For generations of readers, the English country house has lived as a character in its own right. One can immediately think of many examples—Bleak House, Mansfield Park, Howards End, Wuthering Heights, and the most recent being Downton Abbey—stories, faces, dramas, love and conflict all instantly flash into mind just based on the name of the roof that housed them.
“Those delicious old houses, in the long August days, in the south of England air, on the soil over which so much has passed and out of which so much has come, rose before me like a series of visions. I thought of a thousand things . . . of stories, of dramas, of all the life of the past.” Henry James
Summer Visits, Margery Sharp’s last novel of her long career, is her chief contribution to the streams of narrative based on this ‘social, economic, and cultural institution’*. It is not her finest work in terms of humor or cozy English charm––her vision of the old English country house is certainly not that of Henry James–and if you are looking for an introduction to Margery Sharp’s books and the ‘light and cheerful’ reputation of her style, I might steer you away from the last few years of her output. When she began writing her popular books for children—The Rescuers series—it is as though her sense of light-hearted fun was infused into these, and her works for adults subsequently adopted an increasingly caustic style.
Thus Summer Visits is, in parts, more a bawdy farce, a humorless romp, than a realistic, feeling portrayal of the fading fortunes of a grand old institution. Yet there are certain historical aspects and literary cross-pollinations that are of interest. (a few of these are mentioned below in Notes, and perhaps a keener eye than my own might find many more).
If you are, as a reader, more ‘Angela Thirkell High Rising’ than ‘Evelyn Waugh Handful of Dust’, or more Jane Austen than Charles Dickens, you may not enjoy Summer Visits at all.
Yet Margery Sharp’s prose is always crisp, well-crafted, and a delight to read. In fact, Summer Visits could be considered quintessentially ‘English’ in tone. Margery Sharp set it against a backdrop of John Constable scenery and references, she employed a Chaucer-like ribald lustiness in parts, and through it all, the irony of Dickens is pervasive.
The East Anglian county of Suffolk, where the story takes place, is a deliberate choice of setting. It is the very landscape where John Constable grew up and painted his most famous works. Cotton Hall is the ‘character in distress’ in this story; a stately country home that is part rectory, part manor. For over two hundred years it had been the residence of the respected, genteel Tabor family. But then, in 1850, old John Henry and his newly acquired wealth moved in.
From the dust jacket we’re given this description:
‘Summer Visits is the fictional chronicle of a house and a family, a story of changing social and human relationships that only Margery Sharp at the top of her form could write…
Cotton Hall, half rectory and half manor, was brought in the 1850’s by old John Henry Braithwaite and named for the commodity that had brought him his fortune in Lancashire. There Braithwaite settled and saw his daughter marry into the Stacey family and his sons go to enter law. Every summer was marked by visits by the Braithwaites and Staceys and their children—visits preceded, and followed, by shrewdly observed, delightfully portrayed manners and misbehavior; disturbing alliances, behind the hedge seductions, eccentricities, romantic dreams, and disappointments.’
‘These traditional summer visits, over a century, are succeeded by others of a different, dramatic kind as Cotton Hall becomes in turn a retreat for Anglican gentlewomen, a convalescent home for the wounded Tommies of the Great War, and a refuge for evacuees from the Blitz.’
Here, in part, is the Kirkus Review, and, while not agreeing with the first statement—(actually, I laughed out loud when I read it)—it does provide an efficient, if slightly disinterested overview:
‘As always, a sunny, lightly mannered diversion for a quiet afternoon. Cotton Hall, from 1860 on, is the East Anglian setting for Braithwaite family reunions, with desultory croquet games and children’s tribal customs in the first years and equally genteel but less regular get-togethers thereafter. The adult children of widowed patriarch John Henry endure his crotchety snipings until his dalliance with young Hilda the housekeeper leads to a second marriage, a favored son, and disinheritance. Their children and John Henry’s second set (a son and daughter in the Tom Jones obscured parentage tradition) grow up, marry, and settle down (or not), sporadically stopping in at the old manse–for a showy christening, a royal occasion, a private need. Sharp cautiously charts their separate paths, crossing trails and resuming acquaintances with the gentlest of reminders, as Cotton Hall takes in gentlewoman boarders, turns vegetarian, welcomes WW I wounded, ousts a predatory schemer, and hosts–quite unsuccessfully–urban slum children in 1939. The first and second generaton have a bit more vitality than their progeny but Sharp keeps the pace steady even as the family line winds down, and her following will cotton to this newest brood of town and country cousins.’ Kirkus
As mentioned, if you are new to the works of Margery Sharp, and you start with Summer Visits, having heard of Sharp’s reputation for a ‘light, amusing, charming’ style, or ‘sunny, lightly mannered diversions’ it is doubtful you will ‘cotton to’ this novel, as the Kirkus reviewer so optimistically suggests.
