The Foolish Gentlewoman by Margery Sharp

published 1948

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Miss Brown wore a backless cotton garment, a sort of bibbed petticoat, the colour of lavender. This lavender against the green, and the bronze and cream of their young skins, made rather a pleasing picture…
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[Later in the book] ‘I suppose no-one would like to buy me a lovely house-coat?’ She said it at the tea-table with a light girlish laugh, looking up from the advertisement pages of a magazine. ‘…they’re worn instead of a dinner-dress. I’ve never had one. Do look, isn’t it pretty?’

‘How much is it?’

‘Fifteen pounds. Well it’s no use wishing,’ she said bravely.

‘Will you give me eight coupons?’ Mrs Brocken said.

This was where things nearly went wrong. She had no coupons because she had sold the whole book.
commentary: The wonderful Margery Sharp blog alerted me to this book (and has the good news that all her books will be more readily available now). I’m a huge fan of Sharp, and this is one of the best so far – in a different way from Nutmeg Tree and Eye of Love, my favourites to date.

The Margery Sharp blog review reveals that this story was a play at one point (there are some marvellous pictures - this blogpost is generally unmissable for anyone interested in the book, I recommend all readers to go and take a look). So it’s not surprising that I kept thinking what a superb film it would make – there are fabulous parts for lucky actresses there.

It has all the trappings of a light romance, but it is something much more than that.

There’s a ragged post-war household, a collection of very different people living in a rather nice house, and for most of the first 100 pages we know that a new person is going to arrive, the long-lost Tilly Cuff. Someone hopes that another character will fall in love with her. Well, the reader has no idea what to expect: Will Tilly be one of those outsiders who come and solve all the problems? Is she good or bad? Will someone fall in love with her? Will she be the catalyst for wonderful change or bad things? In most books she would be one of those things.

But it is best to read this book as I did, not knowing anything about how Tilly will turn out, so I will just say that the reader looking for a twisty plot will not be disappointed. There is a moral question at the heart of the book, and it lingers on in the mind afterwards: what WAS the right thing to do? Did events work out properly? I had no idea how it would end, right up to the very last lines.

So I will just point out some of the minor pleasures.

The cool caretaking couple, mother and daughter, are wonderfully done and a nice change from the devoted servants of yore: they are perfectly pleasant reliable people, but are not at all tied up with the family. The explanation for the puzzle they are doing at the kitchen table (is it noughts and crosses? Simon wonders, or a mathematical problem or a crossword puzzle?) made me laugh out loud, so will not spoiler by revealing.

There is also, of all unexpected things, a scene set at a blood donor clinic.

I liked this comment by one of the older women, talking to the young people:
‘[You] don’t understand; but in my young day, people put up with their relations. Some of ours weren’t very nice, but they all came and stayed with us.. It’s only lately that people they have a right to choose their company.’
It's a bittersweet, melancholy book full of ideas and thought-provoking points, but also very funny and charming. The questions of right and wrong, and of putting right an old mistake, are thought through with care, and the answers are not always comforting.

If the book wasn’t so entertaining and light it would be seen for what it is – a serious look at philosophy and morals. And however hilarious the strange Dora and the unusual Tilly are, they are never less than real people, they are not the usual side characters, they have a right to their lives too.

As ever with Sharp, there are wonderful clothes in the book.

Linen lavender sundress of 1948 from Kristine’s photostream – style was probably more like the pink one, from the same source.

The fabulous housecoat is by blog favourite Elizabeth Hawes, and is actually modelled by her too. It is from the Brooklyn Museum and is ‘a house-coat of shantung, with two great golden fish hand-blocked on its skirt and ties of brown Oriental silk’. The point of a housecoat was that however dressed up it was, you did not have to wear corsets or stays beneath it. That one above is pretty fancy. Intriguingly, £15 in 1948 really WAS a lot of money – approx. £340 now, or $450 – so the one in the book is pretty fancy too. The coupons are important because there was still clothes rationing - it went on till 1949. And you were not supposed to sell them, though many people did, so this is a character indicator.

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There’s also a wonderful  red evening dress in the book, the colour of tomato soup (red evening dress from NYPL).

- and a bedjacket (subject of some blog discussion in the past). When the elderly widow Isobel is receiving her brother-in-law while in bed, a pink silk jacket with a frilled muslin collar is the right thing to wear.

Oh but this would make a wonderful film... someone should snap it up.

More Margery Sharp all over the blog – click on the label below.


  1. The post-war atmosphere sounds quite well-done here, Moira. And I always admire an author who can keep a plot twisty without it getting too convoluted. It's not easy to add a light touch to a book that has such deep topics at its core, but I'm you thought Sharp succeeded here.

    1. It's a great book - I really enjoyed the moral dilemmas in it. She specialized in apparently-light fiction, but she'd have been a good crime writer too if she'd put her mind to it.

  2. Speaking of knitters and Margery Sharp -- doesn't the heroine in "Flowering Thorn" wind up knitting sweaters to help make ends meet?

    1. Oh really? Haven't read that one, but must...

  3. Definitely sounds interesting. If I just didn't have too many books already. I will see what they have at the book sale.

    1. They are easy reads, and in some ways comfort reads, and very funny. not crime of course, but a lot to be said for them.

  4. Loving the enthusiasm, but no thanks.

  5. I just came here after finishing the book, to read your commentary, and you've absolutely nailed it. It really is a marvellous book - I kept wondering, as I read it, what her writing process was; it's a very *schematic* novel, the prism twisted every few pages, so we view the characters from a constantly shifting angle. I think I've said to you before that I read (and re-read) 'The Innocents' by Sharp when I was a teenager, and I regard it as a lost masterpiece; I'd love to know what you think of it.

  6. ps, the last one was from me!!

    1. Thanks Lissa, I knew it was you! Yes, a superb book. She was such a clever writer, so good at imagining what the reader is thinking and then subverting it. I did read the Innocents ages ago (though didn't blog on it) - I will read it again...
      I said somewhere else, I do occasionally come across characters in other books that make me think 'I wish Margery Sharp wrote about her, she would have been a great Sharp character'. Not something I think about other authors.


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