For this month's author, I chose The Innocents, her last novel, which I first read about on Jane's blog.
I was just getting ready to write a brief summary of the novel, which is told in the first person, but I couldn't remember the narrator's name. It is only now, after paging through the book again for 10 minutes or so, that I realized she never names herself or is given a name. No one passing her on the street in her small East Anglia village even says, "Good morning, Miss X." I didn't notice this, reading her story. I remember that she is the daughter of the former vicar, that she is past middle age, that she never learned to swim, that she loves watching the artichokes in her garden grow. But I have no idea of her name, and that feels wrong now.
The story that she is telling begins with an Outdoor Fête, where a beautiful young woman from the village meets a visitor from America. Robert Guthrie, staying with his cousin Tom, is immediately taken with Cecilia, who runs a small dress-shop out of her cottage. He takes her back to the States with him. Six years later, in June of 1939, they return for Tom's funeral, on their way to a European holiday. They have brought with them their three-year-old daughter Antoinette. Both parents now have qualms about taking the child on their travels, and our narrator agrees to keep the little girl with her while they're gone. The outbreak of the war catches the Guthries in Austria. They manage to get back to New York, but without their daughter. Antoinette spends the war years with our narrator, developing a close bond and a regular routine with her.
Our narrator has never married, never spent much time with children, though she has watched the village's parents and children with an observant eye. She quickly realizes that Antoinette is not a normal child: "during those very first days of our life together it became clear to me that Cecilia's daughter was what in earlier times would have been called an innocent." She later uses the word "retarded" in passing, a standard term when this book was written in 1972 (and afterward for that matter). Our narrator accepts this, accepts Antoinette very much as she is, and sets out to make a happy and fulfilling life for her, within the boundaries of what she can do and be.
The war had little impact on their quiet village. But with peace comes Cecilia's determination to bring her daughter back to New York. When she arrives, however, it is clear that she has no understanding of Antoinette's situation, and in fact is in complete denial about it, though it must have been apparent even before their separation. Under her brisk treatment, Antoinette starts to regress, to shut down. Our narrator can only stand and watch. Nothing she says to Cecilia, no appeal for the child's sake, makes any difference.
I enjoyed this book very much. I was sometimes reminded of The Flowering Thorn, another of Margery Sharp's books about a woman taking on a child to raise. Both women lack experience with children, both learn as they go. But our narrator here has a bigger challenge, in dealing with a special-needs child, without the resources that a foster parent today would have. I liked our narrator very much. On the surface, she might have passed for one of Barbara Pym's Excellent Women, but as she says herself, "I am not in the least sweet-natured."
I am highly critical, and easily displeased by circumstances which I unfortunately cannot control. It would accord better with my temperament, I often think, had I been born a fishwife, licensed to strong language and even physical belligerence; or else a tycoon with a retinue of understrappers, who when I said "come" or "go" came and went unquestioningly as helots. Being instead an elderly single woman of no position and small means, I do the best I can for myself by appearing sweet. . . Of course to preserve this fictitious character I need to do more than my share of disagreeables, such as watching by sickbeds till the doctor comes, at a pinch watching by corpses after he has left, breaking news of bereavements, and in general continuing to act as I'd acted all through my girlhood and then young-womanhood as an unpaid auxiliary curate. Early training stands me in good stead! I am nevertheless by nature far more fishwife or tycoon - who in the way of lack of inhibitions must have much in common - and have never doubted that in any real crisis I would react as ruthlessly as either, only so far there had been no occasion.Margery Sharp dropped one or two large hints about how the situation with Antoinette might be resolved, so I wasn't surprised by the ending, though I was a bit taken aback. As I said, I did enjoy this book, in large part because of our narrator.
Thank you to Jane for hosting this celebration of Margery Sharp, and for inspiring me to read her books. I still have Lise Lillywhite and The Gipsy in the Parlour on the TBR shelves, but I've just been reading a review of In Pious Memory that greatly intrigues me.