‘…at about a few minutes past six on the 20th of March, 1929, Lesley Frewen stood adjusting the angle of a small black hat. Beneath the tilted brim a face immaculately plucked, rouged and powdered met her final glance with a well-grounded confidence: she was looking just as every other woman wanted to look, and could continue to do so for at least four hours.’
Lesley Frewen lives the good life. She is not rich, but is a young woman of comfortably independent means. London and a coterie of friends who bear a resemblance to The Bright Young Things are her playground. Music, art and theatre are her nightly diversions. A glittering parade of parties, visits to an exclusive hairdresser, cocktails with free-flowing, lip-numbing gin over ice, and regular entanglements with love-struck younger men who threaten suicide if she doesn’t run away to Poland with them are the stuff of her daily routine. What could possibly be wrong?
‘It was a mess…a mess of people and a mess of emotions, a purposeless mingling of fret and pleasure and fifty perfect strangers. A silly mess, that nothing but gin could hold together…’
After these bitter reflections, and after being politely spurned by a worthy man she particularly wanted to impress, Lesley Frewen leaves the never-ending party and goes home to look in the mirror. It was a long look.
‘The image she sought there–so curiously, eagerly, as though for the first time–was tall, poised and precisely as slender as fashion required. Gown, gloves and single orchid were impeccably chosen, while the dark, smooth shingle, close as a silken scalp, set off a certain neat elegance of head and shoulders. A lady, one would say, of at least sufficient income, enjoying considerable taste, and not more than twenty-eight years old….Without the slightest warning, Lesley Frewen burst into tears.’
Yet Lesley Frewen is not one to cry, and Margery Sharp is not one to write sentiment.
What follows this ‘extraordinary phenomenon of her own tears’ is a credibly told story of a young woman who dares to step off the carousel while it is in full spin. What is life, Sharp seems to be asking, without being useful, needed, and loved? Once again, Margery Sharp poses the question–what is real?
Lesley’s way out of her vicious circle of life is swift and original. On a whim, she adopts a four year old orphaned boy. She is cynical about the gesture in the beginning, and, except for ‘the pop-eyed stupidity of Lady Chrome, [and] the complacent imperviousness of Mrs. Bassington’, might have taken back her rashly declared intent. But out of sheer perverseness she plows on…
‘“It would be such a new experience…”’ she says lightly, for effect.
It is all about the effect, the witty epigram, the clever staging of a moment, the dalliance with life.
Yes, Lesley Frewen knows she knows she is no heroine. She knows she is acting purely out of pique and boredom. But, once made, her resolve is unshakeable. Her distant relations are outraged. Her urbane group of friends initially hail her actions ‘amusing and original’, as though she had just performed for their diversion the first act of a new play.
In the beginning she thinks she will be able to accomplish the raising of a small boy with little interruption to her ‘real’ life, and her attempts to make this so are quite amusing. Soon Lesley sees the need to leave town life and take her new charge into the country— ‘“…only temporary, thank God.’”
As it happened, the very day she moved to the country ‘was also the day of Mrs. Carnegie’s luncheon, the Magyar Count’s cocktail-party, and a reception for a Czech pianist’….so her friends are distracted, able to offer her little help but the advice ‘“Only do be careful of your figure, because that’s always where the country tells first. Exercises, darling–do lots of exercises….”
Thus, Lesley Frewen and little Patrick Craigie find themselves in the country, and in possession of a cottage—
‘thatched, but not picturesque…the whole standing alone in a very old orchard at the end of a pig-infested lane.’
Here is where the real story begins. Lesley is determined to live as aseptically sealed away from village life as possible; there are the horrors of tea with the vicar to be avoided, for one thing, and the advice of her friend Elissa is still ringing in her ears…
‘“The one thing that’s really important, darling, is not to know any one. Then you can do just as you like and shock the whole village.”
Of course it’s not that simple. Change will happen as sure as the Walpole’s pigs will trespass into the orchard; it is as inevitable as the fact that Florrie the milkmaid will get pregnant, and it is as inescapable as, well, tea with the vicar. And the changes that happen to her figure, due to the good country bacon and thick slabs of buttered bread, are just as the style maven Elissa predicted…
‘as [Leslie] continued her path she thought how there was at least this to be said for landscape, that it didn’t continually reflect the figure after the manner of shop-windows.’
‘The astonishing things that happen,’ enthused Harper’s reviewer Katherine Gauss Jackson….are a delight and a revelation in the Margery Sharp tradition.’
From a New York Times review: ‘…and if the progeny of Aldous Huxley are now going in for purity, as offering one last chance of getting a kick out of something, then who are we to object?’
Book collector notes:
First edition, 1933, London, A. Barker, ltd.
American edition, 1934, New York, Putnam Reprinted 1952 by Little, Brown of Boston (confusingly labeled a first edition)
Trade paperback edition, Fontana Books, issued 1958
Some excellent current reviews:
Jane’s blog, Beyond Eden Rock (formerly Fleur in Her World)