“It seems there was once a stepping stone in the little village of Gillenham…”
Ah, the charming English country village! What could seem more benign, more cheerful, more comforting as a place to reside—in our imaginations?
‘Not so fast’, Margery Sharp seems to be telling us, when she took up her writer’s pen and wrote The Stone of Chastity.
‘In the small gunroom, temporarily converted into a study, Professor Isaac Pounce was even then completing his questionnaire (later to be circulated through the unsuspecting village of Gillenham) on the subject of Chastity.’
Professor Pounce, a scholar of literary antiquities and considerable reputation, dreams of publishing a monograph that will astonish the learned world. To this end, he decides to spend his summer in the ancient village of Gillenham. His intention is to gather information that would confirm an old Norse ballad (and local legend) about a special stone with ‘powers’. A stepping stone that, when placed in the stream, and stepped upon by a lady, became a determiner of the virtue of said lady…
‘a Miss who should by rights have quitted that Title, or a wife unfaithful, set her foot, the poor creature infallibly stumbles and is muddied for all to see.’
There are actual old ballads that this legend is based upon, (described as ‘Norse’ in the book) such as Willie o’ Winsbury (100 A, 4f manuscript) and Young Beichen, from the ‘text A’ version, so there is a sort of authentic folklore backbone employed by Sharp in the crafting of this tale.
The Professor’s plan is all scientific methodism and straightforward efficiency: have the ladies of the village, be they married or single, maiden or matron, fill out a questionnaire as to the state of their chastity. This is to be followed up with a fun little test that would involve skipping over the alleged Stone of Chastity that he has had placed in the stream. This, essentially, will confirm whether or not they were telling the truth on the questionnaire, and also confirm the extraordinary gifts of the Stone.
Refreshments will be served after the results are determined (he generously adds later, obviously envisioning a light-hearted party atmosphere.)
What follows Professor Pounce’s Preposterous Proposal (sorry) is a complete over-turning of life in this tranquil little village. What at first seemed like a sleepy scene from a Barsetshire novel becomes a hotbed of simmering hostilities, suppressed histories that are suppressed no more, ‘subterranean goings-on’ and even threats of outright violence from the righteous members of the Women’s Institute in their flower trimmed hats.
The story, published in 1940, succeeds very well as a romp, a sly burlesque, a bit of a witty yarn, and a decided farce. As a novel, it was a brilliant plot concept that has some weaknesses. There are some truly funny moments, but at times the sparkling idea sputters and goes out just before it flames into full delight. Even the humor —usually Sharp’s strongest point—seems to stall or feel forced on occasion.
But given the circumstances this novel was written under, we can forgive Sharp for distraction. For that is what reading it feels like—that the author was distracted and had thrown out too many lines into the pond.
Note again the date of publication—1940. Written during the early war years—and just prior to the London Blitz, it is amazing this book was written at all. Margery Sharp and her husband lived in London, at a time when London was a target for bombs. These provided the residents of London with nightly terror, and views of the devastation by day.
We have no record of where Margery Sharp took shelter during this time—if she and her husband toughed it out in London, or went to the country as many Londoners did. No doubt one symbolic refuge from the war was in writing a frolicsome, departure-from-reality story that became The Stone of Chastity.
[side note, if I may: Even as I use terms such as ‘light and frolicsome’, it is with a certain irony, as my other reading interests sometimes take me down the path of ancient history. It is the wordsmith in me, but I am utterly fascinated by mysterious as-yet-to-be-deciphered languages such as Minoan. The occasional decipherment of Linear A or Linear B gives us insight into a lost culture. Ancient cultures, in many cases, left us with ‘epic’ stories that involve subjects such as a philandering Zeus who turns a beautiful maiden into a heifer nymph…or a blind king of Egypt who was told he could cure his condition if he could but find a chaste woman and wash his eyes in her urine…(not even his wife’s urine worked)…Sometimes it is not clear what is ‘light’ reading in any language, when trying to understand a culture. Perhaps there is a Middle to Late Bronze Age version of The Stone of Chastity yet to be unearthed in all its hieroglyphic glory, and it will be hailed as ‘a work of genius’, one that ‘anticipated Homer’…or, a literary gem ‘in the style of Sappho’, and it will become required reading in History 101 under the header of ‘The Invention and Diffusion of Civilization’? We’ll have to wait while the philologists work their magic and the educators plan the follow-up curriculum finally to leave it in the hands of movie-makers to film it as a sweeping epic that we can enjoy with popcorn and blog about later.]
There is definitely a type of ‘goddess/heifer nymph concept’ invoked in The Stone of Chastity (the statuesque Carmen, whom the besotted Nicholas envisions as a Minoan beauty with a barmaid personality). As to that, Sharp provides the reader with some harmless sizzle and spice, this apparently being what stands in for ‘sophisticated comedy’ in the 1940’s. The aforementioned Nicholas Pounce, the Professor’s nephew, is the colorless young male lead who manages to fumble three (count them: three) opportunities for love during his summer holiday; and there are some garishly funny contrasts of character—like the set piece vicar’s wife Mrs. Crowner pitted against the malevolent farmer’s wife Mrs. Pye.
Professor Pounce is a quite enjoyable character– “Love of nature–bunkum!” — and we first meet him via this descriptive paragraph:
“The sensations of the Professor on reading [about the Stone of Chastity] are impossible to describe. He felt (he afterward told his friend Professor Greer) a distinct prickling at the roots of his moustache, as though the individual hairs were erecting themselves one by one; but he carried no mirror, and this ancillary phenomenon had to go uninvestigated while he eagerly turned the journal’s subsequent pages.”
I just have to include another of my favorite snippets from the book, for not only does it capture well the flavor of this quirky novel, but it is also an example of Sharp’s mastery of opening paragraphs:
‘Nothing could have been simpler, nothing more forthright, than the pattern made by the red roof of the Old Manor against the blue summer sky […] but beneath that simple, that forthright roof were some strange goings-on.
‘On the first floor Mrs. Pounce, mother to Nicholas and sister-in-law to the Professor, was lurking in her bedroom afraid to come out. She had appeared at lunch wearing a very nice necklace of scarabs and enamel, and the Professor, cocking an interested eye, had remarked that it was just such trifles—the sight of an English gentlewoman ornamented with seven phallic symbols—that made life so perennially interesting to the folklorist.
‘Mrs. Pounce did not know what a phallic symbol was, and instinct (or possibly a look in her son’s eye) prevented her asking; but after coffee she quietly sought out a dictionary and took it upstairs. At the moment she was feeling she could never come down again.’
Poor Mrs. Pounce. It really was a very difficult summer for this ‘very nice’, long-suffering lady, and the episode with the scarab necklace was just the beginning.
In the end, the actual ‘science’ behind the legend of the stone can never be proven, and the Professor has nothing to write. Young Nicholas, in spite of his best efforts with three attractive women, has had more experience with chastity than he would have liked. Frustrated and humbled, Nicholas is much wiser than when the summer began.
What the stone lacked in magical effects it made up for in its power to pack an almost other-worldly psychological punch.
A curious read, indeed. As the author sums it up in the last sentence of the book;
‘Probably no one will ever know exactly what was in the Professor’s mind.’
First London edition 1940, Collins (I have NEVER seen one of these—has anyone?)
First American edition 1940, Little, Brown
Armed Service Edition 1945, Tower Books
numerous paperback reprints with torrid cover art
Additional notes and curiosities:
Since no writer ever creates in a vacuum, I am always interested in what I call the evidence of ‘cultural cross pollination’:
The Stone of Chastity was published not too long after Cold Comfort Farm had been written. The latter novel had become hugely popular with the reading public, with its hilarious spoofs of country life and the obvious satire on the ‘loam and lovechild’ theme in novels. In the Starkadders, and Aunt Ada Doom, Stella Gibbons had created a family that was earthy, feral, and superstitious.
Compare this with Sharp’s brief description of the Gillenham villagers:
‘They were a plain tribe, sturdy but unhandsome; their talk was of bullocks, or occasionally, among the young ones, of film stars once seen and never forgotten. They addressed each other, man, woman or child, as bor”; but this apparent indifference to sex was misleading–especially in spring.’
If this brings to mind the fecund Seth and his fascination with film stars, or spring at Cold Comfort Farm ‘when the sukebine hangs heavy from the wains’, resulting in another pregnant maid, perhaps it was intentional.
The villagers of Gillenham bear names like Ada Thirkettle, and Mr. Pomfret; the amusing potboiler politics of the Women’s Institute, even the reference to the ‘very nice necklace of scarabs’ all bring to mind scenes from Barsetshire life. But Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire was never this wacky…
Speaking of ancillary phenomenon and other curiosities; wordsmiths take note:
Hebdomadal, not necessarily a word that instantly summons forth romantic imagery, is used by Sharp in reference to the weekly courtship ritual of English village maidens and lads:
‘Of all the hours in the week seven o’clock on Sunday evening had, in Gillenham, the most special character; for it was the hour when the youth and beauty of the village, attired as to the male portion in reach-me-down suits and cloth caps, as to the female in artificial silk frocks and straw hats, came out in search of hebdomadal romance. Professor Pounce had chosen well…’
And lastly, the Professor uses as his source material a certain ‘manuscript’ that is none other than a reference to the hilariously brilliant Diary of a Young Lady of Fashion… (Magdalen King-Hall, 1926)
‘I in my spotted India, black scarf…Mr. C. as entertaining as ever; tells us of an odd strange legend….Mamma shocked…’
A spoof within a spoof…that tells of a legend…a legend that sparked a story…a story that is vaguely reminiscent of mysterious tales the ancients once told.