Monday, March 24, 2014

Old Bestsellers: The Stone of Chastity, by Margery Sharp

The Stone of Chastity, by Margery Sharp

Margery Sharp (1905-1991) was in fact a quite well-known writer ... for children. She wrote a series of nine books, beginning with The Rescuers (1959), about a beautiful mouse called Miss Bianca who (along with the loyal Bernard) becomes involved in the efforts of the Prisoner's Aid Society in rescuing unjustly held prisoners around the world. I read a few of these with enjoyment when I was young, and revisited them later when my children were young. There were also a couple of (lesser) Disney movies, The Rescuers (1977) and The Rescuers Down Under (1990).

Margery Sharp was also a mildly well-known writer for adults. I encountered Cluny Brown (1944) and The Nutmeg Tree (1937) when I was in my 20s. I don't think I ever made the connection (obvious enough) between the writer of The Rescuers et. seq., which I had read age 12 or so, and the writer of Cluny Brown and many other novels. Cluny Brown is likely her most famous adult novel -- it was made into a 1946 film by Ernst Lubitsch (starring Jennifer Jones, recommendation enough in my mind). (It should be noted that other Sharp novels were also filmed, such as The Nutmeg Tree (with Greer Garson) and Britannia Mews (with Maureen O'Hara).)

Sharp's first adult novel (Rhododendron Pie) appeared in 1930, and The Rescuers didn't come out until 1959 (when I was born). So it seem as if her career was perhaps bifurcated -- a few decades of reasonable success as an adult novelist, followed by another couple of decades writing for children. But that's not quite correct -- while she did publish 15 books before The Rescuers came out, she kept writing for adults until the end of her career. (She appears to have retired in the late '70s.) And while the Miss Bianca books were certainly popular, so too, at least in their time, were her adult books.

And now? As far as I can tell, none of her books -- not even the Miss Bianca books -- are in print. Some may be available in electronic editions. But I suspect she hasn't really been available widely since not too long after The Rescuers Down Under came out. Which is to say, pretty much since her death. My copies of Cluny Brown and The Nutmeg Tree are Perennial Library paperbacks, from 1982. Nowadays I look for her stuff in antique stores and used book sales and the like, and even there they're hard to find. Perhaps she is just a bit too new?

All this is a shame. Margery Sharp was an outstanding writer. Her metier was comedy -- very light comedy, I suppose. And comedy does have a tendency to be underappreciated -- especially when its satiric bite is not all that intense. Sharp was also popular in her day -- which may have meant that nobody felt she needed revival, or special appreciation. Compare Barbara Pym, who wrote novels of similar quietude, but never achieved the commercial success early in her career that Sharp did. Late in her life Pym became the subject of a significant rediscovery, and as a result she is now placed, it seems to me, on a shelf with the likes of Elizabeth Bowen and the great Elizabeth Taylor. Sharp has never got such attention. Quite possibly her fame as a writer of children's books was also to her reputation's detriment.

Well, or maybe not. But I like her books a lot, and while I wouldn't rate her with Taylor (one of the real quiet giants of 20th Century British fiction), I have no problem matching her with, say, Pym (whose work I quite enjoy, I should say). Definitely, I would say, she is a writer worthy of a latter day reexamination.

So, to the book at hand. The Stone of Chastity is the one book I did manage to find in the wild -- at a charity used book sale, I think. Or maybe an antique store. My edition seems to be the second, printed the same year as the first, 1940 (by Little, Brown -- in the US, anyway). The back of the dust jacket promotes The Nutmeg Tree, comparing it to Robert Nathan (appropriately -- they even both had novels adapted for films starring Jennifer Jones!) and Victoria Lincoln (who she?), along with praise from Nathan himself.  One flap praises another novel, Harlequin House. The dust jacket cover (by Robert Ball) is reproduced on the cloth covers.

The story is set in the sleepy village of Gillenham. Professor Isaac Pounce is summering there, and planning to study the local legend of the Stone of Chastity: a rock which will invariably reveal a wife's unfaithfulness, or a maiden's unmaidenly behavior, if stumbled upon. Accompanying him are his feckless nephew Nicholas, his sister-in-law, Nicholas's mother, and a statuesque young woman named Carmen.

Besides the Pounces, the novel considers a range of village inhabitants ... the Vicar, his wife, the Pyes, various   habitues of the local pub, and an intriguingly independent woman named Bridget. The plot, of course, concerns the shocked reactions of the inhabitants to the dissemination of the Professor's quiestionnaire about the Stone; as well as Nicholas' attraction to Carmen and to Bridget, and the degree of reciprocity, or not, that occurs; and of course the reception of the out-of-towners by the village. It's not exactly a sharp-edged plot, nor need it be; but while the first reaction to the whole thing may be "light, gentle, humor", that's not quite right -- there is a bit of a knowing edge to Sharp's view of everyone -- though not ever a vicious edge. And it's not a romcom -- Sharp didn't really write romances, another reason it might have been hard to get a grip on her. It's -- well, I enjoyed it. I will say that it didn't get nearly the reception that books like The Nutmeg Tree and Cluny Brown got, and while that may be fair I still thought it good stuff.


  1. I am enjoying this! Will get the book. Nice work, Rich! Myrna

  2. In the early twentieth century, in his series of lectures entitled Pragmatism, the philosopher and psychologist William James advanced the thesis that, broadly speaking, people can be separated into two general categories of personality – tough minded and tender minded. Here are these two classes as described by James in his own words: