It feels like a long moment since I’ve posted about one of my true loves: what Persephone Books terms “neglected classics,” penned by female writers. Some may venture to call it vintage “middlebrow” fiction (but others may bare their teeth at them).
Today I am delighted to be writing about Margery Sharp, who has somehow flown beneath my radar for far too many years. And this in spite of her being the author behind one of my favourite childhood movies—The Rescuers.
Yes, Margery Sharp wrote the book that this classic Disney movie was based on, prompting one 1959 reviewer from Kirkus Reviews to describe it as “an absurd and beguiling fantasy…made to order for Walt Disney—but a strange departure for Margery Sharp.”
Because what Margery Sharp typically wrote was charming, funny, warmhearted social satire, very much in the vein of Jane Austen—had Jane Austen lived and written from the 1930s through to the 1970s. My introduction to Sharp’s adult novels came from my recent reading of The Nutmeg Tree, and it definitely charmed my pants off.
The novel tells the story of Julia, a cheerful and resourceful woman who is very competently deploying her wiles and her astute character judgment to get by, having unrepentantly burned through several thousand pounds settled on her by the parents of her dead husband. Said husband had been a war-time fling, but an accidental pregnancy led to marriage—at a ludicrously young age (at the beginning of the book, the widowed Julia is 37, and her daughter is now 20).
As a consequence of this shotgun marriage, Julia inherited the Packetts: a set of very proper, very well-meaning, and very obtuse in-laws. When the husband removed himself from the narrative by dying early in the war, Julia did her best to live up to his family’s expectations, but ultimately ended up drifting back to her free-spirited life in London, and leaving her infant daughter Suzanne to be raised by this respectable family.
At the beginning of the story, Julia, at 37, receives a letter from her daughter (whose name has been properly Anglicized into “Susan”). Susan is intent on getting married, but her grandmother disapproves. And so Susan has, in a rare impulsive moment, reached out to her barely known mother, asking her to come and help persuade the family in favour of her fiancé.
What can only be described as “gentle zaniness” ensues. Julia, touched by Susan’s letter, and feeling a belated swelling of maternal care, pawns her last remaining goods to buy a one-way ticket to France, as well as a couple of outfits that will give the impression that she is a lady. (She has no illusions of actually being a lady.) After a brief sidetrack en route in which she hooks up with a troupe of circus performers and temporarily joins their show (as you do), Julia arrives at the villa. Here she finds Susan to be chilly and uninteresting, her recently widowed mother-in-law to be hankering after the kinds of adventures that her life hitherto had denied her, and the fiancé-to-be Bryan—heaven help her—”just the sort that I am.” In other words, highly unsuitable for Susan.
Julia then spends the rest of the novel doing a precarious kind of dance, as she tries to win over Susan, put a stop to the engagement, conceal her pennilessness and figure out how she can grift her way to a little bit of cash, and prevent Bryan from giving her away. Because just as Julia can tell with one glance at Bryan “what sort” he is, so too can he, with her.
So much of the pleasure of this book comes from Julia’s inner monologue. Although the book is written in third person, it is almost entirely told from Julia’s perspective, and we frequently get insights into her thoughts and feelings. Not to mention her delightful and absurd problem-solving skills, which involve things like pretending to commit suicide in a casino lobby to steal some cash, or spinning wild tales to a couple of genteel spinsters in order to hitch a ride. Julia delights in performance, and her imagination knows no bounds. Going along with the ride to see what she will say and do is thoroughly enjoyable.
Like all books written in bygone eras, there are certainly some problematic things sprinkled throughout this novel. There are a handful of racial and cultural stereotypes, and a deep preoccupation with class distinctions.
Indeed, much of the tension in the story comes from Julia’s class anxiety, as she tries to fit in with the Packetts. Since our narration is mostly from Julia’s POV, we are treated to a lot of discourse about class essentialism; Julia believes that one is born upper or lower class, and while she can masquerade as a lady, there is an innate distinction between herself and her in-laws.
Happily, the text complicates this, through characters such as the privileged Bryan, whom Julia recognizes as a kindred spirit in spite of his pedigree, and Susan herself, who, despite being Julia’s daughter, is the epitome of upper class ideals. It’s worth noting as well that Julia has no desire to be like the Packetts long term. She is bored by their lifestyle and manners, and is doing her best to evade her mother-in-law’s hilarious and detailed plans for her future.
Conversely, Susan, as the representative of upper class ideals, is an extremely unlikable character. The reader roots for Julia all the way. And so while Julia may ascribe “good” or “bad” values to people based on class, we can see the faults in her way of thinking.
If you are in the mood for a fun, lighthearted romp with witty social observations, romantic entanglements, and some great one-liners, then I urge you to give Margery Sharp a try. I, for one, will certainly be seeking out more of her books.
That afternoon, immediately after lunch, Julia set out to look at a tree. Both Susan and Mrs. Packett were able to contemplate trees for minutes together, and her natural spirit of emulation made Julia covet the same power. There must, she thought, be something in it: some esoteric connection between garden-seats and the gentility she so much admired. For her daughter and mother-in-law were by no means isolated examples: every real lady Julia had ever met—most of whom, indeed, she had encountered actually at Barton—showed the same idiosyncrasy. On the Tuesday afternoon, therefore, Julia went out to have a whack at it herself.”The Nutmeg Tree