One can only begin at the beginning of this unusual story, for with Margery Sharp, her beginnings are impeccably drawn. In the case of The Tigress On the Hearth, the verbal rocket launch into a moment of intense drama finishes by a neat summation of circumstance presented as one’s accountant at tax time might tally an astonishing ‘amount due’.
‘With an uncouth cry the Albanian leapt forward and presented his firelock to Mr. Lutterwell’s breast.
‘This circumstance was all the more arresting in that there was absolutely nothing in Hugo Lutterwell’s birth, character, or education to foreshadow so violent an event. He had been born in 1830, plump into the deep peace of Victorian England, in which his father’s Devonshire estate made a pocket of peace deeper still. There he grew to manhood among fat lands and fat cattle, fat squires and their fat wives; at Rugby, under the great Doctor Arnold, he acquired earnestness rather than ambition; at Trinity he learnt to hold his liquor; and two London season gave him a settled distaste for metropolitan society. He was thus perfectly equipped to carry on the comfortable Lutterwell traditions of good farming, good neighbourliness, and the parson to Sunday dinner, but with Albanians he was at a disadvantage.’
Hugo Lutterwell, the innocent abroad as described, is the perfect foil for a Margery Sharp comedy. He has bumbled himself into a potentially deadly situation, and is about to be rescued in a most unconventional way.
His salvation—his ‘champion’— suddenly appears in the shapely form of an Albanian woman, who neatly knifes the assailant, and delivers Hugo from certain death. Why? Sharp provides the answer:
‘It has not been mentioned that Hugo Lutterwell was an exceptionally handsome man.’
The Kirkus review, written in 1941, is of interest:
‘….This seems entirely outside Margery Sharp’s usual orbit, for it is a somewhat satiric tale of the marriage of one of the “”old school tie”” boys to an Albanian Amazon, who had murdered a man to save his life — and who, untamed by marriage, murdered another man to give her love his chance in politics. An unconvincing tale, with less bite than might be expected, and less humor than Margery Sharp ordinarily employs. ‘
Overall I would agree with the Kirkus reviewer–it is indeed outside Sharp’s ‘usual orbit’. However, I don’t agree with the comment that there is ‘less humor than Margery Sharp ordinarily employs.’ The key to appreciating the humor of this piece is to read it more than once, and to accept the fact that you’re reading a tragicomedy, in which the theatrical element is overplayed for effect.
The first read, one might be mildly amused, but more distracted by the sheer absurdity of the plot, and how unlike it is from any other English novel you’ve ever read from this time period. The next read, while employing ‘suspension of disbelief’, you begin to realize that this book has some deliciously funny moments.
There is the scene where Hugo begins to teach Kathi English, for example:
‘Hugo was delighted. He had always had a turn for training animals, and teaching Kathi English called for much the same technique. And she was obviously going to be an apt pupil, for while he was looking round for further white objects, Kathi of her own motion enunciated the word “blue”, and laid a gentle finger to his eye.’
The dark clouds begin to gather, though, when after arriving safely back on English shores, he tries to convince his new bride that it would not be good to speak of exactly how she had saved his life.
“My dear, when you heard me tell my mother that you saved me from drowning, you must have been…surprised.”
“I did not understand,” said Kathi. [her English is really improving, but her comprehension of English ways is not.]
“Naturally. For it was”— Hugo coughed—“a lie. But my mother—but the people in this country—have different views. To them it would seem very shocking if I told them that you had killed a man.”
This is a harbinger of the future.
Hugo, a naturally honest and law-abiding young man, raised with all the right scruples, is uncomfortably aware that he has just lied to his parents. Not only that, he has lied to the respected citizens of his entire community. Not only that, he is now well on his way to maintaining the elaborate fiction that will become his entire life.
As he rationalizes it, this is preferable to a more shocking cultural grievance.
In this conversation, it is also noteworthy that, in spite of Kathi’s seeming innocence in attempting to comprehend the intricacies of English custom, she looks,
to her husband, as she is braiding her hair, like Lady Macbeth. This, as mentioned in the brief discussion of ‘tragicomedy’ here in Three Companion Pieces, is Sharp’s way of pinpointing exactly where she is taking this story.
Just when it appears that Kathi is settling in to her role as a good English wife, (this is where the bounds of credulity are stretched…but no matter) even as the newer, gentler, more anglicized Kathi is being assigned to manage the Knitted Garments at the Fancy Bazaar in aid of Foreign Missions, an ill wind begins to blow.
Hugo has decided to take up politics. Politics mean campaigns, and campaigns mean opponents. Opponents, in Kathi’s mind, are nothing more than enemies of her husband. And while fierce loyalty is as natural to Kathi as breathing, English diplomacy is one language she is unable to learn.
She knows only one way to defend her husband.
While there are some truly amusing snippets in this tale, the tragic part is made patently clear by the end. Hugo Lutterwell, to protect his wife, to protect everything… must make a searingly difficult decision; one that will affect the whole course of his life thereafter.
Illustrations are by Anna Zinkeisen
There is a delightful review of this story here, from Fleur In Her World, a wonderful blog for readers.
There is a copy of this book, the 1955 edition, in the collection of The National Trust. It had belonged to Agatha Christie, or as inscribed on the flyleaf ‘Agatha Mallowan’.