My rating: 9/10
I have been on an unapologetic reading binge these past few days; waking at my husband’s 5 AM alarm to blink the sleep from my tired eyes and reach groggily for the book I laid down the night before – or, technically, earlier in the morning; too many times it’s been past midnight – foolish me! A perfectly made cup of tea is always delivered to my bedside or chairside table by a man who values silence above conversation on workday mornings, and is himself stealing some precious reading time over his breakfast before heading out the door at the last possible moment. Our morning exchanges are brief; after thirty years together the pattern is predictably set, and it suits us very well. “What’re you reading?” and “Here, I’m done. You give it a try. Not bad…” and, so often, “Hey, did you steal my book? I was still working on that one…”
Lately I have had an extravagant number of book-shaped packages from far-flung purveyors, so that like the proverbial child in the candyshop I am overwhelmed by choices and am greedily consuming each treat with an anticipatory eye on the next one. All are light fiction; summer reading at its best.
Trickling in much too slowly are a number of new-to-me vintage books by my beloved Margery Sharp. Margery wrote a trilogy of sorts between 1957 and 1964: The Eye of Love, Martha in Paris, and Martha, Eric and George. Naturally, the third book came first, then the second, with a dreadfully long lag before the first one showed up just a few days ago. I had been nobly holding off on reading them out of sequence, and I’m glad I did. These definitely need to be read in order to get a full appreciation of the journey of our unlikely heroine Martha. I am surprised that these do not appear in an omnibus edition; that would be kindest to the reader, and not unmanageable, as the three books are individually short and quick reads. Having gobbled them up, I will now review them in order, with a probably doomed attempt at brevity, and place them together on my dedicated Margery Sharp shelf in our bedroom (where all the “chuck out the window in case of house fire” treasures reside) to await happy re-reading in future.
Ladies of ambiguous status have by convention hearts of gold, and Miss Diver was nothing if not conventional; but a child in an irregular household is often an embarrassment. It had been wonderfully kind of Miss Diver to save her brother’s child from an orphanage, but not surprising; what was surprising was how well the arrangement had worked out.
It is 1929; Miss Dolores Diver’s widowed brother Richard Hogg has just died, leaving behind nothing of worldly value to his six-year-old-child, Martha, now a bona-fide orphan with an uncertain future. Miss Diver gallantly steps in.
She had never seen the child until an hour earlier; she had never before visited the shabby Brixton lodging-house in whose shabby parlour the thinly-attended wake was being held. – A dozen or so of Richard Hogg’s ex-colleagues from the post office stared inquisitively; this meeting between the two chief mourners provided a touch of drama, something to talk about afterwards, otherwise conspicuously lacking. (As Doctor Johnson might have said, it wasn’t a funeral to invite a man to: only one bottle of sherry and fish-paste sandwiches. Richard Hogg, with his motherless daughter, had lodged two full years in Hasty Street; but a landlady never does these things so wholeheartedly as relations, even with the Burial Club paid up and the next week’s rent in hand.)
Several years pass in complete amiability; young Martha is a rather odd but markedly placid child, and the Diver ménage, financed and patronized by Harry Gibson, head of a small furrier’s establishment, absorbs her without a hitch. Things are about to change, though. Harry’s business is struggling in the depths of the financial depression, and to save it he has contracted to marry one Miranda Joyce, hitherto-unmarriageable daughter of a very successful, upper-end furrier. Her father, in return for getting his daughter finally settled, is willing to re-finance Gibson’s. Harry decides to do the right thing by his prospective fiancé and renounce his mistress and his comfortable routine: five days of the week living quietly with his doting mother, with the weekend secretly spent in the little house with faithful Dolores and a tactful Martha, with the story to the rest of the world that he has continual weekend business in Leeds.
Since their meeting ten years earlier, at a Chelsea Arts Ball, Dolores and Harry have grown even more deeply in love. Now, on the eve of their parting, they cling together and reminisce.
“I’m sorry, Harry, but I can’t bear it,” said Dolores.
She huddled closer against his solid chest. It was his solidness shed always loved, as he her exotic fragility. For ten years they’d given each other what each most wanted out of life: romance. Now both were middle-aged, and if they looked and sounded ridiculous, it was the fault less of themselves than of time.
To be fair to Time, each had been pretty ridiculous even at the Chelsea Ball. Miss Diver, in her second or third year as a Spanish Dancer, was already known to aficionados as Old Madrid. Mr. Gibson, who had never attended before, found the advertised bohemianism more bohemian than he’s bargained for. To the young devils from the Slade, unwrapping him, [Harry has come dressed as a brown paper parcel],his humiliated cries promised bare buff rather than pyjamas. Naked, indeed, he might have made headlines by being arrested; in neat Vyella, he was merely absurd.
