Rhododendron Pie by Margery Sharp

Reviewed by Harriet

Ever since I started reading book review blogs, some years ago now, I have often encountered Margery Sharp’s name, generally accompanied by a heartfelt regret that many of her novels were so hard to find. People were ordering them on inter-library loans, or in some drastic cases paying unprecedented sums of money for a very rare gem. I never got caught up in all this, but she remained on my mental list of people I must try to read someday. So naturally I was excited to see that Dean Street Press were bringing out six of her previously impossible to find novels. Excited, but a bit apprehensive – would she live up to the years of expectation?

I started with Rhododendron Pie partly because the title was intriguing and partly because it was Sharp’s very first novel – it’s always good to see how writers started out. She was twenty-five when it was published in 1930, and she’s on record as saying ‘I allowed myself a month for it because that seemed a suitable time to spend over a book’; add to that the fact that she wrote it in the Paddington flat she was sharing with several other lively young women, and you might wonder if it could be any good.  However, she’d been publishing short stories in numerous magazines for the past four years, which goes some way to explaining the skill and confidence of this debut work.

The novel starts with a birthday party in a garden. The birthday girl is Ann, the youngest of the three children of the Lavantie family.  They live comfortably (‘No one of his neighbours ever guessed that Mr Lavantie’s income was only just sufficient to permit of complete idleness’) and pride themselves on their intelligence, culture and sophistication. They look down on their rural neighbours, and Ann is horrified to learn that she’s expected to go to a birthday party at the nearby Gayfords’: ‘They were rough. They had practically no brain. They were frequently dirty’. She has of course learned this attitude from her family, and the novel is really the story of how her views and attitudes change over the years. In fact it’s actually possible to see the seeds of this change right at the beginning: the novel’s title refers to the Lavanties’ birthday tradition of serving a beautiful looking pie filled with exquisite, inedible flowers. Ann’s is filled with rhododendrons, but as always she feels cheated: ‘in a pie you want fruit. Apples. Hot and fragrant and faintly pink, with lots of juice’. 

The next time we meet Ann, she’s a young adult. She’s been to Paris to study art (appreciating it rather than practicing it), but she’s back at home, wondering what to do with her life.  She envies her essay-writing sister Elizabeth’s command of sharp irony and her brother Nick’s ambition to produce films, feeling herself to be entirely lacking in any interest or talent. She finds herself rather reluctantly spending time with young John Gayford and, despite her inherited scorn for the family, starts to admire their easy-going, warm home life. But she’s still thinking of herself as a ‘detached observer’, though she wonders if she’s getting too plump for the role. 

Soon, though, into her life comes a visitor, Gilbert Croy, a glamorous friend of Nick’s, from whom she soon learns that Gilbert

was the only man in England who could make an artistic film; who combined thorough understanding of technique with a personal aesthetic idiom; the only hope, in short, of the British film world.

He’s also tall, dark and suavely handsome, and Ann is soon in love with him. So, when Dick and Elizabeth move to London to pursue their careers, Ann decides to follow them and to thus be able to spend more time with Gilbert (whose supposed brilliance doesn’t seem to be getting him any work). But though gratifyingly soon he returns her affections and asks her to marry him, Ann’s views are undergoing a change in the capital city. The values she’s been taught to admire – sophisticated admiration of the arts, ironic views of apparently lesser mortals, and free love – seem less and less desirable, since their investment in them by the social circle in which Dick and Elizabeth move seems increasingly to make them simply discontented. And so, as the reader has undoubtedly guessed from the start, she finds herself more and more drawn to John Gayford, despite the fact that – horror of horrors – he works in a bank.

There’s so much to like in this charming novel. Although it’s not in the first person, much of the narrative is told from Ann’s perspective, but in such a way that the reader is always one step ahead of her, and able to see through the pretensions and intellectual snobbery of her family and their social circle long before she’s able to recognise them. Ann is certainly naïve and sometimes perhaps a little foolish, but she stands as an interesting example of the sometimes difficult necessity of shaking off unhealthy beliefs and of finding a place in the world where you fit in and feel comfortable.. 

And Sharp is an undeniably witty writer. Particularly admirable is the way she reveals all we need to know about the relationship between Ann’s parents without ever spelling it out. Richard Lavantie spends a great deal of effort in cultivating his own image: ‘Mr. Laventie sat absolutely expressionless, save for an occasional twitching of his fine ironic lips, one arm flung over the back of his chair: a pose intended to convey that he could with one light epigram destroy all this crazy edifice of home-cured philosophy’. His wife has been crippled by a fall from a horse, and spends her days on a couch, covered in a beautiful brocade coverlet. Her husband (who can never help reflecting, every time he sees her, on how much she has aged)

had been much distressed by his wife’s misfortune, and from time to time presented her with a new coverlet. His taste was exquisite, and in after years the lovely things were to serve for Ann as a sort of calendar of her childhood. There was, however, a secondary meaning to them which that childhood ignored: only Mrs Lavantie knew what particular spot in her Richard’s conscience was salved by the present tangerine brocade.

So, better late than never, I’ve finally discovered Margery Sharp. I’ve already read some more of this latest batch, and one in particular I liked enormously. There may be another review coming soon….

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Margery Sharp, Rhododendron Pie (Dean Street Press, 2021).  978-1913527617, 223pp., paperback original.

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