After reading a lot of titles for A Century of Books during my 25 Books in 25 Days, I got too cocky and started reading quite a few that didn’t fit years. And my advantage slipped away. I tend to read about 100 books a year, so I can’t afford to get too distracted – so I went to my list of gaps and decided to pick one. It was 1954 and it was Margery Sharp – The Gipsy in the Parlour has been waiting on my shelves since 2011.
This is the fourth Sharp novel I’ve read – the first being back in about 2003 – and it is very different from those others. I really enjoyed the first three, but they were all comic novels, at least to some extent. The Gipsy in the Parlour is emphatically not a comic novel – but it is a wonderfully atmospheric and involving novel, and I think it’s absolutely wonderful. From the opening line onwards…
In the heat of a spacious August noon, in the heart of the great summer of 1870, the three famous Sylvester women waited in their parlour to receive and make welcome the fourth.
The novel is told from the perspective of a young girl (who, I only now suspect, might be unnamed) who is niece to the Sylvesters. She is a Londoner, but spends her summers in Devon with this family who all live together on a farm – the women are not related, but each has married a different Sylvester brother. The brothers are inconsequential in the novel and in life – essentially good-natured, easy-going, unexpressive men who work the land and let their wives run the house. The chief of these is Aunt Charlotte, who married the oldest son and is de facto leader of the household. It is she who has arranged for the other two wives to join the family.
But the youngest Sylvester brother, Stephen, has chosen his own wife – and Fanny arrives as the novel opens. She does not have the beauty of the other sisters – and she seems somehow wilder and less part of the domestic picture. Disconcertingly for the narrator, she sees Fanny wandering the garden at night, staring back at the house with an expression she cannot quite understand…
For the narrator, who is seven when the novel starts, this is a mysterious but halcyon world. She longs to return to the farm and to the security of her aunt’s plain speaking affection. (And, miracle of miracles for the reader, they speak in dialect but are neither unintelligible nor annoying.) She also longs to be at the wedding of Fanny and Stephen, but the timing is wrong for her start back to school – so she must leave shortly before it takes place, and waits to hear about it via letter in London. But the letter never comes.
On her next visit, the next summer, she discovers that Fanny is in a decline, of the sort common in the 1870s. She is weak, nervous, and spends all her time lying in bed or on the sofa – and tensions in the house grow steadily over the months and years, witnessed by the niece who sees all but does not understand all.
There are definite elements of The Go-Between in this novel. Sharp has drawn the child and her perspective so well – so she is never a dishonest narrator, but clearly cannot piece together all the different elements she witnesses. Her interpretations of characters are given to the reader, who must take a step back to try and understand the whole picture – it is all handled brilliantly, and with the feelings of rich nostalgia that a child would feel who can only return to a much-loved world once a year.
In fact, the whole of The Gipsy in the Parlour is pervaded with a wonderful atmosphere. I felt as though I were immersed in this 1870s farm, with the same limited scope and detailed canvas felt by those who seldom or never left the village. It is odd to read Sharp with so little levity, but her talent at this almost melancholic, elegiac domestic novel is quite something. It is not flawless, particularly in the later chapters, but it’s still an extraordinary achievement. If I had to pick between this and (say) Cluny Brown, I wouldn’t know quite which to choose – but I’m impressed that Sharp could do both so well, and delighted that I can read both.