‘When Charles Blagden Lillywhite, born in Somerset, 1873, resident in France since 1900, finally returned to England in 1946, the news of his repatriation did not arouse any strong family enthusiasm.
‘In company with the old man came a daughter, Amélie, and a grand-daughter, Lise….’
The reason for old Charles Lillywhite’s return to his family roots soon becomes clear—he has a young and lovely granddaughter, Lise (an orphan) whom he wishes to see settled well in life.
Amélie, Charles’ daughter, is Lise’s aunt, and the most domineering duenna a fragile young miss can have.
But it is thanks to the fiercely protective Aunt Amélie that Lise Lillywhite has been brought up in the best traditions of both England and France. She has, from day one, been groomed for a prestigious match amongst the haut monde. Her luminous beauty, her impeccable education, her genteel manners, could win her the hand of a diplomat. Or perhaps the son and heir of the local Earl? There is even a Polish Count of ancient pedigree, who has become smitten by her charms.
Yes, everyone thinks Lise Lillywhite is destined for something grand.
Charles Lillywhite wants the English Lillywhites to take Lise under their wing, and have her married from the ancestral home in Somerset.
The Somerset Lillywhites are Luke, the eldest son; Martin, his unmarried brother, (Martin Lillywhite is the principal character through whom the story is told); Kate, the wife of Luke, and Susanna, the spinster sister of Luke and Martin.
The old and respected family of Lillywhites in Somerset used to know something about grand; but this is now 1946. The Edwardian England that Charles Lillywhite left in 1900 no longer exists. Two world wars have changed the fortunes of the Lillywhites, turned the ancestral home into a pig and poultry farm, and the son of the local Earl is a simpleton. The Count Stanislav who courts Lise turns out to be a refugee—now answers to ‘Stan’— and would be shot, ancient Dombrowski pedigree or not, if he tried to return home to his castle in Poland. Worse than that, he’s a racketeer in the London underground and doing a brisk trade in black market nylons and whiskey.
In fact, the fate of a gentleman’s daughter in England has been altered forever. Lise Lillywhite has been perfectly brought up to fit into a world that has nearly vanished.
What will become of Lise Lillywhite?
While the plight of Lise Lillywhite is central to this book, she initially exists as an ‘object’. She provides the fulcrum for the actual story—the cultural and social upheavals in British life and their effects on everything from the daily habits of the country gentleman to the price of cheese. I’m not sure you would call this a ‘favorite’ theme with Margery Sharp, but it is certainly one that influenced her fiction. While she doesn’t address it in the same way as say, an Aldous Huxley or an E.M. Forster, for all her ‘lightness’ the new forms of chaos are efficiently depicted and made memorable.
In Sharp’s description of Kate Lillywhite—one of the most likable characters in the book and a product of the former generation—her choice of the word ‘cocoon’ is telling:
‘Martin slipped his arm through his sister-in-law’s, and was immediately conscious of the thin, small-boned body moving elegantly within its cocoon of top-coat, tweed suit, knitted twin-set, woven underwear, seamless stockings and sensible shoes.’
Later, there is an amusing conversation between Martin Lillywhite and Tante Amélie, the latter revealing she has a very low opinion of the classic English ‘tweeds and twin-set’.
“Kate,” persisted Martin deliberately, [he is really quite fond of his sister-in-law] “is like an eighteenth-century figure. Like a garden-shepherdess.”
“If that is true, and she still dresses herself in twin-sets, one can only call it criminal,” said Tante Amélie.’
As to Lise, we hardly ever hear her speak in the early part of the book, or know what is in her mind. Everyone else certainly has an opinion, but Lise is ever demure, ever tranquil. Always agreeable, always compliant.
“What’s to become of her?” demanded Mr. Lush—and for the second time within ten minutes Kate found herself faced with this question to which there was no answer.’
Then we get a little surprise from the author:
‘It is time to enter Lise Lillywhite’s mind. So far its workings, at any rate in result, have easily been reflected in the minds of others: now what Lise thought about was strictly her own business. She was in fact engaged upon a most important and difficult enterprise….’
Astonishingly, it turns out that Lise Lillywhite had been thinking a great deal. She is not just a set piece. She is not another pretty ornament for a mantel that no longer exists. While everyone’s plans were being spun like threads around her, she knew, when she saw it, exactly what she wanted.
And no one would have guessed the truth.
Or, as Margery Sharp prosaically puts it:
‘One can only fall back on a cliché, and say that love is a wonderful thing.’
