Isn't it often the case that one never has enough time to properly scour a used bookstore? Sure, there may be enough time for a good, satisfying browse, but how often is there enough time to really go looking for the needles in the haystack? Last August in Maine when we spent two weeks on Islesboro I had all the time in the world to really comb through the fine used bookstore on the rather small island. When we first visited the store I did all my usual checks for my favorite authors and didn't really come up with much that was interesting. In fact, at first browse I was quite disappointed. Here was a wonderful bookshop in an old one room school building filled to the ceiling with mainly hardcover used books and they didn't seem to have anything that I wanted. But given the fact that we were (happily) captive on the island I realized I had time to really make sure that I wasn't missing anything. So, with nothing to hurry me along and no other distractions save the beauty of the island, I actually took the time to look at every single spine in the shop.
Over the course of a couple of different browsing sessions I managed to come up with a pretty tall stack of books that I found interesting or unique, and quite a bit more non-fiction than I would typically find.
In that stack were two novels by Margery Sharp, an author I had never heard of. (As it turns out, in addition to her 26 novels for adults, she also wrote 14 for children, including The Rescuers.) In any case, I must admit that the first one that I came across went into my purchase pile because of the cover. How could any anglophile, urban planner, historic preservationist pass up this cover?
I was actually a bit worried that the book might be nothing but pap, and the price was closer to antiquarian than used, but I couldn't resist the cover art. And then I noticed "Author of Cluny Brown" at the bottom which immediately made me think that Britannia Mews may be a lesser book than the obviously popular Cluny Brown. And it just so happened that they had a copy of Cluny Brown on the shelf as well. So, with my OCD kicking in, I thought I really should start with Cluny Brown and see if I liked it. But how could I pass up the Britannia Mews cover even if Cluny did come first? And I really shouldn't buy both, they were about $30 a piece, what if I didn't like Margery Sharp? But then I worried that if I only bought one and found out I loved Margery Sharp, wouldn't I be annoyed that I only bought one of these pretty first editions?
I am happy to say that now that I have read Cluny Brown, I am glad I bought both and am wondering how to get my hands on the rest of Sharp's novels. Based on the cover, and the fact that I had never heard of Sharp, I was thinking it might be some enjoyable, mindless, 1940s chick-lit. But it is pretty clear from early on that Sharp has a few edges. Cluny Brown is a young woman of about 19 whose parents died when she was young and has been living with her Uncle Arn, a genteel plumber who never knows quite what to do with Cluny and her potentially dangerous naivete. He worries that Cluny doesn't know her place in life, having committed the class crime of going to tea at the Ritz. It doesn't matter to Uncle Arn that she paid for the experience with her own money. After an episode where Arn finds her (innocently) emerging from the bathroom of a bachelor client he decides he needs to save Cluny from herself and sends her out of London to go into "good service" in Devon.
What follows is a bit of an upstairs, downstairs tale. But Cluny and her irascible high spirits would never survive in the starchy world of Gosford Park, or Upstairs, Downstairs (or even the rather lame, poorly written world of Downton Abbey) if not for the fact that domestic help was pretty hard to come by after in the years between the wars. The housekeeper, Mrs. Maile, overlooks many a transgression, knowing that replacing Cluny might be more trouble than it is worth. One knows from the start that Cluny is going to end up in clover by the end of the book (in fact her real name is Clover), and though one can, and does, guess at two or three outcomes, the final result is not what one expects. So surprising to me was the final twist that I feel a bit of a spoiler for even mentioning it.
Cluny Brown has Persephone written all over it. Cozy and fun, but with a definite feminist outlook. Now I can't wait until the TBR Double Dare is over so I can read Britannia Mews. And maybe this summer's trip to Maine will yield a few more Sharps for my library.