‘It was a door Ruskin could have devoted a whole chapter to.’
It’s difficult to write a review for a book that:
a.) is from a favorite and respected author, but far from her best work
b.) is disliked by almost everyone who has read it
In Pious Memory is just such a novel. It was a book that I hoped I wouldn’t have to pick up and read again. But here we are in 2016, and I am writing fresh reviews for the blog. I had to read it again. And guess what?
I couldn’t stop laughing. (except for one repellent scene, that I skipped).
From the first page to almost the last, this is actually a very funny book.
You just need to be prepared for a frolicsome, rip off the stays, kick up your feet and breathe easy sort of mood. Margery Sharp must have been tippling at the gin when she wrote this, but all in all, it does stay true to her rapier wit. And, as always, her prose, her intelligent insights, and sense of comic timing is impeccable.
So what is the story about? This from the book jacket:
‘Arthur Prelude, the international banking expert, has died in a plane crash. After hastily identifying the remains, his devoted wife, who escaped with a mere shaking up, returns home to England for the funeral and the reading of the will. But now she is beset by doubts; perhaps that wasn’t dear Arthur after all….’
What follows are wildly probable and improbable events. The story chiefly centers around a kind of ‘innocents abroad’ theme, for young sixteen-year-old Lydia Prelude is convinced her father is still alive and sets off—with her resourceful young cousin—to bicycle through France to find him. What they actually find ranges from mildly funny, to offensive, to endearing, and all in all, they manage to lose just about everything but their actual innocence.
Meanwhile, back home, Mrs. Prelude, the grieving widow, is undergoing some hilarious courtships. I think these were my favorite part of the book, and if I could re-title this novel, it might something like ‘The Courtship of Mrs. Prelude’. The polite ‘parry and thrust’ of it all as the gentlemen navigate carefully through the mysterious shoals of Mrs. Prelude’s vague cluelessness is delightful.
‘May I have the privilege of calling again,’ asked Mr. van Hoyt, “before I leave Europe?”
“Please do!” begged Mrs. Prelude. “It’s been so lovely, talking about Arthur!”
I actually liked the characters more this time around, and would count Mrs. Prelude as my favorite of the book. I can see why she would make some women’s blood boil, but to me, she has the charm of utter sincerity and kindness. She is often to be found in an apron.
‘Mourning has never applied to aprons, and Mrs. Prelude’s, protecting her thin black for Rome, was practically rowdy with pink roses.’
She may also enjoy the distinction (or share it with Caroline of Four Gardens) as being the most motherly mother that Margery Sharp ever created. (at last—! a maternal instinct raises its head!) Mrs. Prelude could be an older ‘Louisa type’ (Louisa Datchett from Something Light); but one happily married, all domesticated and with three children.
Also just like Louisa, Mrs. Prelude is a one woman male support staff, earnest and indefatigable in her efforts, and one who had made herself memorable under the gaze of other men. Other men who, frankly, felt envious at Arthur Prelude’s good fortune.
“I was struck at the time by her quickness in procuring him grapefruit instead of the lobster cocktail. It seems he had an allergy to shellfish.”
That was spoken by Professor Harvill, an Oxford don, reminiscing about a luncheon given for the Liberal Party Fighting Fund.
And then there was the aforementioned Mr. van Hoyt, a millionaire—an associate banker of the late Mr. Prelude—who came to call upon Mrs. Prelude. He remembered her as ‘an amiable woman’, one who had catered assiduously to her husband’s asthmatic constitution.
“If you ask me,” said Mrs. Prelude warmly, “there’s absolutely nothing more glamorous in the whole world than international finance. Packing Arthur’s bags for him, I used to feel absolutely privileged.”
“He was a much-envied man,”, said Mr. van Hoyt….’
The end is all about quirky timing, twists and turns. Inadvertently, the young cousins, while excitedly telegraphing home ‘FOUND FATHER’, set in motion a chaotic series of mis-adventures. In the end, you almost want to cheer when Mrs. Prelude exerts her own will:
‘During thirty years of married life Mrs. Prelude’s sole manifestation of independence had been when flying to sit in the tail. Her brief widowhood had been dominated by William and Elizabeth and Miss Champney and Miss Hume. Lydia’s and Toby’s chivalrous excursion had but strengthened, so to speak, every loyal bond. It was quite surprising, in the circumstances, how swiftly Mrs. Prelude was at the telephone herself ringing back Oxford.’
Perhaps the secret lay in reading this twice; but I found many warm, delightful gems of humor in the book this time around. Perhaps not the best choice for one new to Sharp’s work, but you never know–they might fall in love with Mrs. Prelude, too!
American edition 1967, Little, Brown
British edition 1968, William Heinemann
First serialized in the Ladies Home Journal, April 1967, as a full length novel in one issue…(wonder how ‘the ladies’ liked the chateau scene??) This would also explain the unusual fact of the British edition coming later than the American edition; usually it was the other way around.
This novel never went into reprints.