Margery Sharp Rhododendron PieI was really excited to find out that Dean Street Press were republishing in their Furrowed Middlebrow imprint Margery Sharp’s first novel, “Rhododendron Pie”, as well as several of her others. While I know people who have read this novel, it was always almost impossible to find, and although it was on my “look out for these when in secondhand book shops” list, I didn’t think I’d ever happen upon it. You can see all the delights that have just come out on the Furrowed Middlebrow blog – they have also kindly sent me an ebook of Stella Gibbons’ “The Pink Front Door” which I will read and review soon, and have concentrated just on these two writers this time around. Of the Margery Sharps, I’m delighted to say I’ve only so far read “The Foolish Gentlewoman“, so I will be collecting the rest of these, including this one in hard copy, as I go, too.

Such a pretty cover, too, which sums up the setting of most of the book, with the sweet frame that all the books in this imprint share.

Margery Sharp – “Rhododendron Pie”

(01 November 2020)

What a delight this book is, and not a pale reflection of later work as some first novels are, but a fully formed excellent read, subtle, funny and moving. We meet two ancient Sussex families, the Laventies, shunned but gossiped about in the village for their poor entertaining and lack of community spirit, proudly standing apart with their superior intellects, morals and aesthetics, and the cheerful chaotic Gayfords who Ann, the youngest Laventie, grows up being taught to despise for their picnics and heartiness.

The faultline between the two families is subtle, and needs teasing out – and of course the practical and jolly Gayfords, who do also know how to stand up for themselves, do tease it out in the end:

[It’s] one of your family methods. Every now and then you do something deliberately ordinary, but in inverted commas, so to speak, just to see what it feels like.

They’re not Bohemian as such, the country setting allowing for eccentricities in families, but they’re certainly free-thinking and pretentious, no one really having a job but living as art (Elizabeth does write essays for literary magazines; Dick flirts with being a sculptor, but when the scales are lifted from her eyes, Ann realises how poor an artist he is). Ann as an adult finds it ironic that of all the young women in the country who might be presented with the option to live in sin, she’s about the only one whose family would heartily approve … but does she, when it comes down to it?

We open and close the book with children’s birthday parties, and while Ann seems to toe the family line through the first part of the novel, her reaction to the flower pie which is a family tradition she inherited from her older siblings says everything about her. She’s been trained to start her sentences with “but”

because it made them sound translated from the French. Why this should have been an advantage was too subtle to explain.

(how delicious that is!), however her natural vitality and love for simpler things is always fighting to get to the forefront. As she experiences a bit more of the world – a trip to London, staying in love interest Gilbert’s friend’s impossibly arty flat; a couple of innocent outings with John Gayford and encounters with his peculiar Aunt Cecilia, and a wedding that moves her unexpectedly – her true nature gradually dawns on her.

We suspect Mrs Laventie, made an invalid by a riding accident and existing under a series of beautiful throws, brought back by her husband after each of his indiscretions, might just be the saving of her daughter when she falls ill and Ann – and only Ann – finds out just what goes into running this big house of luxury and aesthetics – oh, yes, hard work and elbow grease. So everything is set up with little clues so very competently and beautifully.

The side characters, from the flapper waif, Delia to John’s enormous family and the villagers, are beautifully drawn, too, even if some of them are ‘types’, and Aunt Cecilia is a joy:

Did you hear she ran into a charabanc the other day on the way to Arundel and the magistrate said he was sorry to learn that the driver had had to complain of her language? Rather a triumph, I call it. She asked after you.

You start wanting something for Ann that she doesn’t know she wants herself, and bit by bit, village event by village event, we build to it. Margery Sharp was already a master of her art in her first novel, and it’s an absolute delight.

Thank you to Dean Street Press for sending me an ebook of this lovely novel in return for an honest review.