At the age of twenty, Cluny Brown, the eponymous heroine of Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp, is tall, unattractive, and, as far as her uncle is concerned, trouble. Mr Porritt and his wife raised Cluny following the early deaths of her parents but following his own wife’s death, Mr Porritt is at a bit of a loss for what to do with his niece. A plumber by trade, Mr Porritt is all things respectable and conventional. Cluny, strictly speaking, is respectable but definitely not conventional:
“The trouble with young Cluny,” said Mr Porritt, “is she don’t seem to know her place.”
At last it was out, Cluny Brown’s crime; and her uncle could never have put into words – not even to a stranger, not even in a park – the uneasiness it caused him. To know one’s place was to Arnold Porritt the basis of all civilized, all rational life: keep to your class, and you couldn’t go wrong. A good plumber, backed by his Union, could look a Duke in the eye; and a good dustman, backed by his Union, could look Mr Porritt in the eye. Dukes of course had no Union, and it was Mr Porritt’s impression that they were lying pretty low.
In an attempt to teach Cluny exactly where her place is, Mr Porritt decides that the best thing would be for her to go into service:
Nothing could be easier, in that year 1938, than for a girl to go into service. The stately homes of England gaped for her. Cluny Brown, moreover, possessed special advantages: height, plainness (but combined with a clear skin) and a perfectly blank expression. This last attribute was not permanent, but the lady at the registry office did not know, and she saw in Cluny the very type of that prized, that fast-disappearing genus, the Tall Parlour-maid.
It is clearly an endeavour that is doomed to fail but, nonetheless, Cluny is sent off to Devon to work at Friars Carmel, the home of Sir Henry and Lady Carmel. Cluny is not the only new arrival at Friars Carmel that year. The only son of the house, twenty-three year old Andrew, has recently returned from travelling on the continent with a highly politicized conscience. When he meets Adam Belinksi, a distinguished but self-centered Polish intellectual now in exile after giving a contentious lecture in Bonn that offended his German hosts, he is certain he must do something to help the stranded genius. After all, Andrew thinks, the Nazis are probably, even as they speak, trying to track him down. Belinksi does not seem as convinced of this but he is more than happy to be offered a home in a quiet country house where he can work without distractions. Sir Henry and Lady Carmel are gracious hosts, though they find their son’s conviction that the world is yet again on the brink of war worrying, or at least momentarily worrying:
Lady Carmel looked troubled. It was the thing to do, just then, at any mention of Europe, and indeed there had been moments, with Andrew still abroad, when she felt very troubled indeed. But now the expression was purely automatic, like looking reverent in church.
One of the surprises, for me, of the book is how little Cluny’s life overlaps with the lives of Carmels. She tries to settle down to her work and even proves quite good at some tasks but her heart is never in it. In some ways, she strives for respectability: she delights in taking a neighbour’s dog for walks on her afternoon off – what could be less objectionable? If only the dog belonged to a less august neighbour than the Colonel…– and is intrigued when the village chemist, an exceedingly respectable man, begins to court (and attempt to educate) her. But it is no use. Cluny is still an extraordinary girl, given to extraordinary urges. She is intelligent and excitable with a curiosity that would be considered winsome in a young woman of means and leisure but is wildly inappropriate in a housemaid. The Carmels are mostly spared these outbursts, but Mr Belinski, equally in thrall to his emotions, gets to witness and even provoke a few of Cluny’s entirely natural, but entirely inappropriate to her station, lapses.
As entertaining as I found the forthright Cluny, I have to admit that for the bulk of the novel I enjoyed the affairs of the Carmel family and its guests much more. I think Sharp is at her cleverest and funniest when describing the beliefs and behaviours of all three Carmels: Lady Carmel, so gracious and so smoothly practical in the running of her house and men folk; Sir Henry, the prototypical 19th Century squire suffering through the 20th Century; and young Andrew, wanting so much to be a cosmopolitan young man but really, underneath it all, ruled by his “Lord-of-the-Manorishness”. I could not help but feel tenderly towards them, which, enjoy her as I did, is more than I can say of my feelings toward Cluny. Cluny entertains but she does not invite tenderness.
While I really enjoyed Sharp’s writing style – she has a wonderful, surprising sense of humour – the structure of the novel left much to be desired. The opening section, introducing Cluny and describing how Mr Belinski was brought to Friars Carmel, was excellent and the closing was fast and funny and just right. In between, it was a bit of a long-winded mess following two almost entirely separate storylines: Cluny’s attempts to conform as a housemaid (including her infatuation with the chemist) and the Carmels’ experiences with their houseguests, both Mr Belinski and then the lovely young Betty Cream.
Though I loved the ending of this book, as a whole it did not leave me in raptures. It was still interesting to read; it was just too uneven and wandered too much to hold my attention entirely. But, as regards Margery Sharp, I know this much: I am intrigued. She can be funny and original and surprise me when I am convinced I have no interest in being surprised. And how could I not want to read more from an author like that?