This is a novel that must be considered in the light of the historical context.
It was written in 1939; that brooding summer of gloom that immediately preceded Britain’s declaration of war on Germany. The British–and particularly Londoners–in the year preceding September, 1939, were beginning to prepare for air raids, evacuations, food shortages, and what was increasingly sensed as the terrible certainty of a German invasion.
Thus, while Harlequin House was labelled with the usual descriptions from reviewers as ‘light, prancing, gay, bouncing, bubbling, giddy, a delightful romp’ etc., the novel was more of a brave attempt at creating such an atmosphere. The publishers used such terms with more hope than accuracy—hoping it would attain the popularity of The Nutmeg Tree—and the reviewers used such terms dismissively. It was not popular with readers, either, and it could be claimed that there is an underlying darkness to this story that the author could not hide.
As the disappointed reviewer Rosemary Carr Benet put it, (April 15, 1939, The Saturday Review)
“The situation is mildly funny. The characters are mildly funny.”
There are some redeeming features, though! For one thing, we have the eccentric Mr. Partridge, who is a lovable addition to the pantheon of Sharp dotty eccentrics. He manages to be slightly astonishing at times, and his carefree joie de vivre carries much of the plot. The story is told principally through his eyes, a type of ‘male caregiver’ perspective Sharp was to employ quite frequently in her novels.
Also charming–at times–though later a bit tiresome, is the lovely Lisbeth Campion. Her greatest assets are her looks and intuition, which she knows how to cleverly employ (read: slightly unscrupulous but no one seems to mind) as survival skills in the big city. Her not so great asset is her younger brother Ronny; handsome, irresponsible, much given to naps and drinking binges, and it takes four people to keep him in a job.
‘It was rather his misfortune than his fault that he could not live on grass or worms or dew, but needed corned beef and bread, to say nothing of overcoats and bedding.’
“You ought to have been a bulb,” said Mr. Partridge, thoughtfully. “Or some kind of vegetable.”‘
Now that Mr. Partridge has moved in he keeps a close and protective eye on Lisbeth and her expenses. He has no opinion of Ronny whatsoever. The gallant ex-bookstore owner has stepped into the role of part ‘Sherlock Holmes and part knight errant’–albeit a Falstaffian knight errant who is slightly clownish and shaped like a dumpling. (Margery Sharp’s love of theater and burlesque, and her obvious familiarity with the classic, darkly funny Harlequinade is the underlying theme to Harlequin House, and is what actually fascinates me about this story. Mr. Partridge’s clown aspect, the mysterious harlequin who appears, and the lovely Columbine stereotype, among other connections, will be considered in a later post.)
The story hinges on the fact that Lisbeth is a very protective, loving older sister, with a single-minded determination to help Ronny get back on his own two feet after he has served his prison time for peddling cocaine. The introduction of the topic of cocaine into a domestic, middle-brow novel was very daring for 1939 and if this makes you think of Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day, we’ll be getting to that in a minute.
Lisbeth is afraid that, if not properly looked after, Ronny will get back into trouble. A variety of worthy men, some odd ones, and one entirely suspicious character become obsessed with Lisbeth and ally themselves with her cause.
Thus her Bohemian London shabby digs–dubbed ‘Harlequin House’ for its cheap and cheerful decor–has a seeming revolving door through which principally male characters come and go, each doing their part toward the endeavor of keeping Ronny and Lisbeth afloat. From contributing jars of calves’ foot jelly and sausages, to helping Ronny draw lingerie (his slight bit of employment and quite appropriate) to simply just moving in to help with the rent (as did Mr. Partridge) there is always something zany going on at Harlequin House.
There are obviously some great elements here for a novel that only Margery Sharp could devise, but the sparkling wit we so love is lacking. There are dark elements, strange allusions, abrupt changes in mood, and character inconsistency. In the end, the story drifts into a type of chaos that the reader is less than desirous of enduring.
Funny thing about the shiftless Ronny–he ends up settling his future in quite his own way, and a rather honorable one, at that.
Lisbeth, so plucky and self assured in the beginning, goes careening down into a sort of spineless, weepy ‘needing to be told by her auntie what to do’.
The entrance of the prim maiden aunt Miss Pickering–the bracing Victorian element, apparently still useful after all– was an unexpected surprise. It is she that ‘saves the day’ for Lisbeth.
