I love the way blogs continue to survive the onslaught of mega-umbrella-sites. In this case, I’m thinking of Margery Sharp Day, initiated several years ago by the blog Beyond Eden Rock, and picked up by lots of readers who maintain their own blogs. Each has their own community of followers and commentators.
This year Jane, for the day she put into the calendar, read Britannia Mews and as chance would have it, I picked up a copy (along with several other Sharps) just a couple of days later. I put it at the top of the pile.
It’s almost entirely lacking the often acerbic humor of her books, presumably because it was written just after WWII. Instead, there is a story which might almost be a metaphor for the stubbornness without which the UK could not have stood against Hitler, stubbornness without which it is impossible to think of how the world might look now. Adelaide, the chief protagonist, is a young woman with no future she can bear to look towards. She is deprived in the late nineteenth century of the higher education her undeserving brother is permitted. She watches her cousin fall into the sensible marriage that is her only real future and while that is happening, a revolution takes place in her life.
Her painting instructor makes love to her and she instantly is transformed by it. She believes she is in love and nothing – NOTHING – is going to take that away from her. After secret assignations, she announces to her family that she is going to marry this man and elopes with him because it is that or nothing. They go to live in what is at that point, the slum of Brittania Mews. She soon discovers that he is an alcoholic wastrel. Her life is ruined. And yet she displays all the stiff upper lip of the English in WWII. She has made her bed and although it has been made clear to her than she (but not the scoundrel husband) can come ‘home’ whenever she likes, that is not an option in her mind. When he dies it is still not an option.
After a while she becomes involved with a married man (whose wife is in India and wants nothing to do with him). They live together unmarried for the rest of their lives. That doesn’t mean life becomes easy for Adelaide, it isn’t. But she remains strong and stubborn. Most importantly she relishes being in control; she’d rather a hard life like that, than an easy life as the doormat of family. Independence is everything to her.
This is clearly no conventional kowtowing-to-the-morals-of-the-time storyline. Adelaide has a niece whom she eventually meets and takes under her wing. The niece – and really, this is a long time after Adelaide’s young adulthood – has exactly the same experiences. The utter meaningless of her life insofar as it would be perforce marriage and the running of a house, a loveless union, but no doubt a civilised and practical one. She breaks off her engagement, leaves home, and in a state of profound confusion ends up in the Mews. I don’t know if these things sound trivial these days, but there is no doubt that they are brave and far from trivial acts at the time.
So here we have Adelaide, an eloper, living ‘in sin’ for decades with a married man who takes his wife’s name and Dodo her niece living a fulfilling single life – the implication being this will never change, when the book ends. The book sees the women who behave in the ‘right’ way feeling as if they are losing out to the women who eschew their duty. How unfair! Both Adelaide and Dodo fail to give the filial love which is the only important thing women can do with their lives. Yet it is these two women who carry the book morally. They are true to themselves; though there are moments made to tempt them, they never seriously waver. Sharp makes it quite clear that the women who stay at home and keep house and raise children are not the good women in this story. I thought this was interesting for the period – but maybe that reflects no more than my ignorance.
At the same time, it should be made clear that Adelaide and Dodo aren’t doing what they do, taking the paths they do, living the way they do, because they are moral people trying to do a moral thing. They are simply doing what they want to do. If they are good people, that’s incidental. Indeed, going back to the start of the story, it is entirely Adelaide’s aim to rehabilitate the ‘painter’ she marries. Her plan is for his success (as she dotingly expects in the first instance) to carry them back triumphantly into the mainstream of upper-class society. Tragically, her no-good husband has one talent, it’s for making marionettes. But far from understanding and appreciating this, she scorns them, and him for making them. She wants something to get him into the National Gallery. Later she discovers how wrong she was and interestingly, her defacto partner is presumed to have made them. Neither he nor Adelaide sees any need to rehabilitate the name of the husband. Indeed, the defacto takes on Adelaide’s married name, the first husband is quickly forgotten and nobody even knows within the story that the defacto is not the original husband. It’s all odd and interesting.
There is a movie of the book and it murders the whole idea of it, from what I’ve read of the plot. Nonetheless, I’m looking forward to watching it.