over by police he claimed that he had bought the truck from a homeless man. He couldn’t produce any proof of the sale and was completely unconvincing when he gave testimony. When we met in the jury room to deliberate his fate the right decision was obvious, however most of the jury had a very hard time making it. The problem was knowing that he was the sole caretaker of his two-year-old son. It was a simple case, really, and our verdict should have been made quickly, but knowing about the son just bothered so many of us. After much debate we did decide to convict him, but not without heartbreak and sadness. On the shuttle back to our parking garage there was sobbing and second guessing. I know there were several jurors who felt we did the wrong thing – did stealing a car really warrant sentencing a man to prison and forcing him to abandon his son?

In Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes, Lucy Pym faces a similar dilemma. She’s a middle-aged recently famous author, highly sought after since publishing a book on popular psychology. An old friend from school, Henrietta, invites her to speak at the physical training college (it’s the 1940’s) where she is headmistress and Miss Pym decides to stay on a while after her engagement is over. She is fascinated by the young, energetic, beautiful girls who work diligently all day at dancing, games, gymnastics and learning anatomy. She also loves the peaceful and calm environment yet puzzles at the quiet competition and subtle dislike among many of the girls. It is a perfect setting to study human psychology.

PE College
Students at a physical training college in Brisbane, early fifties.

And this really is what the novel is about. There is a murder, but it doesn’t occur until the book is nearly over. The goal of this book is to examine the mixture of different personalities, events and resentments that lead to murder and lies. Because Miss Pym is observant and interested in motives she is caught in the middle of the tragedy and is painfully compelled to either reveal or conceal the knowledge she has about who the murderer is. And though she wants to do the right thing she debates if ruining the life of a mostly decent young woman is worth the life that was taken. Is it worth sentencing a young woman to death when she can potentially do much good in the world?

Josephine Tey’s characters are so lively and vibrant and her humor is very enjoyable. I can tell that like her wonderful creation Miss Pym, Tey was hugely interested in human nature. I am, too, so this book was a delight for me. If character exploration and a slow burning plot make you crazy than this isn’t the book for you. If you like moral dilemmas and wonderful character development than it most certainly is.

I just checked out The Franchise Affair by Tey and am really looking forward to it. Have you read Tey? Do you have a favorite?

And also…have you ever served on a jury?

Mrs. Miniver by Jan Struther

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I bought a copy of this 1940 edition of Mrs. Miniver about a year ago, but only chose to read it after I read that it is one of the books that most inspires Jane Brocket (in her book The Gentle Art of Domesticity ). The book is constructed of short, comic chapters that were originally published as newspaper articles in The Times in the late ’30’s as war was approaching. Most of the chapters present a domestic scene, episodes concerning Mrs. Miniver’s housekeeping, children or husband, but there are some travel narratives also and a very chilling scene describing the household getting fitted for gas masks.

The writing is formal, a bit distant, but humorous and warm. Mrs. Miniver embodies the brave, cheerful woman who carries on in the face of an unknown future and was a symbol during the war, especially after the film was released. I think it is fascinating that President Roosevelt rushed the film into US theaters in 1942, that Americans were very taken with the book and that it was a huge success here – because I didn’t have a personal connection to the writing myself. I thought it was enjoyable, but not as powerful as it must have been at the time it was published.

I recently recorded the film and tried to watch it a few days after I finished reading Mrs. Miniver, but I couldn’t believe how different the film is from the book and had to stop watching. Have you read or watched Mrs. Miniver? If you’ve done both, which do you prefer – the book or the film?

The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

 

If ever there was an impulse read, this would be it. I was perusing blogs one Saturday at work about a month ago and came across ‘The 10 Best Neglected Literary Classics’ list in the Guardian. I adore lists like this. I think they are a great source for finding exciting new reads. I knew I probably wouldn’t be able to find any of the titles in my library system so I grabbed my Kindle and started checking the availability of each title on Amazon. The Blank Wall was available, inexpensive and is one of the small number of ebooks published by Persephone Books. Sold!

The Blank Wall is a suspense novel set during World War II. Lucia Holley lives with her two teens and her father in a lakeside house. Her husband, Tom, is somewhere in the Pacific and her frequent letters from him are one of the only bright spots in her life. Her daughter, Bee, is in art school and has been dating an unscrupulous man called Ted Darby. When Lucia tries to stop the relationship she inadvertently immerses herself into a dark, dangerous and completely unfamiliar world she doesn’t know quite how to navigate.

The mystery part of this novel is definitely thrilling and well-done, but the more interesting aspect of the novel for me was the questions it raises about homemaking and motherhood. When the novel opens Lucia’s life has already altered with her husband away at war. However, she is still the isolated homemaker she has always been, only thinking about planning meals, how to keep her father entertained and her children’s future. When she is forced to come into contact with the outside world through her conflict with Bee’s boyfriend, she realizes that men still find her attractive, that she has the strength to navigate life outside of her home and she discovers the sad fact that her children have a limited view of her capabilities and don’t respect her.

Lucia’s narrow existence has stunted her character – she’s naive, childish and has an unrealistic view of how to handle problems. Her son David treats her like a little girl, chastising her about taking the boat out on the lake by herself. Bee is disgusted with Lucia and doesn’t have any regard for her especially after she interferes in her love life. The only one who looks up to Lucia is her father who is even more childish than she is.

I don’t think Holding is knocking being a wife and mother, but she is questioning if it somehow stunted the character of the young women who married and then were sucked into family life so completely. Lucia has certainly been sheltered by her husband and it makes me wonder how many women were challenged beyond anything they had ever known when their husbands left for war.

Joan Bennett as Lucia in ‘Reckless Moment’ – the movie version of ‘The Blank Wall’.

Another intriguing aspect of The Blank Wall is the relationship between Lucia and her maid, Sibyl. Sibyl is more streetwise than Lucia and looks after her more than Lucia realizes. Sibyl knows everything about Lucia, but Lucia knows nothing about Sibyl. It’s a very strange relationship and it fascinated me that these two women have an unacknowledged bond that sustains them both through their troubles.

This is a spectacular suspense novel and would have been wonderful if it was just that. The fact that it is also a thought-provoking social study is a bonus that I wasn’t expecting. I can’t recall ever having been haunted by a mystery novel before, but this book has stayed with me and has led me to wonder about the lives of all the women who were suddenly thrust outside of their comfort zones when their husbands went off to war.

I would highly recommend this novel. It is a revealing insight into life on the American home front during World War II, how the war changed the way women had to interact with society and how their roles changed within their families while their husbands were away. This is an unexpected, but perfect, book for Persephone to have published and I’m glad it’s available in ebook format –  hopefully, it will give more people access to this incredible novel.