Wednesday 28 January 2015

Camiknickers and Evening Dresses...

Singing in the bath... Greer Garson starred in Julia Misbehaves, a film
of the book which, apparently, altered the story considerably.
I must admit, I find it difficult to imagine her as Julia.

Julia, by marriage Mrs Packett, by courtesy Mrs Macdermot, lay in her bath singing the Marseillaise. Her fine robust contralto, however, was less resonant than usual; for on this particular summer morning the bath room, in addition to the ordinary fittings, contained a lacquer coffee table, seven hatboxes, half a dinner service, a small grandfather clock, all Julia's clothes, a single-bed mattress, thirty-five novelettes, three suitcases, and a copy of a Landseer stag. The customary echo was therefore lacking; and if the ceiling now and then trembled, it was not because of Julia's song, but because the men from the Bayswater Hire Furniture Company had not yet finished removing the hired furniture.
As a book opening goes, this one,  from Margery Sharp’s The Nutmeg Tree,  is right up there with Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, which starts with the unforgettable line ‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink’, and is one of my favourite novels. Happily, The Nutmeg Tree is every bit as good: it really does live up to that wonderful opening, and Julia is a most enchanting and very entertaining heroine.
She’s a 37-year-old one-time chorus girl (now too old and too plump for that line of work), who gets by with a bit of acting, a bit of modelling, a bit of advertising, and a lot of borrowing from gentleman friends, whose hospitality she occasionally accepts. She is, as you can see, not at all respectable, but is warm and loving, with a great generosity of spirit and a tremendous zest for life.
This is a Worth dress from the 1930s which I found
on Pinterest and it's well outside Julia's league, but
I think it's the kind of evening dress she would have
 liked - tight fitting,  plunging neckline, no back, no
 sleeves, and very glittery.

As the novel opens her fortunes seem to be at all time-low: she needs £5 to pay off the bailiffs, and £10 for a return ticket to France so she can help the daughter she has not seen for 16 years marry the man she loves. The financial crisis is averted, and she sets off for France determined to look (and act) like a lady. To this end she buys a single ticket so she has cash to spare for a new, lady-like dinner dress, since she feels her existing evening dresses are mostly unsuitable – one has a top that chiefly consists of a black velvet poppy, and another is made of green sequins. Fun perhaps, but definitely not ladylike!
She also purchased a linen suit, a Matron's Model hat, and three pairs of camiknickers. She had indeed plenty of these already, but all with policemen embroidered on the legs. And on the platform at Victoria, for almost the first time in her life, she bought a book. It was The Forsyte Saga, and Julia chose it partly because it seemed such a lot for the money, and partly because she had often heard Galsworthy spoken of as a Good Author. She fancied it was the sort of book Susan would like to see her mother reading; and Julia's maternal affection was so strong (though admittedly erratic) that she read three whole chapters between London and Dover.
Julia’s dress sense is interesting. I’m intrigued by the camiknickers. I looked through the Dainty Lingerie chapter of my Big Book of Needlecraft (also published in the 1930s), which recommends the use of ‘lustrous’ silk for undergarments, and discusses Ways with Edges, and Decoration. It offers advice about lace, appliqué, and embroidered patterns and flowers, but does not, alas, mention policemen.

Making your own camiknickers... From a 1930s
edition of The Big Book of Needlectraft.
Anyway, with Galsworthy to keep her on the straight and narrow, Julia’s journey to Dover is uneventful. But aboard the boat, and on the train to Paris, her efforts at ladylike behaviour hit a bit of a blip when she meets trapeze artist Fred and his brothers. When their Ma, laid low by travel sickness and Cognac, cannot perform, Julia helps out. Fortunately the role is based firmly on the ground, so Julia struts her stuff clad in Ma’s outsize tights, her own silver shoes (with two-inch heels – precariously high in those days), a silver loincloth, a bolero and a feathered headdress. She is, unsurprisingly, a huge success with the audience, and with Fred. Smitten by her charms, he proposes but, regretfully, she rejects him – because her daughter needs her.

