Thursday, 26 February 2015

Sky Bears and Kissing Planets

Just look what I’ve got…
The Stargazers’ Almanac! Isn’t it beautiful? It gives a month by month account of what can be seen in the night sky, with lovely clear maps looking north and south, so you won’t miss anything. I have Lynne at Dove Grey Reader to thank for this discovery, because she mentioned it here, and I bought it because I thought it would be the perfect partner for this…
Stories in the Stars, An Atlas of Constellations, by Victoria Hislop, is exactly what it says on the label. It’s packed with tales about the stars, explaining how they got their names, and it’s a lovely mix of myths and legends, as gods and goddesses rub shoulders with heroes, heroines, villains, and some very odd creatures. And there are snippets about astronomers, scientists, explorers, mathematicians, mapmakers and mariners, all helping to show how successive cultures have viewed the stars, from early times right through to the modern age, with references to the Phoenicians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Chinese, Japanese and many more, interspersed occasionally with the author’s childhood memories.
I fell in love with this book when I heard it on BBC Radio 4 – it was the Book of the Week at Christmas, and it was beautifully read, by the author and a cast of actors. It was abridged by Jill Waters, who also directed and produced the five episodes, and having now read the book (I splashed out on a brand new hardback, which is very unusual for me) I can say I think she did a brilliant job. Sadly, the BBC programmes are no longer available for listening, but if it’s ever broadcast again you really should tune in.
Hislop, who describes herself as an actor, writer, theatre-maker and juggler of things, stresses that ‘Stories in the Stars’ is not about ‘astronomical rigour’. It’s the stories of the stars she knows, not the science. And she adds:

 “This is the glory of stargazing for the storyteller: above us a blank page in negative. A jet canvas pricked with white dots, and a rag-bag of myths, religions, lullabies and fairy tales with which to join them up. A whole universe of stories ready to steal, which are as unstable as the stars themselves – shining and magical, but soon to explode and re-form the dust and gas of history into new stories altogether.”
Purists may not like this dot-to-dot approach, but I do: I feel it helps make sense of all those weird and wonderful stories, some of which I already know, although others are new. The science bits Hislop does include are put across very simply, and the whole book has really whetted my appetite to learn more about stars and planets and so on, so I've dug out a not terribly good pair of binoculars, and a very tiny compass (a souvenir from the Natural History Museum) because I have no sense of direction!
At this point I must mention the illustrated maps created by artist Hannah Waldron – after all, an atlas wouldn’t be an atlas without its maps! These are lovely and clear, one for each constellation, showing a picture of what it’s meant to be (hunter, swan, dog etc), it’s position in the sky, and the magnitude of the individual stars.

The ‘Stargazers’ Almanac’ also boasts some wonderful illustrated maps of the night sky, with details of what you see each month, and brief information about the sun, moon planets and meteors, as well as the stars, all of which makes it slightly more scientific than Hislop’s book. However, it’s quite easy to understand. And the compiler has a lovely turn of phrase. This month, for example, I learned that: “The Little Bear (Ursa Minor) hangs by its tail, at the tip of which is Polaris, infallible guide to the north.”
Isn’t that magical? Never again will I fruitlessly search the sky for something as humdrum as a small saucepan with a bent handle. Instead I shall welcome the sight of a playful bear cub hanging upside down and swinging from a star! And he here he is in the Almanac, more or less in the middle of my not very clear photo:
And here he is in Hannah Waldron's rather splendid illustration in the Constellation Atlas.
However, according to Hislop the Little Bear has a sad story to tell. He is Arcas, son of Callisto, a wood nymph who was seduced by Zeus, King of the Gods. As you might expect, Zeus’ wife Hera was not at all happy about this, so she changed poor Callisto into a bear, which seems a little extreme (and very unfair – after all, it wasn’t Callisto’s fault).