The writing is complex and clever—fiendishly so. The changes in history that this fictional English country house moves through are real enough. These changes, you could say, are bookended by two disasters. The first, when the crass cotton merchant, John Henry Braithwaite, and his family took up residence, and the second, a crippling plight as only the second world war could cause.
The people, over several decades, come and go. Some live to a crotchety old age, others are dispatched to an untimely end. There is one character—Margaret—in the whole convoluted, one-dimensional Braithwaite bunch that holds the story together, and keeps the reader engaged.
With mischievous efficiency, Sharp airs the skeletons of nearly every Victorian closet. She trades in her usual witty charm for dark irony. By resurrecting common stereotypes, (the lusty old squire, the giggling backstairs maid, the prim Victorian maiden who gets pregnant by the Fascinating Undesirable…and so on..) she has delivered, less a portrait of an age, than a frayed caricature of an age. Add to that some highly implausible plot twists, a series of increasingly tiresome imbroglios, and a strained, very rushed, ending, and we close the final page of the book with a feeling of regret for what might have been.
Typical of the unsentimental tone is shown here in the following excerpt. At issue is how to dispose of whalebone corsets and ‘detritus’ of life in the Victorian era; the clothes had belonged to old maiden aunt Flora (who was anything but)… ‘the archetypal, ancestral figure’:
‘When anyone, and particularly a woman, dies at the age of over eighty, there can be an immense amount of detritus left behind. Martha faced the necessary clearing up of Flora’s effects with her usual conscientiousness but with a sinking heart. It seemed Flora had never thrown away a single garment she’d once worn; in an attic cupboard Meg discovered even a whalebone crinoline and the wide flounced petticoats that went with it. There were bustles, and the skirts, narrow in front but lavishly draped behind, that went with the bustles. To any historian of fashion the contents of Flora’s cupboards would have been a treasure trove—but Margaret’s only concern was how to get rid of them. In the end…she bundled them all into potato sacks and let Mr. Marjoram have them, he being in serious need of some dunnage to reinforce the bank that sheltered his pig-sties from the wind across the marshes. Hitherto he’d always used trusses of straw, but now farmers were so careful of their straw, a truss couldn’t be got for love or money!’
Other than presenting a fascinating case history of ‘how not to be a hoarder’ this is dark irony, indeed. Not only is Margaret unaware of who Flora really was, she is also unaware she has just given her a fitting send off.
Throughout the story, the author keeps using the analogy of a twisted root. (Charles Dickens might have called it ‘wheels within wheels’). In the end, there is given faint hope that the twisted root might be made straight at last. Cotton Hall will see days of happy summer visits again.
If the changes that happened to the fortunes of the Braithwaites and Cotton Hall were fictionalized at all, the social changes that Margery Sharp experienced were not. These, in the telling of Summer Visits, are much more apparent, eminently more believable.
Additional notes and comments:
First British edition: William Heinemann 1977
First American edition published by Little, Brown in 1977
(it does not appear this book went into reprints)
It is tempting, and not without reason, to compare this work with some of the writers that Sharp would have been influenced by.
D.H. Lawrence, who seems an unlikely candidate to have written a novel about the fortunes of ‘the great house’, did, for a brief time, come under its spell, while enjoying a friendship with Lady Ottoline Morrell, of Garsington Manor.
