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