The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik
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June 1, 2015

The Flowering Thorn

By the way, over the weekend I began experimenting with a new way of coping when I can't decide what to read next. I'll just stack up my overabundance of library books by due date and take off the one on the top. So far, it's working beautifully.

After learning {so belatedly, but not too late} about Margery Sharp from our friend Fleur, it's been great to find the libraries I use haven't gotten rid of too many of their older books. I'm so glad about it, because it would be so hard to run out. :)

Darlings! Once I started it, there was really much of a chance that I would put it aside even for a minute if I didn't have to. I remember from my first Margery Sharp that she is so good at drawing characters, at making you see them exactly.  Her 'flowering thorn' {more thorn than flower, to me, even at the end} is Lesley Frewen, a bright young thing in 1930s London, living in a service flat, impeccably dressed and made up, and living beautifully on a very small income.  Although her life in London only lasts through the prologue {'s hard to describe this book without a spoiler}, the way Sharp introduces her in these scenes is just about perfect.

      'Now, let me get you another,' said the stockbroker; and Lesley let him. 'The crowd, however, was now even thicker than before, and his progress being correspondingly slow she took up a good central position under the lights and had there been five times addressed as darling before he ever reached the buffet. There was also an invitation to dine, an invitation to lunch, and the offer of a desirable town residence for the next fortnight. The first two Lesley accepted, the last regretfully put aside; for though the Yellow House was charming indeed — a delightful modernised cottage in a mews behind Green Street — she could not quite make out whether the owner himself would or would not be also in residence. From his insistence on the second bathroom, decided Lesley, it seemed at least probable, and she had never liked the owner quite so well as that. Besides, two weeks .. if her suspicions were correct, surely a month would have been more flattering? So sweetly but firmly Lesley shook her head.
      'It's  very beautiful idea,' she said, 'only I happen to have a home already. You've seen it.'
Part of the joy of spending time with Lesley is that she's a very unsympathetic character {and to me, never really becomes one}. At this party, she {literally} disarms a young swain who threatens to shoot himself on the spot if she won't go to Warsaw with him, and surprises herself by dissolving into tears after another drives her home {'She had wanted Douglas Ford to make love to her, and he had not been sufficiently attracted'}, but only until she sees herself, and 'the disintegration, as it were, of so much elegance,' in the hall mirror.

After this, she 'want[s] something new,' and what happens next isn't all that surprising. Lesley goes to tea with her elderly, censorious aunt, Mrs. Bassington, who is coping with a domestic problem.  Her paid companion, a young Scottish widow, suffers from heart trouble — 'This disabililty she managed to conceal, however, until about fifteen minutes before dying of it; and it was the deception, the slyness of it, which Mrs. Bassington now professed herself unable to forgive' — and has left behind a quiet four-year-old boy, Impulsively, in a minute, Lesley announces that she will adopt him.

She accepts the offer of the Yellow House {the owner suddenly needs to see a man in Paris}, and when she can't find a new flat in London that will take a child or that she can afford, she rents an old, ugly cottage in the dreaded suburbs.  There's a good-hearted, crotchety housekeeper, an old and slightly randy baronet, a dishy vicar and his pleasant wife. Things could get very sappy, couldn't they, but I love it that Margery Sharp doesn't let this happen. Lesley haughtily tells the neighboring farmers that she'll be ordering her food, ready-made in dishes, from Fortnum & Mason, only to be horrified at the cost when she gets in provisions for a house party with her London friends (and only to find out much later that the awful Mrs. Sprigg is holding on to the dishes that are supposed to be returned, and sharing them around the village).  She readily admits, at least to herself, that she hates the quiet, self-contained little boy, who calls her 'Frewen,' and at best they become accustomed to each other. She fills her days with chores and reading from the lending library, sometimes a book a day.

Lesley has sentenced herself to living at White Cottage for only four or five years, until Patrick is old enough to go the posh boarding school where her wealthy old uncle has gotten him a place. But as she begins to lose her London friends, and her attachment to London ways, she starts to build a new life, in her own way.

Running downstairs one morning in September, Lesley was halted at the door of the sitting-room by a brilliant and novel blaze of color. For a moment, she stood bewildered, as though before a floor and wall that had blossomed overnight; but the truth was not in fact so far to seek. It was only early sunlight pouring through the transparent blue and rose of unlined chintzes; she had forgotten, before going to bed, to pull back the new curtains.
      The incident was a trivial one; not so in its consequences. All through breakfast Lesley's thoughts kept returning to that extraordinary vision of a charming room. For the first time in months she consciously looked about her; and the Brixton decor, nearly eighteen months shabbier than when she first saw it, completely failed to amuse. It was hideously ugly, it would very soon be sordid; but until Sir Philip [her landlord, and suitor?] had recovered from the bathroom, there was obviously nothing to be done. ...

Later, after a fit of wallpaper-stripping...

      ... [Mrs. Pomfret, the vicar's wife] sat down abruptly and looked back at the cottage. 'My dear, if you tackle it as you tackled Pat, it's going to be perfectly lovely.'
      'Oh, but this will be much more interesting than Pat,' said Lesley seriously. 'I know exactly what I want and I've just got time to do it.'
I love it that Margery Sharp always pulls us back to Lesley's fundamental character; she grows, but she doesn't change. It's a much more subtle way of telling a story than we sometimes get.  There's humor, and a little snarkiness. And there was, a propos of nothing, a sentence that I just want, literally, to carry around with me...
She felt quiet, protected, solaced of her troubles, acquiescent, assuaged.


Lisa said...

I really want to read this one! But our libraries don't have it and the copies I found online are a bit spendy for me. I guess I should try interlibrary loan.

I like your system for figuring out your next book too!

Fleur Fisher said...

I'm so, so pleased you liked this too. I read a library copy, but I had to buy a copy to keep before I gave it back. It seems to be the way for me with Margery Sharp, Margaret Kennedy and one or two other authors.

JoAnn said...

I say this so often, but here's another author I really must read. So many books...

Vintage Reading said...

I like the new layout of your blog - nice colours. I'm in the mood for a retro read and I liked your review. Will add to tbr list, thanks.

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