‘It is in its way so beautiful, one is tempted to give in, and to stay there, to lapse back into its peaceful beautify of bygone things, to live in pure recollection…’
In Lady Chatterly’s Lover, Lawrence develops the story so that the heir to the estate is the result of an affair with someone of ‘the lower classes’. In a double irony, Margery Sharp in Summer Visits has the affable, clueless young heir, Benny Braithwaite, finally figure out he was not the merchant John Henry’s son. He convinces himself he is the son of the neighboring gentleman Sir Robert…but the truth is he is actually the son of a dissolute soldier from the village. (And so on.)
There are a few moments of similarity with Evelyn Waugh’s fiercely satirical novel involving the English country house, disillusionment and ruin, in A Handful of Dust. One small parallel is the ill-fated attempt of the ladies at Cotton Hall, after the war, to keep it financially viable by breeding Angora rabbits. ‘Hetton Hall’, in Waugh’s novel, is, in the end, turned into a fox breeding farm.
Both Waugh and Sharp employ the real life events of Charles Dickens’s life. In 1853 Dickens began giving public readings of his novels; his often very physical performances a natural fit to the theatricality of his stories. These performances became very popular, very profitable, and soon he was giving them even abroad, in America. (For more on this, read here.)
Although altered, this historical backdrop is represented in Waugh’s novel, A Handful of Dust, where the main character is trapped in the wilds and forced to do live readings of Dickens for a lunatic the rest of his life.
Margery Sharp also makes use of this bit of Dickens history. The events in Summer Visits involving the disreputable actor—a Braithwaite who had fallen on hard times and who goes by the stage name of George Brewer—make more sense when you realize the historical backdrop.
The following scene shows the great hall of Cotton Hall turned temporarily into a theater, for a reading of Dickens by the incognito Braithwaite. The stage setting is described as Charles Dickens created for himself, down to the glass of water, and the exhausted aftermath of the performance, as well:
‘The great hall was for once quite thronged with native inhabitants, as George Brewer took his place behind an improvised lectern on a desk complete with glass of water….he’d even got himself up to look like Dickens, Victorian frock-coat and beard and all; and after the pathos of Little Nell, and the humour of Sam Weller, launched so vigorously into the death of Nancy at the hands of Bill [Sikes[, Mrs. Strowger fainted and all left feeling they’d had their money’s worth…’
From the same Dickens website, we get corroborative details of the real life Dickens readings:
‘A reading desk, about two feet by three feet and three feet high held his books, a pitcher of water and a glass.’
‘Dickens used all of his acting talents in the readings. But at a cost. After each Sikes and Nancy reading he would collapse onto a sofa, totally drained, and be unable to speak for some time. His son, Charley is not the only one who believed that the readings contributed heavily to his early death.’
As well, in Summer Visits, ‘George Brewer’, after his performance, exhausted, says:
“You’ve no idea how Dickens takes it out of one…”
That night, after his performance, Margery Sharp has her character die of heart failure, in the old beehive lodge on the grounds of Cotton Hall, where he used to play as a child. This, again, is a nod to the real life end of Charles Dickens, who died of a stroke shortly after giving an energetic reading of Oliver Twist. It is thought this performance hastened his death.
Margery Sharp considered herself a serious writer, even during her most mirthful periods of work. Her latter work for adults is not as ‘cheerful’, but it still reflects the tastes she developed as a young writer. She admired Chekhov, and gently mocked writers like Galsworthy. She dismissed Trollope as old-fashioned, while embracing the bleak modernism of writers such as Forster and Woolf.
Perhaps she was tired of serializing ‘nice’ stories to Good Housekeeping magazines, or was responding to the urging of her book publishers to spice things up. Perhaps, in this her last novel, she wanted to leave behind a masterpiece of satire.
Perhaps she felt as did D.H. Lawrence, quoted, in part, earlier:
‘It is in its way so beautiful, one is tempted to give in, and to stay there, to lapse back into its peaceful beautify of bygone things, to live in pure recollection, looking at the accomplished past, which is so lovely.’
‘But one’s soul rebels.’*
** quotes marked with asterisk are from Richard Gill’s Happy Rural Seat, The English Country House and the Literary Imagination
A lovely review here: