It’s not quite true to say that I didn’t join in Margery Sharp Day (so ably organised by Fleur Fisher; see her round-up post for more details), because I started Cluny Brown on the day in question. What I did not do was either finish the book or write a review, but I have now done so – encouraged by the dictum that it is better late than never.
Actually, according to the cover of my edition (by the Reprint Society in 1945, a year after the novel was original published) I was joining in Marjorie Sharp Day. Despite getting her name right inside the book and printed on the book itself, the dustjacket spells it incorrectly. What a thing to overlook!
I read my first Sharp, The Foolish Gentlewoman, back in 2002, encouraged by seeing it recommended in the letters of P.G. Wodehouse. In the intervening dozen years I’ve bought quite a few of her novels (this one in 2005), but I needed this encouragement from Fleur Fisher to make the obvious next step and read one of them. And thank goodness I did. Cluny Brown is an absolute delight, and establishes Sharp in my mind not simply as a first rate middlebrow novelist but also (which I had forgotten) a wry and witty one.
Cluny Brown is a young woman whose abiding fault (according, at least, to her guardian Uncle Arn) is not knowing her place. Although he is content and humble to be a plumber, she doesn’t see any reason why she should not take tea at the Ritz, if she can muster together the money. She is not beautiful; she is inordinately plain (which was refreshing), but she has Presence. And that presence disconcerts her uncle; he decides that it would be much for the best if she were taken away from London and put into service. And so she goes to Devon to be a maid.
If this were simply a knockabout comedy about the ineptitude of an inexperienced maid in a large house, that would frankly be enough for me – but there is plenty else going on. Down in that house are Lady Carmel and her hunting-shooting-fishing husband, and (occasionally) their adult son Andrew. He has seen fit to invite a Polish intellectual to live with them during the war, under the impression that is in grave danger throughout Europe. Completing the party (upstairs at least) is Betty, a young lady with whom every young man is in love, and who is divinely unmoved by these attentions.
We must pause for a moment to appreciate the wonder of Lady Carmel. She manages the household beautifully. Everybody thinks her sweet and ineffectual, whereas she is sweet and effectual; never a busybody or ogre, she simply knows how to treat everybody and persuade everybody to behave properly. And she could not be considered the most politically devoted:
Lady Carmel looked troubled. It was the thing to do, just then, at any mention of Europe, and indeed there had been moments, with Andrew still abroad, when she felt very troubled indeed. But now the expression was purely automatic, like looking reverent in church. Picking up a bough of rhododendron she tried its effect in a white crackle jar, and at once her brow cleared.
And she appears again in a quotation I wanted to give to show the humour in Sharp’s writing:
For a moment mother and son stared at each other in mutual surprise. Lady Carmel in particular presented an odd appearance: the lilac in her hand gave her a vaguely allegorical look, like a figure strayed out of a pageant.
You will be getting the impression that the novel is nothing by Lady Carmel wandering about holding plants; in truth, she is quite a minor character, I just happened to love her. The title of the novel is Cluny Brown and it is indisputably she who is the main focus. Cluny is brazenly honest, with an honesty born of ingenuousness rather than anything else. Her answers to questions are often curiously at odds with expectations, and perhaps the reason she does not ‘know her place’ is that she doesn’t really have one. Equally happy in the Ritz and up to her elbows in water fixing somebody’s sink, she is also fluid between the upstairs and downstairs of the Carmels’ house. She is happiest of all with the neighbour’s golden retriever – and begins an engaging relationship with the local chemist – a serious, level-headed, but poetic gentleman.
Sharp takes the maid-with-prospects narrative (which has been around since Pamela and before) and completely changes it. Her charming ingenue is not a beauty or an upper-class girl; she does not hide a cynical soul or a caustic wit. Those elements are as enjoyably present as could be wished, but in the mouths of other characters (and occasionally the narrator); Cluny Brown is not fey or soppy.
I’ve spent quite a lot of time saying what Cluny Brown is not, because that’s the best way of saying that Sharp isn’t quite like any other writer I’ve read. But, basically, any lover of domestic fiction and witty, wry fiction will find them combined beautifully in this novel. Thanks, Fleur Fisher, for encouraging me to pick up my copy.