Dolores, Old Madrid, not only pitied his condition but also lacked a partner. She’s have been glad to dance with anyone, all the rest of the night. But though rooted in such unlikely soil their love had proved a true plant of Eden, flourishing and flowering, and shading from the heat of day – not Old Madrid and Harry Gibson, but King Hal and his Spanish rose.
So they had rapidly identified each other – he so big and bluff, she so dark and fragile: as King Hal and his Spanish rose. Of all the couples who danced that night in the Albert Hall, they were probably the happiest.
Off Harry goes, to reluctantly propose to the very willing Miranda.
A quarter of an hour passed long as a century. To an impatient lover it would no doubt have seemed longer: Mr. Gibson was impatient only as a man about to be shot might be impatient. (Why hadn’t he been shot, in ’17?) The bitter parenthesis, by the memories it evoked, nonetheless helped his courage: when at last the door opened, like an officer and a gentleman Mr. Gibson clutched his carnations and stood bravely up to meet the firing squad.
Curiously enough, Miranda Joyce bore a marked physical resemblance to Miss Diver. Both were tall, black-haired, and bony. They were about the same age. Miss Joyce had even certain advantages: her make-up was better, she hadn’t Dolores’ slight moustache, and she was far better dressed. But whereas Mr. Gibson saw Dolores with the eye of love, he saw Miss Joyce as she was, and whereas the aspect of Old Madrid made his heart flutter with delicious emotion, the aspect of Miss Joyce sunk it to his boots.
But Harry Gibson soldiers on. The proposal is duly made and predictably accepted; the necessary conventions are observed.
Kissing her had been like kissing a sea-horse. Mr. Gibson knocked back his drink thankfully. (“I shall turn into a sozzler,” thought Mr. Gibson – dispassionate as a physician diagnosing the course of a disease.)
Fortunately Harry finds consolation in a growing friendship with his father-in-law to be. Mr. Joyce becomes a kindred spirit, and the one bright spot in Harry’s dark night of the soul.
Meanwhile Martha and Dolores are also soldiering on gamely. Dolores soon finds that she is unemployable; her only resource seems to be to let out rooms in her house. Fortunately for aunt and niece, Martha is quick to seize a chance while visiting her old home, and is instrumental in bringing home the perfect boarder. Bachelor Mr. Phillips, clerk of an insurance company, is at first innocuously quiet and reliable with the rent money. However, Dolores’ broken heart and subsequent stand-offish attitude soon have the effect on her boarder of rousing in him a great curiosity as to her personal situation, and, quite soon, a desire to wed this woman whom he very wrongly perceives to be financially independent and a property owner to boot. What Mr. Phillips doesn’t know is that the house is merely leased, with the term coming up; hence Dolores’ desperate need for Mr. Phillips’ financial contribution, and her reluctance to snub his distasteful though so-far polite advances
The games of in-and-out and false pretences escalate, and while her elders are torturing themselves with emotional gymnastics, young Martha is single-mindedly pursuing her one interest. She is teaching herself to draw. Martha sees the world as a series of shapes; capturing images, fitting them into those categories, and transferring them from her eyes to her mind to paper takes up every waking moment.
Dismissed as merely a scribbling child, Martha stolidly ignores the adult world, and it in turn takes little notice of her. Until one day Mr. Joyce, through a series on coincidences, happens upon Martha drawing a tree. He is a connoisseur of the arts; he recognizes a budding young talent when he sees it. He offers Martha his patronage, and buys her much-desired paper, charcoal and chalks, which she unemotionally accepts while refusing the offer of a longer-term artistic relationship and sincere, friendly interest which Mr. Joyce extends.
These complicated relationships get more tangled as time goes on; their multiple resolutions are a typically Margery Sharp juggling act. The tale winds up with a combination of most satisfactory endings, and we leave Martha in particular with the hopeful idea that her future, if not exactly easy, will be extremely interesting.
A cleverly written, very smart, satirical, darkly amusing novel. On par with Something Light, though not quite as gentle; the humour of The Eye of Love is decidedly savage at times.
I’m not at all sure if Margery Sharp planned at first to continue Martha’s saga, as The Eye of Love is a decidedly stand-alone novel, but I am so glad she did. Very highly recommended. Next book in the trilogy: Martha in Paris.