‘When you rang up a plumber you didn’t expect—well, you didn’t expect Cluny.’
This delightful novel was first published in 1944, and quickly became one of Sharp’s most popular works. It represents a favorite theme she returned to often: what happens when the quirky misfit, the Unruly Element, the carefree original who just doesn’t fit any known mold, finds herself in the still pond of staid middle class complacency?
Cluny Brown is a dark haired, dark eyed, dark horse of a character—even her pony tail is described as looking like a question mark. You never quite know what she will say or do. She’s the orphaned niece of a plumber—a young lady who likes to take tea at the Ritz and try various stratagems to tone her nerves. She can also unplug a drain with passionate efficiency.
Cluny Brown is slightly unsettling to those around her, because she isn’t really ‘anyone’, yet looks like Somebody. She never really does anything wrong, but she can’t quite seem to do what is expected. Her contemporaries of every social, economic or cultural strata are not sure where to place her.
‘Who are you? What is your place? Where do you belong?’….and Cluny, as the author tells us, ‘looked like no one on earth but herself’.
She even puzzled the serene and lovely Betty Cream, and it took a lot to get Betty Cream to think outside her own privileged sphere. Inside her own sphere, she was not often at a loss. How did a young woman like Cluny Brown ‘look’, per se? Clearly, as Betty Cream decided, she looked like Somebody. Plain as a boot, perhaps, but Someone who could be transformed by the right clothes. She certainly didn’t look like a parlourmaid.
The overly-confident summation of Miss Postgate at the registrar’s office might have been an exception, besides terribly off the mark. She took one look at Cluny and instantly saw Tall Parlourmaid material:
‘Nothing could be easier, in that year 1938, than for a girl to go into good service. The stately homes of England gaped for her. Cluny Brown, moreover, possessed special advantages: height, plainness (but combined with a clear skin) and a perfectly blank expression. This last attribute was not permanent, but the lady at the registry office did not know, and she saw in Cluny the very type of that prized, that fast-disappearing genus, the Tall Parlourmaid. [Aunt] Addie Trumper too knew what was what; she had been in good service herself, and with footmen practically extinct felt there was no table in the land too high for Cluny to aspire to. Addie Trumper was in her glory—her advice taken, the whole affair put under her management. She sat beside Cluny in the registry office like an exhibitor of prize livestock.’
The reader is next introduced to the country house of Friars Carmel, classically situated and populated with archetypical inhabitants. Their story opens with the various characters acting out their same employments that have pleasantly occupied them for decades. Lady Carmel arranges flowers and Sir Henry contentedly writes letters abroad that no one reads.
They are also blissfully unaware that the new genus Tall Parlourmaid is about to be turned loose among them.
‘Dear Uncle Arn,
This is a very large house to keep clean; looking at it from outside you would say it is hopeless, but Mrs. Maile Says not. There are twenty-seven rooms, Queen Elizabeth slept in one of them but I have to share….Is there any way you can tell a wig just by looking at it? This may mean a bob…’ Love, Cluny
The observations of the irrepressible Cluny notwithstanding, Sharp treats the Friars Carmel gentlefolk gently, and curiously, even appears to like them. They fare rather well, and nothing too terrible happens to Lady Carmel, Sir Henry of Friars Carmel, and their comfortable way of life.
‘She’s always fun to read, is Margery Sharp. She knows both ends of the social ladder, and her maids and mistresses are equally convincing….’ Kirkus Reviewer
Of course the war is about break forth. But for the sake of the novel, life in the country resumes its rhythms after the disruptive elements (Belinski and Cluny) have gone. We even get to go for a romantic spin through the relationship of brooding Andrew Carmel and the Honorable Betty Cream, and the promise of many heirs to carry on the sleepy English traditions at Friars Carmel.
(“We shall now wallow in sentiment,” Andrew told Betty.
“Then let’s.” said she.)
No one does a neat summation like Margery Sharp!
Yet there will always be thorns amongst the roses in a book by Sharp, so the aforementioned disruptive element is in the character of Polish intellectual, Adam Belinski.
He is the curious but amused, all knowing outsider, who has been generously given safe haven at Friars Carmel. The fact that he is a Polish professor/writer ‘on the run from the Nazis’ and endowed with other fictions gives him an exotic and dangerous air, when really all he wants is a soft bed, a continuous supply of meals, and a beautiful woman (preferably Betty Cream). Oh, and he wants to write and nurture his growing fame. He’s not exactly the classic romantic lead but you have to love his well developed sense of irony, as well as his knack for self-preservation.
Cluny, as the parlourmaid, barely engages his attention, until they have a meeting of the minds, so to speak, in the library, and over a piece of poetry by Alexander Pope.
He is astonished to find that the parlourmaid is trying to hunt up a piece of poetry.
‘Would you write it down for me?” she asked. “I want to learn it.”
Mr. Belinski obligingly went to a table and did so. Cluny followed…to watch over his shoulder and admire again as the neat lines ran out of his pen. For the first time he had really impressed her.
“I do think you’re clever!” she said sincerely.
“I am, very clever,” replied Mr. Belinski, without looking up. “Who is Mr. Wilson?”
“He’s the chemist.”
“If he is endeavoring to form your mind with this sort of stuff, he must be a great fool.…”
But Cluny, without paying much attention, took the finished copy and folded it very carefully and put it in her apron pocket. Mr. Belinski watched her with a peculiar expression.
“Don’t you want to know who wrote it?”
“Is he alive?”
“No, he’s been dead about two centuries.”
“Oh,” said Cluny, at once losing interest.’
The ‘fool’ and his literary taste just mentioned, and so derisively dismissed by Mr. Belinski, is the chemist, Mr. Wilson. He and his mother are actually rather brilliantly styled as the stuffy, conformist set piece and it is worth reading the book just to spend a rainy afternoon in the parlor with Mr. Titus Wilson and his mother; the latter swathed in a shawl, with her ‘brown old hand, like a rabbit’s paw’…
‘It was extraordinary to be sitting there at all, with these two perfect strangers, that the sensation was enough in itself. [Cluny] felt like a doll that had been picked up and put into a doll’s house; the doll at once looks completely at home, as though it has been there always. Cluny thought that if anyone came in, they would take her for a relation. This peculiar situation lasted about fifteen minutes.’
A delightful novel. The questions Cluny Brown had to face again and again are finally answered in the end. (In a way.) I must confess I am often amused by Margery Sharp’s solution to settling the question of ‘what should become of the unorthodox element’.
‘But for once Cluny was silent. Her own name sounded oddly in her ears. The old question echoed again— “Who do you think you are, Cluny Brown?” —and it at last seemed probable that she had the answer.’
In terms of the book to movie successes, (and Margery Sharp enjoyed a few) this was probably the most successful, and continues to garner a bit of attention, for it was fortunate in its director, Ernst Lubitsch. The film starred Charles Boyer, Jennifer Jones, and Peter Lawford. An excellent overview is here; and it seems like a fresh, updated version of this story would do well today as a movie.
First British edition: London, Collins, 1944
First American edition: Little, Brown of Boston, 1944
Numerous reprints, paperback, in several languages