Fast forward more than a decade, and the teenaged Arcas is about to kill the bear, unaware she is his mother. But Zeus comes to the rescue (if you can call it that)… and turns Arcas into a bear as well! However, I’m not sure this solution pleased either mother or son. According to Hislop, to avoid being scratched by their sharp claws, Zeus picked both bears up by their tails, swung them round and round, and flung them into the sky. Which is why Sky Bears have longer tails than Earth Bears!
So, having got all enthusiastic about the night sky, and alerted by a line in the Almanac, I went into the back garden early on Saturday evening and managed to locate the planet Venus, shining brightly, and red Mars, a tiny, dull dot just a hair’s breadth away. They looked incredibly close - they could have been kissing or hugging! But apparently that’s an illusion, all to do with the alignment of the two planets as they’re seen from earth (once back in the warm I resorted to Google to find out more). In reality Venus is 134 million miles from Earth, and Mars is even further away - 203 million miles. So there must be a pretty good distance between them! Anyway, I gather it’s quite rare for these two planets to pass so close to each other: the last time was in 2008, and won’t happen again for another two years.
I tried very hard to take some photos, but it’s quite difficult trying to hold the camera steady and focus on something all that distance away, so my pictures were very wobbly indeed:

And when I did manage to get a clearer shot Mars wasn’t there at all, which is very disappointing. But you can see the thinnest of thin crescent moons, and Venus… but you have to click on the picture to make it bigger
However, even if I haven’t got a proper record of the occasion I’m glad we saw it, because we are surrounded by buildings, and there’s a lot of light pollution – the Man of the House, who was a bit of an astrology enthusiast in his youth (long before I met him), thinks we may be able to find somewhere nearby which offers a better view for stargazing observations. 

Monday, 23 February 2015

Spring Bulbs, Marmalade, Sulphur and Soup!

I was brought up in Surrey, and I love gardening books, so Pot-Pourri from a Surrey Garden, by Mrs CW Earle, seemed tailor-made for me, and I succumbed to its delights as soon as I spotted it (in a box of Oxfam donations, of course).  It turns out that Mrs E’s country residence was in Cobham, which I used to know a little – when I was at school a friend lived there, and sometimes I stayed at her home overnight. And it was one of the places my family would occasionally ‘run out’ to on a fine day. Usually we fortified ourselves with flasks of tea, sandwiches, and slices of Mum’s home-made Dundee cake, but I am sure we once had afternoon tea in a genteel little tea shop in Cobham (though it may have been somewhere nearby). It impressed me no end: not only were we eating out, but there were proper waitresses, and it was definitely a step up from the local fish’n’chip shop or the self-service A.B.C. café we frequented on trips to a neighbouring town.
My 1984 edition of Mrs CW Earle's 'Pot
Pourri from a Surrey Garden', produced
 by Century Publishing.

Anyway, I digress. Mrs Earle was the wife of Captain Charles William Earle, hence those initials. She was christened Maria Theresa, but in 1897, when her book was first published, a married woman was known by her husband’s name, a practice which has, thankfully, been abandoned.

The couple spent roughly half the year in London, and half at Cobham, which had a two-acre garden where Mrs Earle spent much of her time. She seems to have been a knowledgeable and ‘hands-on’ gardener, but there’s more to her book than gardening. It also covers cookery, holidays, housekeeping, families, education, furnishing, customs, history, health, poems, books, weather and all kinds of other things.

I guess it was one of the ‘self-help manuals’ of its day, which makes it great fun, and it’s interesting to see how things have changed. However, much of her advice (especially on gardening) still holds good, and many of her observations remain as pertinent today as they were then. She provides a lively and often humorous picture of life at the very end of the 19th century, and is informative and opinionated, without being didactic. On the whole she’s surprisingly modern in outlook – apparently her family regarded her as a great radical – and she has a sense of fun, and curiosity about life.
In her first entry, for January 2, she sets out her agenda, telling us:

I am not going to write a gardening book, or a cookery book, or a book on furnishing or education. Plenty of these have been published lately. I merely wish to talk to you on paper about several subjects as they occur to me throughout the year; and if such desultory notes prove to be of any use to you or others, so much the better.
But, she says, gardening will be given ‘preponderance’ throughout the book, and so it is.
For those of who don't know Cobham, this is a photo of the High Street,
courtesy of Wikipedia and their Creative Commons licence.
I was going to try and give a resumé of the whole volume, but decided it would be nicer to share her thoughts on February (since it is February), and maybe take another look at her later in the year. This, she says, is the month of forced bulbs – ‘hyacinths, tulips, jonquils and narcissuses’. And she is absolutely right, because my little narcissi have all burst into bloom, and there are beautiful, cheerful, bright yellow flowers on the windowsills, making me feel that perhaps spring is on the way. My narcissi (in bright yellow pots, to match the flowers), were already poking their shoots through the soil when I brought them back from the local garden centre, and I feel a bit of a failure because I had some bulbs and forget to plant them back in November, which is when Mrs Earle, says you should do these things. In the Greenhouse. Or the Cellar. I was a bit flummoxed by this since we possess neither a greenhouse nor a cellar, but further reading revealed that a south-facing windowsill is fine. Actually, I’m pretty sure none of our windows face south, but the narcissi (I am positive this is the correct plural)) are flourishing, so presumably they don’t realise they’re looking the wrong way.
Narcissi on the windowsill... Not south-facing,
alas, but they seem quite happy.
She also mentions the Royal Horticultural Society’s early spring exhibition in the Drill Hall, Westminster, an event she describes as one of her great pleasures. Does this location still exist I wonder? And if so does the RHS still have a spring show there?
Later in the month she reminds us that it’s time to make marmalade, and that old jars which are being reused should be washed thoroughly in clean water, without soap or soda. Then, when dry, they should be powdered with a little sulphur and wiped clean. Whoever knew that sulphur was an essential piece of kitchen kit! When my mother made marmalade, jams, chutneys, bottled fruit and so on she washed the jars and sterilised them by baking them in the oven, on thick sheets of newspaper.
Finally there are some recipes, or receipts as they were then known, translated from a ‘very excellent’ French chef. Mrs Earle explains:
They belong to so entirely different a cuisine from our ordinary modest and economical receipts, that I think they may not be without interest to some people.
The recipes include ravioli and gnocchi, which seems very cosmopolitan for that period, and they all appear to be very complicated and very time consuming, and are definitely not modest or economical. My own favourite, because it is so outrageous, is Pot au feu Soup. I’m a great fan of home-made soup, which is generally very simple to cook, but the instructions for this are mazing. First up there’s the ingredients: 15lbs of beef; 51/2 lbs of veal, 1 chicken, 21/2 gallons of water; 3 fine carrots; I big turnip; 1 large onion; a bunch of parsley; a head of celery; a parsnip; 2 cloves, and some salt. What size saucepan would you need for that lot? And however would you lift it?
Then there’s the method. Before you start cooking, the meat has to be trimmed and tied, which may be a tad arduous, but believe me it’s a doddle compared to what comes next. On my reckoning the soup has to boil (on a fire!!!) for something like six hours. Various ingredients have to be added or removed at various times, scum has to be skimmed off, and there are different types of boilings to be done. I kid you not. There is violent boiling, and boiling on one side, and boiling ‘undisturbed, evenly and regularly’ (with the lid on). And you mustn’t let this witch’s brew boil over, even if it seems ‘inclined’ to do so. I rather like Mrs Earle’s use of the word ‘inclined’ because it makes the soup sound as if has a life of its own. Turn your back and it could take over the kitchen, like Grimm’s Magic Porridge Pot.
And when the cooking process is finally over the fun really starts because you must ‘strain the soup, without stirring it up, through a strainer on to a napkin stretched over a receptacle big enough to contain the soup’. Right. Anyone fancy heaving that lot out of the pan?
Even then you don’t have soup as we know it. Oh no. What you have is stock, which can be used to make whatever soup you fancy – which means more food-prepping, skimming and boiling…
When I make soup it tends to be more Pot Luck than Pot au feu!
This is made from all the vegetables left in the veg rack at the end of
the week... Plus fresh herbs... And stock cubes!
Now I realise that the basic techniques are still pretty much the same (apart from the industrial scale of the ingredients, and the fire). But personally I think progress is a wonderful thing. All I can say is hooray for modern cookers. And electric blenders. And stock cubes!!!

PS: I’m linking this to the Reading England Challenge, over at Behold the Stars. The aim is to travel England reading, and read at least one classic book per however many counties of England you decide to read. I think this definitely counts as a classic, and since non-fiction is allowed this would seem to be an ideal entry for Surrey. I’m signing up for Level 3, and hoping to read between 7 and 12 books for this challenge, which sounds reasonable, but it would be wonderful to cover every county.  

