Britannia Mews by Margery Sharp

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This review is written in celebration of Margery Sharp’s birthday on January 25th, 2016. I would like to thank Jane from Beyond Eden Rock for encouraging us to celebrate the life and works of a wonderful author, most of whose works remain difficult to find.

‘Britannia Mews’ is a book that describes the life and times of the central character of Adelaide Culver, a child of privileged circumstances, living in one of the row of houses along London’s Albion Place. Adjacent to Albion Place, stands Britannia Mews, once a stable, housing the horses used by the genteel folk living in Albion Place but now reduced to a slum at the turn of the nineteenth century.

Adelaide falls in love with her art teacher and aspiring artist, Henry Lambert and throwing all caution to the winds, elopes with him, to live a life of severely reduced circumstances and drudgery in a small house in Britannia Mews. In the beginning, Adelaide is happy with her new found independence, the novelty of keeping her tiny house spick and span and the belief that Henry will make a name for himself in art circles.  Slowly, however, she is resigned to the fact that Henry is a drunk, with no ambition in life and has married her for no reason other than a desire to get by on Adelaide’s annual income.

When Henry Lambert falls to his death from the steps of his Mews house due to accidental circumstances, Adelaide believes she has been released from the prison that she has created for herself in Britannia Mews. She longs to go back to her parental house in the countryside. However, a devious neighbor has witnessed the slight push that Adelaide gave her husband that accidentally led to his death. This results in blackmail: the neighbour forces Adelaide to pay her ten shillings a week and compels her to stay on in the Mews.

Then as time passes on and Adelaide’s life seems very bleak she discovers real love in the most unexpected way. The strength of this attachment (with a man named Gilbert) gives her the strength to forsake everything and everyone else in her life. Adelaide and Gilbert create a Puppet Theatre in the Mew’s stables and this eventually leads to the upliftment of Britannia Mews and several of its residents. The birth of the famous Puppet Theatre leads to the gentrification of Britannia Mews. Adelaide’s success leads to great empowerment; Adelaide is envisioned as a strong inspiring woman by subsequent generations. The Theatre brings employment to several individuals and much needed entertainment to innumerable people, especially during the dark, dreary times of the Second World War. The story is brought full circle when Adelaide inspires her niece to forsake her life of comfort and luxury in rural suburbia and live a life of artistic endeavor and adventure in running the Puppet Theatre in Britannia Mews.

Set in the late nineteenth century and leading into the years spanning the Second World War, Britannia Mews is a story spanning several generations and several important world events.

The attitudes and affectations of Victorian London are very much at variance with those of subsequent times and these are highlighted in the different characters of the story.

The book focuses on the intersection of where the rich meet the poor, the difference in living conditions of the two factions, the snobbery of the upper class, the raucousness of the underbelly of London society and the dissolution of these classes with the onset of the Second World War.

Women are portrayed in strong, influential roles. They marry to please themselves, not to gratify society. Convention is severely flouted in the book ‘Britannia Mews’.

It is an astonishing novel on many levels and depicts a slice of English history that is multifaceted and rich in detail. I’ve enjoyed reading a Margery Sharp novel that is a little different from the other books I have read, but quite, quite lovely!

Martha, Eric and George by Margery Sharp

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This review is written in celebration of Margery Sharp’s birthday on January 25th, 2016. I would like to thank Jane from Beyond Eden Rock for encouraging us to celebrate the life and works of a wonderful author, most of whose works remain difficult to find.

‘Martha, Eric and George’ is the third book in the Martha trilogy written by Margery Sharp. For reviews of the first two book in the series, please see here and here.

If ‘The Eye of Love’ was a lively entree into this delightful trilogy, ‘Martha in Paris’ was a deliciously light and entertaining prelude to the substantial finale of the drama- ‘Martha, Eric and George’, surrounding the central character of Martha.

The child Martha, her stolid personality, her large appetite, her obsession with drawing and sketching, even in the most trying circumstances amuses us in the book ‘The Eye of Love’.

In ‘Martha in Paris’ Martha due to her benefactor, Mr Joyce’s encouragement, accepts an opportunity to study art under a master-class artist in Paris. In Paris, she meets Eric, an English bank employee, and the two embark on a relationship of sorts, brought about under the most peculiar circumstances!

