The Nutmeg Tree was first published in 1937. It is probably the first of Margery Sharp’s novels that made her work a commercial success.
For good reason. It is a marvelous piece of storytelling that also happens to be extremely funny.
Unusual for the Sharp genre, there is even a double romance—more if you count the fling with the handsome trapeze artist named Fred.
You may or may not like the female lead, but Julia Packett, (both Mrs. and Near Mrs., you could say) is by any standard an unconventional heroine. For a writer like Sharp who became known for unconventional heroines, a character like Julia Packett was still something of a risk.
When the story opens, Julia is naked and in the bathtub, singing lustily while she holds off the men just outside the door who are there to collect on a debt.
‘She could stay in a bath almost indefinitely…’
A charming ne’er do well with a talent for song and dance, a passion for burlesque theatre, and a sincere but ephemeral attachment to any male with a come-hither look, Julia Packett has the ill fortune to get pregnant, hastily married, then widowed in a brief space of time during the rush and tumble days of World War I.
At first, young Julia steps into the role of ‘widowed soldier’s wife with small baby’ with the best of intentions and all her finest acting aplomb. She accepts her kindly in-laws offer of assistance and hospitality, moves to the country, and takes up the life that is expected of her.
‘She did the flowers, paid calls, went to church, and played with the baby whenever the nurse allowed…[and] went to mild festivities as the neighborhood afforded.’
To further drive home the point that Mrs. Julia Packett had given herself over to her new role in life, we have the following wardrobe note:
‘All [her] evening dresses had backs to them, and two of them had sleeves.’
At night she would go to her room and weep for boredom.
’Those nineteen months of being young Mrs. Packett had exhausted her supply of maternal affection; and she was also aware that for a young child the life at Barton was far more suitable than the life she herself looked forward to, in Town. She hadn’t yet any definite plans about it but she hoped and trusted that it would be very unsuitable indeed.’
She leaves baby Susan to the care of the in-laws, who are perfectly happy to wave good-bye to their slightly slatternly daughter-in-law.
A woman who is content to leave her child to the care of others so she can live her life dancing, singing and seducing men, is a hard sell for a likable heroine. Amazingly–or not so amazingly, when you consider her brilliant talents–Margery Sharp pulled it off. The publishing, readership, and movie history clearly reveal that Julia Packett was a hit with audiences.
There was a play (Lady in Waiting), and then a movie (Julia Misbehaves). Greer Garson played the role of Julia. (I won’t go into how that all turned out, but suffice to say the screen writers veered dreadfully from the actual novel, and gave moviegoers a sanitized version of Julia Packett’s escapades.)
Julia is a very entertaining character, and it is her large-heartedness and impulsive, generous nature that wins audiences over. She might be street-wise, but there is still a vulnerability, and innocent expectation of good that is endearing. Her amoral lifestyle is reasoned out as a sort of kindly altruism, as ‘she just can’t bear to see a man unhappy, and it is so easy to make them happy’.
Back to that baby.
As mentioned, Susan Packett is raised by her father’s parents, and though Julia makes a few half-hearted visits during the toddler years, she soon gives her up entirely and never sees her daughter again. In all fairness to the ripe, addled mind and intentions of Julia Packett, the pages of British literature are full of children being raised by someone other than their parents, as this is often seen as a way for them to have a chance at a better life.
It worked for Susan Packett. She has kindly grandparents, many opportunities for education and pretty dresses, and grows up into a lovely young woman. She is the very image of her father’s responsible, efficient, high-minded personality.
Or, as Julia describes her later in the book, a ‘prig’.
When Susan Packett falls in love, she sends for her unconventional mother out of the blue because she wants her as an ally in her questionable choice. Julia heeds the call with a wonderful upsurge of maternal instincts—her daughter needs her!— and her careful preparation for the role of ‘lady’ is quite touching. Naturally this involves the purchase of a dress….but certainly not the type of dress Julia is used to wearing…
‘You could always tell a lady by her clothes,’ (Julia reasons); ‘however smart, the clothes of a true lady never hit you in the eye.’
After a sensible purchase of a modest dinner dress, a linen suit, a respectable Matron’s Model hat, some new camiknickers, the final selection to her tasteful ensemble is an impressively large copy of Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga. This amusing ‘prop’ was chosen with great care… (by the author, who is once again getting a jab in at the highbrow/lowbrow divide. This was the main theme of her first novel Rhododendron Pie, discussed here and here).
‘She fancied it was the sort of book Susan would like to see her mother reading; and Julia’s maternal affection was so strong (though admittedly erratic) that she read three whole chapters between London and Dover.’
