An Overview of Her Work

“[Her] alert and uncantankerous mind found perpetual amusement.”

Margery Sharp published a short story in Liberty magazine

Liberty magazine: one of the many magazines Margery Sharp published in

Margery Sharp was a keen observer of the human comedy. Her humor was astringent but almost always humane, her style neat and spare. Her work is generally classed as ‘middle-brow domestic’.

Her wit is nimble, sometimes breathtakingly funny or tender, and her situations range from the madcap and zany to the painfully realistic. Her plots are rarely predictable, but her surprises are never bitter ones.

It is obvious that Margery Sharp loves people; equally obvious that she understands them very well and forgives them a great deal. What she wrote of her character Janet in the short story At the Fort Flag, could be said of her as well:

‘At the Fort Flag, with nothing to do but look on, Janet Brocard’s alert and uncantankerous mind found perpetual amusement.’

Sharp was impatient with pretension–“jettisoned meaningless social impositions” as one commentator put it–but she was still generous in her portrayals. Just as Louisa Datchett (Something Light) could feel sorry for her rival, the pretty and helpless Enid Anstruther, we feel sorry for Enid, as well, and forgive her petty social pretensions. Next to her perfect profile, it’s all she has.

Sharp’s insights into human nature are sometimes dazzling. Many of her stories are examples of ‘the ripple effect’. Take one circumstance, innocuous in itself, throw it into the quiet ‘pond’ of a country house, a circle of friends, a family–and watch the effects. The Stone of Chastity and The Gypsy in the Parlor are fascinating and humorous examples of this psychological study.

The Margery Sharp style flows from the seemingly inexhaustible font (and how glad we are of it!) of basic British comedy–zany and offbeat characters operating in a conventional setting. That perfect eye for eccentricity seems natural to any strata of British life.

Other authors of the time, such as Thirkell and Delafield, wrote from a more privileged perspective, that of breeding, birth, or intellectual heritage. Miss Read (Dora Saint) wrote from the gentle rhythms of country life. Yet they all share the same basic elements in their writing–of humor and oddity, satire and gentle lampoon–with the pen sometimes sharpened to an acerbic point.

Margery Sharp is more street-savvy; her inventiveness was fueled by the startling dynamics of city life. She writes as one slightly distanced from country life, and any authenticity of her experience–as in Gipsy in the Parlor–seems to have been provided when she was a child. As an adult she was free to visit her sister’s country home in Rutlandshire, but describes it as “much noisier than Piccadilly.”

The bright young woman with fair hair who grew up in not-quite-middle class London, was a working girl, rich in Bohemian experience. She explored the streets of Soho and ate garlic smeared on bread–she went to crazy gin parties like those thrown by Les Girls–the fun-loving typists in Lise Lillywhite.

She knew of the underbelly of London life–and at times rubbed shoulders with the gritty and improvident.

“Apparently in London you had to live in a little close group, otherwise you would simply get lost and die of loneliness.” (Rhododendron Pie)

Margery Sharp is British, through and through, and is a product of the upheaval of her times. Occasionally, a bit of racial snobbery surfaces that requires tolerance from her readers.

Yet even the most ‘lively’ and un-conventional of her characters are written of affectionately. From Hugo, the sickly, indigent writer of off-beat plays who is affectionately called a ‘brave little twirp‘, to Count Stanislas, an ebullient Polish refugee who has become the king of the London underworld–they are written about with a kindly mischief, as though she is reminiscing of old friends.

Sharp devotes a fair bit of her irony and irreverence upon the staid and comfortable British populace, as well. As an example note this amusing but ominous scene-capture from The Tigress On the Hearth:

‘Quiet and sound Hugo slept on. Quiet and sound the Squire and Mrs. Lutterwell snoozed in their great bed. Quiet and sound slept the whole household, the men-servants and maid-servants, the horses in their stalls, the hounds in their kennels. They were English men and maids, English hounds and horses, English as their master and mistress; they slept the heavy English sleep, insolent in its security.’

Insolent in its security‘….one clearly feels the cat is poised to pounce on the cozy picture just painted. Or the ‘Tigress’, in this case. An Albanian tigress, to take the point further, a woman who lives by a different code of honor.

Sharp always wrote with an awareness that times had changed irrevocably for her country. Sometimes her pert and irreverent narratives (or the characters therein) suggested a sympathy for these changes, sometimes there is a faint regret.

Margery Sharp was certainly appreciated in her heyday, and there is a fair amount of critical praise of her work. However, the last decade or so of her writing output (excluding The Rescuers’ series) did not produce works that achieved any great popularity. It is almost as though she poured her amiable sense of fun into her works for children, with less sparkle and wit left over to infuse into her works for adults.

