‘In a pie you want fruit.’
If reading the works of Margery Sharp can be likened to opening a time capsule jar and savoring the preserves of the past, then Rhododendron Pie is both the snappy pickle and sticky sweet sugar plum. The premise of her first novel is given to us quite readily as we begin, through the unusual metaphor of a succulent, sugary crusted pie that is served at Ann Laventie’s tenth birthday party. When the tempting pie is cut and served, its interior is billowing with, not fruit, but rhododendron blossoms.
Inedible, you say? Strange? Inappropriate, even? That’s exactly what Margery Sharp intended for her readers to think. ‘In a pie you want fruit,’ she states flatly.
It seems rather elementary, yet it provides the theme for this lovely and unusual story. In a pie you want fruit; in art you want beauty; in love you want commitment.
Thus the first reason to enjoy Rhododendron Pie is simple. It is a love story about many things; one that is beautifully told with a delicate precision.
For a first novel from a young authoress, it establishes a surprising tone of perceptive authority. We like the characters; even the shallowest qualify for a bit of kindly pathos. There is a satisfying romance (well, almost satisfying–this is a book by Margery Sharp, after all) and in the end?
A glorious ‘glimpse’ of happily ever after.
Ann Laventie is the appealing heroine, with everyday dreams and modest ambitions, described at age twenty as ‘still much of the wistful little girl about her’. She was born into the unusually intellectual and cultured family of Laventies of Sussex, who have lived for many a genteel generation in a country house called Whitenights.
Ann begins to find at an early age–as referenced by her disappointment in her birthday pie–that she is not an aesthete like the rest of her family. She is not a poet in life, nor a free thinker…
…‘she hates Epstein and loves pale pink sunsets and that is all wrong.’
She wants a wedding in a church and a house and garden in the suburbs and while, like her father, she loves books and learning, she can read ‘in only two languages to Mr. Laventie’s five.’
Ann loves and admires her family a great deal, and fears not measuring up to their lofty standards.
‘They combined the extremes of old-world elegance and modern freedom, tempering a belief in free verse and free love with an equal feeling for social decorum.’
Her mother alone is the exception to their brilliance, yet the persona of Mrs. Laventie is housed in a crippled body, confined to a wheelchair; a quiet woman who remains unknown and shadowed behind the dominant figure of her nurse. A startling moment that reveals her true character and strength comes late in the book, but fortunately not too late for her daughter’s happiness.
Ann finds discreet ways to hide her inadequacies from her family and their artsy friends when necessary. These range from touching and rather pathetic to downright hilarious; her small ‘stock-in-trade’, as it were, is her beautiful, dreamy eyebrows…
‘the dreamy touch was particularly convenient; and a timely reverie had often carried her safely through the epigrams.’
Ann has two options for romance. One is the darkly handsome and enigmatic film producer Gilbert Croy who falls in love with Ann and her ‘timely reveries’ and asks her to move in with him. Curiously, her acceptance of this arrangement, and the absence of any Victorian prudery regarding marriage and morality, would be the very thing that would finally align her once and for all with her free-thinking family. On that basis alone Ann could be tempted.
The other option for romance comes from the unlikely household of the Gayford family. They are neighbors to the Laventies, but that is only a matter of geography. John Gayford, the eldest son, works in a bank, and is described as ‘nice and clean and Sussex, with a good square chin and brown eyes.’ He doesn’t read the classics, but thinks he does, because he enjoys Kipling.
This innocent, hearty enjoyment of Kipling causes a delicate shudder of revulsion to collectively incapacitate the Laventies.
John Gayford also likes sports that involve grunting, running, and getting dirty. In fact, the entire Gayford brood is a blight on the rich Sussex landscape, according to Ann’s intellectually highbrow family, but the average reader finds them delightful and very ‘real’. Ann Laventie, in spite of herself, finds that the boisterous Gayfords intrude into her thoughts and activities a great deal more than she thinks she should like.
The romantic difficulties Ann finds herself in are a believable and not overly twee redo of such themes as star-crossed lovers, ‘boy from the wrong side of the tracks’, and other cultural impediments (or impetus) to young lovers familiar in literature.
John Gayford is the perfect masculine, philistine and middle-class counterpoint to the sleek, intellectual male beauty of Gilbert Croy.
I haven’t mentioned Ann’s brilliant sister, Elizabeth Laventie, because the region of deep space and near reverential respect Margery Sharp created around this sadly noble character (styled a la Virginia Woolf) will be discussed in part 2.
Other characters that come and go throughout the story are of the delightful stuff that Margery Sharp became known for. The vacuous and lacquered Miriam Oleson, the elderly free spirit Aunt Cecilia Finn ‘who had taken to motoring late in life with characteristic wholeheartedness’, driving a big yellow Talbot that was known and feared as far as London, and the venerable Miss Pickering with the distinction of being, as far as I can tell, the first of the Sharp line-up of comic characters whose names begin with ‘P’.
As I was reading my treasured copy of Rhododendron Pie, taking care to turn each decomposing page with caution; imagining the very linotype Baskerville letters are vanishing, Cheshire cat-like, before I can grasp their meaning, as if an ephemeral smile of irony is being drawn straight from the pen of Margery herself; I was distressed to think that something so delightfully readable in such crisp, perfect prose will available to so few.
I do hope that a far-seeing publisher will take up the challenge to resurrect this fine novel.
Of course Margery Sharp had more in mind than just crafting a good read with this novel, and she has deposited rich veins of gold to mine in her wit, insight, literary allusion, and that most dangerous of intents–a moral. ‘Light fiction’, yes–but this is a book that can be enjoyed for more than one reason, at more than one level, and by more than one generation.
How was it received?
Reviews of Rhododendron Pie were mixed, but overall more positive than negative.
This from ‘Yorkshire Post’ Jan. 1930:
‘It is a first novel of quite unusual charm, pointedly and gracefully written, and whimsically human.’
‘Margery Sharp writes with an easy grace and charm. Not an important, but a pleasant and entertaining book.’ Time and Tide, 3/27/30
“Rhododendron Pie is something more than an amusing and good-natured gibe at literary and artistic snobbery…’ The Times 3/30/30