I’d heard good things about Margery Sharp’s books for years, so I was thrilled when my Dad treated me to four of her recently republished titles. It was hard to pick one to read first, but I settled for Cluny Brown, not least because I thought ‘Cluny’ a rather marvellous name for a heroine. And a delightful heroine Cluny proves to be….
Originally published in 1944, Cluny Brown is set in the inter war years and follows the humorous exploits of the eponymous Cluny. The trouble with Cluny, the heroine’s long-suffering Uncle Arn decides, is that she doesn’t know her place. Content with his life as a plumber with a steady business, Uncle Arn is shocked by his niece’s extravagant behaviour. Cluny saves up to take herself to tea at the Ritz, accepts invitations to cocktail parties, spends all day in bed eating nothing but oranges, and is admired by an array of men, despite being (in Uncle Arn’s bewildered opinion) ‘nothing to look at.’
Cluny is the classic jolie laide – her unconventional looks and happy-go-lucky nature make sure she’s noticed wherever she goes, and she sparks interest both upstairs and downstairs at Friars Carmel, the grand house in Devonshire where her Uncle insists she takes a job as a parlour maid. It’s not only her striking physical appearance that sets Cluny apart, however, but also her endearing personality. Cluny has an active, enquiring mind and an independent spirit that isn’t easily cowed. At a time when social classes were rigidly distinct, even Cluny’s employers can’t help but treat her as an equal. Cluny’s search for where she truly belongs ultimately leads her to take a leap of faith and leave her homeland behind, as she becomes the woman she was destined to be.
Margery Sharp’s gently ironic humour and understanding of human foibles add depth to her writing and make for memorable characters. Indeed, there are many besides Cluny who are loveable in this book. I have a particular soft spot for Sir Henry Carmel, the quintessential English country squire, whose penchant for writing extremely dull letters to far-flung acquaintances across the globe had me chuckling:
As his physical powers declined, making hunting impossible, Sir Henry had taken to the pen; all over the world the friends of his youth began to receive very long, very dull letters from him. To Rhodesia, Tanganyika, Singapore, Australia, India, New Zealand and the Bermudas – Sir Henry’s epistles went forth ; for he never considered it worth while to write to any one nearer at hand. So the letters took a long time to get there, and the replies even longer to get back, and all the news was out of date; and this gave his correspondence a peculiar timeless quality which was very soothing.
Cluny Brown is a light-hearted, quick read that is perfect for those who love P.G. Wodehouse and Nancy Mitford. Now, to decide which Sharp I should read next….