A few months ago , when I was looking up something or other to do with a book, I noticed that Margery Sharp, one of my very favourite authors, was born on 25th January 1905.
Because I know that there are others out there who love her books, because I know there are others don’t know her and who would love her too, and because all but one of her books are out of print and need to be reissued, they really do.
I knew that there were others who knew and loved Margery, and it’s been lovely to find that there were more of us than I realised, and to find that so many others were ready to accept a recommendation and try a new-to-them author.
I’m looking forward to reading lots of posts, and of course I have to tell you about the book I read for the occasion.
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The story of ‘The Gipsy in the Parlour is quite simple, but the execution makes it something very special indeed.
The year is 1870, it is the height of summer, and on a Devonshire farm the three Sylvester women are anticipating the arrival of another to join their ranks.
“Themselves matched the day. The parlor was hot as a hothouse, not a window was open, all three women were big, strongly-corsetted, amply-petticoated, layered chin to toe in flannel, cambric, and silk at a guinea a yard. Their broad, handsome faces were scarlet, their temples moist. But they stood up to the heat of the parlor as they stood up to the heat of the kitchen or the heat of a harvest-field: as the sun poured in upon them so their own strong good-humour flowed out to meet it—to refract and multiply it, like the prisms of their candlesticks, the brass about their hearth. Nature had so cheerfully designed them that even wash-day left them fair-tempered: before the high festivity of a marriage their spirits rose, expanded, and bloomed to a solar pitch of stately jollification.”
Charlotte had arrived first, the bride of the eldest of four brothers. On her wedding night she unpacked her own sheets and goose-feather pillows and she gave the nuptial chamber a good turn-out before she undertook those other duties of a married woman to her husband’s complete satisfaction. And the next morning she was up at dawn, serving hearty breakfasts.
She was a formidable woman of the very best kind; she cheerfully revolutionised the households, and she did a little match-making, resulting in brothers number two and three bringing home brides with the same physique, the same attitude to life, and the same work ethic.
They worked together wonderfully well – Charlotte, Grace and Rachel – and they raised fine sons and saw them off to distant corners of the British Empire, to establish farms of there own.
And then that the youngest of the four brother brought home a bride.
It was clear from the start that Fanny Davis would not be like the other Sylvester women. They were fair and magnificent; she was dark, small and weak. She had worked in a hat shop!
Charlotte accepted that Fanny Davis would not be working alongside her sisters-in law, that she would be different. Grace and Rachel agreed. The household found a new equilibrium.
On the eve of her wedding Fanny Davis developed a mysterious malaise. She could recline on the sofa in the parlour, she could receive visitors, but she could do no more than that. The doctor was baffled.
And so Fanny Davis, sly and self-willed, came to rule the household.
The pictures that Margery Sharp paints of the Sylvester household and the cuckoo in the nest are wonderful. Some of the credit must go to her inspired choice of narrator: Charlotte’s eleven year-old niece who spends her winters with her family in London and her summers on the farm tells the story, some years after the events that she describes.
The pictures of the farm that she paints are so vivid, and her youthful perceptions are lovely:
“It wasn’t at that time, particularly uncommon. Ladies lay in declines all up and down the country…No common person ever went into one. Common persons couldn’t afford to. Also, there needed to be a sofa. No sofa, no decline.”
Her narration is effective because she has a little more faith in Fanny Davis that others might, because she can be drawn into her orbit as her ‘little friend’, and because she has her own role to play in the story, in London.
I suspect that there is more than a little of the author in her character, and through her the author tells her story with the idiosyncratic, subversive wit that I have come to love. Nobody else could have told this story quite like this.
I wish I could tell you her name, but it is never given.
Aunt Charlotte cared for the ‘invalid’ but her young niece – quite innocently and inadvertently – effects a ‘cure’. The Sylvester women are delighted – until the full story comes out.
I had a good idea of what was going to happen, but it was lovely watching the drama unfold. The joy really was in the telling.
I especially loved watching Charlotte take London by storm!
There were flaws in the story – the Sylvester men were horribly underwritten – but the number and the quality of the good things swept any reservations that I had away.
But I so loved the Sylvester women, I was delighted by the telling of the story that played out on the farm in Devon, and the end of that story was exactly right.
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Now, please do tell me if you’ve read a book for Margery Sharp Day. I’ll post a round up once the day is done.
And please don’t worry if you haven’t – Margery Sharp posts are welcome on any day of the year!