‘She dismissed eternity with a movement of her shoulder.’ (from Fanfare for Tin Trumpets)
When Margery Sharp began to write for publication, she showed the usual girlish enthusiasm that young women have for fashions, trends, young men, film stars, and hairstyles.
Oh, yes. Hair.
The decade was the 1920’s, and we know what that means–Gatsby style, flapper fashions, short hair; everyone wanting to be modern and free of the strictures of the past. Victorian was out. Modern was in.
Therefore, it is not surprising that one of Sharp’s earliest short stories, published in 1929, is entitled Modern, That’s Me!. We begin to read with a sense of pleasurable anticipation, for though the opening paragraphs present us with a few predictable elements, we know that, a la Margery, we will likely not end up where we expect.
This light, cleverly told tale revolves around a young woman who is preoccupied with a new hat, a string of suitors, how she appears to her friends, and what is on the menu. When we first meet Virginia in the story, she is ‘considering her reflection,’ in the first of three mirrors, and admiring her new hat. This is oddly premonitory of a similar opening to The Flowering Thorn, Sharp’s novel that would appear just a year or so later. But back to the hat…
‘It was a pale tulip yellow, with a narrow curving brim that drooped down over the left eye brow and then curled back to show the sweep of straight black hair; there were very few people who could wear a hat like that, especially without make-up….it was all extremely modern and satisfactory, and she was meeting one young man for lunch and another for tea, and that was quite modern and satisfactory too.’
We’ll be dining with the exquisite Virginia and her beau in a moment, (and doesn’t that description just resemble this publicity still for Louise Brooks?) but the ‘sweep of straight black hair’ is where we go first with Modern, That’s Me!. It would appear that Margery Sharp, herself, had a tendency toward strawberry blonde coloring, and with hair that easily curled into a mop of most unsophisticated, ‘gingery’ fluff. Several of her heroines have this [what she considered an] annoyance, particularly in the earliest works, when it is obvious that Sharp admired a ‘dark, glossy shingle.’
As mentioned, in The Flowering Thorn, (a twenties Bright Young Things novel) Lesley Frewen inspects her fashionable reflection in the mirror.
‘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.’
There it is again; that ‘dark, smooth shingle’. I was curious about this ‘shingle’, and how it differed from ‘the bob’.
After a google/abracadabra/presto session on the internet, the mystery was solved. The flapper ‘bobbed’ style was a blunt cut, and the shingle went a bit further by shaving up the neck.
‘The shingle or the “boyish bob” introduced in 1923 featured hair which tapered into a V-shape at the nape of the neck with either waves or spit curls at the sides…’ explains the interesting website Hair Archives.
Louise Brooks—the beautiful actress who came to fame in the 1920’s was the one woman most credited for popularizing the shingled bob. Her cool beauty and self-confident onscreen persona was very likely a point of inspiration for some of Margery Sharp’s female characters during this time. Cressida Drury, a character in Sharp’s second novel Fanfare for Tin Trumpets dazzles the heart of Alistair. She is an aspiring actress, quite modern…quite heartless…and as for her hair?
‘Her hair was black and glossy as a bird’s wing…He thought her the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.’
‘The first thing that struck him about her was an air of natural elegance that made all the other women look amorphous, ill-groomed, and too brightly colored…’
If that weren’t enough—
‘She dismissed eternity with a movement of her shoulder…’
Some of Sharp’s most lovable female leads, were often ‘ill-groomed, and too brightly colored’. There is the unforgettable Winnie Parker, with her ‘bright orange frizzy mop’, or the gingery ‘chrysanthemum head’ of Louisa Datchett. Cathy Pennon of Sun in Scorpio was skinny and as unruly as her shock of red hair. In contrast, the sleek dark shingled female characters tended to be elusive, insubstantial and cold.
Which brings us back to Virginia, in the short story Modern, That’s Me!. All through the elegant lunch we’ve been tolerant, and hope for better things, as she hurts the feelings of a very eligible young doctor named Jimmy who has just proposed over a perfectly ripe peach with hovering, anxious waiters nearby. She tries to convince him she’s not worthy of him…
“You don’t know what a little hound I am, really, Jimmy…I’m all the rotten things people mean when they say ‘modern’ with one or two extras left over from Tennyson.”
“I know you try to be,” said Jimmy, “but it doesn’t come off.”
We hope that Jimmy is right, but we’re not sure. Except for the mirror in the lift which confirmed she continued looking fresh and lovely, lunch didn’t go so well. And now we know that modern is being equated with ‘rotten’ and a dissing of Tennyson. This confirms our suspicion that Sharp is putting her pretty character through the paces to make a point.
Well; there is still the shockingly disheveled bohemian artist Dan, and 4:00 tea at Rumpelmayer’s, so off we go.
‘It was preposterous, this habit of proposing at meals, when one couldn’t get away without creating a scene.’
The tea at Rumpelmayer’s is a fascinating bit of a time capsule given us by Sharp.
‘In London’, we read at this lovely link here, ‘before World War I Rumpelmayer’s became incorporated into the daily routine of the elite smart set who spent most of their time at the table, beginning with breakfast at 11:00, lunch at the Carlton at 2:00, tea at Rumpelmayer’s at 4:00.’
