Cluny Brown (1944) is a combination of comedy of manners and coming of age novel, set in England in 1938, and centred around a woman who, in small but steady ways, defies social expectations.
We follow the eponymous protagonist, Cluny Brown. She is a twenty-year-old orphaned girl who has been brought up by her uncle, the plumber Mr. Porritt. Cluny is lively and clever, but to the conventional Uncle Arn she is nothing but trouble. “The trouble with young Cluny,” he said, “is she don’t seem to know her place.”
Cluny is not a conventional working-class girl: she believes she can do anything. When she treats herself to tea at the Ritz, it was the last straw for Uncle Arn: “To know one’s place was to Arnold Porritt the basis of all civilized, 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.” For him, those boundaries are not to be crossed. Cluny, on the other hand, wonders why she has to have only one place in life; she wonders why she cannot go to the Ritz, if she has the money to pay for it.
Intent on teaching Cluny her place in society, Uncle Arn decides to send her off to be a parlour-maid at a manor house in a country estate. Dispatched to Devon, Cluny arrives at Friars Carmel, the country home of Lord Henry, an English squire, and Lady Carmel. Once there, Cluny learns that she will work along her fellow maid Hilda, under the supervision of Mrs. Mailes and Mr. Syrett.
We know that Cluny will not be tamed easily – if at all – and to that we have the added complication of two new arrivals at Friars Carmel: Lord Henry’s son, Andrew, is newly returned home, and he brought with him a Polish writer, Adam Belinksi, a refugee who has allegedly fled from the Nazis.
Cluny’s entourage is finally complete with the arrival of Betty Cream, a beautiful young socialite whom Andrew is courting; and the local chemist, the priggish Mr. Wilson, who seems to be courting Cluny. On the surface, we will follow the development of a love triangle between Andrew, Adam and Betty – but the real entanglement will only reveal itself at the end.
We know from the beginning that Cluny’s attempt to conform as a housemaid is doomed to fail. She never does anything radical or wrong, but somehow, she never fits either. None of the characters – her family, her colleagues at work, her employers – knows how to place her. “Who do you think you are, Cluny Brown?” It is not that she doesn’t want to play the role people expect from her: she doesn’t even know she has to play a fixed role. And we don’t want her to play that either.
Change is at the core of your novel. Not only because, as Andrew is certain of, the world is once again on the brink of war, but also because society is undergoing a transformation. Even the characters who prefer to walk around the fact that things have changed seem to be haunted by restlessness – the “cracks in civilization, the breaking-up of society, world revolution, the decay of the West; and for the first time, their meaning struck home.” Cluny personifies the underlying sense of transformation that is at the centre of your novel – she is something new, blurring up old categories; there is something threatening about what she represents, but people cannot quite pin down what it is.
In a sense, Belinski is another personification of change in the novel. While Cluny is the quirky misfit – the unruly working-class girl who knows no boundaries, Adam is the exotic outsider – the European intellectual who is allegedly on the run from the Nazis; while Cluny mirrors the internal changes English society was undergoing during the 1930’s, Adam represents the external challenges Europe was facing, as it was blindly heading on towards another war; while Adam’s strangeness is only to be expected (as a foreigner, he is supposed to be different), Cluny’s unconventionality always surprises everyone around her (as a working-class woman, she was supposed to fit). Both Cluny and Adam are, in their own ways, disruptive, unorthodox characters: they remind people of the transformations spreading across Europe; they do not fit the mould imposed on them by the world they are entering; therefore, they must be either eliminated, or shipped away to a new world.
What I loved about this book is the fact that it can be fully appreciated in two different levels: for the plot, full of quirky twists; and for the underlying social commentary. For me, the ending was somewhat ambiguous: as an insider, Cluny refuses to fit in the role people expected of her; however, once she turns into an outsider, Cluny does exactly what is expected of her. This stroke a dark chord with me: there is no place for change here, it seems to be saying. You don’t belong here, Cluny Brown.
“We’re sitting on the edge of a landslide, and I’ve seen some of the cracks.” – Margery Sharp, Cluny Brown
“Her spirit, omnivorous of experience, had no use for experience at second hand, even were that hand Shakespeare’s. Only the living voice could catch her attention long enough to inflame it.” – Margery Sharp, Cluny Brown
“But for once Cluny was silent. Her own name sounded oddly in her ears. The old question echoed again— “Who do you think you are, Cluny Brown?” —and it at last seemed probable that she had the answer.” – Margery Sharp, Cluny Brown
About the book
- Open Road Media, 2016, 270 p. Goodreads
- First published in 1944
- My rating: 4 stars
- I read this book for Margery Sharp Day, an event hosted by Jane over at Beyond Eden Rock;
- The book was made into a film in 1946, directed by Ernst Lubitsch (Wikipedia / IMDb).
Thinking of Cluny Brown, M. Porritt, a successful plumber, allowed himself to be carried past his ‘bus stop and in consequence missed the Sunday dinner awaiting him at his sister’s. It was not much loss. The food would be all right, for Addie had her virtues, but she was too much of a harper. At the moment she was harping on Cluny Brown.