Posts Tagged ‘The Foolish Gentlewoman’

The Foolish Gentlewoman by Margery Sharp ~ 1948. This edition: Little, Brown & Co., 1948. Hardcover. 330 pages.

One of my absolute favourite writers is, as many of you know by now, Margery Sharp, 1905-1991, and today, January 25, is (or was) her birthday.

Which calls for celebration in the way of reading one (or more) of her books, and sharing some thoughts on that reading with fellow like-minded readers. And those who we hope will become like-minded Margery Sharp aficionados, of course!

I didn’t think I would manage a post tonight, having just now finished reading the book in question, but my daughter has made me a restorative cup of tea and I have found a breath of a second wind, so let’s see what I can do. It may be a bit of a muddle, but I hope it communicates my high regard for the novel and its creator.

Isabel Brocken, a comfortably well-off widow of fifty-five, has something on her mind.

Blithe by nature – so blithe as to be thought of as something of a fool by her staunchly bachelor brother-in-law Simon, who manages her affairs – Isabel has been a cheerful sort of person no matter what life has brought her way. She has taken in stride the upsets of and volunteered as a VAD in two wars, has accepted quietly the disappointment of not having any children, and has gently mourned the death of her husband, not to mention the loss of her beloved marital home to a German bomb.

Luckily Isabel has held on to her own old family home all of these years, much against Simon’s advice, so she is perhaps the tiniest bit smug to be able to offer a bed to Simon after his own house is badly damaged in one of the last bombing raids of the war.

Also in residence are Isabel’s recently de-mobbed nephew Humphrey from New Zealand, and an ex-Seargent in the Auxiliary Territorial Service, Jacqueline Brown, who is acting as a housekeeper-companion to Isabel. A quiet mother and her devoted teenage daughter reside in a separate set of rooms and share cooking facilities with Isabel and her menage; hired as caretakers during the war, they are staying on to help with housework and such.

Everyone is getting along peacefully; the groove is well set; but, as I mentioned just now, Isabel has something on her mind, something which will disturb the peace of her home and everyone in it.

It seems that Isabel has, on one of her infrequent visits to church, caught a line of a sermon to the effect that it was a common error to suppose that the passage of time made a base action any less bad. Now, this line had struck like an arrow straight to the tender heart of Isabel, and in doing so had triggered the memory of a very base act which she had performed against another young woman many years ago.

Almost forty years ago, orphaned Tilly Cuff had been invited into Isabel’s family home in the capacity of a low-key sort of companion. She is treated as one of the family, but all sorts of little tasks fall to her lot; she is expected to make herself useful in return for her room and board, as it were, and this she does in a subdued sort of way. Tilly is a thin, pale shadow of the much more vivacious Isabel and her sister Ruth, and they patronize her without really realizing it, keeping her well in her place, just a step back.

When a visiting young man falls in love with the unprepossessing Tilly, Isabel by a a random chance finds herself possessed of a letter proposing marriage to Tilly. Deeply piqued, for she thought the young man was falling in love with her, Isabel suppresses the letter, politely taunts Tilly with an accusation of being over-flirtatious to warn her away from her potential lover, and the budding love affair withers on the vine.

Soon after this Tilly accepts a paid position as a companion to an invalid heading to Switzerland, and she and Isabel part ways, never to meet again, though they correspond occasionally through the years.

Now, four decades later, Isabel is visited by an attack of conscience triggered by that sermon, and she proposes to make amends for Tilly’s lost chance at marital happiness by rescuing her from her dreary round of temporary homes and tedious duties by bringing Tilly into her home.

Not only that, Isabel resolves to make over to Tilly the majority of her fortune, keeping just enough to eke out a humble existence, to prevent herself from becoming a burden to friends and relations.

Needless to say Simon is appalled by the very thought of this proposal, as are Humphrey and Jacqueline, but Isabel is not to be dissuaded.

Tilly is invited, she accepts the invitation, and moves in bag and baggage, cherishing in her heart a deep suspicion of Isabel’s motives in inviting her, for Isabel has not yet divulged her intention of reparations for that long ago bad deed.

Tilly turns out to be a true viper in the nest; she is openly meddlesome and secretly vicious by nature, and she immediately stirs up trouble among every member of the household. Even the forgiving Isabel starts to have qualms as to carrying through with her intention to give over her assets to the bitter Tilly. While Isabel tries to retain her idea that Tilly is, deep inside, a truly good person, evidence is much to the contrary.

What should Isabel do, then? The right thing for the once-wronged Tilly, or the thing that is the best for the most people?

Isabel’s decision and the ramifications of it bring this richly charactered novel to an unexpected conclusion. No one escapes unaltered, though the changes are not as we might in some cases expect.

The Foolish Gentlewoman is satisfyingly good the first time round, but as with all of Margery Sharp’s books, it greatly rewards re-reading.

My rating: an easy 9/10.

I am scanning in two pages from early in the book, so you can have a sample of the tone and mood in this gently sardonic and rather moving novel.

 

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