Margery Sharp Cluny Brown (1944)
"The trouble with young Cluny," said Mr. Porritt, "is she don't seem to know her place."At last it was out, Cluny Brown's crime; and her uncle could never have put into words -- not even to a stranger, not even in a park -- the uneasiness it caused him. To know one's place was to Arnold Porritt the basis of all civilised, all rational life; keep to your class, and you couldn't go wrong. A good plumber, backed by his Union, could look a duke in the eye; and a good dustman, backed by his Union, could look Mr. Porritt in the eye. Dukes, of course, had no Union, and it was Mr. Porritt's impression that they were lying pretty low.
I can't understand why Cluny Brown hasn't been picked up in the revival of 1930s/40s' fiction. It is screaming out to join The Bloomsbury Group. Track down a copy: it's a wonderful book and I keep returning to it as an old favourite.
Mr. Porritt's world -- circa 1938 -- his 'place' can be illustrated by one fine passage:
He sat down and removed his boots, placing them neatly on the lower shelf of a bamboo whatnot. The top of the whatnot bore a chenille mat, a brass tray, a brass pot, in the pot a fine rubber-plant; the whole standing just where it ought, plumb in the centre of the bow-window.
Poor Cluny Brown is a girl who doesn't know her place. Mr. Porritt, her plumber uncle, despairing of the naïveté and curiosity which lands her in a series of social scrapes (when, for instance, she decides to try her hand at plumbing and is led astray by scented soap and strong cocktails), despatches her "into service" in deepest Devonshire as a parlour-maid. After all, she's much too tall (though perfect for a parlour-maid) and not particularly good-looking either ("Mr. Ames... took one look at Cluny's nose and dismissing all frolicsome thoughts at once led the way into a small malodorous scullery."). But Cluny possesses the quality of unexpectedness, and all who encounter her are changed forever. First there's the Colonel who gives Cluny a ride from the station:
"Could I keep a dog at Friars Carmel?"
"I don't see why --" began the Colonel; and paused. For the last few minutes he had quite forgotten he was talking to a parlourmaid, but now he remembered. Well, of course she couldn't keep a dog; parlourmaids didn't. "I doubt it," said the Colonel hastily.
Cluny said nothing; but she turned her black eyes upon him and in a most mournful look. What a look it was! At once bright and liquid, tragic and brave, innocent and deep... And under the influence of Cluny's gaze a strangely unorthodox notion -- his first in ten years -- suddenly struck him: what was the use of treating servants well, giving 'em good food and all that, if you wouldn't let 'em keep a dog? He felt really disturbed.
Meanwhile, in hitherto peaceful Friars Carmel, the heir to the estate, has invited a exiled Polish intellectual who fell foul of the Nazis to stay indefinitely with his parents in the countryside. It's somewhat of an adventure to Andrew, offering shelter to this refugee, but he has no idea what unexpected trouble Adam Belinski will bring to his parents, his girlfriend and, of course, the new parlour-maid. Belinski, the 'Professor', is drawn wonderfully well:
"...Look at Paderewski -- the greatest musician in the world, we had to make him President as well. If you win a motor-race, you are made secretary to the Board of Trade. I have a success with my writings, so I must become a lecturer. Thank heaven they did not give me the Police Force..."
Cluny and the Professor represent the cracks appearing in the social and political fabric of England as Europe moves inevitably towards war. They both serve to bring a heightened sense of self-awareness to those around them. When Cluny-the-parlourmaid is allowed to visit the Colonel's dog, the housekeeper "remembered some of Mr. Andrew's sayings... about cracks in civilisation, the breaking-up of society, world revolution, the decay of the West; and for the first time, their meaning struck home."
Andrew's parents are wonderfully stereotypical mad aristocrats:
"How well you speak English," observed Lady Carmel.
"It is the universal tongue."
"Ha!" exclaimed Sir Henry, much pleased. "That's what I say. As a young man my dear parents sent me on a tour round the world. I left speaking English and I came back speaking English, and I never spoke a word of anything else the whole time. Didn't need to."
"And did you enjoy your travels, sir?"
"No," said Sir Henry.
Of Lady Carmel:
It made no difference to her reception of him whether Mr. Belinski had been the victim of appendicitis or of mob violence; but it made a great difference to Lady Carmel, who was mildly interested in the first, but could not bear to contemplate the second.
Will Cluny fall for the dull and sober charms of Mr. Wilson the chemist? Can Andrew wrestle his beloved away from the exotic Pole? Can parlourmaids keep dogs?
Several years before she had made quite a friend of an old man who took a tortoise into Kensington Gardens; and he told her he was never sure whether the tortoise enjoyed these outings or not, whether it didn't after all think, damn this grass.
This is a wonderful book, deliciously written and full of wicked self-knowledge: the lady chatting idly with Cluny's uncle in Kensington Gardens while she awaits her younger lover is already translating their mundane conversation into something more piquant:
Even as she smiled fragments of dialogue were forming in her mind -- "But people always talk to me!" she would say. "I feel like that man in Kipling who sat still and let the animals run over him." Or was Kipling just a little bit -- dating? "Like that man in the jungle," perhaps -- and leave his provenance vague...
BTW, there is a 1946 film of Cluny Brown with Charles Boyer as Adam Belinski and Jennifer Jones as Cluny. It is worth watching if it appears again, though it can't compete with the book.
If you liked this... if you can imagine a book that combined the sense of ridiculous of a Just William book, the sparkly romance of a Georgette Heyer and the knowing eye of Zuleika Dobson, that'd be the book to read next.