Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp (1944)

img_20170221_121830910“How shocking. Shocking Cluny Brown! I’d like to meet her.”

What a charming, humorous and ultimately confounding (to me) book. Set in 1938, it is an ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ kind of story, full of likeable characters and witty dialogue.

Cluny Brown is a young orphaned lady, a plumber’s niece, who ‘doesn’t know her place’ and wonders why she is scolded for having tea at the Ritz, eating oranges in bed all day (it’s revitalising!) or bathe in strange men’s apartments (I’m with her uncle on this one). She is sent away from her home in London to be a parlourmaid at a large Devonshire estate, Friars Carmel, where it is hoped she will learn to behave herself.

Without an ounce of cynicism, Cluny questions society’s expectations for her life. Not such a big thing in 2017, but in 1938 a young lady’s reputation rested on her ability to thrive in the status to which she was born. At Friars Carmel her genuine questioning endears her to everybody in spite of themselves and usually with great exasperation.

But Cluny Brown is not the whole story, and I was very glad about that. The book could have been more accurately called Friars Carmel. For me, the story was about Andrew, the heir to the estate. Andrew and Pretty Betty. I LOVED them. Andrew was the anchor. He turned the story from a fun, fluffy piece of middlebrow comedy (which I adore anyway) into a more substantial look at young, privileged people on the verge of war and their attempt to find meaning and purpose amidst rapid change and pressing ‘Lord of the Manor’ tradition.

I did struggle with the ending. If you don’t want any spoilers you may wish to skip the next paragraph.

I did not expect Cluny to marry Mr Wilson. But neither did I see her marrying Mr Belinski. The only reason I could see Cluny choosing Belinksi is that she knows he won’t hold her to any societal conventions. It was him, afterall, that said “for you, I imagine, the whole universe is to let.” But was this enough for her to marry him? I know she wanted more out of life, but she didn’t come across as rash or reckless. Either I didn’t get how desperate she was to escape, or I didn’t get how much she admired Mr Belinski. And he had never seemed that enamoured with Cluny. Either way, I wondered if I’d slept through huge chunks of the story. Was I supposed to dislike Mr Wilson? Because I didn’t. If you’ve read the book, I’d love to know your thoughts on the ending.

In spite of this, I know I’ll read Cluny Brown again one day. I haven’t even mentioned Lord & Lady Carmel and the Colonel. Delightful, delightful, delightful. The story is beautifully written, very funny and if you have a hankering after all things British, I highly recommend spending a few cosy hours on this picturesque Devonshire estate.

(I’m about to watch the movie. 🙂 I’ll review it in the next few days.)

5 thoughts on “Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp (1944)

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