‘She repaid to the spectator the trouble she gave to her intimates…’
Margery, as the artist, was fascinated by beautiful women. As a woman, she was troubled by them.
She featured them often in her stories with increasing resentment until finally (in The Innocents) she just drowned one. Served up as the most efficient and logical solution to a plot dilemma.
Brainless and self-serving was a common theme linked with astonishing beauty. Her remarks in The Nutmeg Tree–regarding a showstoppingly beautiful, wealthy and disgusted woman–are revealing:
“She felt, roughly speaking, that while the Disgusted Lady was probably a very disagreeable and useless person, she also made the world a more interesting place. She was a fascinating specimen of humanity, just as the mosquito was a fascinating specimen of dipterae. She repaid to the spectator the trouble she gave to her intimates. In short, she was worth having.”
Beauty, when not matched with malevolence, was more often than not linked with gentle stupidity. Isabel Brocken (The Foolish Gentlewoman) and Enid Anstruther (Something Light) were two aging beauties who had no power to harm and that Margery could feel charitable toward:
”Stop being a cat!” Louisa adjured herself. But it was almost impossible not to be a cat, Mrs. Anstruther being so like a moth, or a bird, or a butterfly; for of all three, it was plain, did her nature partake. It wasn’t only, Louisa had to admit, her profile: there was a softness and fluffiness and a featheriness about her which one could well imagine irresistible to the tougher type of male.”
And of Isabel Brocken:
“At fifty-five Isabel Brocken was still a nice-looking woman. The most striking thing about her was her expression, for she nearly always looked pleased; and though this, in 1946, was really but a final proof of her thorough foolishness, some people found her appearance refreshing.”
Although, poor Isabel–when she was younger and even prettier Simon Brocken merely described her as a ‘fluffy-headed nincompoop‘.
In the delightful short story At the Fort Flag, two exceptional beauties are staying at the same hotel. One is a predator, the other a dreadful little bore endowed with a lisp and the name of Smike:
“Don’t you think it’s a vewwy odd name?” lisped the beauty queen, standing meekly by Janet’s chair. “I mean, Tanya Duval–that’s what she says it is–well, it doesn’t seem to match, does it? I mean, one’s Wussian, and the other’s Fwench..” ”Perhaps she had bilingual parents,” suggested Janet rather unkindly. The beauty queen examined the adjective for a moment, then abandoned it.”
And of the delicious Betty Cream (Cluny Brown) she is given no credit for brains, either, but is richly endowed with an accurate instinct for survival. She is simply a product of her breeding, a particularly lovely cultivar in the genus, ‘Country House Gentlewoman’. She troubles her future husband Andrew, however, who so much wants to be thinking about noble things and not be distracted by purely shallow considerations:
‘Andrew in London was distressed to find himself thinking at least as much about Betty Cream as about the European situation. She was incomparably the less important subject, but she had somehow got into his mind and wandered about there like a child in a laboratory.’
This is not to say that all of Margery’s ‘serious’ heroines were unattractive. In her early work Rhododendron Pie Ann Laventie was pretty in a dreamy, poetic way, but still paled in comparison to the likes of the ruthless Miriam Oleson.
“Miriam Oleson entered. That was what she had been trained to do at her finishing school on the Boulevard St. Germain, and she never forgot.”
Lesley Frewen, the seamless socialite in The Flowering Thorn, is described as very attractive, but, being the main character, needs to be subjected to a bit of ‘character refurbishment’ before we’re allowed to truly like her. Even so, there is the issue of a consummately beautiful and obnoxious Russian woman to deal with. “But who is she, my dear?” asked Lesley, a trifle coldly. ”The daughter of an Imperial general, darling, only someone murdered him, and now she’s taken up economics.”
As well, Lisbeth in Harlequin House, and Julia of The Nutmeg Tree, as well as Louise in Something Light were portrayed as decently attractive (the recipients of the occasional wolf whistle and predatory male) even more so were they privileged to experience the mystical transforming power of ‘the right clothes’.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t include the one heroine creation in Margery’s work who embodied all of the feminine virtues–beauty, grace, breeding, compassion, courage and intelligence, to name a few.
Of course Miss Bianca was a mouse.