Julia ,’by marriage Mrs Packett, by courtesy Mrs Macdermot’ is the central character of three strongly delineated women, in Margery Sharp’s delightful The Nutmeg Tree.
Sharp, a deliciously witty writer of rather eccentric English romances and childrens’ books, from the 1930s to the 1970s, had sadly gone out of print, and was only available as lucky finds in second hand shops or sometimes on line at some eye-watering prices.
Fortunately, Open Road Integrated Media who have a wonderful reputation for reissuing ‘minor’ classics in good, digital format, have now reissued a generous couple of handfuls of her titles.
And this is one of them, and I was delighted to be offered The Nutmeg Tree by Open Road, as a copy for review
Julia is a middle-aged actress, member of the chorus, and any kind of vaguely theatre related work she can get. She is a woman of impeccably loose morals. Promiscuous in part because she has a generous heart (and even more generous bosoms), she cannot bear to disappoint or embarrass a suitor. Not to mention the fact that she is hopeless with money, will squander what she has on a good time and good friends, and, when treading the boards work is slender, a man might take her out for a meal. She is not averse to undertaking the odd swindle, to part a fool from his money, either
It is Sharp’s particular genius, her wit and her warmth, to take this seemingly unprincipled woman, and make us root for her, delight in her, and understand exactly why so many who meet her, both men and women, happily fall under the spell of her charms. Despite her dishonesty, she is remarkably honest with herself about her failings, and really dislikes hurting or offending those whom she fleeces.
The opening paragraph of the book immediately showed me this was going to be a sparkling and good humoured read:
“Julia, by marriage Mrs, Packett, by courtesy Mrs Macdermot, lay in her bath singing the Marseillaise. Her fine robust contralto, however, was less resonant than usual, for on this particular summer morning the bathroom, in addition to the ordinary fittings, contained a lacquer coffee table, seven hatboxes, half a dinner service, a small grandfather clock, all Julia’s clothes, a single bed mattress, thirty-five novelettes, three suitcases, and a copy of a Landseer stag”
I was already laughing so hard by this point, with the tune of ‘On the twelfth day of Christmas’, rather than the Marseillaise, playing in my mind, that I half expected the sentence to end with the proverbial partridge, pear tree and all.
Julia, on her uppers again is the mother of a grown-up and extremely intelligent daughter, presently at Girton. She was never the most motherly of women, and Susanne, or Susan as she is now called, has been brought up by Julia’s mother-in-law, a well-to-do woman whom Julia admires, and who has always treated Julia kindly. Even if she does nurture a rather peculiar fantasy that her daughter–in-law would make a great success if she would only open a cake-shop in Knightsbridge.
Julia hasn’t seen her daughter for years, but Sue wants to get married to a man, whilst her grandmother wants her to wait till she is twenty one. Susan sends a letter to her mother asking her to come to France (where she and her grandmother are holidaying) to help persuade Mrs Packett senior to accept Sue’s beau, Bryan, and a speedy marriage.
Dormant mother love is wakened, and the story follows Julia’s eventful journey to France, and the amusing encounters which await her there
In a neat twist, it is Julia, and even the older Mrs Packett, who are the flexible and adventurous ones, whilst Susan, bar a desire to marry a little young is implacably rigid and insufferably worthy
“Susan was a prig. Not an objectionable prig, not a proselytising prig, but a prig from very excess of good qualities.. Like all the right-minded young, she wanted perfection; the difficulty was that her standards of perfection were unusually high. Exquisite in her own integrity, she demanded an equal delicacy and uprightness from her fellows”
Susan – unlike Julia – is not a lot of fun, Take, for example, this typical throwaway Margery Sharp gem, about Julia’s pecuniary embarrassment and the detail of her underwear :
“Julia decided to take single instead of return tickets, and to buy a new dinner dress with the money saved. She also purchased a linen suit, a Matron’s model hat, and three pairs of camiknickers. She had indeed plenty of these already, but all with policemen embroidered on the legs”
I shan’t (of course) reveal spoilers, but do just need to say that I thought the ending was utterly brilliant, and done with panache.
I enjoyed this enormously, though Sharp is writing light, witty romance, it is in a unique and wonderfully executed manner. Her characterisations are brilliant, her humour never laboured and, knowing more Margery’s are waiting for me, accessible, and reasonably priced is enchanting.
Thank you Open Road!
