The Flowering Thorn by Margery Sharp ~ 1933. This edition: Little, Brown & Co., 1952. Hardcover. 345 pages.
My rating: 10/10
Margery Sharp’s fourth novel, The Flowering Thorn, first appeared in England in 1933, with an American edition appearing in 1934, but it attracted little attention in North America until almost twenty years later. The later novels Cluny Brown (made into a 1946 movie of the same name, starring Jennifer Jones and Charles Boyer) and The Nutmeg Tree (used as the inspiration for the popular 1948 movie Julia Misbehaves starring Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, Nigel Bruce and a young Elizabeth Taylor) brought Margery Sharp to the attention of the North American public, who happily bought her books and asked for more.
The reason I mention this is that there are two sets of “first editions” of The Flowering Thorn out there. The first “first” would be the original British 1933 edition published by Arthur Barker, Ltd. Putnam’s American edition followed in 1934. Then in 1952 appears another “first”, so stated in the book, with a stated copyright date of 1934, published by Little, Brown and Co. The dustjacket and front flyleaf of the 1952 Little, Brown edition refers to a number of the Sharp titles published after 1932, and up to 1951 – The Nutmeg Tree, The Stone of Chastity, Cluny Brown, Britannia Mews, The Foolish Gentlewoman, and Lise Lillywhite – giving the game away – but it can be confusing. There were several paperback editions as well. This title is fairly scarce; if you can find a decent-condition hardcover of any edition under $30, grab it. A 1933 true first in good condition will set you back $100 +, going by the May 2012 AbeBooks listings.
(Vintage book collector’s digression now over!)
I would like to call this a gentle, slow-moving examination of a woman’s progress towards true fulfillment and happiness, but Margery Sharp’s always analytical and occasionally tart tone, as well as protagonist Lesley Frewen’s no-nonsense attitude, make “gentle” a somewhat inadequate description.
Lesley is a twenty-nine year old socialite living in London in 1929. Her life is perfectly organized; she lives well, and just within her income, in a high-end, most desirable flat; her interests are the theatre, modern art, literature and music; she moves among the Bright Young Things of the day with aplomb and style. What Lesley suddenly realizes she is missing, after a tactful brush-off by a man she highly admires and has delicately offered herself to, is love.
…there slipped into her mind, already bodied in words, a strange and dreadful notion. She thought, ‘Perhaps I am not a woman that men do love.’ She thought, ‘There are women like that. Attractive women…. And if that is so, and if…that is what I have been waiting for, what am I to do now?’ The intricate daily patchwork was still there to work at, the innumerable dovetailing fragments still lay ready to hand: but it now seemed to her, and for the first time, that her work had no pattern. ‘I want something new,’ said Lesley aloud.
And it is in this frame of mind, struggling with her sudden inner turmoil, that Lesley goes to tea with her elderly aunt, who is embroiled of a turmoil of her own: her recently hired companion, a young, widowed Scotswoman, has suddenly died, leaving behind a four-year-old child. There are no relations in sight, and the orphanage looms.
Lesley, who has been watching young Patrick playing on the floor as the conversation regarding his future goes on above his head, is impressed and intrigued by the child’s tenacious attitude and sober demeanour. On a whim, she offers to take him on herself, much to her aunt’s consternation. Lesley immediately regrets her rash offer, but before she can backtrack the child catches her eye; to renounce him would be a betrayal, she suddenly feels. The immediate and very vocal opposition to her proposal by the elderly women present has the contradictory effect of stiffening Lesley’s resolve, and the wheels are set in motion.
Lesley suddenly finds herself in the position of having to leave her flat (no children allowed) and to take on extra expenses in regards to Patrick’s care. Her careful budget is in tatters, and she decides, on another not particularly well thought out whim, to move into a cottage in a country village in order to live more cheaply. After all, it is only going to be for four years, until Patrick is old enough to send to boarding school, and then Lesley can slide back into her well-organized town life. Her social butterfly friends will surely understand…
Lesley’s new life is not what she had anticipated, but she takes it well in stride, attempting at first to keep up her strict London standards, but, ever-so-slowly, a new Lesley is born, a much more human and ultimately more lovable one.
Something I deeply appreciated about this story was Sharp’s total avoidance of sentiment regarding the relationship between Lesley and Patrick. Lesley is, almost immediately, deeply resentful of Patrick’s demands – both the physical demands of a small child, and the moral demands his presence in her life place upon her stern conscience. Confronted by a friend pushing the option of backing out of the situation, Lesley examines her innermost soul and comes to a surprising conclusion:
She thought, ‘If I don’t see this thing out I shall have something rotten inside me for the rest of my life.’ Rotten like an apple – the brown decaying core under the firm red skin…
Nevertheless, she does not initially feel any sort of affection for the child; to the contrary
…she looked at him with an intensity of dislike so nearly bordering on hatred that her own features, could she have seen them at that moment, would have seemed completely strange to her. And even without seeing, it was as though she guessed: for in all their enforced companionship she never once spoke to him without consciously masking her face. It was a hatred to be ashamed of, ignoble and unjust: but she did not love him the more for making her ashamed.
The development of a much more positive relationship between the two is the thread that winds through the story, though Lesley in no way concentrates solely on the nurturing of Patrick; she is even more so concerned with working through her own emotional and intellectual growth as her self-imposed exile from her previous world gradually brings her an awareness of the unexpectedly rich and satisfying reward of relationships based on mutual affection and respect versus social expediency.
A thought provoking, often humorous, rather surprising story. Highly recommended.