Margery Sharp, who was fond of sweets, herself, obviously had a working knowledge of this famous London establishment.
As the aforementioned blog ‘Restaurant-ing Through History’ describes:
‘Though it was rated slightly less chic than the Ritz, it attracted mobs of fashionably dressed women who paraded their outfits up to the counter where, according to custom, they speared their chosen pastries with a fork…’
Which is where we find Virginia again, doing exactly that:
‘[She] speared an eclair and conveyed it to her plate in absorbed silence. Why on earth couldn’t she just say to him, “Look here, Dan, I like you very much, but I do wish you wouldn’t take me to Rumpelmayer’s looking like a dustman. I know it’s very silly of me, and I don’t suppose people look at us half so much as I imagine they do, but there we are!”?
There we are, indeed. Dan, though interesting in a rustic, Bohemian sort of way, is entirely too earnest in his affections. Passionate, if you will. Plus he has paint on his collar, and has just offended the waitress by asking for ham and eggs. And we’re beginning to realize that Virginia is a self-absorbed, heartless flirt who prefers being amused to being loved…
‘all in the best modern vein of anxious flippancy.’
‘It was horribly un-modern to take things seriously.’
As we near the end of Sharp’s brief but cynical tour of a day in the life of a modern girl of the 1920’s, we find that Virginia is actually very hungry. Real life intervenes. While we observed her carefully peeling the peach (the best bit of descriptive writing in the story) and spearing the eclair, she never actually ate any of it.
‘It was really desolating to be taken out to lunch and tea and end up ravenous at five o-clock. Very modern, of course…’
She walks the London streets, feeling a ‘consuming despair under a blue and white sky’, and soon finds herself in an old-fashioned Express Dairy:
‘It loomed up with all the ideal beauty of a mirage. Beautiful layers of solid, untemperamental foods, comfortable Swiss rolls, large, middle-class tea cakes…’
This homey, middle class London establishment was made famous in a passage from Jacob’s Room, by Virginia Woolf (1922):
‘She spent tenpence on lunch.
“Dear, miss, she’s left her umbrella,” grumbled the mottled woman in the glass box near the door at the Express Dairy Company’s shop.
“Perhaps I’ll catch her,” answered Milly Edwards, the waitress with the pale plaits of hair; and she dashed through the door. [….]
“Pie and greens for one. Large coffee and crumpets. Eggs on toast. Two fruit cakes.”
‘Thus the sharp voices of the waitresses snapped. The lunchers heard their orders repeated with approval; saw the next table served with anticipation. Their own eggs on toast were at last delivered. Their eyes strayed no more.
‘Damp cubes of pastry fell into mouths opened like triangular bags.
‘Nelly Jenkinson, the typist, crumbled her cake indifferently enough. ‘Every time the door opened she looked up. What did she expect to see? […]
“Hot milk and scone for one. Pot of tea. Roll and butter,” cried the waitresses.
The door opened and shut.
Such is the life of the elderly.’
For Margery Sharp, the Express Dairy is the writer’s device—the perfect counterpoint for everything Virginia has just experienced and is trying to be.
For Virginia, the Express Dairy is clearly
‘the sort of place where one would never meet one’s friends.’
She is not at all concerned about the symbolic door, that ‘opened and shut’, or as to that, who it is that might be coming or going. She is completely safe. No one is looking at her, she is not observing Them. She is looking at herself, because…
‘in the mirror at the back of the shop she could just see the yellow splash of her new hat…a satisfying spectacle.’
We come to the end of the story, the final mirror, and thus leave Virginia—astonishingly—still wearing the yellow hat at the end of what turned out to be a ‘beastly day’. She is quite alone in the midst of Ordinary People and Real Food, and stuffing herself on good old-fashioned, ‘enormous, sugar-caked buns’. She is suddenly at her most human, least modern, and most vulnerable. She has also regained a bit of her equilibrium, and has just thought of Brian….
We can’t help but remember that back there, somewhere under the haze of two sincere proposals of marriage, rejected for their taint of Victorian propriety and frightening displays of real emotion, somewhere back there with doggedly devoted Dan, or perhaps while slowly peeling that perfect peach under the loving gaze of Jimmy, we remember that she had admitted,
“I’m so tired of being me.”
********And Now: The Typically Useless Postscript*******
This is my own speculation, but on rare occasions Margery Sharp brought back an old character. I like to think that she became fond of young Virginia in this early writing effort, and rewrote her a couple of years later as the slightly older Lesley Frewen in The Flowering Thorn…who, as mentioned, was also much given to looking at her reflection in the mirror. Lesley just took the extra step of bursting into tears after some bitter reflections on those reflections. We know Margery Sharp gave The Modern Woman quite a bit of character refurbishment in that novel and she ended up happy, fulfilled, and loved.
If that is the case, then Jimmy and Dan–of Modern, That’s Me!— were right, for they both insisted to Virginia:
“I know you like to show off your adorable vices, but that’s simply because you’re so absurdly young….You know, Virginia, you’re not really a bit what you think you are. You have a sort of highly coloured notion of yourself, fearfully blase and world-worn, and you try to live up to it.”
Short Story by Margery Sharp, Modern, That’s Me!, published in Windsor magazine, December issue, 1929. Hopefully you can find it. Hopefully it will be republished soon.