The rest, as you can imagine—in this colorful cocktail of culture, class, personality, morals— makes for a very entertaining and expertly crafted story. If nothing else, there is just the fascination of ‘what on earth will Julia do next?’
The ‘cat and mouse’ psychological interplay that develops between Julia and Bryan Relton—the young man in love with Susan Packett–is one of my favorite parts of the story. Relton and Julia immediately size each other up as ‘the same type’; otherwise described in literature as ‘The Fascinating Undesirable’.
In fact, the character of the slightly unscrupulous Relton (I enjoyed him for his sharp wit, insight, and at times, brutal honesty) reminded me of Henry Crawford of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, though slightly modernized. But similarities are there, and thus, for this ‘sort’ of dangerously attractive male suitor, both Margery Sharp and Jane Austen appear to be in perfect agreement. The honorable alliance of these young men with the high-minded girl of their dreams that just might save them, is simply not to be allowed. (curious about Henry Crawford? read here)
Julia, more shrewd than her sequins might suggest, is only interested in saving her daughter from an unwise marriage. For the same reason she wanted her daughter to be raised by the perfect Packetts, she now wants to deliver her—again— from someone of her own ilk.
For all its light-hearted humor and sly wit, there is much of this caste concept that fuels the conversations, sets the scenes and indeed, drives the story; the specter of types and class distinctions, about who/what is ‘bad’ and who/what is ‘good’ is at the core of The Nutmeg Tree. The author appears to be worrying her way through a few of these issues for herself as she writes the story.
At one point late in the narrative, Susan is furious with Bryan for stumbling in drunk. Julia, surprisingly, comes to his defense. It’s surprising because Julia has been looking for a way to drive a wedge between the lovers, and reveal the true nature of Bryan Relton. But rather than gloat over Relton’s obvious tarnish in the eyes of his beloved, it is her daughter’s censure she attacks.
“You think, then, that I’m uncharitable?” [Susan] said at last.
“No,” said Julia slowly. She also had had time to reflect. “Only…you don’t like people.” She thought again, and changed the intonation. “You don’t like people. You only like—it’s so hard to explain—their good qualities.”
“You don’t expect me to like their bad?” asked Susan grimly.
“No, “repeated Julia; “but if you liked people, their bad qualities wouldn’t worry you so much.”
There, in that simple sentence, is a summation of a recurring theme in Margery Sharp’s work. She liked people, and wrote of them unapologetically with all of their spots and blemishes. Her idea of sin and lack of morality was to be a ‘prig’— intolerant, unforgiving, unloving.
That being said, Julia does get a bit of character refurbishment. Just like Lesley Frewen in The Flowering Thorn, before these women (both ‘flawed’ in different ways) are allowed to find True Love, they go through a type of makeover and purification. In Julia’s case, we are to believe that this means fidelity on her part, and the days of her carefree amoral lifestyle are over. To this end we are given several clues that she is ‘reformed’. Not the least of which was a frightening thunderstorm which strikes just the right note of religiosity and redemption.
Yet even more compelling than that? The early indication of Julia’s reform comes at the moment of her reluctant but heroic rejection of a proposal of marriage from ‘the handsomest man she had ever seen’…the aforementioned trapeze dancer, Fred, who, in his black tights, is a sight to behold. And for what does she reject him? She’s on her way to save her daughter…
‘Fred walked across the room [toward her] like a black panther; and as she gazed in admiration Julia all unwittingly acquired something she had long coveted. She acquired a scrap of culture, and if she did not recognize it as such, that was because what one looks for among Good Books one does not expect to find in the dressing-room of a music hall. But so it happened; having filled her eyes with a best in its kind, Julia could not then turn them on a second-best without knowing it for what it was.’
Well, I’d say Julia Packett deserves every bit of happiness she gets.
The play Lady in Waiting (adaptation of her novel The Nutmeg Tree) was produced New York at the Martin Beck Theatre, March,1940; London, 1941; also performed in French, NY 1941. Produced by Brock Pemberton, directed by Antoinette Perry
General publishing info:
First edition, 1937, Boston; Little, Brown, and Co.
Reprint, January 1938, (same pub)
There have been many reprints of this popular story
A reviewer from the New York Herald writes about Julia:
“one of the most appealing, good-hearted wenches anyone has met, in the flesh or in print or on the screen…”
As mentioned, this story has the opening scene in a bathtub, and when Julia first arrives in France, does she see her long lost daughter right away? No, first she takes a bath…it’s a bit of whimsy, but read more about Margery Sharp and her obsession with bathtubs here