‘Could it be…disappointment?’
This enigmatic concluding line of Margery Sharp’s first novel Rhododendron Pie was hailed as ‘a stroke of genius’. It is also significant in that it sets the tone for the delicate ironies and shadows of uncertainty that run like a continuous thread through the next forty years of her body of work.
The debate of middlebrow versus highbrow in taste and culture that is dealt with in Rhododendron Pie (written in 1930) might seem trivial to today’s modern reader, and hardly worth comment. In our world of strip malls, half-caf soy lattes and vampire love stories no one cares if you choose to thrill yourself on Tuesday night at a monster truck show and on Wednesday evening don your pearls to go listen to a performance of Beethoven’s string quartet Opus 131.
But in Margery Sharp’s world of 1920’s Britain this highbrow/middlebrow/lowbrow contention was very relevant, and in fact was beginning to heat up to uncomfortable temperatures.
Even Virginia Woolf was sufficiently roused by her distaste of the emerging middlebrow class to later write ‘if any human being, man, woman, dog, cat or half-crushed worm dares call me ‘middlebrow’ I will take my pen and stab him, dead.’ [Middlebrow]
It was in a similar climate of defiant mockery, that one clever young lady from the London suburbs, (awfully smart, fashionable, and keen-sighted in her Winston spectacles) penned her first novel. In Rhododendron Pie, Margery Sharp takes up her little arrows and aims them with polite precision at the highbrows.
Was she successful? Did she hit any targets? Or was it just a naive attempt?
Reviews of the time indicate that perhaps she sunk a few of those arrows fairly deeply. We gather this, not by reading the favorable reviews of the book, (written by middlebrow newspapers) but by reading between the lines of the comments from reviewers who considered themselves, or aspired to be, highbrow.
‘Slapping the highbrows in the face has become a common, garden party pastime…’
….writes Gerald Gould of the London Daily News, in his review of Rhododendron Pie (1/27/30). ‘“Rhododendron Pie” is a satire, and a satire that would be brilliant if it were not a little bit too easy….Miss Sharp loads the dice wittily, but shamelessly.’ It was the same Gerald Gould who wrote that Sharp’s last line was ‘a stroke of genius’. (Gerald Gould died in November 1936, and in his time was widely respected as among the best novel critics.)
From the London University newspaper, or ‘rag’ as they called it, a young reviewer was a bit unsettled by Sharp’s perceptions, and writes: ‘…the [highbrow] Laventies and their friends, therefore, are exaggerated into incomprehension in order to labour a theme which is, to me, immoral. I confess some alarm as to what Miss Sharp will produce next, particularly since her writing is so dangerously readable.’
‘Alarm’? ‘Dangerously readable?’ ‘Immoral?’
Apparently some of Miss Sharp’s arrows hit their mark. One is reminded of Virginia Woolf’s retaliatory desire to wield her death dealing pen. Indeed, there are many intimations in Sharp’s novel that bring this particularly famous highbrow to mind, indicating that Margery Sharp had read Woolf’s novels and essays, or perhaps attended some of Woolf’s lectures at the universities.
On the whole, the tone of Rhododendron Pie is gracious. There is no malevolence, or biting sarcasm, but there is definitely the ‘snappy pickle’ of satire. She treats her highbrows gently, and in the character of Ann has given us a view of them through Ann’s admiring love. Surely there is no better perspective from which to present a few flaws! One reviewer (New Statesman, 2/8/30) states….
‘It would have been easy to make all these persons pretentious and valueless as well as narrow, and Miss Sharp deserves credit for avoiding the easy path which would have taken the sting out of her comedy as well as all the difficulty out of Ann’s choice.’
Still, there is the surprisingly good tongue lashing the highbrows receive from none other than the frail Mrs. Laventie—who emerges as an unexpected ally to Ann.
‘‘‘And who, after all, are you,” enquired Mrs. Laventie, surveying them dispassionately, ‘to say how life should be lived?”’
A particularly witty picture on this subject is drawn for us from the description of Elizabeth’s first flat in London. Elizabeth is the sombre, erudite elder sister of Ann. She writes, in a letter to Ann…
‘The flat is built over an archway, so that my sitting room overlooks a frieze of fine white houses pasted against the park and my study an alley of almost Neapolitan squalor. We call them the inferno and Paradiso, and change the prospect to match our humour. One feels a little like God surveying the universe. Your room, I am afraid, commands the seamy side, but you will like the taxi-men and their many children.’
Ann can’t wait to join her sister in London, and tries to picture herself walking beside her sister and their friends there… ‘not easy people to walk beside, with their long slow stride and arrogant height; nor to talk to, when they felt like God overlooking the universe; being naturally more critical, Ann reflected, than the original Creator.’
These references to their lofty stature in both height and outlook, as well as the flat with its elevated views of both the ‘inferno and Paradiso’ sides of life, again brings to mind Virginia Woolf and her friends of Bloomsbury during this period…
‘it is one of the prime necessities of life to [the lowbrows],’ Woolf would later write, ‘to be shown what life looks like. And the highbrows, of course, are the only people who can show them. Since they are the only people who cannot do things, they are the only people who can see things being done.’
Her words, in the post-humously published essay ‘Middlebrow’ were edgy satire, but it illustrates how the divide was generally viewed, and makes all the more appropriate Elizabeth Laventie’s comments on her view… “[we] change the prospect to match our humour.”
The charge leveled, by the New Troy reviewer, against Sharp’s book–that the theme was immoral–is unwarranted given that Sharp attempted to present all sides with an unrancorous eye. Paradoxically, this careful approach also brought criticism—by the New Statesman reviewer, who wrote ‘tact and moderation of this sort in a young novelist is just a little disconcerting’.
