Published in Collier’s May 14, 1938
‘Majestic in quilted satin, awful with righteous anger, Miss Wintringham stood and glared at them. Unlike Mr. Purdey and Miss Blake, she was at no loss for words; they came automatically to her lips—the classic, the inevitable words of every chaperon and policeman since law and the conventions began.
“What,” demanded Miss Wintringham, “is the meaning of this?”
How did Leonard Purdey—painfully shy, and overly mothered—manage to find himself in a compromising situation in a young woman’s hotel bedroom in 1937?
The answer, in this Margery Sharp short story, Seaside Spell, is the kind of clever plot twist, daffy romance, and delightful characterizations at which Margery Sharp excelled.
‘In the summer of 1937 Leonard Purdey took a reckless and unprecedented step.’
Leonard Purdey, a very young twenty-seven years of age, is not the kind to take risks. He’s a bachelor, and ‘not ill-looking’, but he can’t seem to take a vacation without his widowed mother. He secretly longs for romance, but there’s not a girl on the planet that might actually guess he has any longings at all.
He’s simply too shy. And then there’s his mother.
So in 1937 he makes a daring decision. He goes on a vacation by himself. But not to any of his mother’s favorite English vacation retreats. No—he’s determined to find romance—so off he goes to France.
‘The Hotel de la Plage was comfortable, not expensive, and in an excellent position. Leonard loathed it. Of its forty patrons, thirty-six were English, of exactly the type he had been accustomed to meet at Margate, Eastbbourne and Clacton-on-Sea. The only difference was that, being abroad, they were all a little more suspicious of one another, a little more self-contained. The youth and gaiety of the place belonged to a large sketching party, twenty strong, entirely female, which monopolized the lounge within and the terrace without, and went walking, to the admiration of the natives, in a ragged file.
‘Several of these artistic damsels were very attractive, and Leonard would have been only too glad to make their acquaintance; but the boldest of men (which he certainly was not) would have thought twice before attacking so strong and united a front. Leonard did not think even once; he avoided the sketching party whenever possible.’
A very amusing turn of events—a misunderstanding, as it turns out—convinces Leonard that two female residents of the hotel are afraid of him. ‘Afraid for their virtue.’ The belief that this is so is transforming.
“By gum!” said Leonard aloud.
‘No one, in all his life, had ever been afraid of him before. Never before had he inspired so much as a moment’s nervousness. But now…he suddenly saw himself as a peril to female virtue.’
What he immediately does is funny, but to me even more so, due to the preoccupation with baths and bathing that I have noticed in Margery Sharp’s writing. I have compiled some of them in the article Margery and Bathrooms.
So, not surprisingly, Leonard’s first response to his new sense of power of women is to take a bath.
‘He felt several inches taller and as though he had put on at least a stone in weight. The sun was all at once brighter, the sea bluer, the promenade more animated. At that very moment the brass band of a local fire brigade passed triumphantly beneath the window. To its animating strains Leonard leaped into the bath, and behold, the water was hot. The whole universe, including the plumbing of the Hotel de la Plage, was in a friendly conspiracy to flatter him.’
‘Behold, the water was hot‘–! Readers of Martha in Paris might remember the disgruntled Martha and her annoyance that there was only tepid water to be had for bathing in France.
But let’s catch up to Leonard. He is now entering the casino ‘like a conquering king’.
‘All twenty sketchers breathed audibly as Leonard passed, and the most attractive of them, by name Mary Blake, almost smiled.’
Things begin to heat up quickly at this point, as the newly hatched Don Juan wins big at the roulette wheel, squires a plethora of ladies around town, (including Mary Blake, who almost smiled) and worries about how he is going to break the news that he works as a clerk for a cocoa manufacturer. In the meantime he becomes suspected of being a sort of romantic cat burgler—possibly a la Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief?—narrowly escapes arrest, and begins to realize that this entire playboy persona is becoming risky.
Fortunately, there’s Mary Blake, who emerges as the clear winner of the sketching party romance sweepstakes. She shows surprising resourcefulness, is loyal in his crises (even after he starts losing at roulette) and not one whit fazed at his confession of the cocoa manufacturing history.
‘She went with Leonard back to Engand and met his mother, and not even that made her change her mind.’
A fun, light-hearted read!