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

An Impossible Marriage

Right, after Margery Sharp here’s another New-to-Me novelist to enthuse about – Pamela Hansford Johnson who was, apparently, immensely popular from the late 1930s through to the 1960s, but seems to have been largely forgotten in recent years.

I’ve seen a couple of blog posts about her, and read reviews of Wendy Pollard’s ‘Pamela Hansford Johnson: Her Life, Works and Times’, but I knew so little about her novels it was difficult to pick one. So I printed off a list of available titles, took a pin, shut my eyes, stuck it in the paper, and came up with An Impossible Marriage. And yes, I know this is an odd way to choose a book, but it’s no worse than selecting one for its cover, or because you love the title.
Anyway, I downloaded a Bello edition on to the Kindle (hurrah for Pan Macmillan’s digital re-issues), and it turned out to be a pretty good choice because, quite apart from the fact that I really enjoyed this particular novel, I think it’s an excellent introduction to PHJ.

The cover of the Bello edition of 'An Impossible
Marriage' - though I'm not sure if E-books really
do have covers!
It’s the 1950s, and Christie (our narrator) has reluctantly returned to Clapham, where she was brought up, to visit Iris Allbright who, she tells us, had ‘one brief moment of real importance in my life, which was now shrivelled by memory almost to silliness’. Christie (known to most of her friends and family as Chris or Christine) doubts Iris will remember the incident, and adds: “She and I had grown out of each other twenty years ago and could have nothing more to say.”
And she most definitely does not want to rake over the past, but that’s just what she does as she remembers the time she and Iris were friends, when she was the clever one, and Iris the pretty one – they each had their labels.

Iris Allbright was one of those ‘best friends’ sought by plain girls in some inexplicable spurt of masochism, feared by them, hated by them and as inexplicably cherished.
Ouch! Strangely there seems to be a degree of complicity between the more assertive pretty girl and her plain, compliant friend, a little like the childhood relationship between bullying Cordelia and shy, quiet Elaine in Margaret Atwood’s ‘Cat’s Eye’. However sensible or strong-minded Christie may be away from Iris, with her she plays second fiddle, and cannot escape that role, however much she would like to.

Iris, whose devoted mother is putting her on the stage, is exceedingly pretty, exceedingly self-centred, and a collector of men - even those already attached to her friends…
So Christie is understandably wary when she starts going out with Ned Skelton. Ned is older, and seemingly sophisticated. On their first date they go for a drive in his little sports car ‘bright as a ladybird’, and stop at a hotel for a ‘Sunday outing tea’. In an effort to appear older and more experienced she’s bought a new black hat and borrowed a friend’s fur coat, but she is ill at ease. “His flattery in seeking me out seemed almost too great for me to accept,” she recalls. “I felt humble, and angry because I was humble.”

A 1954 edition. 

Describing the early days of their relationship Christie says: “I felt he was already invading me: that he had plans for me.”  That doesn’t strike me as being a good basis for any relationship, but she is besotted with Ned, even though she knows he is not gentle and will not be kind to her.
Two weeks before their wedding, she realises she doesn’t love him, only the idea of him, and breaks off their engagement. But he takes her to dinner at a posh restaurant where Iris is appearing in cabaret… And she is scared that Iris will take everything from her, including Ned. So she marries him, although she knows they are wrong for each other, and she doesn’t love him. She is 18 and he’s 32, and they have absolutely nothing in common.

Initially Christie believes she can make the marriage work. She has hope. But once again she finds herself playing second fiddle, this time to a husband who pays no attention to her needs, takes no notice of her likes and dislikes, and is not interested in any of the things that matter to her. He’s not violent, or abusive: in fact he’s quite charming most of the time. But he’s selfish, manipulative and domineering, inept rather than feckless, incapable of applying himself to anything or holding down a job, and unwilling to take advice.  
Bit by bit he isolates Christie, presumably to make her totally dependent on him, but he never provides for her financially, emotionally, or intellectually. First, of course, she has to give up her job in a travel agency – in 1930 it wasn’t acceptable for married women to work. Then, gradually, her friends are cut out of her life. He doesn’t care for the things she likes, and doesn’t want her to write (she has had poems published). And when their son is born, Ned is jealous of the time she spends with the baby and refuses to have anything to do with the child.

