Recently the question was asked: What luminaries, dead or alive, would you invite to a dinner party?
In reading of this delightful tea party at Chipping Lodge, there are no luminaries present here, to be sure, but Dora Tremayne? Tilly Cuff? What priceless character creations! What masterful sketching of mood! What epic undertones lace the fish-paste tea sandwiches!
The book in hand, at the moment, is The Foolish Gentlewoman. I’m re-reading it to write a review for this blog; realizing, once again, how insanely funny Margery Sharp is. I still believe she is an author with appeal to a new generation of readers.
I would love to be at this tea party. Picture Julian Fellowes re-creating it…you’re in ravaged, post WWII England. In a once fine drawing room. Shabby splendor. Bombed out. Rationed. Bravado and flowered silk carry the day.
Note the tinge of pathos in the casual phrase, ‘It was a scene completely (in the current phrase) pre-war’…
There are three sorts of sandwiches, and cake.
‘Miss Tremayne was invited to tea one Sunday, and came tramping up the hill from her ironmonger’s decked in a hat of purple feathers and white kid gloves. When Humphrey, in the hall, frankly remarked on this unusual splendour, Dora with equal frankness explained that both hat and gloves dated from ’29, and were kept for visiting the nobs.
“Not that you folk are nobs any longer,” added Dora, admiring her reflection in a mirror… “Where’s tea?”
“In the drawing-room,” said Humphrey.
“Quite right,” approved Miss Tremayne. “I’m glad to see Isabel recognizes my pretensions. If you’re passing me the cake, if there is any cake, don’t hesitate to pass it twice.”
They entered the drawing room in great good humour. The long beautiful room was looking at its best, with flowers gaying its dignity, and afternoon tea set out in the best china. A small flame burned under the silver kettle, there were three sorts of sandwiches, fish-paste, and cucumber, and tomato, and a large cake. It was a scene completely (in the current phrase) pre-war—except that both Isabel and Jacqueline wore a look of modest complacency, as though they had brought off a minor triumph, as indeed they had. Like Dora, they were dressed in their best—Isabel in flowered silk, Jacqueline in one of her less artistic creations, cream linen with a scarlet belt; but all three were outshone by Tilly Cuff.
Tilly wore jade green; a short, tight sheath of jade green taffeta, daringly relieved by jet necklace and earrings. Since jet is rarely made into bracelets, her arms were for once bare, the jangling which was so much a part of her personality being produced by a bunch of charms pinned to a black satin bag. This she held in one hand; in the other a cigarette in a black holder; and with Bogey at her heels pattered gaily in from the terrace crying, “Tea, tea, tea!”
“Good heavens!” said Miss Tremayne loudly. “It’s Tilly Cuff!”
“Why, dear old Dora!” cried Tilly—and from the tone of her voice, no less than from Miss Tremayne’s answering look, everyone present knew that she had not been used to address Miss Tremayne quite so familiarly. “Dora, how ripping to see you! Our dear old Giraffe!”
“My good Tilly,” said Miss Tremayne. Her voice, as they knew at Madame Esme’s, could be peculiarly expressive.’
The Foolish Gentlewoman is one of the middle range books—meaning, people tend to be lukewarm about this book. But if you love Sharp’s humor, you get how both deliciously funny and quietly sad this book is. I have written about Sharp’s deft hand with tragicomedy here.
If you are new to Margery Sharp, this book might strike you as…dull? For there isn’t a lot of action. It is a morality play-turned-novel-turned-play. The ‘drama’ is all in her masterful grasp of character, and the interplay between them. It is also classic Sharp material—a quiet pool of unsuspecting characters into which she drops one toxic little element.
The complete review for this book is here.
picture credit: Drawing Room, Guys Cliffe, Warwickshire, anonymous artist, Met images