This 1944 novel by Margery Sharp is so pleasant. The conflict and drama are minimal, but significant to those experiencing it. The people are decent, but not perfect. There’s a recognition of the wider world beyond the story. And there are some surprising turns along the way.
At age 20, Cluny Brown is described as “good-tempered, willing, as much sense as most girls —” yet her uncle, a London plumber named Mr. Porritt, can’t figure out how to “handle” her because “she doesn’t seem to know her place.” I know that Mr. Porritt sounds terrible, but he really just wants to help Cluny live a life that’s safe and secure. He’s not mean-spirited; he just doesn’t get Cluny’s willingness to do the unexpected, like have tea at the Ritz or go out to resolve a plumbing problem when her uncle can’t be reached. Cluny acts in the moment in ways that make sense to her, without much thought for social convention. And that’s the root of the problem.
Mr. Porritt decides that life in service would be good for Cluny, so he arranges for her to take a position as a parlour-maid in a country house called Friars Carmel. There, she does well enough to retain her job but doesn’t go out of her way to excel. And she continues to break convention by, for example, taking the neighbor’s dog out for walks.
As Cluny adjusts to her new life in the country, the family at Friars Carmel is adjusting to the presence of a new guest, a writer from Germany who has left to evade the Nazis. This is, of course, a potentially serious story line, but Sharp treats it with a light touch, focusing on the personalities involved, rather than the peril, which remains theoretical and distant.
Much of the novel focuses on Cluny and the family’s daily dramas, but those dramas are not without weight because so many of the characters are on the cusp of making monumental decisions about where to live, whom to marry, and what sort of person to be. And the choices they make are sometimes predictable and sometimes surprising — one in particular just about took my breath away it was so unexpected, but in the end it seemed entirely right.
I also have to share the wonderful fragment in my copy of the book. I found this for a couple of dollars at a local thrift store. It was missing the original paper cover, but I’m so happy that this back flyleaf was preserved and remained inside the book. What a wonderful piece of history!
As for the actual printing of the book, it didn’t seem particularly substandard to me, but perhaps that speaks to the typical condition of modern book printing. The paper is slightly more yellow than I’m used to, although some of that is due to age. The print is clear and readable, and the margins are sufficient. The text doesn’t feel at all crowded on the page, nor does the paper feel particularly thin. It makes me wonder how it would have looked a year or two earlier! As it is, I found this pleasantly light and enjoyable to read, both in print quality and story quality.