Eventually Christie acknowledges that if she is to survive with her soul intact she must escape. She's been married less than three years, and she's not yet 21, but she is determined to break free, and to take her son with her. She wants to live life on her own terms, to get a job, and to be independent, which must have been a bold and unusual stance when the novel was published in 1954. Set against that is the view of Ned’s mother, equally disappointed in her marriage, who stayed (with the aid of alcohol) because it was the thing to do. But I’m not sure you could say she made the best of things because she’s been so anaesthetised by life she no longer lets herself feel for anyone or anything.
Pamela Hansford Johnson’s career as a novelist covered a similar period to that of Margery Sharp, and they both portray some strong and unusual women. But PHJ is not as warm as Sharp. There’s an underlying sadness to some of her work, and she’s spikier, and not so interested in happy endings. She’s a very keen observer of people and relationships, and her characters are always credible, even if they’re not always likeable, but I get the feeling that she doesn’t really like people (rather like Julia’s daughter Susan in Sharp’s novel ‘The Nutmeg Tree’).
Pamela Hansford Johnson.
Despite that all her characters are memorable, even the minor ones, and she captures emotions in very few words, like Christie’s embarrassment when she discovers her ‘blind date’ is crippled (PHJ’s word, not mine – this was written long before the days of political correctness), or her anguish waiting for phone calls from Ned, wondering what his family will think of her, and what her aunt will think of him.

Friday, 30 January 2015

There Will Be No New Books....

I am the first to admit that volunteering in an Oxfam Book Shop is not necessarily the best of activities for someone who has resolved that there will be No New Books. But the other volunteers are so nice, and our customers are unbelievably lovely… And, of course, there are the books. I’m like a child let loose in a sweet store. The shop, as you would expect, is packed with shelves, all full of books, and if there were no customers to be served I could spend all day browsing. But it’s the back room that I love the most. This is where we sort and price the donations, and there are books everywhere, crammed onto storage shelves, as well as the table, the desk, the packing area and, occasionally, the chairs. And there are days when you can hardly see the floor for the pile of book-filled bags and boxes that dominates the room.

It’s surprisingly satisfying to establish some kind of order amidst the chaos, and there’s a sense of achievement in unpacking a rare or unusual book. But best of all, because I’m really rather selfish, is the thrill I get from finding a book that’s been on my Wish List for what seems like ever and ever. I really can’t pass up the chance to buy a Must Have volume, despite that resolution about not buying new books, which was made partly on the grounds of economy, and partly on the grounds that we have no room. Anyway, I was so excited when I spotted these yesterday that I just had to have them – and, as I always say, second-hand books are not new, so they don’t count!
First up is Elizabeth Taylor’s A Game of Hide and Seek, in this wonderful old VMC edition, with a cover featuring Karoly Patko’s Still Life with Lilies and Blue Hat. I love Taylor’s understated writing and, according to the blurb on the back this is her ‘subtlest and finest work’, so I can’t wait to start reading.

Then there’s The Dud Avocado, by Elaine Dundy (another Virago Modern Classic). Apparently, it’s a rite of passage book and its heroine, Sally Jay Gorce, is a woman with a mission. To quote from the blurb: “It’s the 1950s, she’s young, she’s in Paris, she’s dyed her hair pink, she’s wearing an evening dress at eleven o’clock in the morning, and she’s seldom had more fun.” Has anyone read this, and is it as good as it sounds?
And I found Rumer Godden’s Black Narcissus, which I’ve been hunting for for ages. Godden is one of my more recent discoveries, and I’ve really enjoyed the books I’ve read so far. This was famously made into a film starring Deborah Kerr, so I suppose most people know it is about a group of nuns who establish a convent high in the Himalayas, but tragedy ensues when hidden passions surface. Virago again I’m afraid – though I’m not sure why I feel I should apologise. I like Virago.

Finally I bought Before Lunch, an Angela Thirkell novel that I’ve not come across before – and no, this one isn’t Virago, it’s a 1954 Penguin (number 852) and it originally cost two shillings (old money). Just think how many books I could get if they were still two bob each.

