Margery Sharp is a much-loved author amongst bloggers I follow, and in particular by those lovely people on the LibraryThing Virago group; indeed, one of Sharp’s novels (“The Eye of Love”) is a VMC. So when Jane at Beyond Eden Rock decided she would hold another celebration of Sharp’s birthday this year, I was determined to join in (I failed last year!) I do actually have a copy of “Eye” but I decided instead to go with the other Sharp I own, “The Nutmeg Tree”, which I believe is one of her best-known books and has also been filmed as “Julia Misbehaves”.
“Nutmeg” is a lovely, ostensibly light-hearted romp featuring the titular lady, Julia Packett (also known as Mrs. Macdermott…) The book opens with her singing lustily in her bath while fending off bailiffs and creditors, and we’re obviously instantly in the company of a very irrepressible heroine. Julia’s back story is soon revealed: a ‘good time girl’ who loves showbiz theatricals, the smell of the grease paint and the roar of the crowd, and of course men, during WW1 she met and married Mr. Packett, a soldier on leave. Her husband was killed in the war and she was left a young widow with a baby daughter, and was taken in by her saintly and monied in-laws. She sticks living in the country for as long as she can, but the quiet, ladylike life is not for Julia; by mutual agreement she hands over her daughter Susan to the grandparents to bring up and heads off for city life. However, after years of happy times on stage and with a variety of gentleman companions, she is surprised to receive a letter from her daughter Susan asking for her help; Susan is in love and wishes to marry, but her grandparents disapprove. Maternal instincts kick in, and Julia dispenses with her creditors and rushes off to France to help. En route, attempting to act like a lady, she encounters a troupe of acrobats and is temporarily dazzled by the amazing Fred! But she puts this behind her, and is disconcerted to find that Susan’s intended, Bryan, is a man of similar temperament to herself, and completely unsuitable for the glowingly moral and frankly priggish Susan! Further complications arise in the form of Susan’s guardian, Sir William Waring, and it begins to seem unlikely that anyone will manage to attain a happy ending…
I have to say that my first experience of reading Margery Sharp was a wonderful one. Her prose is lovely, easy to read and thoroughly engaging, and her characters such fun! I laughed out loud in several places and followed the various scrapes into which Julia got herself with glee. However, I said above that the book was ostensibly light-hearted and there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye.
For a start, there’s Julia herself and her frankness about her lifestyle and her love affairs. Let’s not forget that the book was published in 1937, when England wasn’t particularly swinging, and so the fact that Sharp allows her heroine to be honest about her fondness for men and preferring a lively life on the stage, as opposed to a dull and respectable life in the country, is very refreshing.
It was not in her nature to deny: if she took lovers more freely than most women it was largely because she could not bear to see men sad when it was so easy to make them happy. He sensuousness was half compassion; she could never keep men on a string, which was perhaps why only one had ever married her…
In fact, with her cheerful amorality and zest for life, Julia seemed to me very much an English version of one of Colette’s heroines. However, the difference between France and England is very pointed here; the class system in this country was still well enough defined that Julia feels that she does not fit, and has to behave like a lady. Colette or one of her characters would most likely have not given a damn, and would have just been herself. And indeed, it’s when Julia relaxes and simply acts naturally that things start to go right for her… More I shall not say because I don’t want to spoil the plot for anyone.
When it comes down to it, despite her apparently ramshackle lifestyle, Julia is a good and moral person and makes the right decisions whereas less scrupulous characters will not; at a decisive point in the plot, Julia realises she’s misjudged a particular character and they are “bad”. The book ends in a slightly ambiguous fashion, with hints that all will be well for the main characters but with nothing set in stone; a nice touch by Sharp as life is not always predictable!
The book was just a delight to read and I could list so many things I loved about it; for example, Julia’s mother-in-law, who’s described as “one of the type, not rare among Englishwomen, in whom full individuality blossoms only with age: one of those whom at sixty-one, suddenly startle their relatives by going up in aeroplanes or by marrying their chauffeurs…” Julia’s attempts to manipulate her daughter into a path she thinks better are very clever and funny, and her growing relationship with Sir William is delicately handled. All in all, my first read of Margery Sharp was a wonderfully positive one; so thanks to Jane for hosting the Margery Sharp Birthday event and prompting me to read her work – I’m sure this won’t be the last! 🙂