Harlequin House by Margery Sharp ~ 1939. This edition: Little, Brown & Co., 1939. Hardcover. 311 pages.
My rating: 8.5/10
The first American edition’s front flyleaf description is fulsome – if slightly misguided – in its chirpy promotion of this admittedly light novel as a uniformly cheery romp.
(Background info: The Nutmeg Tree, published in 1937, was one Margery Sharp’s most popularly successful books. The publishers were obviously hoping for another “just like it”; one suspects they were a bit bemused by Harlequin House, which is nothing at all like its immediate predecessor, and did their best to spin it to the reading public with much reference to the previous bestseller.)
The Nutmeg Tree, a novel about a slightly unmoral woman named Julia, made a quiet appearance in the summer of 1937. Before the year was out The Nutmeg Tree was cracking faces that hadn’t smiled since 1929.
Readers cried for more. Harlequin House is the answer. Harlequin House is a mischievous, prancing and romantic novel about young Lisbeth who had her own way of accomplishing her ends.
Circumstances led to Lisbeth’s living in a Bohemian apartment in London. She lived with her brother Ronny, who was nearly as delightful as she, but needed reforming. Helping Lisbeth in this mission was one Mr. Partridge, middle-aged, gentle enough, but not averse to expressing his displeasure with civilization in a number of – well, slightly illegal – ways.
Lisbeth got a job with a firm called Wanted Women, Mr. Partridge donned kilts and helped promote The Bonnie Scotland Tea Rooms, and Ronny, when pressed, drew legs and lingerie for advertisements. Then an attractive young American named Lester Hamilton entered their lives.
Readers are going to call Harlequin House as gay, as blithe, as delightful as The Nutmeg Tree.
This book was written and published just as World War II was looming, and though the tone is frothy enough – one might even go so far as to call it somewhat hectic – there are enough glimpses of the darkness of the times to give one pause here, to consider the situation of those soon to be heading into the terrible days of what we now know was World War II.
But this is a happy occasion – the celebration of the 110th anniversary of Margery Sharp’s birth – and I will therefore drop the darker sub-themes of this tale to look instead at the wickedly humorous top story of an unlikely trio of housemates and their six months of sharing a shabby flat in a less-than-posh London neighbourhood.
Middle-aged, plump, and more than slightly common Mr Partridge is the real hero of this tale, even though his two young upper class companions, the winsomely lovely (and utterly moral) Lisbeth Campion and her handsome, lapsed-from-morality younger brother Ronny (just out of jail, having served five months of a six month sentence for “unwittingly” peddling cocaine in nightclubs catering to the era’s Bright Young Things), may seem more immediately picturesque and worthy of our interest.
Our story opens in the seaside resort town of Dormouth Bay, with our unlikely hero, sedate (at first glance) Mr. Partridge strolling along enjoying the sunshine and the flowers. Here, I can’t resist. Let’s let Margery tell it her way for a page or so. Here comes Mr. Patridge, strolling along the cliff-top park path laid out by the civic bodies of Dormouth Bay for the pleasure of citizens and visitors alike.
The walk along their top was bounded on one side by a row of equally white palings, on the other by a stretch of perfectly-kept lawn adorned with moon- or star-shaped flower-beds. The beds made patterns on the lawn, the flowers made patterns in the beds, geometry and horticulture clasped hands. Upon all these things the sun, as Mr. Partridge sallied forth on the second afternoon in July, shone brightly down. (It had to: Dormouth Bay boasted a higher average of sunshine than any other town on the south coast.) The sea lapped gently in a neat blue crescent. A passing schoolchild stopped to pick up a paper bag and deposit it in a box marked LITTER. Every object in sight conformed un- hesitatingly to either natural or municipal orders. Only Mr. Partridge was lawless.
His very presence on those lawns, at that hour, was a scandal. Already three infuriated subscribers had clamoured in vain at the door of his twopenny Library in Cliff Street; already two widows and a maid were facing the prospect of a lonely evening unsolaced by literature. One of them, who had just discovered the works of Miss E. M. Dell, and who had hastened back for more, rattled the knob with such violence that the BACK SHORTLY notice fell to the ground. This would have annoyed Mr. Partridge had he known, for he considered the phrase “Back shortly” to be the commercial equivalent of the social “Not at home” – something to be accepted without question, and with a good grace. In this, as in so much else, he was of course wrong. It was part of his lawlessness.
He did not look lawless. In height he was five foot four, in shape oval. His attire was inconspicuous – pepper-and-salt trousers, black alpaca jacket, panama hat – except about the feet. Mr. Partridge wore brown-and-white shoes, the white brilliantly pure, the brown chocolate-dark, and scarlet socks; and these added a peculiar touch of frivolity to his whole appearance. They were the single outward sign that the scenery of Dormouth Bay had for once fallen down on its job.
Mr. Partridge strolled across the grass and approached one of the star-shaped parterres. From its margin sprouted three notice boards. Two were municipal, bearing the injunctions “Please do not pick,” “Please keep off the beds”; on the third, donated by the Dormouth Bay Rose-Growers Association, it said, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene II, l. 43. D. B. R.-G. A.” Mr. Partridge read all three, took out his penknife, and stepped between the bushes to cut a button-hole. In the centre of the bed he paused indeed, but it was memory, not conscience, that suspended his hand upon a Scarlet Glory. He had just remembered that it was the tenth anniversary of his wife’s death. Regretfully but firmly Mr. Partridge spared the bud and selected a white Frau Karl Drushki instead…
Adorned with his stolen flower, Mr. Partridge proceeds to make acquaintance of an elderly maiden lady, an aunt by appearance and by occupation, and, shortly thereafter, of the niece of the aunt, the lovely Lisbeth Campion, who has been sent off to Dormouth Bay in charge of her aunt in order to remove her from the temptations of London whilst her newly acquired fiancé is off in the Middle East doing something militarily important.
