Cluny Brown Hardcover – 1 Jun 1944
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Good condition book with like DJ. Boards are clean with minor wear. Content clean with bright pages and a solid binding. Good DJ with light edge wear namely small closed tears and chipping to spine ends. Previous owners inscription to pastedown.
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Published in 1944, but set a good 6 or more years earlier, when the idea of war was beginning to rumble away in people’s minds, but war had not been declared, this must have been some kind of much-needed temporary escape from the darkness of the world at war.
Clover (Cluny) Brown is a young, working class woman, only just out of her teens. She is an orphan, presently living with her Uncle, Mr Porritt, a plumber. Cluny is Porritt’s secretary/clerk/message taker. She is, everyone around her insists, remarkably plain. ‘Plain As A Boot’ And very tall. Except, she is really what the French call ‘Jolie Laide’ and certainly her vitality, intelligence and forthrightness are much more alluring and attractive than might be imagined at first glance. One of the major problems with Cluny, at least from the perspective of the more conventionally minded in her world, is that she just doesn’t seem to ‘know her place’. She acts unconventionally, out of class and out of gender – taking herself for tea at the Ritz, having far too much confidence and lack of becoming deference, so that those far above her in class occasionally think she is one of them, making friends with a colonel who doesn’t realise she is only ‘a tall parlourmaid’ The despairing cry from all around is ‘Cluny Brown – Who Does She Think She Is?’ The answer is, alive, enchanting, exhilarating. Following an event where she decides to pick up one of her Uncle’s plumbing jobs, and discovers the attractions of a dry martini, her Uncle decides the safest thing is to make sure she fits in to her proper and expected station in life. And goes into service. She becomes The Tall Parlourmaid for an Aristocratic Devonshire Family.
Margery Sharp assembles a cast of strong and quirky characters, all of whom might seem to be examples of ‘types’ – the stunningly beautiful vamp, the scion of the aristocratic house who espouses radical socialist ideas, a louche Polish literary hero, the lady of the manor, all gardening and good works – but Sharp renders them all much more interesting, much more contradictory, and, all of them, much more likeable. Her pen is sharp, but it is also fizzy, joyous, expansive. There is no spitefulness, no meanness of spirit in her writing.
What I most appreciated is that Cluny gets the journey the reader wants her to have – the journey she deserves. There is, I’m sure, a destination which we might discover we are fearing. Perhaps another author would have given her a different outcome. I’m so pleased that Sharp is not a punitive author. Neither is she saccharine, but she views humanity with warmth, I feel.
4 1/2 stars, rounded up to 5
I enjoyed the characterisation of Cluny, from humble beginnings with some tragedy, having been raised by extended family to her acknowledging and somewhat conforming to her expected position in life but having the inner spirit to try expand her world and experience life beyond.
A most enjoyable and positive story - would like to have followed more of Cluny's adventures.
What an utterly charming reading experience this novel was for me. Not having read anything previously by Margery Sharp I had no idea of what I might find. The result was a true delight. This was light and sweet and humorous in bringing the spotlight on the English class system and what happens when someone doesn't fit into their "place". Yet there was no malice or cruelty involved, just warm feelings for a world which might have only existed to this extent in the pages of novels anyway.
It seems that this and other novels by Margery Sharp are being reissued in electronic book format. I can only hope that will tempt more people to read Cluny Brown and then move on to read more of Ms. Sharp's novels just as I will be doing. In this book Cluny can't help but feel that she wants things to happen to her so she steps out of her social position and makes them happen. Unfortunately this leads her Uncle to feel that the young woman needs some serious taking in hand. Finding that Cluny had gone out to unblock a sink when the call came in for her plumber uncle on a Sunday afternoon, Uncle Arn is beside himself when he finds Cluny alone with a bachelor in his home and she's been in the bathroom. Put those words in italics, and underline them because that's how much of a serious social infraction Cluny is guilty of. Yet she is genuinely oblivious to any damage to her reputation which might have come about by exploring this very opulent room, the likes of which she has never seen. Something simply has to be done about Cluny before she gets herself into more trouble. Uncle Arn didn't think it could get worse than Cluny going to tea at the Ritz alone, but this proves him wrong.
Once Cluny makes her way into service at Friars Carmel in Devonshire and becomes a Tall Parlour-maid in training, the people living in the house and the neighborhood have varied, but positive, reactions to her. Cluny, however, takes on the work and the people in her own inimitable way - with absolutely no idea of how she changes the lives of those she meets. There are wonderfully developed characters in this book from all the many layers of the social scale represented with the specter of the possibility of another war hanging over the novel. Set in 1938 in what was once a lavish lifestyle setting the changes to the entire population are about to change dramatically again, but the novel doesn't dwell on what is to happen in the future. Cluny isn't beautiful, in fact she's plain, so she doesn't cause problems from that aspect. She is intelligent, but from a common sense standpoint so that doesn't cause problems. She just doesn't know her place so she keeps finding herself being treated as if she belongs everyplace. It makes some people nervous while others are delighted.
I laughed out loud at some of the really insightful zingers delivered by Ms. Sharp, but she never made me uncomfortable by being mean-spirited about the great country house and those who live in it. I was reminded a little bit of the writing of P. G. Wodehouse describing all the misunderstandings that lead to laughable tangles. It was all great fun and a relaxing, enjoyable, comfortable reading experience.