‘Not cold but everlastingly here lives
The rapture of the lover and the maid;
Here Timelessness with Time’s limbs no more strives
But sleeps, a song sounding though never played.’
W.J. Turner, Epitaph
* * * * * * *
“It’s not cowardly to wish to live, Alice. It’s the very reverse of cowardly….Think of all the things that are bound to happen!” Virginia Woolf, The Voyage Out
Margery Sharp’s novelette, Sophy Cassmajor, is a pristine gem with many facets. Published in 1934, this work from the young, still unknown author, with its delicate ironies, harsh realities, and cryptic ending, hints at influences as diverse as Jane Austen, Anton Chekhov, and Virginia Woolf.
Sophy Cassmajor is set during the Victorian era, when the British East India Company and the ship they made famous—the East Indiaman—plied the seas for trade.
It begins as any domestic novel, or a comedy of manners might; pretty young Sophy Cassmajor has contracted an advantageous marriage alliance. She is on the deck of an East Indiaman, and has just set sail, watching with delight as the white cliffs of Dover ‘moved jerkily past’.
‘She was seventeen years old, and going out to be married to a particular friend of her uncle’s; but she is not sad, for there were packed in her box eight pots of red currant jelly, a delicacy to which she was passionately addicted.’
In this beginning phase of getting to know Sophy Cassmajor we are reminded a good deal of Catherine Morland of Northanger Abbey:
‘Her heart was affectionate; her disposition cheerful and open, without conceit or affectation of any kind—her manners just removed from the awkwardness and shyness of a girl; her person pleasing, and, when in good looks, pretty—and her mind about as ignorant and uninformed as the female mind at seventeen usually is.’ Northanger Abbey
In addition to the secret stash of sweets in her luggage, Sophy Cassmajor, something of a precious parcel herself, is also traveling with several guardians to ensure her safe and virtuous arrival upon the next shore—a ladies’ maid, her wealthy uncle, and two French women who are fellow passengers in the cabin next door.
Yet even now we can hear, as it were, Jane Austen’s lightly cautionary words:
“But when a young lady is to be a heroine, the perverseness of [maids and uncles aplenty] cannot prevent her. Something must and will happen to throw a hero in her way.”
Yes, indeed. Neville Carew, a fellow passenger, is tall, dark, ‘gentlemanly and interesting’. At first he can manage only ardent glances in Sophy’s direction, as they pass in silent walks on deck; she in company with her uncle. Carew’s presence, for Sophy, in spite of, or because of, the languid, hot still days at sea has become a preoccupation….
‘On Neville Carew Sophy could meditate for hours, without a trace of weariness.’
Carew finally gets his chance with the heavily guarded young lady. Aided and abetted by the French ladies’ maid Arline, who enjoys being able to facilitate romantic liaisons for a small fee, Neville and Sophy become lovers.
There is another character on board this ship who has not been mentioned yet—a glossy black Mynah bird, with the gift of repeating virtually everything it hears. Sophy, delighted with the bird’s repertoire of opera and bawdy sailor’s ballads, immediately teaches it to sing a ‘pretty genteel air’. The ‘pretty genteel air’ is Auld Robin Gray. Sharp’s use of this old ballad is portentous.
‘[The mynah] was proving an apt pupil; after only a weeks’ tuition, and to the delight of the more sentimental portion of the crew, it could sing Auld Robin Gray in a light soprano.’
Margery Sharp’s writing is never more perfect than when she is encapsulating a mood. Here she prepares us to move into the next phase of the story:
‘And now, for a week of light, baffling airs their ship hung becalmed on the verge of the northern hemisphere. A quiet, continual swell moved the body of waters but so broadly, so profoundly, that in the stifling cuddy neither the Captain’s hanging punchbowl, nor the mynah’s cage, swung more than half a degree to this side or that. All was still, hot, and perpendicular. Metal blistered the hand, wood grew slippery as brass; above decks oozy with tar the sails stirred and fell.’
We don’t have to be experienced sailors to know what is going to happen next. We’re even given the added detail that Sophy’s little stash of the jars of forbidden sticky sweets has all been eaten.
A raging storm breaks out upon the boat, and ‘all comfort, all composure, and at last all hope were successively destroyed.’
Margery Sharp uses efficient economy in her descriptive passages, particularly in the turbulent moments. In contrast, Virginia Woolf, in The Voyage Out, described her young heroine’s distress in the storm at sea with powerful imagery:
‘Their sensations were the sensations of potatoes in a sack on a galloping horse. The world outside was merely a violent grey tumult. Rachel had just enough consciousness to suppose herself a donkey on the summit of a moor in a hail-storm, with its coat blown into furrows; then she became a wizened tree, perpetually driven back by the salt Atlantic gale.’
Both Neville Carew and Sophy undergo interesting transformations in the reader’s mind in this crucible, as though they suddenly burst into full life before us in response to the searing effects of the tempest. Neville shows himself to be courageous, quick-thinking, and self sacrificing, while Sophy—for all her delicate ‘girl-ness’ —had already shown herself to be a hardy sailor with no sickly tendencies, (in an interesting contrast to her maid, Jenny). Now the heightened drama of the storm shows her capable of summoning unknown reserves of courage and strength. Both young lovers are able to save lives of fellow passengers, but at great cost to themselves.
The storm passes, a semblance of outward order is restored. People on board begin to relax a bit and relate their survival stories.
‘The ship, though badly mauled, was still seaworthy’.
In the symbolism being employed by Sharp, we enter the third phase. Life will go on, there will be acceptance after the harrowing transition. This is not just a coming of age story; it is a rite of passage, a tragicomedy. (read more about the thematic anthology of Three Companion Pieces, in which Sophy Cassmajor was included).
There is only the mynah, given us like Shakespeare’s fool, that is left to echo the charmingly carefree chatter and songs of the past….
‘So now there were two Sophys on board, the Sophy who had embarked at Deal, and the Sophy who was to land on Coromandel. For all that the first Sophy had done, the mynah continued to do; it warbled, laughed, called to Jenny: enjoyed food, fine weather, and the attentions of the company. And Sophy, observing, felt a faint stir of amusement—not enough to make her smile, but enough to make her listen. For she could remember, she found with perfect distinctness, what it had been like. One rose in the morning feeling quite fresh and cheerful; one wondered what dress to put on, and what there would be for dinner. One was always expecting—there lay the charm of it!—something to happen….but when everything had happened, what could one do then?
‘Die’, thought Sophy enviously.
An artistic work. Hard to find, but slightly more available in the anthology Three Companion Pieces.
The drawings are by Anna Zinkeisen; she illustrated several of Sharp’s early works.
This is another one of Margery Sharp’s works that I think would be excellent as a film. Interestingly, there are faint echoes of it already in the Kate Winslet and Leonardo di Caprio love story from the movie Titanic.