“I know how Britannia Mews started. I was walking through a semi-slum stable that was being converted into these elegant little town cottages, and I thought, ‘What a history that place has had since the day it was built! —carriages and horses, then desolation, now cocktail parties and theatre clubs.” [Margery Sharp, interview in Counterpoint]
It has been described, and rightly so, as a novel you can lose yourself in.
‘There had always been this quality about Britannia Mews, that to step into it from Albion Alley was like stepping into a self-contained and separate small world. No one who passed under the archway ever had any doubt as to what sort of place he was entering—in 1865, model stables; in 1880, a slum; in 1900, a respectable working class court. Thus, when an address in a mews came to imply a high degree of fashion, Britannia Mews was unmistakably smart.’
‘To step under the archway, in 1922, was like stepping into a toy village—a very expensive toy from Hamley’s or Harrods: with a touch of the Russian Ballet about it, as though at any moment a door might fly open upon Petroushka or the Doll, for the colours of the doors, like the colours of the window-curtains, were unusually bright and varied; green, yellow, orange. Outside them stood tubs of begonias, or little clipped bushes. The five dwarf houses facing west were two-storey, with large downstairs rooms converted from old coach-houses; opposite four stables had been thrown into one to make the Puppet Theatre. The Theatre thus dominated the scene, but with a certain sobriety; its paintwork was a dark olive, the sign above the entrance a straightforward piece of lettering…People often said that the theatre made the Mews.’
Britannia Mews is such a fine novel. Like a gem with many facets, it is not just the story of the trials and triumphs of one woman. Strong-willed and interesting as she is, Adelaide Culver makes up just a part of the narrative. It is also a chronicle of history that spans the Victorian era to the end of WWII, a tale of the changing fortunes of a picturesque row of buildings called The Mews, and it even contains a subplot that opens a window onto the fascinating dollhouse world of puppet theatre.
Although not always appreciated by critics, many feel this is one of the most compelling stories Sharp wrote. While true to Sharp’s crisp readable style, the tone is sober. Published in 1946, likely the actual writing of it took place during the closing days of WWII.
…’not a comedy but a sympathetic chronicle of a life spanning three generations.’
Adelaide is a young woman born into Victorian England, brought up very properly in genteel circumstances. The Culver family lives in a fashionable row of London townhouses called Albion Place. In those days, carriages and horses were the mode of transportation for the well-off city dwellers, and they were usually housed nearby. ’The Mews’ is the cluster of stables for the horses on one side of an alley, across from which a row of coachhouses with flats above provided modest housing for the coachmen and their families. Although they are in close proximity to the fancier addresses where Adelaide’s family lives, the cultural distance between them is enormous.
So, in Adelaide’s childhood, the Mews was a place of solid, working class citizens, with wives who kept their living quarters well-scrubbed. In time, however, as the need for coachmen dwindled, and the wealthier townsfolk more inclined to ‘job a brougham’ as the saying went, and less inclined to keep their own means of conveyance, the Mews lost its reason for being. It began to deteriorate into a slum. Adelaide’s family, the Culvers, had by this time moved into the country.
All except Adelaide. She stayed—in the slum. Why? Because of Henry Lambert. She, in utter defiance of her carefully tended upbringing, eloped with her drawing master. Charming, brilliant, yes; penniless and dissolute even more so. Henry Lambert rented a room in the Mews, and saw nothing amiss at living in squalor.
‘She felt his very charm to be against him; a man should have no need to be charming.’
Margery Sharp knew this was quite cliché as a story line, and used it deliberately, tongue in cheek. Fiction was already well-populated with many sheltered, susceptible young Victorian ladies who fell in love with the drawing master simply because he was the only male they usually saw besides their own family. Sometimes they eloped, sometimes they were rescued by family clever enough to send them away to the country for a time until youthful passions cooled off. In the beginning, Adelaide’s mother—even when faced with the reality of her daughter’s elopement—did not give up hope.
‘Adelaide had married a wastrel; other women had done the same thing. Their case was common enough to have a common solution; they learned their lesson and came home to their families, and settled down to a useful if frustrated life performing the duties that fell to the lot of unmarried daughters or aunts….The husbands remained in the background, and were often said to be abroad.’
Margery, though, gave this scenario a twist. And an interesting twist it was, for Adelaide, (with one or two wobbles along the way), was a young woman who kept a straight back against obstacles and maintained a firm hand on her own destiny.
