For a moment he was left suspended between past and present, and well he knew which way his heart yearned. What he longed to return to was an orderly world. No one, in Mr. Brocken’s opinion, had tasted the sweetness of life who had not lived before 1914. What years those were for solid comfort!
Recently widowed, fifty-five year old Isabel Massey Brocken has come back to her childhood home, Chipping Lodge. Nearby is the war-damaged remains of the much larger, Chipping Priory, where the Brocken family lived with their two sons, Simon and Mark. Ruth, Isabel’s sister, married and moved to New Zealand, while Isabel eventually married Mark. They had a long happy marriage and though childless, Isabel is close to Ruth’s son Humphrey who was educated in England, served in the war and is now staying with Isabel. Simon is also staying at Chipping Lodge while his war-damaged home is renovated. Completing this collection of family members and employees is Jacqueline Brown Isabel’s companion and Mrs. Poole and her 14-year old daughter, Greta, who Simon hired on as caretakers and cooks.
Humphrey and Jacky have struck up a relationship and value the peacefulness of Chipping Lodge after the chaos and stress of the war. As does Simon who hopes he can get through the next several months with his sister-in-law and the rest of the occupants of the house in peace and quiet. The Poole mother and daughter only want to do their jobs and be left alone. Order and respect permeate Chipping Lodge, though Sharp’s writing suggests a sense of unease.
We soon find Isabel holds a secret that will disrupt the balance of power at Chipping Lodge, a secret she has harbored since girlhood concerning a great wrong she committed against her cousin, Tilly Cuff. She has invited Miss Cuff to visit indefinitely and plans to make whatever amends she can. Simon remembers Tilly, but does not remember a special affection between her and Isabel and fears the disruption of a new person, a feeling shared by Humphrey. Both men have also observed that Isabel seems distracted and under some strain; a normally a patient woman, her temper has become thin and her tongue sharp.
When Isabel finally unburdens herself and what she hopes to do about it Simon and Humphrey are shocked and angry: Isabel wants to give all her money to Tilly out of guilt because of a childish misdeed she believes changed her life for the worse and deprived her of a home and family. It wasn’t until but a few weeks before that a half-heard phrase at church woke this guilt and the remedy to assuage it. She tells Simon what the preacher said,
It was a common error to suppose that the passage of time made a base action any less bad. “He meant, don’t you see, that because a thing happened a long time ago, it doesn’t make it any less base if it was base at the time.”
The sleeping guilt of the act has risen up inside her so that her only remedy is to confess to Tilly the deed and to give her all of her inheritance, including the house, which would go to Humphrey if she didn’t want it.
Once Tilly arrives, however, her abrasive and dictatorial behavior sets everyone on edge. Isabel promises Simon she won’t tell Tilly of her plans until she settles in, but even she sees how loathsome and impossible to bear Tilly has become. Simon tries to talk her out of her plans and though Isabel is aware of her disruption and admits she is very unlikable, that is still no reason to withhold what should come to her.
As time goes by, Tilly has encroached and wrestled her way into the personal and professional life of every person at Chipping Lodge and all is chaos and bad feelings. The Pooles have given notice, Jacky and Humphrey have separated, Simon stays late at the office and leaves early and Isabel has retreated into her own mind.
Something must give before all is lost, so Isabel plucks up the courage and tells Tilly that on the morning after one of their teenage parties, a certain Mr. Macgregor who was interested her wrote her a letter offering marriage. Isabel found it, read it and kept it from her, because she was in love with him herself. She knows this selfish act deprived Tilly of a future of happiness and security that she could never get back. But Isabel could make her future better by offering her money and a home.
It took Tilly three days to emerge from her bedroom and when she does she stuns them all by refusing Isabel’s offer. What she wants instead is for Isabel to keep everything and to give the house to Humphrey; she only wants a life with Isabel. Together they would live out their days in Bath, which Isabel loves, or anywhere else. After all of her years in service, where she went from one job to the next she only wants the stability of friendship and the security of a place to live in her old age. What Tilly is proposing surprises Isabel, since she expected, and was frankly looking forward to, a little suffering as penance. She questions Tilly until she is satisfied that Tilly’s need for stability is the best gift she can give her at this time in her life.
Jacky and Humphrey are horrified for Isabel, until a childhood friend of hers spells it out for them,
Isabel and Tilly have lived their lives for better or worse, “They’ll do very well together, and when Tilly upsets people, Isabel will calm them; and if Isabel is sick, Tilly will nurse her–and of course Isabel will nurse Tilly. I shouldn’t be surprised if they grew to be a very devoted pair.”
As Jacky, Humphrey, Isabel and Tilly make their separate ways out of the house, Simon is left with the Pooles, who continue to do their jobs quietly and unobtrusively. Simon is left with the ghosts of his past until Humphrey, if ever, returns and “could look forward to a period of perfect peace.”
One of my favorite aspects of this book is the setting. Almost every scene takes place in one location, Chipping Lodge. The characters develop, interact with each other, rant and rave and come to terms with their fate all in the same place. The character journey is really the thing here and it’s as if they are forced to face themselves in a locked room until they each find a way out.
This was a satisfying read and one that does make one question wrongs done in the past and how or should they be rectified. To bring up old wounds or not when starting anew might be a better step? While Tilly claims she was not in love with Macgregor, which satisfies Simon, Isabel knows a marriage proposal from anyone decent would have been better in her situation than the life she was eventually forced into.
I am happy to have been introduced to this author and look forward to reading more about her today.
If you are interested in other neglected women writers, Jane of Beyond Eden Rock has created a wonderful post called, A Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors that lists the dates of birth of 16 women writers in which to read, read about or celebrate. This makes the prospects of 2018 much better, in my opinion!
Title: The Foolish Gentlewoman
Author: Margery Sharp
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Device: Library binding
Full plot summary
Challenges: Library Love