While there are certainly moments of the familiar Sharp magic in novels such as The Sun in Scorpio (1965), or Summer Visits (1977), there is also a more caustic and, at times, ribald tone laced through them. Perhaps, as Margery aged, she found less and less humor (and escape) in marching unsuspecting people through the vagaries of war and social change. Thus she turned to writing harmless fantasies, in which wonderful and heroic rescues are performed. The Rescuers series, ironically, became the very books to secure her fame.

Readers of Margery Sharp’s novels do not just enjoy her books, but feel that her abilities as a writer of humorous fiction places her as one of the best in the field. Her perspective is remarkably interesting, and her perfect sense of comic timing is a delight.

To classify her work as ‘light fiction’ represents the truth of it, but not by any means the significance. The work of the humorist is an art–one that, as Clifton Fadiman expressed it:

[makes] quietly despairing men suddenly catch a vision of the surprisingness of life, the breakability of rules, the spirit-cleansing power of the irrelevant.”

We relate to the work of the humorist because he/she deals with reality. They distill their own experience through a fresh vision that enables us to recognize (with a thrill) that it is our experience, too.

If it is true, as Marcel Proust said, that ‘in reality every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self’, then the task of the humorist makes our touch with that awareness more palatable. We feel we know these people they write of….However removed we are from the era or geography of the story, we welcome the feeling of identification that we can have with the characters.

Humor establishes continuity. If we can share a laugh with someone who lived fifty years or two hundred years ago; if we can identify with the scenes or people chronicled there, then we have formed a bridge with the past. The resulting sense of interrelatedness can be reassuring. In an ever-changing, sometimes frightening world, this is by no means a ‘light’ accomplishment. So even while we laugh with the humorist, we take their work and their vision very seriously.

 

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4 thoughts on “An Overview of Her Work

  1. “Thus she turned to writing harmless fantasies, in which wonderful and heroic rescues are performed. The Rescuers series, ironically, became the very books to secure her fame.”

    Do you mean you think The Rescuers’ Series are harmless fantasies? As well as I know, only two books of the series have been translated in Finnish, and I have read them both (I suppose they are the first two books of the series). I have never read children’s books with such a feeling of pure horror and evil! For example, the description of the life of a battered child was so true that I felt Margery Sharp might have had some experience of it herself… That’s what made me interested in her life at first.

    (I found later that she actually wrote The Rescuers’ Series for adults!)

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    • That’s an interesting perspective–and I will re-think the wording. Which book in particular are you referring to? I will have to read, or re-read it. I must confess I have not read them all; just the first couple in the series. I thought the ones I read were cute and clever, but I was not reading with a researcher’s eye, and they were not my scope of interest. My main focus for the website has been her novels for adults, and that is why you don’t see any reviews of the Rescuers books. When you look at the overall theme of her books for adults, though, you see: 1. Mothers who are not good mothers, and 2. Childless women (sometimes an aunt) who step in as surrogate mothers to ‘rescue’ children who are neglected, orphaned, or mistreated in some way. It does suggest a picture of childhood that could have its roots in reality. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts!

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  2. In her Rescuer series aka Miss Bianca I can find no mention online at all of the book that was the third in the series which was called the Diamond Palace – about a nasty Duchess who has a young girl working for her that Miss Bianca decides must be saved from this slavery. When the girl has to help said woman on with her wig she would get pricked on the fingers by the points on the diamond stars on the wig. Margery Sharp describes the wig as feeling as if you were handling a greasy hedge hog.. Any way I know it existed, I read it and am wondering how it could have disappeared. A listing gave The Turret as the 3rd book in the series it was not it is the 4th. the Diamond Palace came before The Turret. In the Turret Miss Bianca and friends rescue the Duchess’s Chauffer who she has imprisoned in a Turret because she blames him for the loss of the young girl. Weird for kids to read the Turret without having first read The Diamond Palace. Well definitely a loss. Can you shed any light on the disappearance of the Diamond Palace?

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    • Hi Laurel–You’ve posed a fascinating question! I have never heard of this book. But then, I am not so up on her Miss Bianca books. This is a mystery, for sure. Some of her magazine short stories were published under one name in the UK, and another name is the US. Perhaps something similar happened to the book you remember? Or…we can always hope that the answer will come to light (and some other mysteries solved that I would like to know!) as there is more attention being given to Sharp’s works now. As any ‘Margery news’ comes my way, I will be sure to post it here. Thank you for writing. Wish I could have been more help!

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