I’m rather astonished that I’m managing to join in with the Margery Sharp celebrations at Beyond Eden Rock (organised by Jane) – chiefly because I only managed to start The Eye of Love (1957) on Saturday, and have had a very busy weekend. Indeed, it’s been a busy old year so far, which is the reason I must give for not having published as many blog posts as I’d intended so far. But the combination of fierce determination and (more importantly) Sharp’s excellent writing have made me finish just in time.
The Eye of Love is the third Sharp novel I’ve read so far, and it’s been on my shelves for many years. The reason I chose this one is because it turns out it’s the only one I have in Oxford (I had intended to go with Britannia Mews) – but it is rather lovely, and (sorry, but the connection is irresistible) sharp.
This is Sharp’s quirky take on a romance novel, her motif being that the ‘eye of love’ sees things that other eyes cannot; basically, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. In this case, the beholders are a middle-aged couple, one of whom (born Dorothy Hogg, but choosing instead the name Dolores Diver) fancies herself a Spanish Rose type, comb in hair and shawl around her shoulders, but is known by laughers in the street as Old Madrid. Her inamorata is Mr Gibson, a portly man who has made his money in retail. As the novel opens, they are deciding that they can no longer be a couple. They have been in love, and lovers, for a decade – but both decide, unspoken, that people of their disparate stations do not marry. Instead, Mr Gibson must marry a Miss Joyce, solely for business reasons.
They are both rather distraught, but Sharp’s masterstroke is adding a third element: the young girl Martha. She is Dolores’ niece by marriage, orphaned and living with Dolores, and a more convincingly stolid and dispassionate child never existed in fiction. She is not mean or intentionally rude, she is simply completely uninterested in the emotional lives of the adults around her. Where Dolores hopes she will be a shoulder to cry on, or even some sort of go-between, she naively and honestly makes no indication that she misses him at all. Martha adds wonderful comedy to the novel, and Sharp draws her beautifully. Oh, and she’s also something of an artistic genius, unbeknownst to everyone (including herself).
Martha is not the only element of comedy. The narrative is always undermining the characters’ emotional effusions or deceits. When Miss Joyce accepts Mr Gibson’s proposal, with supposed surprise, Sharp adds:
As she moved impulsively to accept his embrace, she impulsively pressed a bell; the maid who brought in the champagne must have been very handy.
That repeated ‘impulsively’ works wonders. It is a very amusing book, and that – as in Cluny Brown, which I failed to finish in time for Margery Sharp Day 2015 – is due chiefly to this way Sharp has as a narrator. The most ordinary events are lent a spin of dry humour, but, vitally, Sharp remains intensely affectionate about her characters – and so does the reader. That is the keynote of the novel, that has various twists and turns and interlacing events: Dolores and Mr Gibson may appear ridiculous to many, but Sharp ably makes it so that the reader, like the characters, sees them instead through the eye of love.
Incidentally… my copy is The Popular Book Club, eventually a subscription book-of-the-month type club, and my copy still had the original brochure tucked in it (at around p.20, suggesting that they didn’t get very far). It features a little bit about the author…