Friday, January 10, 2020

A postwar ménage: MARGERY SHARP, The Foolish Gentlewoman (1948)

At, fifty-five Isabel Bracken was still a nice-looking woman. She dated, of course, all her female friends said so—poor Isabel certainly dated; she was rather plump, and wore her faded hair in a kind of neat bird's-nest, but her complexion was pretty and the blue of her eyes scarcely faded at all. 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.

World War II has ended and widowed Isabel Brocken, kind-hearted and generous if (according to her brother-in-law) not the sharpest tool in the shed, is back in her old family home on the outskirts of London after her self-imposed evacuation to Bath. Keeping her company are her nephew Humphrey Garrett from New Zealand, just demobilized from the military, and Jacqueline Brown, just out of the ATS herself, whom Isabel met when she gave her a lift from Bath and promptly invited to live with her ('"One of these days you'll pick up a thug," prophesied Mr. Brocken.") Humphrey and Jacky are well started on a pleasant romance when Simon Brocken himself is added to the mix, finding it convenient to stay with Isabel while his own house is under repair from bomb damage, despite his decidely mixed feelings about her. Also in the house are the Pooles, mother and daughter, selected by Simon to serve as live-in caretakers during the years when the house was vacant—standoffish but living in perfect if unconventional contentment, though it emerges that they are haunted by a dark past.

Most readers will find it difficult not to like Isabel, despite her apparent foolishness. I love Sharp's description of the plentiful pleasures Isabel encountered in day-to-day life:

Sentimental, affectionate, uncritical, Mrs. Bracken so easily attached herself to persons, places, and even objects that after no more than two days in an hotel she had a favourite waiter, a favourite ornament, a favourite view. She had adored her husband, and was very fond of her French pepper-mill. An old watering-can was dear to her because she remembered seeing the gardener use it on her mother's rose-beds, and a new alarm-clock, because it was so nice and bright. She had thus many small sources of pleasure, inoperative perhaps on deeper intellects, which, added together, made a sort of comfortable woolly garment for her mind.

But it's possible that some of those readers will also be given pause when her plans for the future of the house and her own financial resources are revealed. She has, it turns out, made a rare venture to church and heard an inspiring sermon about the need for making amends for one's wrongs. This has led her to recall her treatment of Tilly Cuff, a poor relation ("some sort of second cousin") who had lived with Isabel's family and been treated kindly in a careless sort of way. Since then, Tilly has led a rather sad existence as a lady's companion.

But, Isabel confesses to Simon, Tilly's life might have taken a very different path. Back in 1912, at the end of a visit from a young soldier friend of the Brockens, Isabel had, early one morning, come upon a shy note from the soldier to Tilly, declaring his love. In a moment of weakness, Isabel, in part out of jealousy, destroyed the letter and never mentioned it to Tilly. Now, following the sermon, she is convinced that her act ruined Tilly's one chance at happiness, and she determines, against all of Simon's arguments, to invite Tilly to stay, confess her crime, and make amends by signing over nearly all her money to her.

Where Sharp takes her story from there is a delight, particularly when Tilly arrives and proves to be challenging (to put it nicely) and at times even "malevolent". She puts a damper on Humphrey and Jacky's romance, offers Jacky uncomfortable advice about her position, and threatens to wreak havoc on the Pooles' contentment. She is petty and manipulative, and yet Sharp also shows us to some extent how she has become this way. In fact, it's striking that all of the characters in The Foolish Gentlewoman are imperfect (but likable anyway, most of them).

It's also striking that Sharp cleverly subverts our usual "cozy" expectations of a simple happy ending with everyone living unrealistically ever after. Here, although life certainly shifts for most or all of the characters, ultimately most of them will continue much as they did before, just as so often happens in real life. And one may have to do some pleasant soul-searching to determine whether one agrees with Mr Brocken's assessment of Isabel as foolish and "idiotic". She might (or might not) turn out to be the wisest of all the characters—Sharp leaves it up to us to determine how we think her future will unfold.

It's a terrifically entertaining novel, and a lovely slice of immediate postwar life. I enjoyed this uniquely postwar dialogue between young Greta Poole and Simon:

''I suppose you don't want any bits of bomb?" enquired Greta politely.

"No, thank you," said Mr. Bracken.

"I don't either. I used to collect them; it's funny," said Greta tolerantly, "what you'll do when you're a kid. Now I'm just going to chuck them away."

"Some of 'em had the dates on," remarked Greta, returning. "It was Mum's idea; we thought they'd make nice souvenirs, but they got too common."

