The Flowering Thorn by Margery Sharp

Oh, this is lovely.

Margery Sharp’s 1933 novel – her fourth – is light, bright and witty, and it’s thoughtful, emotional and profound too. Not many authors can do all those things, and I don’t think anyone but Margery Sharp could wrap them up in a book as engaging and readable as  ‘The Flowering Thorn.’

‘The Flowering Thorn’ tells the story of Lesley Frewn. She was a Londoner, and you could probably call her a bright young thing. She had private means – not enough to make her fabulously wealthy, but more than enough to give her a very nice lifestyle. She had a lovely flat, her wardrobe was full of the latest fashions; she loved, art, music and theatre and partying with her circle of friends and suitors.

But one day something went wrong.

“The image she sought there–so curiously, eagerly, as though for the first time–was tall, poised and precisely as slender as fashion required. Gown, gloves and single orchid were impeccably chosen, while the dark, smooth shingle, close as a silken scalp, set off a certain neat elegance of head and shoulders. A lady, one would say, of at least sufficient income, enjoying considerable taste, and not more than twenty-eight years old….Without the slightest warning, Lesley Frewen burst into tears.”

A man was to blame: the one suitor Lesley really, really wanted didn’t want her.

Now experience has taught me that one Margery Sharp heroines, a wonderfully diverse group of women, have in common is that they don’t waste time feeling sorry for themselves; they get up and carry on.

the-flowering-thorn-margery-sharp-001Lesley was no exception, and she was inclined to be bolshie.

That goes some way to explaining why she offered to adopt an unwanted infant who had been left on her aunt’s hand after the death of a servant, saving him from being sent to an orphanage.

The other part of the explanation was that she thought that the experience would proved her with a fabulous stock of anecdotes.

She had doubts, but she had been taken with the child and she didn’t want to lose face. So she told herself that in four years time he would be going to school and she could resume her old life.

Lesley quickly realised that her income would only stretch so far, and so she decided that she would move her household to a cottage in the country. It takes time for her and her little boy – Pat – to learn to live together. The relationship they form is more much elder sister left in charge and little brother than mother and child, but they make it work.

Margery Sharp handles this beautifully, with understanding but without the faintest hint of sentimentality.

Along the way Lesley learns to be a countrywoman, forming friendships with her neighbours, joining in village life, and eventually realising that she could dine very well on local produce and didn’t need to have meals sent down from Fortnum and Mason.

“All through the summer Lesley’s household consolidated itself. In now included besides Patrick, Mrs Sprigg, and Pincher; a fine ginger cat who was sometimes called Alice; and of its tiny universe – as variously inhabited, for all its size as the island in ‘The Tempest’ – Lesley herself was the natural and undisputed centre. Within it, whatever she said or did was of extreme importance: goddess-like in her meanest activities, she dispensed food, favour, justice and protection. She had scraps for a dog, milk for a cat, bread for a child, a wage for an old woman: she had a roof and a fire and a door to shut or open. She was beginning to be beloved, and she was already essential.”

The journey to that point wasn’t simple: there were ups and downs and lots of lovely details, characters and incidents.

Lesley became great friends with the vicar’s wife; she charmed her elderly, aristocratic landlord; she rose to the occasion magnificently when called upon in a crisis.

And yet the obvious resolution was far from inevitable. There would be visitors from London, and there would always be a part of Lesley that felt the pull of her old life.

She was aware that the country life had changed her, as the good country food had changed her waistline, and she really didn’t know when Patrick went away to take up the school place that Lesley had inveigled her godfather into providing.

It was lovely spending time with these characters and in this world. There were so many times when I smiled, when I felt a tug of emotion, as I read.

There would be a lovely twist before the ending.

And that’s all I’m going to say.

The whole book is lovely, it’s as fine an entertainment today as it must have been in 1933, and I a still hoping that someone somewhere will reissue Margery Sharp’s books ….

23 responses

  1. Beautiful review, Jane. It does sound as if Margery Sharp’s novels are ripe for a reissue (I hadn’t heard of her until I started following your blog and Ali’s). Perhaps Vintage will give her the Margaret Kennedy treatment at some point?

    • Thank you. I am very much hoping that Vintage have had enough success with Stella Gibbons and Margaret Kennedy to pick up some more authors of their ilk, and I do think that Margery Sharp would sit well on their list.

    • Well I’m given to understand that Nicola Beauman still has a policy of publishing only books she really loves herself, and that she isn’t overly fond of Margery Sharp. I’m not too upset because I know there are other well-loved authors she doesn’t care for (Barbara Pym for example), and as there are a good number of novels that need reissuing I think Vintage or Bello or the like might be a better match for Margery.

  2. I just read this book, my first Margery Sharp, and loved it. I especially liked how Lesley’s life in the country was so rich and full without being overly sentimental. I am looking forward to finding more of her books

  3. It’s very unfortunate that the only Margery Sharp in our library is the children’s The Rescuers, so the sooner they get reprinted the better. It’s curious why these particular female authors of the first half of the last century are totally absent from the library shelves, while there are abundant old and reprinted copies of the Woolfs, Mitfords etc.

  4. I once read a book where a woman, left with a child in similar circumstances read “Peter Rabbit” to him every day…is this that book, the name of which I’ve been trying to remember?

  5. It sounds wonderful and I do like Margery Sharp. I’m working my way through the ones I can find. Like everyone else, I wish someone would republish her books. She would sit quite nicely among Bello’s authors. Perhaps we should all contact them and ask!

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  7. I ran across this quite by accident and was delighted. ln the last 50 years l have been able to acquire, often shockingly cheaply (esp during 70s and 80s) every Sharp title in her canon, with the exception of “Rhododendron Pie” and “Fanfare For Tin Trumpets,” which are both way out of my reach these days.
    l also corresponded with Mrs Castle (which was how she asked me to address ger) and met her briefly in London in the early 80s. She was an extremely pretty woman — she loathed how she photographed — who looked rather as I imagined Dodo looked in “Brittania Mews
    l love “The Flowering Thorn,” and l sometimes wondered, between Pat in that book, the Culver and Hambro chilren in “Brittania Mews,” the Clark children in “Something Light,” and, most memorably,
    the young Martha in “The Eye Of Love”
    if Sharp regretted having no children.
    l wrote my thesis on Noel Coward’s fiction (he was a big Sharp fan, btw) and when I tell people that for the sheer beauty of het prose, she was a better writer than he, they think I’m daft –until they read her books.
    l know that Margery and Geoffrey Castle were a very loving couple, but I was unprepared for the darkness and cynicism that began to inform her work when she was widowed. One sees the changes in “The Innocents” and it intensifies — while remaining hilarious —
    through all the books, culminating in “Summer Visits.” She said once in a letter that her publishers on both sides of the Atlantic were upset by the the sexual frankness of the book, and her use of three four-letter words
    which, frankly, though nolonger shicking in themselved, were very shocking indeed coming from the pen of Margery Sharp!
    This is an author who should always be in print. The Martha Trilogy still nakes me laugh out loud, as does “Something Light,” and the best of her short stories
    rank with Coward and Maugham. It would be enough for a writer to be as funny and compassionate as Sharp, but to have those qualitied delivered with such elegantly crafted prose is almost an embarrassment of riches.

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