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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January 25, 2015

Lise Lillywhite, for Margery Sharp Day

      He exerted himself to talk entertainingly. He gave a really witty description of a Cairene dinner party.  He also described the pyramids by moonlight. But he spoke of nothing that really concerned him, being accustomed -- unfairly, but so run the cross-currents of family life -- always to exclude Susanna from the inner ring of confidence that embraced both Luke and Kate. With Luke, his older brother, the tie of blood over-rode all else; as for Kate, Martin both loved and respected her -- and perceived in her a fineness of judgment that influenced Luke's. Between them, he always felt, taking their opinion on any matter of conduct, he could hardly go wrong; and had sometimes toyed with the idea of sending Chloe down to Somerset, to see what Kate made of her. At the moment, however, he wanted to know what they made of Aunt Amelia and Lise; and so had to wait for the customary stroll through the dark garden, after dinner, after the lights in the house were all upstairs.
. . .
      'Will you tell me plainly,' said Martin, 'and though I realize they've settled down splendidly, whether they're in any sense a nuisance to you?'
      'Good God, no,' said Luke. The bucket in his hand clanked as he halted; the pigs had been fed by Gerald Beer; the hens had been fed by Susanna; Luke, at ten 'clock at night still had something in a bucket he was going to carry somewhere. ... 'They pull their weight, so to speak. Lise helps Kate in the house, and never minds being dull. Personally, I'm sorry we can't provide more amusement for her, but she doesn't seem to care. Aunt Amelia's cooking you've tasted for yourself, and she doesn't complain either. ... Personally,' concluded Luke, 'I call her a thoroughly jolly old girl' and strode off, the bucket clanking.
      Martin waited until he was out of sight, and then turned to his sister-in-law. They had reached the sundial-plot; Kate, with a remembered gesture, pulled a sprig of lavender and rubbed the budding stems between her fingers.
      'And what do you call her?' asked Martin.
      Kate hesitated.
      'I'm not sure ... I like them both, Martin, At least -- Lise is exquisite, of course.'
      'Yes,' said Martin. 'I thought you'd see it.'
      'I feel rather as though we'd a very rare piece of china in the house, something that must be taken great care of. Not that she's in the slightest way demanding, she isn't -- in fact, she's so perfectly self-contained I never have the least idea what she's thinking. Have you?' ...
      'But is she happy?' asked Martin urgently.
      'She seems content. Did she seem to you happier in London?'
      'I don't think so,' said Martin. 'She seemed content.'
      'Of course, she's waiting,' said Kate. 'Smell this lavender, Martin. You never sent me the bushes for my birthday, but we'll have a bag or two all the same.'
      Martin sniffed at his sister-in-law's palm; for a moment, he held her hand against his cheek in a gesture of quiet affection. She has perceived Lise's quality; if she could tell him no more of Lise than he knew already, at least Lise was safe under her roof.
      'And what about Tante Amelie?' prompted Martin, changing the key of their conversation. 'What about Aunt Amelia?  Do you know what she's thinking?'
      Kate laughed.
      'I ought to, for she tells me often enough. She thinks I resemble an eighteenth-century shepherdess. She thinks Luke the true type of a country gentleman. She thinks Susanna is a wonderful influence for good. She thinks we are all marvellously kind, and our life here a veritable idyll. And she's extraordinary helpful herself, Martin; I mean really helpful. She does all sorts of odd jobs, regularly. She's making me an exquisite nightgown. But all the same, and all the time -- '
      'Out with it,' said Martin.
      'It sounds so ridiculous .. but all the time I've a feeling there's something going on underneath, that we're all involved in some sort of a plot. And yer there can't be a plot; there's nothing here to plot about. You know her better than we do, Martin.' Kate turned, as she had once before, to look searchingly into her brother-in-law's face. 'Martin,' asked Kate seriously. 'Is she good?' ...
      'I can only tell you that she's devoted to Lise,' said Martin.
      'That's good.'
      'And where Lise is concerned would be quite unscrupulous.'
      'That's forgivable. -- You mean she'd sacrifice us, or you?'
      'Without a second's hesitation.'
      'Then, if that's all,' said Kate thoughtfully, ' I think she is good; and we, if necessary, must look out for ourselves.'
I hope she won't mind my saying so, but after meeting Margaret Kennedy at a celebration that Fleur organized in her honor, I would happily go to any party that our friend was giving. :) {Thanks, Jane!} This time, today, it's Margery Sharp Day, in honor of this author's 110th birthday. Another author who is new to me, and another one who/s become an instant favorite. :)  {Though the first part isn't apparently true, I was looking in the notebook where I keep my very long lost of books read, and discovered that I had read Together and Apart years and years ago... I had written down the author as being Margaret Lyndon. :)}.