I can only imagine how many people (me included, probably, however morbid it might be) would love to have such a Blitz souvenir today.

And there's this lovely snippet between Tilly and the Pooles, when she is just beginning to invade their lives by storming into the kitchen, all false cheerfulness, and offering Greta a gift of a pincushion (of all things):

"That's very kind, I'm sure," said Mrs. Poole.

The Pooles had excellent manners. Some one offered you a present; whether you wanted it or not, even before you had seen it, you said they were very kind. (Or some one saved your life in a blitz; the same phrase served.) But one wasn't over-enthusiastic, in either case; all codes of manners having their convention.

And finally, although Simon is hardly the hero of this novel—stodgy, particular, and more than a little curmudgeonly—I rather uneasily recognized myself in this description of him spotting an old acquaintance on the street:

Mr. Bracken did not dislike her; but he walked on. It was his habit to avoid people whenever possible, in case they became a nuisance. For Simon was profoundly convinced that all people became a nuisance sooner or later: logic, and arithmetic, informed him that the fewer people one became involved with, the less danger one ran of being annoyed. Carrying his inviolability like a cup of precious water, Mr. Brocken returned up the hill to Chipping Lodge.

Fortunately, unlike Simon, I have Andy to keep dragging me out of my shell when I start to get too hermetically sealed inside!

This is the second previously unread Margery Sharp novel I've checked off my TBR recently, after reviewing her debut, Rhododendron Pie, here. I'm very much enjoying getting reacquainted with Sharp, and indeed I have more of her books on their way to me. And I'm late to the party with this one—The Foolish Gentlewoman was also reviewed by Ali here, Barb at Leaves & Pages here, and by Liz here.


  1. Must add this to the list, since, as I wrote, the only one I have ever read is "In Pious Memory," much later, ca. 1967.
    Really a black comedy.

    1. I do like black comedies, so clearly I need to read that one soon, Tom!

  2. Ah, thank you for linking to my review; I wondered why I suddenly had a few hits for it! I'm glad you liked this as much as I did, and I do love Sharp - I've enjoyed all the books of hers I've read so far.

    1. No problem Liz. I always like giving readers the opportunity to get other perspectives on a book (though in this case we were all in agreement!). Hoping to have more Sharp reviews coming before too long.

  3. Nothing to do with Margery Sharp! BUT sat up late last evening and finished in one sitting Apricot Sky by Ferguson, and must agree totally with Scott - WHAT a wonderful book! If it was more readily available, I can think of friends to whom I would give copies! AND NOW, to
    drag this back onto topic, I must find a copy of "The English Gentlewoman." So thanks, Scott.

    1. So glad you liked Apricot Sky as much as I did, Tom. Somehow I didn't remember it being so terribly funny--I was giggling and snorting all the way through.

  4. Foolish me! You know I mean FOOLISH Gentlewoman by Sharp, right?
    Ha ha ha.
    I am still on my first cup of coffee.

  5. Well. Two years back (I know this because I linked over to Leaves and Pages just now) I started to read this, based on her glowing recommendation. But I know it ran off the road for me pretty early. My notes from my reading journal: "...unlikeable characters, jumpy narration...."

    Still, FM and L&P are no slouches when it comes to recommending excellent books, so perhaps another try....

    1. It's interesting, Susan, that while I don't exactly find the characters here unlikeable, they are certainly all flawed, but I actually enjoyed that because they felt like real people. But of course we know from the DES list that even DES fans often feel quite differently about some of her books, let alone about other authors, so it might just not be your cup of tea!

    2. In 1949, Sharp adapted her novel for the London stage, with Dame Sybil Thorndike and her husband Sir Lewis Casson as Isabel and Simon, and Mona Washbourne (later Mrs. Pearce in the movie of My Fair Lady) as Mrs. Poole. During the 1967-68 BBC radio season, Thorndike chose The Foolish Gentlewoman as one of 6 of her favorite roles that she would recreate in 90-minute radio adaptations. I was introduced to the work by discovering the audio file of a recording of that broadcast uploaded to YouTube -- I have since managed to acquire a discarded library copy of the now out-of-print Samuel French acting edition of the play (which I find delightful) -- I hope to get the rights to perform it as a reading (but Sharp does not appear among the authors on the website of Concord Threatricals, the recently formed mega-merger that now controls the combined catalogs of Samuel French, R&H (Rodgers & Hammerstein) Theatricals, Tams-Witmark and The Andrew Lloyd Webber Collection.


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