‘It was a long way from the quiet countryside of England to the tropic island of Aloupka. How could a simple girl like Candia hope to accomplish her mission there when her rival was a suave and ambitious Russian woman with a sinister advantage?’
If the title sounds cliché, never mind that. There are all sorts of intrigues in this story. One of the intrigues is the novel, itself. For some reason it was never published in book form, and, therefore, it could be considered a ‘lost’ novel of Margery Sharp. How exciting is that?
The story is a bit unusual, as well. A young woman named Candia, from ‘a small complacent town of old houses and fine gardens’ in Somerset, is newly married and honeymooning aboard a ship with her husband, John. Unlike typical honeymooners, they are accompanied by a children’s nurse. For, not only are they on a honeymoon, they are enroute to a small island to reclaim John Cotterell’s three children.
‘It was impossible not to ask questions, and Candia Cotterell answered them with a serene frankness which was her outstanding characteristic. Yes, her husband had been a widower. Yes, there were stepchildren. Three of them…no she had never seen them. They were with their grandmother in Malaya…’
When John Cotterell unexpectedly dies on board the ship, Candia is left, not just devastated, but with a dilemma. Should she continue on with her husband’s wishes, and take his children to raise on her own? Where—no, what—was this exotic island, with its strangely international household of old Russian and Viennese noblewomen? And once there, would she ever be allowed to leave?
It was published in Cosmopolitan magazine, in 1943, and called ‘a book-length novel’, although novella might be a better description. Another intriguing aspect? It represents, again, the broad range of Ms. Sharp’s talents in fiction, for this is noir fiction; a suspense, you might even say a bit of a thriller. It is written with a sense of intensity and dramatic effect; more than is usually given us by this clear-headed author.
Yet—and this may be the most truly odd part—the novel is almost completely lacking in humor. Candia is an unusual Sharp heroine; not just lovely and elegant, but an English countrywoman who loves gardening, raises Angora rabbits, and is sensible, principled, and quick-thinking.
She needs the latter three qualities, for she is about to match wits with the unscrupulous Madame Spirianoff.
“What was it Genevieve said?” asked Madame. “‘Our temperaments have not perhaps been so well matched as these stones, but at least our hearts are as pure of all unkindness.’ May we not say it, with more truth, of ourselves?”
“I hope so, Madame.”
“You hope so! You English are so cautious. Will you not believe me when I say that I love you?”
Strangely, Candia did believe it. In spite of everything, she believed Madame did feel toward her the strong possessive emotion which was what she meant by love.
“I do believe you, Madame.”
“Then will you not stay just a little longer?”
If Candia had spoken the truth she would have said, “I dare not.”
No Turning Back is not blood-curdling, it’s safe to read at night when you’re home alone with your diamond bracelets, but there is a murder, there is glamor and jewels aplenty, (as befitting a submission to Cosmopolitan magazine) there are sinister characters, intrigue, an exotic tropical island that is haunted by dreams of Russian Imperialism, and…three orphaned children about to be adopted by a woman they have never met.
‘Madame’s eyes flashed angrily. “Aloupka!” she cried. “Would I let my children leave Aloupka? Do you know what it is?”
“The name—“ began Candia.
“The name is the name of a villa on the Black Sea. It belonged to the Prince Woronzoff. It was a center of loyalty, culture, elegance—all that made Russia great. When I called this place Aloupka, I said, ‘In memory’. But it is not a memory alone. Ah, my darling”—Madame’s voice suddenly altered, became charged with the old oversweet affection—“If you would only let yourself be taught! If you would only let yourself realize what this place is!”
“I do realize, Madame , that it is a charming house.”
“Charming!” The old eyes flashed contemptuously. “You speak as though it were a pleasure garden.”
“But it is,” said Candia quickly. “That is why—you force me to say it—the children must leave. That is why, I see now, their father wished me to take them away.”
“You fool!” said Madame Spirianoff. “You call Aloupka a pleasure garden. I tell you it is a fortress! It is the last outpost of European culture. It is where the spirit of Imperial Russia still lives. It is where a child can receive that tradition, to guard and pass on in a world that would otherwise forget! Now do you understand?”’