Martha’s plans to seriously continue her artistic studies are seriously thwarted, however, when she discovers that she is carrying Eric’s child. ‘Martha in Paris’, memorably concludes when Martha deposits her newborn son (unknown to Eric) on the doorstep of Eric’s Parisian apartment.

‘Martha, Eric and George’ starts when the baby is discovered by Madame Leclerc, the concierge of the apartment buildings that Eric and his mother reside in. In all her thirty years of being concierge at the building, this incident, perhaps, tops it all.

…she hadn’t meant to be defrauded of the most exciting incident in all her thirty years as concierge. There had once been a suicide on the Fifth, a burglary on the Third; in each case Madame Leclerc gave evidence, for so respectable a house it wasn’t bad, but neither episode could touch, for drama and human interest, the act of placing within the arms of a serious young man his illegitimate offspring.

Eric is astonished to discover that he is a father.

His single pertinent thought was still classic. “Oh God,” thought Eric Taylor,”why did this happen to me?”

Bewildered, Eric unburdens his offspring into his Mother’s arms, who is delighted to find that she is a grandmother.

Meanwhile, Martha escapes to England and starts practicing her art in earnest. In the next ten years she develops a reputation as a formidable artist. She does not think of her son during this time. Eric, is unable to track down Martha due to lack of a forwarding address. When an opportunity to exhibit her work in Paris arises, ten years later, she is  reminded that somewhere in Paris, she has a son.

There is a remarkable section in the book that describes the meeting of Martha, Eric and George in a Parisian coffee shop. One can only imagine the repercussions of such a meeting. One would imagine a mother to be visibly moved upon meeting her son, perhaps her heart might be softened upon seeing her offspring… one can never be sure, especially with Margery Sharp’s excellent storytelling.

Without giving too much away, I will leave it to you to find out what happens next…

Eric, Martha and George deals with several feminist issues: those of a woman or mother’s expected role in society. Indeed, it challenges those societal norms. We are encouraged to think sometimes, why should a man too, not be expected to play a nurturing role, outside that of merely supplying monetary sustenance to a child?

This is a clever book. One which kept me and keeps me thinking about it.

A Tale of Two Families by Dodie Smith

 

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  • Title: A Tale of Two Families
  • Author: Dodie Smith
  • Published: 1970
  • Location of the story: rural England

‘A Tale of Two Families’ by Dodie Smith is the story of the relationship between two families: those of May and June, two sisters, who marry two brothers, George and Robert. When May and George decide to relocate to the countryside for a few years, on a landed estate with a small cottage, it seems the most natural thing for June and Robert to leave their father’s house and set up home in the cottage on May and George’s leased estate. Robert, a skilled but lesser known writer plans on writing his magnum opus in the idyllic surrounds of the cottage. June is happy to be carefree and close to her sister. Robert and George’s father, Baggy, comes to stay with George’s family. May and June’s delightful mother, Fran, decides to stay with her two daughters for a while. The children in the family come upto the property on weekends, from London or the boarding schools they go to and a good time is had by all in the family. Then the close proximity leads to unforeseen events…

The reason for the move is in one way precipitated by May’s need to distance herself from George’s philandering ways in London. George, is a successful businessman in London. He commutes to his workplace by the train. The two sets of adults in the family along with Baggy, settle into a routine. George leaves early in the morning. May, ever the dutiful wife, gives him an early breakfast and he pops off to work on the train. May is busy with various household activities during the day. Robert, potters about the garden and keeps planning his novel in his attic study in the cottage. June is blissfully happy to be in the countryside, so near her sister and George. Quite disturbingly, we learn of June’s secret infatuation for George, a fact that she conceals quite well. George, returns home from work every evening laden with gifts for household members. The couples frequently dine together or George visits the cottage to watch television together in the evenings.

Baggy, the boys’ father feels a little isolated in his small wing of the house. Despite the fine food and company, he misses his home in London, which he had shared with Robert and June. Though May, spoils everyone with her beautifully cooked meals, she lacks the warmth that June had. Baggy also misses his old routine, nightly soaks in his bathtub with his granddaughter’s bath toys! This loneliness is somewhat abated when Fran, the girl’s mother comes to visit. Though Fran Graham is in her seventies she retains her youthfulness, both in spirit and in appearance. When she arrives at the country house by  a taxi, she is mistaken for a young girl by her grandchildren and Baggy.