Actually, these aren’t the only books I bought this week, because when I was in the shop on Saturday I remembered I still had to pay for one about Chaucer, which I left on the shelf above the desk some weeks back. I succumbed to John Gardner’s The Life and Times of Chaucer because a) it has such a great cover; b) I rather like Chaucer, and c) I don’t know anything about him.

Having sorted that out, I then plucked Peter Ackroyd’s Chaucer from a box, which seemed serendipitous, and I thought it would be interesting to read alongside John Gardner, and it’s such a slender volume it won’t take up much space, so I bought that too!

So much for my efforts to limit the number of books coming into our house! In six days I’ve bought six books, and even with my limited mathematical ability I can see that equates to a book a day, which is a little worrying. If I carry on like this think how many books I’ll have acquired by the end of the year! Where would I put them all? And when would I ever get round to reading them?
Does anyone else out there get seized with this compulsion to buy books – and if so do you give in, or do you manage to resist temptation?

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Camiknickers and Evening Dresses...

Singing in the bath... Greer Garson starred in Julia Misbehaves, a film
of the book which, apparently, altered the story considerably.
I must admit, I find it difficult to imagine her as Julia.

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 bath room, 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.
As a book opening goes, this one,  from Margery Sharp’s The Nutmeg Tree,  is right up there with Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, which starts with the unforgettable line ‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink’, and is one of my favourite novels. Happily, The Nutmeg Tree is every bit as good: it really does live up to that wonderful opening, and Julia is a most enchanting and very entertaining heroine.
She’s a 37-year-old one-time chorus girl (now too old and too plump for that line of work), who gets by with a bit of acting, a bit of modelling, a bit of advertising, and a lot of borrowing from gentleman friends, whose hospitality she occasionally accepts. She is, as you can see, not at all respectable, but is warm and loving, with a great generosity of spirit and a tremendous zest for life.
This is a Worth dress from the 1930s which I found
on Pinterest and it's well outside Julia's league, but
I think it's the kind of evening dress she would have
 liked - tight fitting,  plunging neckline, no back, no
 sleeves, and very glittery.

As the novel opens her fortunes seem to be at all time-low: she needs £5 to pay off the bailiffs, and £10 for a return ticket to France so she can help the daughter she has not seen for 16 years marry the man she loves. The financial crisis is averted, and she sets off for France determined to look (and act) like a lady. To this end she buys a single ticket so she has cash to spare for a new, lady-like dinner dress, since she feels her existing evening dresses are mostly unsuitable – one has a top that chiefly consists of a black velvet poppy, and another is made of green sequins. Fun perhaps, but definitely not ladylike!
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. And on the platform at Victoria, for almost the first time in her life, she bought a book. It was The Forsyte Saga, and Julia chose it partly because it seemed such a lot for the money, and partly because she had often heard Galsworthy spoken of as a Good Author. She fancied it was the sort of book Susan would like to see her mother reading; and Julia's maternal affection was so strong (though admittedly erratic) that she read three whole chapters between London and Dover.
Julia’s dress sense is interesting. I’m intrigued by the camiknickers. I looked through the Dainty Lingerie chapter of my Big Book of Needlecraft (also published in the 1930s), which recommends the use of ‘lustrous’ silk for undergarments, and discusses Ways with Edges, and Decoration. It offers advice about lace, appliqué, and embroidered patterns and flowers, but does not, alas, mention policemen.

Making your own camiknickers... From a 1930s
edition of The Big Book of Needlectraft.
Anyway, with Galsworthy to keep her on the straight and narrow, Julia’s journey to Dover is uneventful. But aboard the boat, and on the train to Paris, her efforts at ladylike behaviour hit a bit of a blip when she meets trapeze artist Fred and his brothers. When their Ma, laid low by travel sickness and Cognac, cannot perform, Julia helps out. Fortunately the role is based firmly on the ground, so Julia struts her stuff clad in Ma’s outsize tights, her own silver shoes (with two-inch heels – precariously high in those days), a silver loincloth, a bolero and a feathered headdress. She is, unsurprisingly, a huge success with the audience, and with Fred. Smitten by her charms, he proposes but, regretfully, she rejects him – because her daughter needs her.

