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.
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:
- “Downton Abbey”; “Upstairs/Downstairs”
- D. E. Stevenson (The Blue Sapphire)
- Vita Sackville-West (The Heir; All Passion Spent; The Edwardians)
- Phillip Rock (The Passing Bells)