‘Hello, here’s a taxi. Some girl appears to be arriving.’

Dickon, joining him said, ‘That’s no girl. That’s my grandmother.’

‘Fran does have a girlish figure,’said Prue, then raced after Dickon who was already on his way to the front door.

The family group is complete and a period of great contentment sets in. The lilac bushes on the estate are in full bloom. Nightingales can be heard in the dead of the night.

‘Heavens, how lucky we are,’ said June. ‘Lilac and a nightingale! And there’s a marvelous laburnum coming out near the cottage- and a may tree.’

‘”The lilac, the laburnum and the may”,’ said Robert.’I’m sure that’s a quotation…

They were back at the cottage now. Robert’s torch shone on a drift of cow parsley, left on the edge of the lawn.

‘”Where the cow parsley skirts the hawthorn hedge”,’said Fran.’And I do know who wrote that: Rossetti, the most loved poet of my girlhood.’

This idyllic period is disrupted when Fran’s sister, Aunt Mildred, or ‘Mildew’ as she is jokingly referred to, comes to stay. Aunt Mildred, creates a toxic environment within the household, owing to her childish ways and her overactive imagination which leads to events that have irrevocable consequences.

‘A Tale of Two Families’ arrested my attention till the last page. It had sublime, romantic moments filled with poetry and nature but it didn’t relapse into a completely cozy novel due to the great sexual tension, Dodie Smith developed in the novel.

It is a book I enjoyed reading and will, no doubt, re-read in the future. It is, to echo Dickens, a story about two families, in the best of times and worst of times.

Two poetry references in the book prompted the #poetrymatchart tag on Instagram. The first reference is to a poem by Charles Mackay, the second a poem by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

I am inserting the posts below.

"I have lived and I have loved; 
I have waked and I have slept; 
I have sung and I have danced; 
I have smiled and I have wept; 
I have won and wasted treasure; 
I have had my fill of pleasure; 
And all these things were weariness, 
And some of them were dreariness;– And all these things, but two things, 
Were emptiness and pain: 
And Love–it was the best of them; 
And Sleep–worth all the rest of them, 
Worth everything but Love to my spirit and my brain. 
But still my friend, O Slumber, 
Till my days complete their number, 
For Love shall never, never return to me again!" by Charles Mackay Painting – The Long Sleep by Briton Riviere. Last night, while reading Dodie Smith's 'A Tale of Two Families' I came across a reference to this wonderful poem by Charles Mackay. Isn't it lovely?Another tag is being started- #poetrymatchart. I am tagging a few people whom I think might like to do or appreciate this tag. A very happy Monday to all!

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"Your hands lie open in the long fresh grass,– The finger-points look through like rosy blooms: Your eyes smile peace. The pasture gleams and glooms 'Neath billowing skies that scatter and amass. All round our nest, far as the eye can pass, Are golden kingcup-fields with silver edge Where the cow-parsley skirts the hawthorn-hedge. 'Tis visible silence, still as the hour-glass. Deep in the sun-searched growths the dragon-fly Hangs like a blue thread loosened from the sky:– So this wing'd hour is dropt to us from above. Oh! clasp we to our hearts, for deathless dower, This close-companioned inarticulate hour When twofold silence was the song of love." Silent Noon by Dante Gabriel Rossetti Painting by Alfred Sisley Meadow , 1875. #poetrymatchart I came across the reference to this nice poem in a book recently – A Tale of Two Families -by Dodie Smith. How lovely is the line 'Where the cow-parsley skirts the hawthorne-hedge' ? Wish everyone a happy Thursday!

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Introducing #bookmatchartwork – the pairing of a unifying theme in literature and art

Today I am posting about two things I am very passionate about- books and paintings. So by incorporating a hashtag #bookmatchartwork I will be trying to pair two otherwise unrelated creative bodies of work. This Instagram post befriends Peter Mayle with Van Gogh- in the beautiful location of sunny Provence.