While Sharp uses the novel to argue for the value of the ordinary and commonplace, and such traditions of marriage and the Church of England (remembering those pert comments about keeping fruit in a pie where it belongs) she also crafts some delightful characters who present a balance.
In London, Ann meets the irrepressible Delia, who is high-spirited, irresponsible, and completely amoral. Ann does find her a bit shocking, but she becomes Ann’s best friend in the strange new world of London.
‘Ann loved Delia.’ Sharp writes, ‘That was all there was to it.’
Ann has no adverse judgement for Delia, she is who she is, and Ann loves her. Delia is refreshingly open to the world, possesses an almost childlike simplicity, yet has a unique wisdom all her own. She’s the kind of carefree sage Ann sorely needs at this time in her life, and Delia fills the void left by the remote and dispassionate sister Elizabeth. One also gets the feeling that Sharp creates the character of Delia in order to prove that Ann is not a prude or one still mired in Victorian sentiment.
It is no coincidence—in terms of the writer’s power to manipulate unlikely events—that Ann encounters her new friend Delia in Kensington Park. Delia merely looks pretty in a new coat and hat, but Ann has just been indulging in some sombre reflections at the feet of that famous symbol of eternal childhood—Peter Pan.
She wonders disconsolately what ‘They’ would think of Peter Pan…. ‘Peter Pan had never been specifically dealt with, but she felt sure that the verdict would be against him: he was pretty…’ This ties in with Ann’s earlier comment that ‘she hated [Jacob] Epstein and loved pale pink sunsets.’ And in another oblique reference to Virginia Woolf (‘They’) ‘Ann stepped on to the flags and patted a snail.’
But what about the Gayfords? That ‘other’ family–the hopelessly middlebrow, suburbanized, rackety and loving brood? Mrs. Gayford, the mother of them all, first appears on the scene with her hair standing on end and bearing an armload of cabbages from the garden. She proceeds to dump them on the clean tablecloth that has just been laid out for dinner, scattering dirt. (We like her immediately.)
“It is nice to see you, Miss Laventie, but I can’t shake hands because I’m all earthy.”
‘All earthy’, indeed. What a contrast is here presented against the polished atmosphere of the Laventie ancestral home of Whitenights….
‘[Ann] thought of the lovely cool dimness when you came in from the hot garden, and great gusts of warm air blowing through open windows, and the intense, hushed silence about three o’clock in the afternoon. It was odd, but however still the house was, the long shadowy drawing-room was always a little quieter yet, a pool of quiet in the heart of the house. For some reason there was always a faint smell of mint there, a scent Ann was to connect for the rest of her life with thin coffee cups and green brocade. When she was little she had admired the great shining sofa more than anything in the world….’
Meanwhile, back at the Gayfords…
‘Supper was a confused and a turbulent meal. Everyone talked at the same time.’
The reviewer for the New Troy dubbed the Gayfords ‘prolific, and vitally animate’. He loathes the fact that Ann, ‘the least brilliant but the most human’ of the Laventies, should be attracted to the likes of the Gayfords, and their eldest son in particular. In fact, after spending the afternoon, somewhat accidentally, in John Gayford’s company, Ann reflects, ‘The afternoon…had been unexpectedly entertaining, but one should not trust Providence too far; and there was also the question of explaining to Elizabeth that she had voluntarily spent something over four hours in the company of a Gayford.’
A particular passage that was most enjoyable–and insightful–related to the art of how to navigate through party conversation that might very well be over one’s head. Ann Laventie has had a lot of practice in making it seem as though she shares her family’s intellectual acumen, but in practice it is always a bit tricky.
‘As Ann dressed for dinner she reviewed the evening’s entertainment somewhat in the spirit of a general reviewing a battlefield: for the absence of Gilbert, distressing in itself, left her intellect completely free to deal with the situation. Elizabeth had not mentioned any other women, so that they were probably in for a feast of pure reason untouched by the softening influence of pretty frocks or bright glances. Neither she nor Elizabeth ever glanced brightly. In intellectual conversation, Ann had discovered, the great thing was to let your partner get his opinion in first and then be won over to the same side….Ann, it was to be regretted, took a blatantly immoral view of polite conversation…’
In the beginning of the novel, we’ll remember, a young Ann was secretly disappointed to find rhododendron flowers in her pie instead of hot, sticky and delicious fruit. What was the good of a pie you cannot eat? Of what use is symbolism if there is no substance?
Now, in the glorious conclusion, the essence of Life, ‘a beautiful, warm, many-voiced reality’ triumphs through the rosy glow of another child’s party, this time for Ann’s son.
The party is richly laid out by loving parents as a virtual orgy of childhood delights; fairy lights twinkling in every color, fireworks displays, games, ‘crackers…gorgeous in red and silver frillings, lavishly ornamented with clowns and pantaloons and fiddling cats’.
Sharp even brings to the festive board every luscious confection she could think of—we’re beginning to realize she has a fondness for sweets—yet there is the flat, disquieting note of ‘disappointment’ in the birthday boy’s eyes. Why? He has been examining the pink sugar roses that adorn his birthday cake.
The flowers are not real.
‘She was busy watching [his] absorbed face with the bright lock of hair falling in his eyes as he examined his crisp rose-buds…Then suddenly [he] raised his head, and Ann caught a look, a fleeting shade of expression, that jerked her twenty years back into a green, quiet garden….Was it–could it be–disappointment?’
One reviewer called this ‘depressing’. Not at all, as Margery might reasonably point out, for we have only returned to where we began.
‘There in a nutshell is the essence of true pantomime; a charming fancy, a pleasing softness, and just a tinge of sadness.’ Reviewer, (Stanley, Queen) Nov. 1956]
“Entirely delicious.” Manchester Guardian 1/22/30