Called by one reviewer as a novel that was ‘civilized, witty and wise’.
Additional notes, comments, and possible spoilers:
First UK edition, London, Collins 1951
First American edition, 1951, Little, Brown of Boston
If you have read Sharp’s earlier novel Cluny Brown, you will recognize the familiar theme of: What’s to become of her? What is her place? Where will she fit in?
Also In the ‘cultural cross-pollination’ index, it is interesting to note the time period this story was written. Audrey Hepburn and Leslie Caron were just coming upon the celebrity scene as perfect specimens of the young ingénue. Colette wanted Audrey Hepburn for the role of Gigi, Leslie Caron was cast. With that in mind, there are comparisons between the story of Lise Lillywhite and Gigi.
Gigi, by Colette, was released as a novelette in 1944, (read excellent review here) it was produced as a film in 1949, and Anita Loos adapted it for the stage in 1951.
Lise Lillywhite was published in 1951.
Gigi, of course, is about a young girl who is raised by her grandmother and aunt for the life of a courtesan, and not marriage. Though set in a different era, both books tell the story of a young girl poised between the glittering opportunities of one world—fading fast— and choosing her own path into the next.
In either story, this young girl (‘asset?’) is groomed, educated, and styled for one purpose–to attract a wealthy, powerful man.
In both books, the girl remains curiously resistant to the efforts of her elders to mold her actual desires, and ultimate outcome. Her sweetness remains full-flowered despite disappointments and the vexing inconsistency—at times hypocrisy— of her elders. She has a mind of her own and questions the authority that at one time would have been considered absolute. As one blurb for Gigi puts it: ‘She takes her destiny in her own hands, with delightful consequences.’ This could be the tagline for Lise Lillywhite, as well.
In Gigi, it is the older ‘uncle’ figure who falls in love with Gigi, and he is expected to take her as his courtesan. In Lise Lillywhite, the story is told through the eyes and ears of Martin Lillywhite, actually a cousin to Lise, but old enough to be her uncle. He does fall promptly in love with her, and he is initially expected to be the one with the prior claim, as it were, to marry her. Martin is sensible enough to know this is not in the best interests of Lise. This, however, does not prevent him from taking figurative brickbats to anyone else who falls for Lise’s charms.
In Lise Lillywhite, the thoroughly French and matronly auntie—Tante Amélie— is described as:
‘…short and squat, her inevitable black dress not quite immaculate, her features thickly coated with a dead-white face-powder apparently unprocurable by anyone else in London’…
(That last line is entirely hilarious.)
This description is clearly reminiscent of the the older females in Gigi, such as Madame Alvarez and Aunt Alicia, who raise Gigi…‘her ample bust, hair lustrous with brilliantine…she used too white a powder.’
In Gigi, there is the charming, aged roué character of Honore Lashaille, played by Maurice Chevalier.
In Lise Lillywhite, Margery Sharp has a bit of fun with this character, and introduces an old flirt named Mr. Lush, who is quite taken with Lise at the fine dinner in her honor given at the Lillywhite home. Because Mr. Lush is of such an old, respected English family, any attention he pays to the young innocent lady is considered a move up the social ladder.
As mentioned, Colette had wanted to get Audrey Hepburn cast in the role Gigi. Hepburn was a young unknown at the time, but had impressed Colette in a chance encounter. In spite of the fact that in the book Gigi is described as pale blonde, with masses of thick hair, they nevertheless cast Leslie Caron in the role.
In Lise Lillywhite, Margery Sharp could have been describing the ethereal beauty of either Leslie Caron or Audrey Hepburn.
‘Beside the petunia-roots sat a young girl reading a book…her dark head bent…a dark head on a thin neck…Lisa worn her own hair long, sleeked back and knotted…she had long dark lashes, silky and fine, shaped like two small fans, the whole head classic…’
Yet because this is an English book, written by an English authoress, we are also informed that Lise’s eyes are decidedly English:
‘In fact, Lise’s eyes were grey: English eyes, grey as glass, dating, Martin afterwards told himself, from Chaucer…’
Grey eyes from Chaucer, no less, and spelled the English way. (I checked; my American edition also spells it grey)
‘Very seemly her pleated wimple was;
Her nose was fine; her eyes were grey as glass;
Her mouth was small and therewith soft and red;’
Chaucer, The Prioress
And finally, from this review by Richard Church in John o’London’s:
“Miss Sharp also has humour and a strong sense of drama, even of melodrama, and she carries the reader along a stream of events that is almost Dickensian.”