Do you hear the word 'Provence' and immediately think of purple lavender fields, succulent grapes bursting off their vines, weekend summer markets and long, balmy evenings, languorously eating cheese and sipping red wine? There is no need to exert the imagination when you have Peter Mayle's 'A Year in Provence' at hand. Through his lively, year long diary, we glimpse a vision of Provençal beauty that exceeds our imaginative expectations. (This book made it to my top 10 books list of 2015 on my blog). To add to that, we have the beauty of two of Van Gogh's most famous paintings: The Starry Night and Wheat Field with Cypresses. Both were painted during Van Gogh's stay at the asylum in Saint- Rémy-de-Provence. A key feature common to these paintings are the diagonal line created by the low rolling hills of the distant Alpilles mountains. Don't you love it when a book or a piece of art takes you to a faraway place? I'm creating a tag called #bookmatchartwork . If you would like to pair a book that you think thematically or visually matches a work of art please use it. I am tagging a few friends who I think might be interested in doing this tag. If you are interested in art and books I tag you!

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Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns

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‘Our Spoons Came from Woolworths’ is the story of twenty-one year old Sophia, during the time when she was married to Charles Fairclough. The story is in its entirety, a first person narrative and tells of the harrowing poverty, the ups and downs of the young couple, in a time during which Charles refuses to take any financial responsibility for his household, using his need to practice his art as an excuse to shirk his duties.

The story commences when Sophia and Charles, two art students, meet on a train, are immediately drawn to one another and decide to marry even in the face of severe opposition from Charles’s family, who believe that domestic responsibilities and marriage will hamper Charles’s artistic progress. Charles’s mother Eva, practically falls upon Sophia and accuses her of trapping her son.

Eva said I was not capable of love, only lust, and it was all a trap to catch Charles.

They are married in less than ideal conditions, in a church ceremony, presided over by an impatient priest, a handful of less then enthusiastic friends and relatives and the bride wearing an ugly green wrap-over skirt that had a tendency to unwrap at the most inopportune moments.

They arrange to live in a small flat on Haverstock Hill in London. With the ten pounds that a spiritualist friend gives them for a wedding gift they buy  furniture and household essentials.

We had a proper tea-set from Waring and Gillow, and a lot of blue plates from Woolworths; our cooking things came from there, too. I had hoped they would give us a set of real silver teaspoons when we bought the wedding-ring but the jeweler we went to wouldn’t so our spoons came from Woolworths, too.

Sophia earns two pounds a week with which she pays the rent, food and other household expenses. Charles stays at home painting. He sometimes tries to get work at commercial studios but nothing turns up in the face of the Great Depression. He is not troubled by the fact that he does not in any way contribute to the family. Sophia states:

Charles was quite happy just painting away, and as long as I earned two pounds a week and there were a few cheques in the drawer he hadn’t a care in the world.

This happiness is broken when Sophia quite unexpectedly discovers that she is expecting a child. At first she thinks her sickness is a result of eating too many strawberries but a visit to the doctors dispels that idea.

There is a quite memorable passage describing Sophia’s vague ideas regarding birth control:

I had a kind of idea if you controlled your mind and said ‘I won’t have any babies’ very hard, they most likely wouldn’t come. I thought that was what was meant by birth-control, but by this time I knew that idea was quite wrong.

Sophia although eager to be a mother is weighed down with the knowledge that Charles is terribly against being a father because he does believes they will not fit in with the kind of life he want to lead.

As time goes on, the stash of wedding cheques kept in a drawer whittle down and the couple find themselves living from hand to mouth, always guessing where the next few pounds will come from, to pay of their substantial debts. The descriptions of the poverty that Comyns describes are at times quite harrowing. They are told in quite a light manner though so that the reader does not feel excessively weighed down.

Sophia’s loss of job before having the baby signals the downward spiral that the couple find it hard to recover from.

I found the book to be quite compelling reading. The descriptions of Sophia’s child delivery in the hospital were at times quite funny but also shocking. The book quite brilliantly reflects the period that it describes, the hard circumstances of the Depression and the plight of women.

The book is very much a story about women, for women. Even in the depths of helplessness and despair for Sophia we are witness to her great strength and determination.

‘Our Spoons came from Woolworths’ is an exceptional domestic drama and Comyns displays consummate skill as a voluble spokesperson for the downtrodden women of that age.