More twists are to follow, for soon Adelaide and Henry Lambert become Adelaide and Gilbert ‘Lambert’. And soon Adelaide is being blackmailed by the worst of the human vermin that inhabits the Mews—Mrs. Mounsey. Called ‘The Sow’, this old hag is surely one of the most repulsive, whiskery-chinned villains that Ms. Sharp ever created. Everyone, including tough Adelaide, is afraid of her.
In some ways Adelaide longs to return to her old life. Her family is now living in the countryside, and she envisions the tranquil gardens, the soft breezes fluttering in through drawing room curtains…a world away from the harsh clamor of life she now knows.
To go home would be to give up her independence, and this she cannot do. She knows the life of subtle subservience, the mantle of shame, that would await her if she returned home….’the useful if frustrated life…’ Thus, even unwillingly, she is being drawn into the life of the Mews.
How this comes about makes for a fascinating part of the story, indeed, drives the story from that point on. For there is another element—an entire cast of characters—waiting in the wings. Strange, mysterious, shunned; hidden in a basket, merely waiting for their moment in the spotlight.
Henry Lambert had left behind a valuable legacy. A basket full of meticulously crafted marionettes—a set of Moliere characters. They were his pride and joy, his greatest work, and they are exquisite. Adelaide hates them, but Gilbert immediately knows their potential.
‘Adelaide was forced to admit they were wonderfully lifelike; however carelessly laid down they fell into the most natural positions; they ogled each other, or sulked apart. But for some reason she did not like them. She did not like even La Camargo, in a froth of white ballet skirts, nor the fresh-faced ingénue in pink chintz. They formed a little world, an elegant and artificial little world, which she instinctively repudiated…’
In a twist of irony, it is because of Henry Lambert’s marionettes that the Mews is reborn as a chic, artistic address of distinction. Adelaide and Gilbert become unlikely Bohemians at the center of it all.
“No doubt that is why all our young artists today make their studios out of stables. You set the fashion…”
It was called the Puppet Theatre, and it—and its marionettes—came to life in 1905. It is an element of story not without historic precedent, for not only was Margery Sharp an avid researcher when it came to accuracy in her novels, she likely experienced firsthand the kind of marionette theater she describes so vividly.
‘So the Puppet Theatre, now flourishing in fashion, now modestly paying its way, took root and grew. Between 1914 and 1918 it closed altogether, while Gilbert worked in the Ministry of Pensions and Adelaide sewed at the Red Cross….And then, in the ‘twenties, a new spirit of gaiety flared over London as the rockets had flared over the trenches, and the Puppet Theatre, along with bottle parties, night clubs, short hair, short skirts, and the saxophone, again caught the mode.’
‘So did the Mews. By 1922, for the first time in its history, Britannia Mews was a fashionable address.’
As mentioned, this novel moves us, almost effortlessly, through to the second world war. By this time Adelaide and Gilbert have been joined by Adelaide’s niece, Dodo, who takes over the management of the Puppet Theatre. Together, they experience London during the Blitz, and then comes the frightening new weapon called buzz bombs.
Margery writes with cool detachment of this experience—she describes the sounds and the impacts with perfect clarity. She also writes, with authentic experience, of the offhand courage that Adelaide and her niece Dodo display. While taking the precaution of sending the most valuable marionettes into safekeeping at the Victoria and Albert Museum, both Adelaide and Dodo refuse to flee London to the safety of the country. The Puppet Theatre continues; a sign goes up ‘We Never Closed’.
‘For this was one result of the war: it had reduced life to first principles. If you weren’t stout-hearted, you didn’t matter. You might be rich, or beautiful, or clever or industrious, but your courage was what you were finally judged by. There was no longer any need to keep up appearances, except the appearance of being brave.’
British first edition, 1946, London, Collins
American first edition, 1946, Little, Brown & Co.
A film version was made in 1949, called The Forbidden Street.
Regarding the film version of Britannia Mews: It veered drastically from the actual novel in the end. Margery Sharp had sold the rights to it, and I can only imagine what a dreadful experience it ended up being for her. No one involved with the project was happy with the final product.
It is worth seeing though, for the marionettes. The puppeteer and creator of the marionettes for the movie was the famous John Wright. Sadly, and incredibly, he was not mentioned in the film credits for his work.
Sybil Thorndike’s performance as Mrs. Mounsey is also worth seeing.
Very interesting back story to the filming, click here:
More about John Wright:
The dust jacket has the distinction of being the work of artist John O’Hara Cosgrave II. He also did several of the dust jackets for some of the Barsetshire series, written by Angela Thirkell, and published by Knopf. His work was highly regarded; here is some more information about his life.