For Lisbeth, orphaned as a small child and passed from aunt to aunt until old enough to fend for herself, has so far been able to maintain her innocence (as it were) in the wicked city through a combination of stern personal morals and just plain good luck.
Her younger brother Ronny, on the other hand, has not been so fortunate. Equally as charming and attractive as his sister, he is not nearly as self-regulating, and has fallen afoul of the law by becoming involved in a cocaine-trafficking scandal. Off to jail with Ronny, and off to the safety of Dormouth Towers Hotel with Lisbeth, where she is engaged in her continual occupation of looking placidly lovely while resisting the blandishments of a whole string of susceptible young men, who continually fall at her feet in hopeful adoration.
Lisbeth’s placidity is on the surface only, for under her smooth brow there resides a formidable brain, and within her finely molded bosom, a loyal heart. Secretly loyal to Ronny, whom she has been told by the horrified aunts to forget forever, and to her sturdy intended, whose emerald engagement ring resides in the hotel safe, and whose picture is cherished under Lisbeth’s pillow.
Through a series of convolutions of plot, Mr. Partridge, Lisbeth and the newly out-of-jail Ronnie convene one night in London, and set up house together. Ronny to recover his inner poise after the ordeal of his jail term (not all that awful, as he spent it in the infirmirary, having broken his ankle early on in his stay), and Mr. Partridge and Lisbeth united in an effort to find a useful occupation for Ronny, to get him on a (legally) independent footing before Lisbeth’s coming marriage.
Of course there are many twists and turns before all is sorted out, and Lisbeth’s dedication to her fiancé is sorely tested by the entrance into her life of a friendly young American connected with the film business.
Another sample of Margery-ism, and then I will leave you with the promise that everything eventually works out to the satisfaction of (almost) all concerned.
All in all, this is one of the minor novels in the Sharp canon, but it is chock full of things such as the passage I am about to transcribe. Worth reading if one can find it, and a quick trip to ABE shows ten copies available, priced (before shipping) from $5 to $60 – quite a bargain, relatively speaking, for a Margery Sharp title of this vintage. I wouldn’t start with this particular book if you’re brand new to this writer’s charms – go with something like The Nutmeg Tree (happily very easy to come by, with 115 copies on ABE, starting at a mere $1) which is even better than the Harlequin House flyleaf blurb makes it out to be – but for those of you who’ve already fallen for her this might be worthy of consideration.
Happy Birthday, Margery! A bouquet to your memory, in thanks for the many hours of pleasure you have given to your readers.
Here’s Mr. Partridge and Ronny, while Lisbeth is out on a job, earning the money to keep the establishment going. (Mr. Partridge contributes his share as well; Ronny is the weak link in the tripartite chain.)
“(Y)ou’re a good-for-naught,” said Mr. Partridge, with conviction. “You have to be kept and cosseted and looked after as though you were a pet dog. You let your sister work for you, and never do a hand’s turn, and sit there eating corned beef like a blooming Duke. You make me tired.”
Ronny continued to munch, and to fix Mr. Partridge with his extraordinarily candid gaze. He was not abashed, but neither was he annoyed.
“It wasn’t I,” he pointed out, “who came and hooked on to Lisbeth. It was Lisbeth who came and hooked on to me.”
“I know,” admitted Mr. Partridge impatiently. “That was her foolishness. That’s what women are like. That’s why they want protecting, so to speak, from themselves. And it’s the man’s place to protect ’em. You ought never to have let her do it.”
Ronny shook his head.
“You don’t know Lisbeth. Once she got on my trail she’d have followed me to the North Pole. If I were to go out into the night this minute, she’d be after me again.”
There was so much truth in this that Mr. Partridge could not answer it. Ronny present was a nuisance; Ronny absent would be an even greater one. He was a fair problem. . .
“The fact is,” continued Ronny, as though following this thought, “I’m superfluous. I’m not one of those great hefty fellows who can mend roads, I haven’t much brain, and I’m not particularly well educated; and now I’ve got a sort of tin can tied to my tail as well. It’s no wonder I can’t get a job, with all this unemployment about. I oughtn’t to get a job. I ought to be tucked into a nice lethal chamber with an asbestos wreath.”
“Why asbestos?” asked Mr. Partridge, interested in spite of himself.
“So that it could be used again for the next candidate. The classic British mixture of sentiment with economy. I’m thinking of it, of course,” explained Ronny, pushing back his chair and giving the project his full attention, “as a Government job. A new branch of the Civil Service – Undesirable Cremations. Or – making it a private matter – I could just put my head in the gas oven and turn on the tap. But that would upset Lisbeth.”
“You’re right there,” agreed Mr. Partridge. “And I must say I shouldn’t care for it myself.”
This concession appeared to cheer Ronny up. He reached for a piece of bread-and-butter, spread an excessive quantity of jam on it, and made himself a sandwich. He had many innocent tastes. He was innocent – as Mr. Partridge dimly realized – fundamentally: as innocent as a lamb in a field, or a bird in the hedge, or a snow-drop in a wood. It was rather his misfortune than his fault that he could not live on grass or worms or dew, but needed corned beef and bread, to say nothing of overcoats and bedding …
“You ought to have been a bulb,” said Mr. Partridge, thoughtfully. “Or some kind of a vegetable.”
“A forked radish,” agreed Ronny. “But what can I do?”