Reviewed by Harriet
At fifty-five, Isobel Brocken was still a nice-looking woman. She dated, of course, all her female friends said so – poor Isobel certainly dated; she was plump, and wore her faded hair in a kind of neat bird’s nest, but her complexion was pretty and the blue of her eyes scarcely faded at all. The most striking thing about her was her expression, for she nearly always looked pleased; and though this, in 1946, was really but a final proof of her thorough foolishness, some people found her appearance refreshing.
I’ve been revelling in the novels of Margery Sharp lately, thanks to the new editions from Dean Street Press – I’m actually now part-way through the last of the set, and have enjoyed them all immensely. I was planning to review Four Gardens, a very charming and enjoyable novel (aren’t they all) but then I read The Foolish Gentlewoman and decided it had to be next up.
I’d started with her first novel, Rhododendron Pie (1930) – reviewed here – and have jumped forward 18 years with The Foolish Gentlewoman (1948), which I suppose you could call a middle-period novel, as she would go on publishing for another 30 years. It’s set in an interesting time-period, taking place just a year after the end of WW2, and the after-effects of those six years of conflict and privation are still felt in Britain. The novel takes place in a wealthy London suburb named Chipping Hill. There, in Chipping Lodge, the oldest house on the hill, lives widowed Isobel Brocken. It had been her family home, which she inherited from her father. In 1940 she had evacuated herself to Bath, and The Lodge housed as caretakers the Poole family, a single mother and her fourteen-year-old daughter Greta. When the war ended, Isobel decided to return to the Lodge, keeping the Pooles on in return for some help around the house. Also in residence are Isobel’s nephew Humphrey, a young woman companion called Jacqueline Brown, and, unwillingly, Isobel’s solicitor brother-in-law Simon Brocken, whose bombed London house has yet to be rebuilt.
Simon sees only one point in his relationship with Isobel – ‘he knew where he was with her’. Her determination to keep on a house which was much too big certainly infuriates him, but
at least Mr Brocken had not to seek a reason for her conduct. Being idiotic, it explained itself. The whole long imbroglio merely affirmed two convictions: that no woman could be trusted with property, and that Mark had married a fool.
Fortunately, as he travels to his office in London every day, he doesn’t have to spend too much time at the Lodge. But his opinion of his sister-in-law is fully confirmed when she asks his opinion about a sermon she has recently heard. The vicar had said ‘it was a common error to suppose that the passage of time made a base action any less bad’. Does Simon think this is true? Of course, says Simon. He soon forgets the conversation, but then, some days later, Isobel announces that she has invited a childhood friend, Tilly Cuff, to come for a visit. Tilly, a poor relation, had always been looked down on by the rest of the family, and has lived an impoverished, rackety life, so it’s hard to imagine why Isobel wants her company. But soon the truth emerges: Isobel believes she has done Tilly a terrible wrong many years ago, and is convinced she must make amends. And she’s hit on the perfect way of doing this – she will give Tilly almost all the money she inherited from her husband, and move into a small flat over a shop.
Simon is appalled, not least because he was expecting a large share of Isobel’s money. Humphrey is shocked too, and even Jackie, who thinks Isobel is heroic, agrees that it’s a silly idea. And when Tilly turns up, the idea becomes more and more absurd. She’s a deeply unpleasant woman, whose pathetic attempts to pass as much younger than she is are shocking and embarrassing. Isobel is perfectly aware of this – ‘Isabel sat plump and innocent beside Miss Cuff like a pigeon by a battered macaw; her simple face wore an expression of bewilderment’ – and holds off telling Tilly her decision until they have had time to get to know each other again. As Tilly’s behaviour deteriorates from annoyingly manipulative to plain malevolent, everyone hopes that Isobel will change her mind. But will she? There are all sorts of things the reader may be expecting to happen in this magnificent story, but I think it’s true to say that most will be surprised by the ending. That’s not to suggest it’s dramatic – far from it – just that events take an unexpected, though ultimately satisfying, turn.
How foolish, then, is Isobel? Certainly Simon, through whose perspective the story is told, thinks her so, but Sharp makes us question his point of view on this and everything else. He seems a pretty dislikeable man, but he’s somewhat redeemed by the unexpected friendship he develops with young Greta Poole. And how bad is Tilly? Yes, her behaviour is appalling, but when we start to learn the circumstances of her life, it’s easier to understand how she has turned out that way: as Sharp said in an interview: ‘I think the basic idea is that people often aren’t bad but circumstances sometimes make them so’. She also described it as a story with a moral, but that shouldn’t suggest that it’s in any way preachy or boring. It’s a novel that interrogates goodness, while being witty, ironic, perceptive, and a real delight to read.
Harriet is co-founder and co-editor of Shiny New Books.
Margery Sharp, The Foolish Gentlewoman (Dean Street Press, 2021). 978-1913527716, 232pp., paperback original.
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