If it sounds like a singular story, with many diverse elements, it is all that and more. The events take place roughly in 1935, and, as mentioned the story was actually published in 1943, during the years of WWII. This would add to Sharp’s amazing output during these difficult years, if publication date and dates of her writing it are close, putting it between Stone of Chastity and Cluny Brown. In tone, though, it is nothing like those two books.
There are some clear Margery ‘Sharp-isms’; enough to recognize the author. And—like the diamond bracelets and pearls and heirloom garnet brooches scattered tantalizingly throughout, it has the intoxicating allure and lustre of finding a lost treasure.
An enjoyable read. I will add it to the list of Sharp’s works that I hope will soon be republished, so others can enjoy its unusual appeal. (And speaking of Sharp’s works being republished, should that day ever come, we can thank Jane at BeyondEdenRock for her wonderful, enthusiastic efforts in this regard, and I’ve been saving this post for her and her excellent reader’s blog.)
Additional Notes and a bit of historical detail:
Beautifully illustrated by the well known artist Andrew Loomis
Margery Sharp’s upbringing on pre-WWI Malta gives her outlook, at times, a decidedly different flavor than that of the insulated country English woman writing domestic novels. This story reflects many aspects of her island childhood. The name of the heroine Candia is explained in the novel as ‘the ancient name for Crete’. The exotic servants and their names, the international flow of character through the story, descriptions of the lush foliage and fauna, all have an authentic ring of experience. There is, as well, a historical basis for some of the details. I researched ‘Aloupka’, and it was, in real life, a pleasure ground, a sort of Riviera for the Russian nobility. Aloupka, itself, (aka Alupka) was the residence of Prince Woronzoff.
‘Prince Woronzoff has a very fine property at Aloupka, and a nearer approach made it even more beautiful than we had thought it from the yacht. The house stands in a magnificent position on a narrow ridge of table-land between the cliffs and the sea. Great dark woods stretch around it for miles, and the rock scenery is quite superb….’
‘The road from Aloupka to Yalta is one of the loveliest things you can conceive; it lies along the sea-coast, though at some distance above the water. The chateaux of the Russian nobles line the road, for this is their Isle of Wight, and the magnificent mountain cliffs form such a background as you do not often see. On rounding Cape Aitodor you see before you Yalta Bay, with the long line of coast stretching beyond it; and behind you Aloupka, with the turrets of the palace, and the coastline far away again there. A little farther on, a very peculiar rock overhangs the road, on the top of which is a large golden cross, and just beyond this is the entrance to the palace of the dowager-empress. It is quite new, and I believe she has not yet seen it . We were shown round by a very stately individual, who seemed to consider the possible presence of royalty as almost too great an honour for this wicked world, and lifted up his eyes in pious horror when we sat down on the imperial mattress to try whether it was comfortable. The house is beautifully placed, and the interior very splendid. It is built in a square enclosing a court, got up like the Pompeian Court at the Crystal Palace.’ — From: Bentley’s Miscellany, Volume 40, contributors Charles Dickens, William Harrison Ainsworth, Albert Smith, George Cruikshank Richard Bentley, 1856
An interesting description of real life Aloupka/Alupka with pictures here:
My own surmise is that this novella was written much earlier than 1943. Likely closer to 1935, which is about the time the events takes place. I base this, not only on the more youthful style and tone of the story, but the intensity of it. The story thrusts the reader into a Bolshevik aftermath that feels freshly minted. Also, if you look at the Bibliography page, Ms. Sharp’s wartime writing efforts were bolstered by publishing older works, which would now enjoy more exposure as her popularity had increased. So–the war years saw:
Harlequin House: 1939
The Stone of Chastity 1940
The Tigress on the Hearth 1941 (but written earlier)
Three Companion Pieces 1941 (three separate novellas, all written earlier)
No Turning Back 1943 (also a novella…written earlier?)
Cluny Brown 1944