“My father was a very important person,” said Rosa.
Once again Margery Sharp takes us on a sprightly tour through British cultural change. She gives us a bit of Victorian sentiment, a smattering of gauchos and revolution, an old English country house, a diverse assortment of characters who are both keepers of tradition and irreverent ‘thumb-your-nose-at-it’ types, throws in a darkly exotic element with everybody’s favorite daffy aunt Miss Phoebe, and ends it all with a modern blast—literally— of uncertainty.
The novel was first published in 1969 (British edition). It comes late in life from this prolific author. While it does not represent a writer at the height of her powers, and does not have the light-hearted wit that marked Sharp’s more popular novels, there are many wonderful moments of bite, irony, and even a rare glimpse of tenderness.
As one Rosa reviewer expressed it:
‘Thank heaven for Margery Sharp! A professional to her finger-tips, her light, pithy writing is a hallmark of pleasure. When her characters are not stock they can be drawn with such deceptive and considerable depth that I found myself wondering more than once when reading her new novel what would have happened had she not aimed at so popular a market; if say, years ago she had set her sights just a degree higher. Would we have had another Nancy Mitford in our midst? But this is to muse, not carp. I enjoyed every single page of her book.’ [Anne Francis]
The eponymous character, Rosa, is a bit of a hybrid—a hybrid across generations, custom, culture, and even continents. As to appearance, when she is first introduced to Sir Charles;
‘Sir Charles thought of a fly fished out of an ink bottle.’
Though Rosa never charms us, and even chills us at times with the dark void of her affections, she remains complex and interesting. The author keeps us purposely distanced from her, often mentioning Rosa’s ‘glossy black hair with its severe part, her legs crossed neatly at the ankles, her composed air, her hands folded in her lap’.
The story is book-ended with two violent events—beginning with a revolution in 1867 in South America, and ending with a bombing during the London blitz of WWII. In between we have the curious history of Sir Charles Ramillies, that of his head groom George, and George’s illegitimate daughter Rosa.
Sir Charles is a rakish English baronet of the good old-fashioned Victorian style (meaning: housemaids watch your back) who barters his head groom for a prized stud horse. George Ison, a Yorkshireman of few words and small affections for anything not a horse, finds himself imported like a commodity to South America to serve as head stud groom under a Don Hernando. He never returns to his wife or England, but instead sets up house with a Señora of ample proportions and breeds two children with her. A pudgy boy named Pablo, and a girl named Rosa.
George Ison inadvertently becomes the hero of a Latin American revolution. This was actually quite astonishing, and annoyed George greatly, as he is not even sure what he did to gain the fame. The new President of the Republic, out of gratitude for whatever-it-is, has a large marble statue of George set up in the town square, where people can adore him publicly.
When George Ison dies, and through no fault of his own, he leaves a lingering myth of greatness.
Particularly is this true in his young daughter’s mind. A series of unlikely circumstances—chiefly related to penury and her mother’s languid disinterest in anything but the fortunes of her son Pablo— leads to Rosa being chaperoned across the ocean back to the estate of the rakish baronet, Sir Charles Ramillies.
She brings with her an air of authority, culture, and a natural dignity that is compelling for such a young woman. She believes utterly in herself as the daughter of a great man. Any thought that she was going to make herself useful at the Hall as a housemaid, or even sent out as a governess, is soon dispelled.
As Rosa quietly insists, “My father would not have wished it.”
There is something mesmerizing in her air of calm authority. Sir Charles finds himself, more than once, up against what he calls her ‘Yorkshire stubbornness crossed with Latin pride’. The hands folded neatly in the lap, the legs crossed at the ankles, the severely parted hair…There is Something about Rosa.
The question of ‘where does she fit in—?’ is a common one in the writings of Margery Sharp.
For Rosa, the answer is simple. Instead of becoming a servant in this ‘raffish household’, she becomes Lady Ramillies. Sir Charles Ramillies is, of course, much older, but his rakish ways have only become more eccentric and he loves a good joke. Partly in order to spite his sister in law who annoys him, he marries Rosa.
He is not by any means attracted to her:
“Beside finding her uncommon plain, he found her uncommon silent.”
Rosa finds him uncommon unable to produce an heir.
Nevertheless, she has respect for him and his place in society. Sir Charles finds her useful in maintaining him in a quiet life where he can drink his port in the evenings and die peacefully in beautifully kept linens. (Rosa is meticulous in her needlework as she has been trained by aristocratic nuns).
When Sir Charles dies, Rosa–Lady Ramillies–now a woman of wealth and importance, decides to have a marble statue erected on the grounds. In memory of whom?
Her father, of course.
Thus George Ison, his humble beginnings and former occupation now obscured in fantastic legend, besides being worshipped in South America, returns to Yorkshire immortalized in a prominent place on the Ramillies grounds.
By the 1930’s George-Ison-in-marble is sold on postcards, and has even made it to The Motorists Guide, where his statue is hailed as ‘an example of late-Victorian craftsmanship.’
That makes two marble statues on two continents to mark the ordinary life of George Ison. One senses the Cheshire cat grin of absurdity stretching wide through the crafting of this story. Or, as the Spanish artisan who sculpted the first statue said:
“It is the artist’s privilege…to immortalize the spirit rather than the actual bone structure.”
I have to mention my favorite character in this novel, who is called by the delightful name Miss Phoebe Pomfret. (Margery Sharp often marks her more affectionately drawn characters by the letter ‘P’. In this case, we have two, and she is even referred to as ‘Miss P.P.’)
Every English family, according to Margery Sharp, has an eccentric maiden aunt who can be brought in to help out in emergencies. Miss Phoebe arrives ‘fresh from the haunts of coot and hern’; the nod to Tennyson more than appropriate, and ‘with a fox-cub in one basket and two cats in another.’ She is a lover of nature, has a passion for fungi, is a botanical artist, and is the author of a modestly successful work (self-illustrated) called The Beauty of Mosses.
In the Sharp canon of novels, a tender moment is rare, and they usually turn up in unexpected places.
It is in the relationship of Miss Phoebe Pomfret and Rosa where we get a glimpse into something in Rosa we might not have known existed, otherwise.
“After dinner I do not sit,” explained Rosa. “I do not even take coffee.”
“I’m sure I always like an early bed myself,” agreed Miss Pomfret.
“During the day, I am so occupied, I need no attention at all,” said Rosa.
“I’ve brought my paint box,” said Miss Pomfret.’
The two get along quite well in their mutual isolation. Until Miss Phoebe is dying.
“Don’t give me a kiss if you’d rather not,” said Miss Pomfret.
“But I would like to,” said Rosa. —“I wish so much you would stay with me!” she added foolishly, impulsively. “I have so much to tell you!”….she paused…. “To tell you…how grateful I have always been for your kindness to me in those days so far past…When I was cold and silent, I still do not know why you were so kind…”
“I have so much to tell you!”….This impassioned outburst is the most we see of Rosa, of the real Rosa.
And when she has Miss Pomfret buried, Rosa flies in the face of family tradition and honors Miss Pomfret’s unusual request. To be buried, not in the cold family vault with five generations of Ramillies, but in the living earth, ‘consigned to earth uncoffined’ simply in a shroud, to provide food for Miss Pomfret’s beloved mushrooms and primroses.
‘It was,’ [thought Rosa] ‘the bravest thing she’d done.’
William Heinemann, 1969
Little, Brown of Boston, 1970
This novel did not enjoy great popularity, and therefore did not go through as many reprints and editions.
From the dust jacket on the American edition: ‘An intricately styled social comedy’….