If you were to ask any of Cluny’s family members what’s wrong with her, they would tell you that it’s because she doesn’t know her place. If you were to ask Cluny, she would probably agree. She hungers for experiences and isn’t afraid to do anything that seems like a good idea. In Margery Sharp’s short novel, Cluny Brown, we watch the charmingly innocent Cluny take on a challenge that might help her find her place after at last.
When we first meet Cluny, she’s living in London with her uncle. She’s an orphan, but she’s making the best of it. She’s a delightful naïf who sometimes reminds me of a less destructive Amelia Bedelia. The day that she decides to take a call meant for her uncle and goes off to tackle an emergency plumbing job puts an end to get dreamy days in the big city. Uncle Arn takes his sister-in-law’s advice and sends Cluny into service. Because it’s 1938 and servants are thin on the ground, it’s not hard for her to get a job as a maid at a Devonshire estate called Friars Carmel. The idea is that the strict discipline of service will help Cluny settle down.
At first, it appears to be working. Cluny isn’t afraid of hard work and the fact that the estate is understaffed seems to appeal to Cluny’s scattered brain since she has to do a bunch of different jobs in a day. She even managed to form an attachment to a local chemist. But then, Cluny will be Cluny and, after spending all this time with her, I had to cheer. The world would’ve been a duller place without Cluny’s essential Cluny-ness in it. Meanwhile, the book is filled out with a Polish writer in exile who also doesn’t seem to know his place, a lovelorn future lord of the manner, and other denizens of Friars Carmel and the village.
I’ve read two other Margery Sharp novels, The Nutmeg Tree and Britannia Mews, and this one is my second favorite. It’s not quite as funny or as satisfying as The Nutmeg Tree, but it’s much zippier than Britannia Mews. I had a few problems with Cluny Brown that kept it from being a complete winner for me. I found the pacing to be off in places. Some of the book is slow and there’s a logjam of events right at the end of the book that seemed to come out nowhere. Cluny herself does a lot to rescue the book, though. She’s well worth the price of entry.