The Stone of Chastity by Margery Sharp

The Stone of Chastity by Margery Sharp


published 1940


There was a recent flurry of discussion of The Foolish Gentlewoman by Margery Sharp – a truly splendid book – and it inspired me to catch up on some Sharps I haven’t read yet. (There are many other books by her already on the blog).

This one was an extremely enjoyable quick read – I liked it very much, though it doesn’t have anything like the nuance and thought-provoking qualities of The Foolish Gentlewoman.

It concerns an academic, Professor Pounce, turning up in a remote East Anglian village to do some fieldwork: he has heard of the eponymous Stone of Chastity and comes to Gillenham with a full household to find out more.

The Stone was part of a set of stepping stones across a brook, and the claim is that a virtuous woman will be able to step across lightly, but an unfaithful wife or a ‘loose’ young girl will fall into the river.

Professor Pounce is an infuriating man, and thus great fun. He is without the slightest common sense, with no idea as to why this business (and his invasive questions) might not be welcomed by one and all. He has with him his nephew Nicholas, who suffers agonies by being sent off by the prof on all kinds of outlandish and embarrassing and troublesome missions.

Of all unexpected things, this setup – which is hilarious – reminded me of the role of Cousin Greg in the US TV drama Succession (final episode last week). Many of the scenes, the ideas, and the dialogue for Nicholas would have fitted right in.

As ever with Sharp there is a series of events and happenings, very funny and enjoyable, culminating in the final test of virtue, and you really can’t predict where any of this is going.

I’m always interested in non-anachronisms (really must think of a better term) – as in last week’s Bell of Death with its acceptance of television. Here there is an MP coming to give a talk in the village, and his two options are ‘Channel Tunnel’ and ‘Decimal Coinage’ – both a surprise to me for 1940. The way in which 'stone' is recognized for its double meaning is beautifully done.

And, by the way, I was unexpectedly sympathetic to the person trying to organize village talks – I am part of a team offering talks as part of a lunch club, and the feelings about this issue resonated strongly with me - cooking for 40 is a doddle by comparison.

She wished, not for the first time, that the neighbourhood could furnish more didactic talent. If there were only some one at each meeting to talk about bees, or hand-looms, or Romans, or any other safe uncontroversial subject! But Mr. Bryce, from Ipswich, had given his lecture on Roman Remains three times already, and the Vicar had spoken twice on Old East Anglia, and the lady from the Village Industries Bureau always wanted her expenses. . . . “I wish we could get somebody to talk to us!” murmured Mrs. Crowner absently.

There’s a reference to a ‘Cromwell’s Blessing’ which would seem to be someone having dung thrown at them – I couldn’t find a reference to this anywhere else.

There were plenty of good moments in the book – I liked Mrs Pounce who ‘liked to settle to a conversation as to a game of bridge.’ The same lady

could never understand people who dropped familiarly in and out of churches, praying for ten minutes here and there just as they felt like it. It seemed disrespectful to her, and rather pushing. She genuinely felt that the Lord was At Home on Sundays, and that was when He wanted to see you.

There is a wonderful description of the young people of the village and surroundings going out to parade around in their finery on a Sunday evening –  reminiscent of the Italian passagiata, and presumably no longer a feature in English villages.

When Nicholas tries chatting up a young woman, there is an issue with her knitwear:

The polo-jersey, moreover, was a baffling garment. Miss Hyatt had knitted it herself, and put plenty of wool into it, and it did not so much cling as swaddle.


Them there is a Bohemian femme fatale who is also an artist's model (double whammy) and so as ever I go for Louise Brooks to represent her - this one and the top one. 

The book is an absolute treat, and highly recommended. 




  1. Napoleon considered a Channel Tunnel as a way to invade England and there was terror at the prospect later in the nineteenth century, for the same reason.
    The florin - the old two shilling piece - was introduced in 1847 as the first stage in decimalisation.

    1. That's a fascinating detail about the florin, did not know that. I wonder if any young person today would know what a florin was?
      There seems to have been tunnels since time immemorial, but I wonder at what point a tunnel under the channel became a genuine possibility.

  2. Oh, it sounds like a lot of fun, Moira! The whole premise sounds great, and what a great way to get to know the people of a fictional town. Just the parts you've shared had me chuckling; I can only imagine the rest. for 40? Yikes!

    1. It's a really fun book Margot, with that good-hearted perception that I like so much in a book: no illusions, but no cruelty. And luckily the lunch club grew over time, so I could get used to the number to cook for!

  3. There was a time in my life when I was spending four or five evenings a year talking to the Daughters of the American Revolution (or another organization of that ilk) about the American Civil War. Never got paid but did get some lovely suppers.

    Except for one group the doors of which (of whom?) I shall ne'er darken again. Drove for an hour and a quarter to talk about the Battle of Ft Fisher and all I got was a paperweight with a cannon engraved on it.

    1. If only you lived nearer - I'd have you over in a heartbeat. A delicious lunch and your expenses, or a contribution to a charity on your behalf. We try to be nice to our speakers...

      No paperweights though.


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