Until I read this book, I had no idea Margery Sharp was so funny. And a little naughty for her day. The reference to "light character" above. I also did not realize that the hugely less enjoyable film Julia Misbehaves was based upon this book. If you happened to have seen that frothy bit of entertainment, you might also have trouble recognizing this novel as its source. They sanitized Julia's charming antics, and changed the plot around so much that they might as well have not even mentioned the book it was based upon. Which is a funny and smart set of observations about human nature.
We meet Julia singing the French national anthem in her bathtub with a large array of household possessions squeezed in around her in the bathroom. Her creditors stand outside her door prepared to take the last of her possessions unless she pays out five pounds. That she does not have.
"Thus beleaguered, Julia sang. With every breath she drew in a generous diaphragmful of verbena-scented steam, and let it out again in the form of equally generous chest-notes. She did this not out of defiance, nor to keep her spirits up, but because at that time of the morning song was natural to her. The belligerence of her tones was due simply to the belligerence of the melody: her choice of the melody was due simply to the fact that she had received, the night before, a letter from France."
The "kind-hearted," "incautious," and "impulsive" Julia has been summoned by her twenty year old daughter to advocate for a quick engagement and marriage against the wishes of the grandmother that has raised Susan since Julia took flight many years before. Julia had Susan as a teenager, lost the husband she scarcely knew in the war, and then went to live with her very respectable in-laws to raise the child until that respectability nearly choked the life out of her. Her life after that departure was raucous and fun, marked by many men, cocktails and the theater. Now she finds herself without means and attempting to costume herself as a lady to meet with the approval of her hosts in France complete with simple clothes and a copy of The Forsyte Saga as props. This is all theatre for Julia, of course. As all in life is. She has a gift for drama.
After a trip to France during which Julia tries her best to behave (the handsome trapeze artist with the straight back was too much to resist), she finds herself in front of a suitor for her daughter that is disturbingly like herself ("I believe [you're] the same sort as I am!" she thought. "Now what the hell am I supposed to do?"). She finds her daughter a bit of a "prig," the country life slow and the story growing increasingly complicated with the introduction of new characters and Julia's secret diversions for entertainment and monetary gain. But all ends well as you might suspect. This could have been a delightful movie, say, in the hands of Preston Sturges. But that did not happen.
Julia's life choices are suspect but ones that cannot be held against her. She is a free spirit with the best of intentions. The temptation with a character like this is often to write them as unknowing, as childlike in some way, as indulging whims without thinking. But the most appealing aspect of this novel is that Julia is a keen observer of human nature, aware of the trappings of classism and constantly revising her role (and that of others as well) as need or desire dictates. A reader is left to admire her generous nature, her humor. And laugh out loud at the gentle satirical hand of Sharp as she examines the role of women in between world wars in Britain.
Today is Margery Sharp's 111th birthday, and I read this, my first Sharp read, as part of Margery Sharp Day organized by Jane of Beyond Eden Rock. Most of Sharp's novels are out of print so finding them may require a little digging with the exception of her very well known book for children, The Rescuers. Another book far superior to the movie made from it.