Margery Sharp is best known for her series The Rescuers, witty and delightful tales about heroic mice among whom we find Miss Bianca and Bernard. The books were made into some Disney films, which probably made money for their author, if not doing justice to her subtle and amusing writing. Rhododendron Pie is her first novel, long out of print and written in one month when she was twenty-five.
The story concerns Ann Laventie, the youngest child of three children in the Laventie family. Her mother is bedridden following an accident and is regarded with offhand pity by her husband. Mr Laventie prides himself on despising everyday morals and society (although it is clear he would not be able to live the life he does without his wife’s substantial fortune.)
Elizabeth the oldest girl is a superior being, tall and lean, passing the time by writing critical essays for small magazines, brother Dick toying with the idea of being a sculptor and the youngest daughter is Ann, humble Ann, always feeling not quite as good.
Ann sat down on the end of her bed and reflected bitterly on the vagaries of physiology. Here were she and Dick living much the same life, eating much the same food – except he consumed slightly more of it: and Dick was as thin as a rake, while she grew plumper every day. It was infuriating. There was no system about it.
But if her father was said to be, ‘a traditionalist in wine and a revolutionary in morals’ he was still deeply preoccupied with creating an impression of intellectual superiority; he cares a great deal about what we would today call ‘his image’. Ann however is perceptive and open to other ways of viewing society and deeply sensitive to the beauty of the world.
How queer to think she was lying on the surface of the world…an enormous green ball spinning slowly through space with somewhere, under a lime tree like a sliver of grass, a minute pink dot.
She has the capacity to see outside the set views she has grown up with.
This story is mainly about Ann growing in confidence and gaining independence. Along the way she spends time in the Bohemian worlds of her brother and sister. She comes to see how they are trapped in their need to be unconventional and are not particularly happy. She sees their snobbishness and learns that ordinary lives have richness and value.
She has to struggle against a feeling that she is betraying her family, but ultimately she chooses a life that is fulfilling in its ordinariness. And when she is feeling overwhelmed, she receives powerful support from an unexpected quarter.
Margery Sharp’s fiction is a wonderful discovery. A sharp wit, and an unconventional view of society combined with very funny set pieces, make her novel a delight. I am happy to see that in 2018 ten of her adult novels were released in e-book editions.
I will close with a description of Miss Finn, a strong-minded old woman
There was a sort of rakish defiance in the set of her thin shoulders, as though her life had been spent in warfare against conventions of unimaginable power and ferocity.
And the bathroom she has decorated
It was a remarkable bathroom. not so much in furnishing as in decoration. The panels of the big cased-in bath were thickly painted with frogs and water-lilies in unnatural attitudes, groups of bulrushes ornamented the linen cupboard, while upon the door a large startled swan gazed down in surprise at its tubby reflection.