Cluny Brown – Margery Sharp

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A novel about a young woman in WWII-era Britain who is deemed not to know her place in life, so her uncle/guardian sends her off to be a housemaid at a country estate. 1944.

For those interested to know, Cluny Brown is the book that started it all! (“It all,” of course, being Another look book.)

I first read a review of this book over at The Captive Reader. Goodness knows I have an absurdly long “to read” list, and therefore I’m never lacking a solid book recommendation…but something about Cluny Brown just got in my head and would NOT leave! I knew, beyond any doubt, that I needed to find this book—and quick! (Lacking a good read, it’s only a matter of hours before depression sets in.)

First I found a copy on OpenLibrary. Electronic: perfect for that instant fix. However, as I started to read I saw that it’s one of those scanned copies that, somewhere in the conversion, acquires a certain garbled sense…You know, “ll” turned into “U,” that sort of thing…Quirky, yes. Amusing, sometimes, but more often an obstacle in the task of trying to get to know a book.

So that copy was a bust. Still, I was determined. What about my local library? I live in a mountainous region, speckled with small populations of people; the libraries are small and spread over quite a distance.

Upon checking the closest library’s catalogue, however, I was pleased to discover Cluny Brown…in storage in the basement! Turns out I was the first person to have checked the book out since 1960. For those more literary- than mathematically-minded among us, that’s 53 years. FIFTY-THREE YEARS.

First published in 1944

So, was the book worth the trouble of getting it at long last into my eager little hands? Ab-so-lutely.

I loved Cluny Brown from the moment I met her. I loved that she didn’t know her place. She goes to tea at the Ritz, not “understanding” that working class girls don’t do this. Another time, she stays in bed for a whole day, eating oranges, because she read in a magazine it’s a good revitalization regime.

But she’s just too much for her plumber uncle/guardian to worry over. So he coordinates with Cluny’s aunt to find a job for her in service. When Cluny goes to work as a maid on a country estate, of course, she continues to defy convention—but oh so charmingly! I particularly loved when she failed to understand why a maid couldn’t own a dog.

That bit about the dog is the true point of the book: here’s this little nobody girl who asks questions no one else asks. She’s not ever rude about it—in fact, she’s almost unnaturally good-tempered—but she is quite persistent in getting those answers. Or attempting to, anyway.

Oh yes, and there’s a love story! But I won’t give that part away.

For those who love the “upstairs and downstairs” both being incorporated into a story, Cluny Brown certainly fits the bill. There were certainly times when I saw the recognizable “Downton Abbey” and “Upstairs/Downstairs” character archetypes making appearances. You know: the regal lord of the manor, the silly maids, the stiff butler, the kind but firm housekeeper…

Even if the supporting cast seems a little cookie-cutter shaped, this book itself is not. No, Cluny Brown would never permit that!

In the end, the only way I managed to return the library’s copy was to order a copy for myself. What a joy it will be to re-read!

Side note: I see Cluny Brown was made into a movie in 1946. Has anyone seen it?

Reminded me of:

One thought on “Cluny Brown – Margery Sharp

  1. Hurray for you! You’ve discovered Margery Sharp! I do so envy you in your future reading discoveries; she is one of my absolute favourite writers. I have all but two of her novels (Rosa and Sun in Scorpio) and I am dragging out getting those as long as possible because then I will have nothing else to look forward to. Except re-reads, of course.

    Have never seen the movie; not sure I’d be brave enough to, just in case it doesn’t live up to the original! But I believe it did well in theatres; Cluny Brown is still easy to find because of the large print runs done to tie in with the film’s release. Ditto Britannia Mews and The Nutmeg Tree.

    So great to read this review. Thank you.

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