Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp

Rom without the com…

😐 😐

Cluny Brown is extremely plain, except to the many men who think she’s beautiful. She does scandalous things like going for tea at the Ritz, so her uncle who doesn’t seem to like her much (and incidentally hasn’t spotted her beauty) sends her off to be trained as a parlour-maid at the Devonshire home of Lady Carmel. There, several men will fall in love with several women, there will be mild misunderstandings and mild jealousies, and then they will all sort themselves into perfect partnerships and live happily ever after. As will I, now that this one can be cheerfully despatched to the charity shop…

I realise this book is beloved by all and even sundry, but I fear its charm largely escaped me. Cluny manages to be both underdeveloped and unrealistic, which is quite a feat when you think about it. Perhaps Sharp genuinely had no idea about the working-class – she certainly gives me that impression – but an editor could surely have told her that by 1938 aggrieved uncles weren’t actually able to force reluctant twenty-year-old nieces into service against their will. Nor are all working-class people fundamentally stupid, although that’s how they’re portrayed in this book. Sharp reminds us of Cluny’s basic stupidity on a regular basis, unnecessarily since she never has a thought worth thinking or expresses an opinion worth expressing. Her eventual rebellious metamorphosis is ludicrous, since up to that point the most rebellious thing she had ever done was to eat oranges in bed. She seems perfectly willing to go off with any man who promises to let her keep a puppy – one felt she could have got a job, a flat and a puppy all on her own, and foregone the dubious pleasure of having to put up with any of these tedious men.

Book 74 of 90

For tedious they are! There’s working class therefore stupid Uncle Arn, he who can’t cope with the idea that his niece might be attractive to men so gets rid of her so he can sit in the evenings staring happily at his wall – one imagines his mouth hanging open and his mind echoing emptily as he does so. Sir Henry Carmel, stereotypical Little Englander member of the declining gentry, is also stupid now I think about it – Sharp clearly felt stupid is a synonym for funny. We’ll have to agree to differ on that. Mr Wilson, the chemist, attracted to Cluny because she looks at him adoringly, rather like that puppy she so longs for, and apparently happy to marry a woman whom he considers to be his inferior, socially, culturally and intellectually, presumably because he wants submissive admiration rather than any kind of equal partnership in life. One is supposed to like him, I think. Belinski, the Polish writer who comes to stay at the house, has more comic potential and actually provides the glimmerings of a plot in the early stages, as it appears he has got into the bad books of the Nazis and may be in danger. But no, turns out it’s all been a misunderstanding, and really he’s just a mediocre writer and marginally more successful womaniser.

Margery Sharp

Andrew, the son of the house, is somewhat better as a character, being given a little more complexity and letting us see the gentry coming to terms with the approaching war. His mother, Lady Carmel, is also quite well drawn – outwardly she seems to be rather vague and wispy, but in fact she’s more perceptive than all the rest, and guides her useless menfolk with a good deal of charm. Beautiful Betty, love interest of many, is fun, and her development from immature social butterfly to poised society woman is much better done than poor Cluny’s unlikely coming-of-age story. I won’t mention the other servants, since quite frankly Wodehouse gives his domestics more depth and realism.

Nope, not for me. I’m not much of a fan of rom-coms in general, and even less so when the com bit gets missed out, leaving little except dull meanderings through a largely unrealistic depiction of pre-war life.

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45 thoughts on “Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp

    • Yes, if I’m reading a romance (which is rare) then I need to feel at the end that the main couple are a good equal match. I think maybe that’s how you’re supposed to feel about this one, but sadly I didn’t…

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  1. What?! She ate oranges in bed?! And you didn’t faint at that? My goodness, what a scandal, FictionFan! Your review is clever and witty, but I am sorry you didn’t like the book better. It’s always such a disappointment, isn’t it, to feel your reading time hasn’t been well spent. I think what stood out to me the most was what you said about the way the working class is portrayed here. I think that would really annoy me, if I’m being honest.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Shocking, isn’t it? Nearly as bad as a communist revolution!! What is the world coming to?? 😉 Yes, one of my major problems with writing from the early to mid twentieth century is that most books were written by the middle-classes and they either mocked or patronised the working class – they rarely portrayed them as realistic, intelligent people.

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  2. Loved the review, but will probably give the book a miss. I’ve heard Sharp likened by some to Jane Austen, but I would rather stick to Jane, at least her heroines were strong and funny.

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    • Oh, goodness, there’s no way I’d compare her to Austen – it would be like comparing Enid Blyton to the Rebus books! This was nothing more than a light romance which would have been fine except that it got up my nose with the way it portrayed the working class. Think I’ll take a pass on her other books…

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  3. I’m not convinced from your review that you dislike this: I’m sure, from your analysis of so many characters, you secretly loved this and are misdirecting us all because you want to keep this all to yourself! You haven’t fooled me at all… 😁

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, I think I was going through an “expand your reading tastes” phase when it got added to the TBR – there are a few there that have me scratching my head as to why I thought I’d ever like them!

      Liked by 1 person

    • It was indeed! Her style and stereotyped characters might work better for children! I must admit that British books from this era often stereotype working class people as stupid, so she’s not alone, but it always annoys me.

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  4. Sorry you didn’t enjoy this, although I suspected it might not be your type of book! I liked it more than you did, but it’s my least favourite of the four Margery Sharp books I’ve read.

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    • Yes, in retrospect I can’t think why I put it on my Classics Club list – it’s so not my kind of thing! But I know loads of people love her, so clearly it’s just one of those mismatches that happen now and then. Interesting that you’ve enjoyed other books more – it’s a pity this is the one that seems to get the most attention. Maybe I’ll give her a second chance… one day… maybe… 😉

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    • I must admit the stereotyping of working class characters as stupid always annoys me, whereas I can cheerfully overlook some other outdated attitudes in older books – we all have our own breaking points, I suppose! And definitely loads of people love her, so they must be seeing something I’m not…

      Liked by 1 person

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