(Edit - I had bought the BOOK COPY, battered and second hand, earlier from a market place seller, hence the verified purchase badge - but Open Road then offered me their digital version, which I happily took, and will be able to pass on the battered paper copy to a friend. I am always happy with Open Road Media - everything I have ever downloaded, digitised by them, is impeccably done, something which cannot be said for every company's digitisations) My 5 star is both for Margery Sharp's book, AND for Open Road's edition of it!
on 6 July 2011
The Nutmeg Tree charts the fortunes of Julia, a middle aged former actress who retains her gleeful love of life and all it has to offer. Her enthusiasm and warmth has got her into trouble before in her youth, not least when she finds herself swiftly become pregnant, married and widowed in the space of a few months. Stifled by the kindness of her very proper and rather rich in-laws, she leaves her daughter Susan with them to be raised and returns to life and work in London. At the start of the novel, Julia has not seen her daughter for sixteen years until a letter arrives from Susan enlisting her mother's help in persuading her grandparents to let her get married. Unable to resist this cry for help, the affectionate Julia immediately boards a boat for France, determined this time to be a proper mother. But old habits die hard and Julia's exuberance will not be repressed, particularly when there are eligible gentlemen around.
I could tell that I had picked just the right book as soon as I read the opening paragraph: "Julia, by marriage Mrs Packett, by courtesy Mrs Macdermot, lay in her bath singing the Marseillaise. Her fine robust contralto, however, was less resonant than usual; for on this particular summer morning the bathroom, in addition to the ordinary fittings, contained a lacquer coffee table, seven hatboxes, half a dinner service, a small grandfather clock, all Julia's clothes, a single-bed mattress, thirty-five novelettes, three suitcases, and a copy of a Landseer stag. The customary echo was therefore lacking; and if the ceiling now and then trembled, it was not because of Julia's song, but because the men from the Bayswater Hire Furniture Company had not yet finished removing the hired furniture."
Julia is such a character it is impossible not to like her and enjoy reading about her exploits as she tries to appear respectable for the sake of her daughter. If just given the facts about her, she should be someone of whom the reader disapproves: she is far too free with her affections and abandons her young child out of boredom and frustration. Yet Sharp creates her in such a way that her great ability to give love suggests bounty and generosity rather than being a negative attribute, and there is no judgement at all on her decision to leave Susan with the Packetts. If anything, the reader is encouraged to sympathise with Julia's feelings of being stifled and bored among her interfering but well-meaning in-laws. Her escapades never fail to entertain and bring a smile to my face.
The other characters are all equally enjoyable. I particularly enjoyed the description of Susan's grandmother: "It seemed to her more likely that her mother-in-law was of the type, not rare among Englishwomen, in whom full individuality only blossoms with age: one of those who, as sixty-one, suddenly startle their relatives by going up in aeroplanes or marrying their chauffeurs..."
The story itself isn't exactly full of surprises; you can tell from the tone of the writing that everything will work out for the best. Sometimes however, the journey is far more important than the destination, and I'll happily travel along with Julia any day. Sir William talks about feeling a mixture of affection and amusement towards Julia, and that's exactly how I felt towards The Nutmeg Tree.
Is love found at an older age different from one found at a younger age? I think so, because by the time a person is older and the bloom is off the rose, we view our prospective lovers with a level of experience we lacked when we were younger. Those we fall in love with at age 40 and older is often not who we'd have fallen for 20 years earlier. And that's okay; "settled love" might last longer than love contracted in the heat of the moment. And so it is with the two sets of lovers in British author Margery Sharp's novel, "The Nutmeg Tree". Originally published in 1937, the book has been reissued in ebook form with some of Sharp's other novels.
"The Nutmeg Tree" is set, for the most part, in a rented country home, outside Aix les Bains, France. The house had been rented by Mrs Packett, an older woman who has lost her son in the Great War, but has raised her granddaughter, Susan. Susan had been mothered by Julia, an approaching-middle age lady, who had realised early on she wasn't able to raise a child and had given custody to her grandparents. As Susan was raised, Julia had kept in touch with her daughter's family, but had basically cobbled together a life of her own, and on her own terms. Then, she is contacted by her child - who is now 20 years old - to get together with the family and to meet her daughter's fiance. The excuse is a bit flimsy, but Julia's down-on-her-luck in London and finds the money to meet the family at their house outside Aix. And it is here where Julia meets an older man, a friend of the family. Will the four lovers find the connection that can hold up for all time? You must read the book to find out.
Julia Packett brings her life experience and her dreams to the possible match. She can see the differences in background between her and Sir William, but wonders if Sir William can love her, even with her somewhat sketchy past...and not so past. "The Nutmeg Tree", which was later made into a movie, is a fun, yet thoughtful read, both about the young lovers and the older ones. I enjoyed it and am looking forward to reading more of Margery Sharp's reissued novels.