Personally, I’m not sure Susan (the daughter) needs anyone, least of all her mother -she’s a very capable young woman, who knows exactly what she wants. The result of Julia’s brief dalliance with a young soldier in 1916, she’s been brought up by her dead father’s parents, the wealthy, staid and respectable Packetts. Julia, we are told, gives up the struggle to live in their world and goes ‘thoroughly back to the bad’. Though, to be fair to Julia, the long-departed Sylvester Packett left detailed instructions about the upbringing of his offspring at his ancestral home. Anyway, Susan, now aged 20, has appealed to her long-lost mother for help… 
Most covers of The Nutmeg Tree seem to be very
 much of their time, but I''m sure Julia would have
loved this dress and stole, which were fashionable
 when this edition was published in 1958.
And tender-hearted Julia responds. But Susan is something of a shock to her. She is slim, blonde, pretty, well-dressed, intelligent, sensible and cultured. She has taste. She is (unlike Julia), a lady. So far, so good, you may think. But there is a downside to all this perfection because, as Julia is the first to admit, Susan is a prig, which is a word you don’t hear much these days. She has strong principles about duty and work, and high standards when it comes to behaviour - her own, and other people’s. She’s a chilly mortal, curiously passionless, who doesn’t really seem to enjoy life: she can tell you about books, or paintings, or architecture, because she’s knows they are ‘good’, but I don’t think they give her pleasure in their own right. And, as Julia observes, she doesn’t like people: she only wants to know their good bits, and makes no allowances for their weaknesses. There is nothing whatsoever of Julia in her, and I did wonder if she would be any nicer if she’d been brought up by Julia, but I think not – from an early age she’d have been Saffy to Julie’s Edina.
Should you wonder, Susan, a student at Girton College, wants to improve her French, so she and her grandmother have hired a villa for the summer. While there she meets Bryan, a witty, good-looking lawyer, and promptly decides she must marry him immediately. But her grandmother thinks Susan should wait.
I quite like this Canadian edition from 1946,
featuring a wide-eyed chorus girl.
When Julia meets Bryan she recognises him for what he is – a charming, feckless waster who will never make Susan happy. She will never understand him, and he will never understand her. So should Julia aid and abet her daughter? Or should she sabotage the marriage campaign?
To make matters worse, Bryan knows a kindred spirit when he sees one, and there is always the chance that he may say or do something to trip her up and show that she is no lady. On top of that, Susan’s trustee, Sir William, arrives and he and Julia fall in love! And there are further complications when Julia realises she is stuck in France with no return ticket, and no money. Her efforts to raise some involve her in all sorts of subterfuge and some very creative stories, culminating in the acquisition of 1,000 francs from a gentleman admirer, and an escape through the back door of a lingerie shop to avoid going to his hotel.
I'm not sure that this 1947 cover coveys
Julia's efforts to be ladylike, but it does
capture something of her spirit.
Life with Julia is never, ever dull, and it’s hard to dislike her. She lives for the moment, enjoying what she has, with no regrets for the past, and no thoughts for the future or the consequences of her actions. But, as Sharp says, she gives and receives pleasure. She’s warm, loving, sympathetic, interested in people, and very independent, dealing with life on her own terms and laughing off the disasters, but nevertheless she is very vulnerable. When the book was published in 1937 she must have been a very unusual heroine. Even today she would stand out because she doesn’t conform, and won’t be forced into being something she is not.

I feel as I’ve written way too much, and still left way too much out. I loved this book. It was well written, with really believable characters, and wonderful descriptions of clothes and places. There’s a lot of humour, but there are also questions about women’s roles, and societal attitudes. I’ve not read Margery Sharp before – I discovered her thanks to Jane at FleurFisher in her World, who organised a Marjorie Sharp Day to celebrate the novelist’s birthday on January 25 (which is when I should have posted this). You can find links to Jane's posts about this author, and to all those who took part in the 'party' here. In addition there's a brilliant Margaret Sharp blog here, with masses of information about her and her books, and you'll find reviews, together with pictures of the clothes Julia might have worn, at the excellent Clothes in Books blog. Best of all, if you trawl through Amazon or Abe Books you can find copies of Margery Sharp's novels which, sadly, are all out of print.

Currently, despite my resolution to read one book at a time, and finish it before starting another, I'm part-way through two more of Sharp’s novels, Britannia Mews and Cluny Brown, and enjoying them both immensely.


  1. I'm so pleased that you enjoyed your first meeting with Margery so much and that you were part of her birthday celebration. An unexpected present just after the big day is always a lovely thing. I read this book years ago from the library, and you have made me realise that I really must find a copy to keep and read it again.

    1. I'm glad you liked the post - it really was the most delightful book, and I just loved Julia because she was so human and wasn't perfect. Do re-read it - it's the kind of book which can be read over and over, and I do wish someone, somewhere, would republish it, so everyone can read it.

  2. I didn't make the connection between this book and the movie (Julia Misbehaves) until Fleur pointed it out. That, and your post, have put it next on my Margery Sharp list!

    1. Oh, do please read it Audrey! I'm finishing Cluny Brown and Britannia Mews, but I don't know what to start after that, because as I looked at the reviews I was convinced that each book mentioned sounded the best.

  3. Wonderful review -- I love the book covers and the details about period clothing. (I must say those policemen on the knickers completely slipped by me when I read the book; a mystery indeed). I'm so glad to have a wonderful new author to explore but it's frustrating that her books are so hard to come by. Let's hope that will change.

    1. I agree with you about the books being hard to come by - it would be so nice if they were freely available.

  4. Oh this sounds lovely. I have read three great Margery Sharp books so far, so have added this to the list. I love too the idea of buying a book "because it seemed such a lot for the money" - gorgeous!

    1. Vicki, it's a wonderful reason for buying a book isn't it! I'd like to say a good thick novel provides value for money, but I can think of several chunksters that I hated!