Forgotten authors No 16: Margery Sharp
Sunday 30 November 2008
Her best-known book was for children, and although Disney bowdlerised it into animated tosh, it made Margery Sharp more famous than she would otherwise have been. The Rescuers concerned a pair of rodent agents for the Prisoners' Aid Society of Mice, sent on a mission that involves the daring rescue of a Norwegian poet and the thwarting of an evil Persian cat named Mamelouk.
She was born Clara Margery Melita Sharp in Salisbury, 1905. Her output included 26 novels for adults and 14 stories for children. She often wrote from a male perspective and was entirely unsentimental, even when romantic moments were required. Her clear-eyed characters and fastidiously constructed, unpretentious plots made her work suitable for filming, so Cluny Brown and The Nutmeg Tree became movies, and she wrote the 1962 comedy The Notorious Landlady, starring Jack Lemmon and Kim Novak. "I absolutely believe it is fatal ever to write below your best," she said, "even if what you write may never be published."
She married a handsome aircraft engineer and lived happily ever after, but there were hints that she wanted her work to be taken more seriously, and that her comfortable life – the couple lived at the Albany, in Piccadilly – could have been more fulfilling.
Virago, ever the rescuer of forgotten women authors, has republished The Eye of Love, one of her cleverest novels, a double-plotted gem that starts with a love affair between a parcel and a Spanish dancer (at a costume party). The rest of Sharp's adult books are, sadly, out of print.
When accurately displayed, human emotions never date; Sharp's novels, written across half a century, feel fresh despite the vernacular of the times. Her imagery is carefully chosen and always a delight. Describing a family of generous-natured women, she explains that they had reached "a solar pitch of stately jollification", and so had Sharp's writing. She liked the words "tureen" and "vermin", the soft opening "v" of "velvet", "violets" and "voluptuousness". She cared deeply about words, which places her at odds with, and beyond the fashion of, the kind of women who now write pastel-cover tat for chicks and mummies.
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