After reading The Nutmeg Tree a few months ago, I was desperate to read more books by Margery Sharp, so the news that several of her novels were being reissued by Open Road Media came just at the right time for me. I have been lucky enough to receive a copy of Cluny Brown for review via NetGalley, but official release day is Tuesday 12th April so not long to wait!
What I remember most from The Nutmeg Tree is its heroine, the wonderful Julia Packett. Cluny Brown is another memorable character – an intelligent, free-spirited young woman who refuses to ‘know her place’. To the dismay of Uncle Arn, who has brought up the orphaned Cluny, she’s the sort of girl who goes for tea at the Ritz on her own just to see what it’s like and who spends a whole day in bed eating oranges because she’s read in a magazine that it provides revitalisation. Uncle Arn is a plumber, a hard-working man leading a conventional life, and he’s unsure of the best way to deal with Cluny.
It is eventually decided that what Cluny needs is a job – and so she finds herself taking up a position as parlourmaid at Friars Carmel, a country house in Devon which is home to Sir Henry and Lady Carmel and their son, Andrew. With her ‘height, plainness and perfectly blank expression’, Cluny makes a perfect Tall Parlourmaid and soon settles into her new life, taking the neighbour’s dog for walks on her day off and forming a friendship with Mr Wilson, the local pharmacist.
But Cluny is not the only new arrival at Friars Carmel. The Polish academic Adam Belinski has been invited to Devon by Andrew, who is afraid for his friend’s safety. It’s 1938 and with the situation in Europe growing increasingly unsettled, Belinski (who becomes known to the family as The Professor) needs refuge from the Nazis. Andrew himself is still a bachelor but contemplating marriage with the beautiful Betty Cream….and it’s not long before Betty also decides to visit. Life at Friars Carmel is about to become much more complicated!
I loved Cluny Brown as a character. Like Julia in The Nutmeg Tree, she’s a real individual and doesn’t conform to the expectations of others, but at the same time she’s friendly, warm-hearted and always has the best of intentions. Her story is played out during a time of social change and unrest with Britain on the brink of war – and as the novel itself was published in 1944, this adds an interesting angle.
The conclusion to Cluny’s story surprised me, all the more so because what eventually happened was what I had initially expected to happen before Margery Sharp began to lead things in a different direction. I was quite happy with the ending, but I’m not sure whether Cluny would be happy with it once a few years had gone by; it would have been nice if Sharp had written a sequel, both for the pleasure of meeting this set of characters again and also so we could see whether everything did work out for Cluny.
I think I enjoyed The Nutmeg Tree slightly more than this one, but I have been impressed by both of the Margery Sharp books I’ve read so far and am looking forward to reading more of them. I just need to decide which to read next, now that so many tempting titles are being made available to us again.