Personally, I’m not sure Susan (the daughter) needs anyone, least of all her mother -she’s a very capable young woman, who knows exactly what she wants. The result of Julia’s brief dalliance with a young soldier in 1916, she’s been brought up by her dead father’s parents, the wealthy, staid and respectable Packetts. Julia, we are told, gives up the struggle to live in their world and goes ‘thoroughly back to the bad’. Though, to be fair to Julia, the long-departed Sylvester Packett left detailed instructions about the upbringing of his offspring at his ancestral home. Anyway, Susan, now aged 20, has appealed to her long-lost mother for help… 
Most covers of The Nutmeg Tree seem to be very
 much of their time, but I''m sure Julia would have
loved this dress and stole, which were fashionable
 when this edition was published in 1958.
And tender-hearted Julia responds. But Susan is something of a shock to her. She is slim, blonde, pretty, well-dressed, intelligent, sensible and cultured. She has taste. She is (unlike Julia), a lady. So far, so good, you may think. But there is a downside to all this perfection because, as Julia is the first to admit, Susan is a prig, which is a word you don’t hear much these days. She has strong principles about duty and work, and high standards when it comes to behaviour - her own, and other people’s. She’s a chilly mortal, curiously passionless, who doesn’t really seem to enjoy life: she can tell you about books, or paintings, or architecture, because she’s knows they are ‘good’, but I don’t think they give her pleasure in their own right. And, as Julia observes, she doesn’t like people: she only wants to know their good bits, and makes no allowances for their weaknesses. There is nothing whatsoever of Julia in her, and I did wonder if she would be any nicer if she’d been brought up by Julia, but I think not – from an early age she’d have been Saffy to Julie’s Edina.
Should you wonder, Susan, a student at Girton College, wants to improve her French, so she and her grandmother have hired a villa for the summer. While there she meets Bryan, a witty, good-looking lawyer, and promptly decides she must marry him immediately. But her grandmother thinks Susan should wait.
I quite like this Canadian edition from 1946,
featuring a wide-eyed chorus girl.
When Julia meets Bryan she recognises him for what he is – a charming, feckless waster who will never make Susan happy. She will never understand him, and he will never understand her. So should Julia aid and abet her daughter? Or should she sabotage the marriage campaign?
To make matters worse, Bryan knows a kindred spirit when he sees one, and there is always the chance that he may say or do something to trip her up and show that she is no lady. On top of that, Susan’s trustee, Sir William, arrives and he and Julia fall in love! And there are further complications when Julia realises she is stuck in France with no return ticket, and no money. Her efforts to raise some involve her in all sorts of subterfuge and some very creative stories, culminating in the acquisition of 1,000 francs from a gentleman admirer, and an escape through the back door of a lingerie shop to avoid going to his hotel.
I'm not sure that this 1947 cover coveys
Julia's efforts to be ladylike, but it does
capture something of her spirit.
Life with Julia is never, ever dull, and it’s hard to dislike her. She lives for the moment, enjoying what she has, with no regrets for the past, and no thoughts for the future or the consequences of her actions. But, as Sharp says, she gives and receives pleasure. She’s warm, loving, sympathetic, interested in people, and very independent, dealing with life on her own terms and laughing off the disasters, but nevertheless she is very vulnerable. When the book was published in 1937 she must have been a very unusual heroine. Even today she would stand out because she doesn’t conform, and won’t be forced into being something she is not.

I feel as I’ve written way too much, and still left way too much out. I loved this book. It was well written, with really believable characters, and wonderful descriptions of clothes and places. There’s a lot of humour, but there are also questions about women’s roles, and societal attitudes. I’ve not read Margery Sharp before – I discovered her thanks to Jane at FleurFisher in her World, who organised a Marjorie Sharp Day to celebrate the novelist’s birthday on January 25 (which is when I should have posted this). You can find links to Jane's posts about this author, and to all those who took part in the 'party' here. In addition there's a brilliant Margaret Sharp blog here, with masses of information about her and her books, and you'll find reviews, together with pictures of the clothes Julia might have worn, at the excellent Clothes in Books blog. Best of all, if you trawl through Amazon or Abe Books you can find copies of Margery Sharp's novels which, sadly, are all out of print.

Currently, despite my resolution to read one book at a time, and finish it before starting another, I'm part-way through two more of Sharp’s novels, Britannia Mews and Cluny Brown, and enjoying them both immensely.