‘[Miss Pickering] got up; the two young people looked at her with something like awe. She had undoubtedly settled everything, but how had she done it? Was it possible that the tradition in which she had been brought up–the tradition of Victoria the Good–had still some hypnotic power? Did the age-old machinery of matchmaking still work?’
In the end, though not the end Mr. Partridge envisioned, we find the affable knight errant consoling himself over a drink. He cheers up considerably upon reflecting that ‘his general philosophy of life was still gloriously right.’ And what was that philosophy?
‘You never can tell about people.’
Additional notes and reviews:
As mentioned, there are elements to this story that remind one of Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day. As Winifred Watson’s book became an immediate bestseller after its publication in 1938, there is no doubt that Margery Sharp was familiar both with it and the author.
First, there is a similar theme in the characterizations. Both Mr. Partridge and Miss Pickering of Harlequin House represent, as did Miss Pettigrew, the prudish oldsters of the Victorian age who live the high life for a time with the daring new younger set, rising to dizzying challenges with wonderful aplomb. Both of these books have a faintly wistful tone of ‘fairy godmother is going to come and fix it all’. No doubt this seemed even more appealing given the time period both stories were written.
Each novel involves an attractive young blonde ingenue with a rather blasé, charmingly unscrupulous approach to life. There are many besotted men coming and going in both stories, of the worthy and unworthy stamp alike.
Both books were published within a year of each other—Miss Pettigrew in 1938, Harlequin House in 1939.
Miss Pickering, who turns out to be the ‘Miss Pettigrew’ of Harlequin House, is a bit of a coy choice for a name. Winifred Watson’s married name was Pickering.
There are other similarities between the two books—I would be curious to know if any other readers have spotted some. Harlequin House was no Cinderella story, and though it had many memorable moments, it failed to charm the reading public.
‘Here it is, quite amusing in places, even if a little too hung with bells.’ [Spectator Review, 1939]
Some of the reviews of the time, and recent reviews:
‘Something about this story seems more like Robert Nathan than like Margery Sharp. While not actually a fantasy, there is an unreality to it, a certain quaintness, a whimsical rather than humorous quality in the gentle spoofing. There is none of the warm humanity of The Nutmeg Tree, none of the authenticity of characterization. This is a story of a strange trio, — an elderly and not too bright bookshop manager, a lovely girl with an internal dynamo that takes everything in its stride, and a scapegrace brother who finally solves his own inadequacies in this workaday world, by skipping lightly over the mere matter of earning his daily bread and marrying an heiress. What brings them together and how they work out their joint salvation makes charming reading. But once read, the book seems a bit thin.’
Time Magazine review:
HARLEQUIN HOUSE—Margery Sharp—Little, Brown ($2.50).
‘Margery Sharp is a bright-eyed, diminutive, facetious English girl whose The Nutmeg Tree was a surprise best-seller two years ago. As a followup, Harlequin House is less surprising; it tells a bouncing, bubbling, frankly inconsequential story about giddy Lisbeth and her shiftless brother Ronny, with Lisbeth managing four men at once in a campaign to reform Ronny who had spent six months in jail for somebody else’s racket.’
Spectator Review: 27 APRIL 1939, Page 38
‘Harlequin House is by Miss Margery Sharp, and is sure to make a wide appeal to people who need something cheerful to take their minds off our present life, and who are not put off by those edgings of facetiousness and whimsy which, for this reviewer at least, disfigure much English humour that, free of them, would be pleasant and welcome. In this book, for instance, the three chief characters—a sweet young English girl, her knock-kneed brother, and a dotty old man—have a series of ramshackle, surprising adventures, which, it seems to me, could perfectly well have been set down, and could be much more easily accepted, if readers were not being dug in the ribs so often, or reminded by this, that and the ether airy turn of phrase that we are now in the Never-Never Land. What I mean is that the matter of Miss Sharp’s random tale is quite legitimate, but that one is a bit exasperated by her manner, and feels inclined to turn on her sometimes with a snarl of “Who’s reading this book—you or I? ” We really might be allowed to take her story or leave it. However, here it is, quite amusing in places, even if a little too hung with bells.’
I always enjoy Leaves and Pages book reviews and Margery Sharp reviews; here is her review of Harlequin House