Monday, 19 January 2015

Lise Lillywhite by Margery Sharp

published 1951








Martin… compromised with a dark suit and a white shirt [and] arrived punctually at 9.15. It was not Lise who admitted him, it was a man-servant. Martin entered the sitting-room.

Very discreet was Lise in dusky blue muslin, full-skirted, cut a little away from her white shoulders

[Later] During the weeks that followed, Lise Lillywhite’s life became greatly altered. Martin stood like aa spectator on the sidelines, observant, almost painfully interested, but without any active part: it was Count Stanislas Dombrowski who guided Lise’s steps on her second excursion into the wide world…. In company with the Count, Lise was permitted to go to the theatre at night.

Naturally Tante Amelie always went with them, and they went nowhere but to the opera or the ballet… they were often all four at the same performances, when Martin, wearing his office suit, came down during the interval to the staircase avove the foyer, to see Lise make her entry below….

She wore her smoky muslin, and a tippet of white fur [and] gardenias or camellias in her hair.





observations: Those of us who love Margery Sharp pass on recommendations to one another, titles we may have missed. I thought Barb at Leaves and Pages told me about this one, but maybe not. Whoever it was, thank you.

I loved this book, and I’m sure will read it again – it could go on my list of Books Like I Capture the Castle (young girls winning through) though it is not exactly one of them. We see so little of the book from Lise’s point of view – for most of the time she is a complete blank to us (she should have been played by Audrey Hepburn in a film). When she does suddenly make a stand and speak out, it is a big surprise to the reader – her moral preoccupations are odd and specific.

We see the action pretty much through the eyes of Martin above: he is Lise’s first cousin, 34 to her 17, and has fallen for her but feels he can’t do anything about it.

She is impoverished, living with relations in London after WW2 – she has something of the women I mentioned in a post on this Linda Grant book, like a Brookner woman – and the rather dashing Count, above belongs with the riffraff from Matthew Sweet’s wonderful book about the wartime West End Front. This is a romantic comedy, or comedy of manners, but must be almost unique in that virtually no reader could guess how it is going to come out. I guessed one early plot item, but beyond that I had no idea what to expect.

It paints such a marvellous picture of post-war England (rather like Barbara Pym) – the country relations trying to make the farm pay, the boys’ prep school, the ‘arty tarty’ girls in a flat having parties with sausages frying on a gasring. Once you start noticing nylons they pop up everywhere (see my Guardian piece here): they are currency in this one, smuggled and stolen.

Tante Amelie is one of Sharp’s great creations:

When Tante Amelie expected one to leave, one left; she simply ceased to continue the conversation, let her end of it fall like the end of a skipping-rope.
After she has some success at a party Tante Amelie says, complacently, ‘I think some of the flappers there were a little surprised to see such attentions paid an old woman; perhaps it will teach them that lipstick is not everything.’

The Count is also excellent – you cannot take against him, even though he is shown as rather worthless. You suspect Sharp, like many of her heroines, had a hard time trying to resist the bad boys of life….

I have yet to find a Margery Sharp book that I dislike, and this one will now come high up my list of favourites. Click on the Sharp label below to see entries on The Eye of Love, The Nutmeg Tree, and Something Light.





The top photo is from Dovima is divine dated 1949. Elsewhere in the book Lise wears a grey coat and beret – this picture comes from an earlier entry on a John Dickson Carr book of similar vintage.

12 comments:

  1. Moira - This certainly does sound like a terrific slice of life. I think it's an interesting choice, too, to make Lise the main subject of the novel, and yet we don't hear all that much from her. To do that well takes some skill, in my opinion. And now you're starting to make me think about nylon stockings in crime fiction. Hmm.....

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    1. I would love to read a blogpost on stockings in crime, I think there'd be lots of material!

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  2. Perfect images for this. This and your other posts on books by Margery Sharp have gotten me interested, but I don't know when I will find the time... while I have so many other books. I will have to remember to look at the booksale next year.

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    1. They are very much the other end of the spectrum from crime novels (though with the odd secret and mystery in them), but with your eclectic tastes you might like them! I liked the post-war setting of this one.

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  3. I think I can leave these ones to you without a sense of feeling like I'm missing out.

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  4. I love Barbara Pym - and I loved Matthew Sweet's Shepperton Babylon; I've meant to get the other title so thank you for reminding me! I love books about films, the older the films, the better!

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    1. Oh me too, and Shepperton Babylon is a standout example. I'll be interested to see what he does next....

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  5. Oooh, this sounds like a good one - I've only read two (Cluny Brown; The Eye of Love) but have loved them both. And so many more to read!

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    1. I haven't read a bad one yet. Cluny Brown coming up next for me.

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  6. I recently reviewed The Foolish Gentlewoman for the Margery Sharp website and thought of you--I ran across many little fashion notes from the book that I might not have noticed before, had it not been for reading your delightful fashion posts. It's post WWII wardrobe creativity and 'making do', plus the eccentric Tilly Cuff shows up in some rather odd creations. Thought you would enjoy, if you haven't read this one already.

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    1. Well - I have just ordered the book before even replying to you! It's one I haven't read yet and will look forward to it. Thanks again for visiting, and now I must go to the Margery Sharp website...

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