The female leads in the novels of Margery Sharp were often of the kind of looks or appeal that was hard to define in terms of classic beauty. Sometimes there was no beauty at all, but a certain Something.
In bringing out this certain ‘Something’, the transforming power of the right clothes plays a pivotal role. There is a small wealth of fashion tidbits laced throughout the novels of Margery Sharp, and if you enjoy finding these connections from favorite fiction to real history (as I do) I recommend you visit the blog of Moira at clothesinbooks.com for some wonderful pictures and fashion tie-ins to favorite literature.
Cluny Brown is one such character who exerts an unusual attraction. Her appeal was more about what she exuded than her actual looks. I have always been curious to know if there was any real inspiration behind the description of Cluny’s appearance. A clue recently came my way while re-reading The Sun in Scorpio for an upcoming review. Cathy Pennon, of this novel, reminds many readers of Cluny Brown. She also has a bit of Martha, of Martha in Paris. Although Cathy Pennon has a shock of unruly red hair, and Cluny Brown is distinctly dark, the two share the unlovely (for the era) trait of ‘skinny like a skinned rabbit’. Unlovely, but not without attractions if given the right clothes. Of Cathy Pennon, the author comments:
‘Only a very great dressmaker, a future Balenciaga, could have done anything with Cathy, and then the result would have been striking.’
I was curious about the ‘very great dressmaker’, so went on a google search for Balenciaga. I found Cristobal Balenciaga, as it turned out–a fashion designer of whom Coco Chanel said “The only couturier in the truest sense of the word.”
I also found, not a Cathy Pennon, exactly, but surely a Cluny Brown?
‘Cluny wore her best clothes…these were all black…and the circumstance was not, at this stage in her career, without importance. It explained for example how she had got a table at the Ritz. Unusually tall, thin as a kippered herring, Cluny in a plain black coat looked very well. From the back she looked elegant; it was only her face spoiled it from in front.’
Ah, the face. Her first romantic conquest, the portly Mr. Ames, was at first put off.
‘Mr. Ames for his part took one look at Cluny’s nose and dismissing all frolicsome thoughts at once led the way into a small malodorous scullery.’
Then suddenly, strangely, within a short space of time–punctuated by the deft unclogging of the drain–Mr. Ames has a revelation.
‘Mr. Ames leaned on one elbow and watched her. It was by now incredible to him that he had ever thought her plain; he could see only the extraordinarily fine texture of her white skin and the extraordinarily clean cut of the lids over her long black eyes….Mr. Ames took a firm hold on himself. His desire to make love to her was by now extreme, but time was against him…’
Part of what transformed Cluny in this scene, was a simple black coat and dress. And this moment with Cluny silhouetted against an open door:
‘It was a moment of peculiar significance. Cluny’s tall thin figure, dark against the sunlight, was admirably balanced…as she turned her head the ridiculous pony-tail of hair showed in a bold calligraphic flourish. She looked like no one on earth but Cluny Brown.’
It would be so fun to see another film adaptation of Cluny Brown. What actress do you think would best portray her?
For another example of where Margery Sharp appears to have pulled a character description right from the pages of a fashion rag, read ‘So Absurdly Young’.