Saturday, December 21, 2019

A battle of the brows: MARGERY SHARP, Rhododendron Pie (1930)

It was indeed very difficult for the Laventie children not to be a little priggish.

Ann Laventie, the youngest of three children of the latest in a long line of anti-social Sussex gentry, doesn't quite fit the mold of her intellectual, elegant, ultra-modern siblings—Dick, an artist, and Elizabeth, a high-brow writer, both surely destined for greatness. Mr Laventie is scholarly and just wealthy enough to focus all his attention on his reading and other highbrow pursuits. Mrs Laventie is loving and patient, disabled since a riding accident years before but stoical and attentive. The family's highest standards are aesthetics, individual freedoms, and distinction, standing out (and above) others. They even readily discuss and accept such concepts as free love. Ann, on the other hand, worries about being plump, is what might now be called a "people person," and as the novel progresses she begins to come to terms with her more traditional beliefs and pleasures.

The initially rather bewildering title of this novel—the delightful Margery Sharp's debut and the most vanishingly rare of her titles, inexplicably never reprinted in the UK or the US since its first edition in 1930—is a symbol of its theme. In a short prologue, we first meet the Laventies when Dick, Elizabeth, and Ann are only children. It is Ann's sixth birthday, and her "birthday pie" is being unveiled, a family tradition which stems from Elizabeth's own sixth birthday, when she had demanded an inedible but aesthetically lovely pie filled with rhododendrons. Never mind how one could possibly create such a pie, not to mention how the blossoms would actually look after having been crammed into a crust. The point is that artistic Elizabeth has initiated the tradition of a beautiful but eccentric and non-functional birthday pie. And as the prologue ends, we see the more pragmatic Ann regretting the fact that she couldn't have had a lovely, edible, apple pie instead.

Despite the markup and watermark, I love this pic of Margery and husband
Geoffrey Castle, snagged from the Baltimore Sun archive a few years ago

The theme comes into sharper focus with the introduction of the disorderly and distinctly middlebrow Gayford family, neighbors who persist in inviting the young Laventies to tea and other gatherings. First, here's Mr Laventie's attitude toward socializing with his neighbors (which I confess rather echoes my own, a fact that perhaps should induce some soul-searching…):

Here it was that Mr. Laventie entertained his kind neighbours of Wetherington, marvelling greatly at their persistence … They never stayed long, however, the record of endurance being held by Miss Medlicott, the Vicar's sister, with a visit of nine minutes. The others were frozen out, as Miss Finn put it, within the first five. She herself held the record at the other end of the scale, and had told Mr. Laventie quite frankly that his colour scheme nauseated her. He could smile even now at the recollection of her thin beaky face and bristling hair as she scuttled down the drive to that preposterous yellow car; and the smile deepened as he thought of all the other backs he had watched from that same window. … Colonel and Mrs. Foster-Brown, red and angry; the local M.P., with his witless, connoisseur-to-connoisseur small-talk of first editions; Lady Spencer and her lank daughters; Sir George Bowman; poor Miss Medlicott, Christian forbearance in every line of that distressing raincoat. If only people would stop selling their houses and lose their taste for visiting the sick it would be quite a peaceful neighbourhood.

I do find it hard not to relate just a little to Mr Laventie, though I am perhaps redeemed a bit by the fact that I also find the gruff Miss Finn, an aunt of the Gayfords who has painted every available surface of her home with just the kind of realistic, pretty flowers surely calculated to make the Laventies cringe, to be pretty irresistible. To digress for a moment, here's a sample of Miss Finn, encountering a guest of the Laventies at the train station:

'Well, if it's Hobden's car,' observed Miss Finn, eyeing Miriam's bright suitcases, 'he'll never get all that in. What possessed you to have them that unwholesome colour?'

Gilbert explained that they were easy to identify.

'Well, I shouldn't like to have them near me on a Channel crossing, that's all.'

Ah, what would literature have been without acerbic spinster aunts!

The Gilbert mentioned in this passage is Gilbert Croy, an artsy filmmaker who comes to stay with the Laventies and romances Ann a bit. But it's the Gayfords who, next to the Laventies, figure most prominently here. There's John Gayford, who clearly adores Ann, and his sister Peggy, who becomes her friend and confidante. And there's the slightly ditsy, lovable Mrs Gayford, as well as the other siblings. All are exasperating to all of the Laventies except Ann, who finds herself drawn to their straightforward pleasure in life.

As the story progresses, the young Laventies spend much of their time in London—Dick with his sculpture (and a bit of womanizing), Elizabeth to her writing, and Ann to her, well, her wavering between different worlds and ways of life. She befriends the lovely, immoral (or perhaps merely unmoral) Delia and admires her unflappable poise, but realizes that Delia's lifestyle, handsome men flocking around her at all times, is not for her.

Of course things must come to a head when Ann comes home with a fiancé deemed completely unsuitable by her siblings and father. She faces fierce resistance, but the climactic scene in which Ann's quiet, self-effacing mother finally takes center stage, is absolutely a thing of beauty. I do love, though, that while there's never really any doubt about who will come out on top, Sharp, and indeed her heroine too, never completely demonizes the Laventies, merely brings them a notch or two down to size. Ann loves her family, and loves some of the unconventional people she meets in London, but her own path is a different one.

If Rhododendron Pie is just a bit rough around the edges, like most first novels, it clearly displays the charm, humor, and bite that Sharp would develop even more beautifully in the next few years. She made me love Ann, of course, but also the Gayfords and even the Laventies. It's a delightful, cheerful, life-affirming novel.

And as with my recent post on Rumer Godden's Gypsy, Gypsy, I really have to thank the "possibly FM" recommendations from you lovely readers for reminding me that I've neglected Margery Sharp for far too long. I can't say yet (because I really don't know, not because I'm being coy) if it's a possibility for us to reprint this and/or other of Sharp's out-of-print works. But copies of this book are scarce and pricy indeed (prices of four copies on Abe Books as of this writing range from $210 to $500 sans dustjacket!), so it would be lovely to have it more widely available.

If you'd like other perspectives on the book, Barb at Leaves and Pages reviewed it a few years back here, complete with a pic of the dustjacket, and Jane at Beyond Eden Rock reviewed it earlier this year here. Spoiler alert: they both loved it too


  1. It sounds like a very good read. I shall cross fingers for it being a FM book sometime in the future

  2. That sounds a delight and I do love that photograph!

  3. I really really really hope you will be able to reissue this!! It just sounds so fun. Love an acerbic aunt, too!

  4. I would so love you to reprint this and Fanfare for Tin Trumpets, they are the two that I’ve found totally impossible to get hold of and I’m desperate to read!


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