This book is an anthology of three novelettes. Although publishing dates and editions vary, they are all early works.
All three are set in the Victorian era, are thematically connected, and reference a time when young, wealthy, be-wigged men went on the Grand Tour of Europe, and young, delicate women went obediently off to arranged marriages. There is nothing romantic or appealing about these stories, in the usual sense, but to continue the tradition of the cozy Victorian romance was clearly not Margery Sharp’s intent in writing them.
While categorized as ‘light and amusing’, or even described as ‘satiric’ but ‘unconvincing’ by the Kirkus Review, the stories are actually small gems of tragicomedy that remind us that Margery Sharp had a passion for theater. As a modestly successful playwright, she was a keen student of the works of modern (for her) dramatists such as Chekhov, Ibsen, and Maeterlinck.
A tragicomedy has been defined as a tragedy with a happy ending, or, a comedy with a tragic outcome. As Verna A. Foster, in The Name and Nature of Tragicomedy writes:
‘Tragicomedies are not merely plays that combine the comic and tragic; they are plays in which the tragic and comic are formally and emotionally dependent on one another, each modifying and determining the nature of the other so as to produce a mixed, tragicomic response from the audience….They generally end in moral and aesthetic discomfort.’
This well describes the style of these three novelettes. Each includes the theme of innocence lost, or a decision made in one rash moment that leads to a lifetime of penalties.
‘But when something had happened–when everything had happened–what could one do then? Die, thought Sophy enviously. But if death would not come? Go out and force it. But if one’s body played the traitor? Then one…learnt a game of cards to amuse one’s husband…’ (Sophy Cassmajor)
Each involves a tragedy—either death by heroism, death by despair, or death by murder.
Each presents the theme of ‘all is not as it appears’, the target being, in this case, the bucolic English countryside, English class structure, and the ‘types’ who have been produced from it. This is actually a theme that permeates much of Sharp’s work—but in her full length novels it is typically the comedic aspect that comes to the fore. Comedy and tragedy begin similarly—bring in the unruly element, be it chaotic, ludicrous, tragic– drop it into the ‘still pond’ of virtue, habit, class, character, tradition, mores, etc., and the chain reaction that develops becomes the story.
Yet each carefully crafted pastiche in this anthology–Three Companion Pieces–contains enough of the elements of farce and absurdity that the reader can stay distanced from the tragic element. The very theatricalness of it all provides our antidote.
Thus we can ruefully smile at the sheer folly of the handsome, gun-toting Squire (as his wife lays dying) or even laugh when the murderess is described as looking ‘good and contented and happy and very kind.’
“Then it is all right,” [said Kathi], “there is nothing wrong, so long as we do not talk about it?”
‘Innate honesty made Hugo pause. But the whole mental situation was too complex for him, and she had at least grasped the essential. He let it go, nodded, and kissed her. With the sigh of a spirit unburdened Kathi finished the braiding of her hair.’ (The Tigress on the Hearth)
‘The whole mental situation‘, indeed…
…oh, Sharp is funny! And lest anyone think the allusion to Macbeth rather grand and over-reaching, there are several pointed clues from the author that do reference Macbeth in The Tigress on the Hearth. She knew what she was about, tongue in cheek…
As this anthology was published in America after the heady success of The Nutmeg Tree, the dust jacket blurb for Three Companion Pieces reads very much to the domestic female audience that had begun to develop as Sharp’s fan following:
‘The demure Victorian settings are a little deceptive. For each of them echoes with the sly and impish wit of the author of The Nutmeg Tree.
‘Mockery and mirth, irony and irreverence bubble merrily beneath the chaste surface of this delectable medley à la Margery.’
The New York Times review reads similarly. In part:
‘THERE is a fine porcelain quality about these three stories which makes them fit neatly into a single volume of delicate but telling wit.…’
The early publishing history of The Tigress on the Hearth is not known to me, but thematically it is in the same category as the first two, and all three pieces were published together by Little, Brown of Boston in 1941. Therefore one could surmise that it was written during the period of 1932 to 1939. There is a later British edition of Tigress, published individually by Collins, UK, in 1955. The illustrations in this 1955 edition are not by Anna Zinkeisen.
My own review would be: I enjoyed Sophy Cassmajor more for the comic pathos, the humor in The Tigress on the Hearth was more outrageously funny–perhaps because it is so cleverly counter-poised against the strange unlikeliness of the plot–and The Nymph and the Nobleman has a few high points but overall the dreary sadness outweighs the cleverness.
Would love to hear other views.