Oh Cluny

Isn’t it often the case that one never has enough time to properly scour a used bookstore?  Sure, there may be enough time for a good, satisfying browse, but how often is there enough time to really go looking for the needles in the haystack?  Last August in Maine when we spent two weeks on Islesboro I had all the time in the world to really comb through the fine used bookstore on the rather small island. When we first visited the store I did all my usual checks for my favorite authors and didn’t really come up with much that was interesting. In fact, at first browse I was quite disappointed. Here was a wonderful bookshop in an old one room school building filled to the ceiling with mainly hardcover used books and they didn’t seem to have anything that I wanted.  But given the fact that we were (happily) captive on the island I realized I had time to really make sure that I wasn’t missing anything. So, with nothing to hurry me along and no other distractions save the beauty of the island, I actually took the time to look at every single spine in the shop.

Over the course of a couple of different browsing sessions I managed to come up with a pretty tall stack of books that I found interesting or unique, and quite a bit more non-fiction than I would typically find.

In that stack were two novels by Margery Sharp, an author I had never heard of. (As it turns out, in addition to her 26 novels for adults, she also wrote 14 for children, including The Rescuers.)  In any case, I must admit that the first one that I came across went into my purchase pile because of the cover. How could any anglophile, urban planner, historic preservationist pass up this cover?

I was actually a bit worried that the book might be nothing but pap, and the price was closer to antiquarian than used, but I couldn’t resist the cover art. And then I noticed “Author of Cluny Brown” at the bottom which immediately made me think that Britannia Mews may be a lesser book than the obviously popular Cluny Brown. And it just so happened that they had a copy of Cluny Brown on the shelf as well. So, with my OCD kicking in, I thought I really should start with Cluny Brown and see if I liked it. But how could I pass up the Britannia Mews cover even if Cluny did come first?  And I really shouldn’t buy both, they were about $30 a piece, what if I didn’t like Margery Sharp? But then I worried that if I only bought one and found out I loved Margery Sharp, wouldn’t I be annoyed that I only bought one of these pretty first editions?

I am happy to say that now that I have read Cluny Brown, I am glad I bought both and am wondering how to get my hands on the rest of Sharp’s novels. Based on the cover, and the fact that I had never heard of Sharp, I was thinking it might be some enjoyable, mindless, 1940s chick-lit. But it is pretty clear from early on that Sharp has a few edges. Cluny Brown is a young woman of about 19 whose parents died when she was young and has been living with her Uncle Arn, a genteel plumber who never knows quite what to do with Cluny and her potentially dangerous naivete. He worries that Cluny doesn’t know her place in life, having committed the class crime of going to tea at the Ritz. It doesn’t matter to Uncle Arn that she paid for the experience with her own money. After an episode where Arn finds her (innocently) emerging from the bathroom of a bachelor client he decides he needs to save Cluny from herself and sends her out of London to go into “good service” in Devon.

What follows is a bit of an upstairs, downstairs tale. But Cluny and her irascible high spirits would never survive in the starchy world of Gosford Park, or Upstairs, Downstairs (or even the rather lame, poorly written world of Downton Abbey) if not for the fact that domestic help was pretty hard to come by after in the years between the wars. The housekeeper, Mrs. Maile, overlooks many a transgression, knowing that replacing Cluny might be more trouble than it is worth. One knows from the start that Cluny is going to end up in clover by the end of the book (in fact her real name is Clover), and though one can, and does, guess at two or three outcomes, the final result is not what one expects. So surprising to me was the final twist that I feel a bit of a spoiler for even mentioning it.
Cluny Brown has Persephone written all over it. Cozy and fun, but with a definite feminist outlook. Now I can’t wait until the TBR Double Dare is over so I can read Britannia Mews. And maybe this summer’s trip to Maine will yield a few more Sharps for my library.

12 thoughts on “Oh Cluny

  1. Darlene March 11, 2012 / 12:14 pm

    There is a place in Burlington called 'The Reuse Centre', in an industrial plaza and it couldn't be any less inviting. BUT, every now and then I score a great book find. A couple of weeks ago I noticed two copies of 'Cluny Brown', had a quick glance but put them back on the shelf. Next time I go back ( and they will be there no doubt) I'll pick up a copy. Thanks, Thomas!


  2. StuckInABook March 11, 2012 / 8:26 pm

    I read The Foolish Gentlewoman about eight or nine years ago, and since then have bought up a few Sharp novels whenever I could find them cheaply… and yet to read any more. I have both of these on my shelves, although in much less pretty editions. You have stiffened my resolve finally to read more Sharp!


  3. Susan in TX March 11, 2012 / 9:58 pm

    Beautiful covers. I was wracking my brain trying to remember why I knew the name, and then you said, “Rescuers,” and brought it back. My sil finds Sharp books from time to time (mainly children's books) and raves about them. You've caused me to add her to my “watch for list.”


  4. skiourophile March 12, 2012 / 5:21 am

    I love Cluny Brown – it is a gorgeous read. I've since read Sharp's The Eye of Love and it is even better than Cluny – funny and odd and immensely enjoyable.


  5. Toby Worthington March 13, 2012 / 10:25 am

    Cluny Brown was turned into a delightful film in
    1946. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch,it stars Charles
    Boyer in the role of the emigré who courts Cluny in
    a roundabout manner. Cluny herself is portrayed by
    Jennifer Jones in a somewhat perverse bit of casting,
    but she gets away with it.


  6. agoodstoppingpoint March 13, 2012 / 9:57 pm

    It is nice to have the time to slowly go over a used bookstore. I usually have people with me when I go and they are not so inclined to spend that much time in a bookstore.

    Thanks also to Toby above for clearing up how I knew that title. I'd heard of the film at some point though I know nothing about it and haven't seen it.

    – Christy


  7. Michelle Ann March 16, 2012 / 2:08 pm

    You have a lot of good reading ahead Thomas, although Margery Sharp is a variable writer, and some books are better than others. I think Cluny Brown and The Eye of Love are her peaks, but I haven't read them all. I also enjoyed The Innocents, and The Nutmeg Tree.


  8. Thomas at My Porch March 18, 2012 / 7:48 pm

    Darlene: I think you will love it Darlene.

    Simon: Maybe I will be able to find some cheap ones in England in May.

    Susan: It is interesting how a lot of the female writers that I like from that period also wrote children's books.

    Skiourophile: Better than Cluny that will be good.

    Toby: I am interested in the film but they don't have it on Netflix.

    Christy: It is a real treat to take so much time in a book store.

    Michelle Ann: I am looking forward to collecting and reading more of her books.


  9. flwrjane March 23, 2012 / 8:03 am

    What a wonderful start to my day.

    I ready your blog a year or so ago, loved it but lost it.

    knew there was a porch involved but I kept finding rather Southern blogs that had a hint of Paula Dean about them. Clearly not you.

    But, and here comes the good part, I am a devoted Cluny Brown fan. Have been for many years.

    I haunt my library for more Margery Sharp.

    I think I have just found a new BFF.

    xo Jane


  10. Thomas at My Porch March 25, 2012 / 1:09 pm

    Jane: I am so happy to know that you have found me again. It is frustrating to “misplaces” a blog that one finds interesting.


  11. anotherlookbooks May 30, 2014 / 2:00 pm

    Haha, I love your process for justifying a little book splurge! I was totally charmed by Cluny Brown and recently snatched up a 1st edition of Britannia Mews. I can't seem to find a thorough review of it anywhere! Oh well, not like that's ever stopped me from reading a book.


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