This little known, under-appreciated novel from Margery Sharp resonates from its opening paragraph to the last.
‘In the heat of a spacious August noon, in the heart of the great summer of 1870, the three famous Sylvester women waited in their parlor to receive and make welcome the fourth.
‘Themselves matched the day. The parlor was hot as a hothouse, not a window was open, all three women were big, strongly-corsetted, amply-petticoated, layered chin to toe in flannel, cambric, and silk at a guinea a yard. Their broad, handsome faces were scarlet, their temples moist. But they stood up to the heat of the parlor as they stood up to the heat of the kitchen or the heat of a harvest-field: as the sun poured in upon them so their own strong good-humour flowed out to meet it—to refract and multiply it, like the prisms of their candlesticks, the brass about their hearth. Nature had so cheerfully designed them that even wash-day left them fair-tempered: before the high festivity of a marriage their spirits rose, expanded, and bloomed to a solar pitch of stately jollification.’
It is hard to believe that a story that begins as robustly as this one is actually a tale of a classic Victorian decline, emblematic couch and all, that brings the mighty Sylvester household to its knees.
For into this sunny world of great, good-hearted handsome Amazons with flaxen braids comes a dark element: Fanny Davis, the new bride about to wed the last of the magnificent Sylvester men. Fanny, however, was not. Magnificent, that is—as the other Sylvester wives had proved to be. She is weak, small, ‘with wrists like chicken bones’, very sly, and surprisingly strong-willed.
It is not just that she drops into a mysterious malaise on the eve of her wedding with Stephen Sylvester, thus holding the entire household in subtle tyranny and near slavery, but it is also the tantalizing mystery of Why? What happened to Fanny Davis? What is her agenda?
For we know she has one.
The story is told through the eyes of an eleven year old niece, who spends her summers at the Devonshire farm. During the cold, loveless winters at her home in London, these precious vacations spent at the Sylvester Farm are remembered by her as ‘long, golden, love-filled summers’. She adores her Aunt Charlotte, who enfolds her in big bear hugs that smell of lavender and fresh mown hay.
“What their love meant to me I cannot yet assess.”
This curiously tender, unguarded statement is what makes The Gipsy in the Parlour slightly unusual for the Sharp body of work. While the story is set in the Victorian era, (and thus a generation away from Sharp’s own childhood) there are glimmers of authenticity in the experiences told that might hint at moments of autobiography.
The youthful approach also gives us some charming passages of humorous insight. The young narrator gives us the benefit of her experience with Declines:
‘It wasn’t at that time, particularly uncommon. Ladies lay in declines all up and down the country…No common person ever went into one. Common persons couldn’t afford to. Also, there needed to be a sofa. No sofa, no decline.’
Or this one, in a conversation with her outrageously healthy and earthy friend Clara Blow.
‘I could never make Clara understand the exact nature of a decline. She had no feeling for the pathos and beauty of invalidism—possibly because she never read novelettes. Her favorite recreation was a good stirring melodrama, she knew Sweeny Tod the Demon Barber of Fleet Street almost by heart; so perhaps naturally declines weren’t eventful enough for her, and she soon grew tired of hearing about Fanny’s.’
This enterprising young niece never seems to be named. (if you can find her name in the narrative please inform me, but at this point I have to assume it is part of the author’s device, much as young Mrs. De Winter in ‘Rebecca’ never had a first name)
She is affectionately dubbed ‘Little Busybody’ by her good-humored aunts, and less affectionately dubbed ‘Fanny’s Little Friend and Toady’.
For Fanny has quickly surmised that this ‘little friend’, given the right flattery and attentions, would prove to be very useful.
“Such pretty, pretty hair!” murmured Fanny Davis. “…you shall be with me, if you will, all day long; and amuse me with London talk, and tell me just how many parties your mamma gave last winter; and run in and out from the house, like a little Queen’s Messenger, bringing me all the news…Will you, dear?”
‘I promised eagerly. I promised to run in and out continually, even when there was no news at all.
“Just what’s said, just what’s thought, will interest me,” breathed Fanny Davis. “My little friend!”
Ugh. Fortunately this ‘little Queen’s Messenger’ has sharp eyes, and a loyal heart. In a very curious, but believable way, she brings an abrupt end to Fanny’s reign of terror over the mighty Sylvester women and in the process, restores her beloved farm to its former sunshine of good nature.
“What I did was more remarkable still. My wildest dream came true: I cured Fanny Davis.”
Published in Britain by Collins, St. James Place, London, 1954
American edition, Little, Brown of Boston, 1953
This had first been serialized in installments as a shorter work in the Ladies’ Home Journal prior to publication
The Kirkus Review is en pointe in many particulars; still, even with a few flaws, it remains that The Gipsy in the Parlour is a fascinating, awesome novel. One that deserves to be brought back to life in a reprint.
Additional notes and curiosities:
Let’s talk about the weather…
Margery Sharp’s opening line to the book tells us that it takes place in ‘the heart of the great summer of 1870’.
This made me curious. Was there really a historically hot summer that year in England? Well, maybe. Sharp might have been off a year or so. At this website that chronicles historical weather events, we’re informed that ‘The summer of 1868 was very hot & dry, with some of the highest temperatures ever recorded for the second half of July occurring in this year. There was a remarkable spell of hot days, with temperatures over 30degC in England. For the south-east of England specifically, a maximum temperature above 32degC was recorded in each of the months from May to September, and in July specifically, the temperature exceeded 32degC on 9 days; the soil was very dry (lack of precipitation), which would of course mean that solar energy was most effective.
It was regarded for many years, until 1976 at least, as the longest (due lack of rainfall) & hottest in the instrumental record for England.
Other websites give the added information that the temperature exceeded over 100 degrees F, and that 1868 was the fourth hottest/driest summer on record as of 2007.
So while Sharp was off by a couple of years, clearly she was using an actual event to mark the beginning of her story.
Spelling notes: There is British and antiquated spelling used in the title–even for the American edition of The Gipsy in the Parlour. (my spellcheck does not like me right now) So, if you want to google for more info on this book, use a variety of combinations: The Gypsy in the Parlour, The Gipsy in the Parlour, The Gypsy in the Parlor, or the Gipsy in the Parlor!