Speaking of parties, reading the first chapter or so of Lise Lillywhite is a little like being invited to a gathering,  where you don't know anyone there, or anyone they're talking about, but they all seem to be related to each other, and it might be important to figure out how that is exactly. They're all Lillywhites. Martin, Luke and Susanna are brother and sister.  Martin works in the Foreign Office and is an amiable bachelor in London;  Luke is married to Kate, and they live, with Susanna, in the family's old house in Somerset, keeping it up by running a small farm.  Visiting for the weekend, Martin reports on some news that he has come across at work:  their uncle Charles, who had been living in France, since 1900, has come back to England, with his daughter Amelie and his 17-year-old granddaughter Lise, who has been living with her grandfather and her aunt after the death of her parents.  They are fleeing from war-torn France (it's 1946), and now living in a small, run-down apartment, stuffed with someone else's dusty antiques, on an unfashionable street. Susanna and Luke aren't interested, Kate wonders whether it would be only right to invite them to live in what is really their home as well, and it's curious, gentlemanly Martin who finds himself knocking on their door and introducing himself.  Once he does. everyone gets wrapped up in each other's lives -- mostly, in  what is to become of quiet, exquisite, ethereal Lise.

I regret the passage I quoted above, a little because though it hints at the plot {which involves a plot, if you follow me}, that's not what I'd really want you to know. A lot of what we read next is very funny, some of it is sweet with an undercurrent of something a little darker, some of it is a little too drawn out, and then improbable, but it's all irresistible, at least it was for me.  I think that's because Margery Sharp is incredibly good at drawing her characters -- their appearance, how they look, how they talk, how other people see them -- and it sounds a little trite, but it's true -- bringing them to life. Ironically, Lise was the least interesting character, but everything swirls around her and the other characters become even more dimensional in how they respond to her.

Part of me wants to share lots of wonderful bits about the characters {you just have to love a book that has a telling scene involving a twinset, don't you?}, but I'd rather hope that you have a chance to read this for yourself.  Margery Sharp's books seem hard to find, except in libraries, so I'm especially grateful for my library privileges at work and the dusty books buried in the stacks that no one else seems to have checked out.  This book was truly delightful -- I wish they knew what they were missing! :)


Lory said...

My library has NO Margery Sharp novels (only her children's books). Such a shame! After the two I read for Margery Sharp Day I definitely would like to seek out more, including this one.

Anonymous said...

Those quotations are lovely, and I'm so pleased you were so taken with this book. Thank you for being part of the birthday party1

Mac n' Janet said...

This sounds so good, must go look for it.

Cat said...

Impossible to find any here so thank goodness for Open Library.

Glad you enjoyed your choice - I loved her humour and it sounds as though it is part of all her books.

Frances said...

I just caught wind of Margery Sharp Day yesterday as I was catching up and reading over at Leaves and Pages. She tempted me so well, I immediately went to look for some titles only to be so disappointed when I discovered how hard they are to find! I loved the Rescuers books as a kid and I have an inkling I would love the adult titles too. So many of you whose taste I admire are fans. Guess I am off to some used title sites I like.

Anonymous said...

Lise Lillywhite is one I rather think of as one of the "secondary" novels - though there is no such thing as a BAD Margery Sharp! - and if you liked it you are definitely going to be very pleased with her others. It took me years (and many, many dollars) to collect all of Margery's novels - and it shouldn't be that hard, because this is an excellent writer and deserves to continue being read. Her books are not at all dated, and are as pertinent and clever and amusing today as they must have been to the original readers decades ago. Lovely review!

Christine Harding said...

This sounds delightful. I'd never really heard of Margery Sharp until I read Jane's post, and I was a little late posting a review for Margery Sharp Day, but I read The Nutmeg Tree and loved it. Now I'm trying to read my way through her other novels.

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