Cluny Brown, by Margery Sharp
I read The Little Stranger because I was looking for a good scare. I felt the book was more sad than scary, since the scary parts are related to us through an unreliable third party. It’s set a few years after WWII in a rural county in England. The story, recounted by Dr. Farady a few years after the events, is about the Ayres family and their crumbling estate, Hundreds Hall. Dr. Farady’s mother was once a servant at the house, and in the family’s twilight years he comes to the house as their doctor. Over the course of the book, we witness the demise of each member of the family.
Doing some research at work about Margery Sharp, the author of The Rescuers (the book the Disney movie is based on), I found that she wrote a lot of contemporary fiction and it sounded delightful. I found Cluny Brown as an ebook from the library. It was a sweet book, with a poignant message. The story follows Cluny Brown, a 22-year-old woman who was raised by her plumber uncle. She’s considered strange because she does what comes to mind, despite money or class. Her uncle sends her into service for a family in Devonshire to learn her place. It is 1938 as Britain is on the cusp of war. (The books was published in 1944.) Working as a maid, Cluny’s disregard for class boundaries and her vivacious personality lead her making friends of all sorts across class divides.
On the surface, these two books have little in common, besides the old manor house and landed gentry in the country. They were written 70 years apart by women, one writing contemporary fiction, one writing historical fiction. The thing that, in my mind, brings them together is the themes of a dying way of life, class boundaries, and respectability.
Dr. Farady, even as he becomes close to the Ayres family, is always conscious of the class boundary that exists between them. When he becomes engaged to Caroline, the daughter of the family, he is blinded to the other things going on by his rising star. It is very apparent that he is obsessed with being respectable and aligning himself with a storied family. A family with a long history that no longer owns most of their land, who have no money, and only pride.
For Cluny Brown, the landed family she works for feel like their way of life is fading and they hold on desperately to their respectability. Cluny doesn’t give a thought to respectability and, even when her fortunes change for the good, likely doesn’t understand it. But that’s what confuses the family she works for. That’s the only thing they understand.
I feel like Sarah Waters must have been familiar with Cluny Brown. A subtle melancholy of a dying way of life runs just below the plot in both books. For both Cluny and Dr. Farady—both from working class backgrounds—their story hinges on respectability. For Dr. Farady, it is his life’s ambition, even if it is attached to a something no longer relevant. For Cluny, respectability means nothing if it means living life in a closed and measured way.