Cluny Brown

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!

Paper fragment of book flyleaf explaining that the book was printed using methods intended to save paper because of wartime rationing.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.

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8 Responses to Cluny Brown

  1. Constance Jurczyk says:

    Thank you for a wonderful review! You had me at the first paragraph, but the description (and appreciation!) of your physical copy of the book put this way over the top.

  2. Jeanne says:

    Something pleasant sounds really good about now.

    • Jeanne says:

      …and “pleasant” really is the word to describe this book. Thanks for writing about it; I enjoyed it. I especially liked the part where the couple that go off together at the end talk about how “the whole universe is to let.” What a carefree thought that is, and how far away it seems now.

  3. Really… something pleasant does sound good right now. Thanks!

  4. Rohan Maitzen says:

    Just agreeing with everyone else about how appealing “pleasant” sounds – better than most options, really! I love that remnant you found: it’s a nice reminder of the way the materiality of a book is part of a larger history.

  5. Joyce Task says:

    Just to hold the physical book that others have held, in other times — yes, “the materiality of a book” is a joy.

  6. This sounds wonderful — and oh my gosh, that back flap is amazing! What a cool piece of history!

  7. Emily says:

    ‘The Council on Books in Wartime’, wow.

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