Matthew Dennison

Delusions and delights

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The Eye of Love

Margery Sharp

Virago Modern Classics, pp. 222, £

Disney hijacked Margery Sharp. The novelist, who died in 1991, is remembered chiefly for her series of (now animated) children’s books, The Rescuers. Sharp wrote The Eye of Love, one of 26 adult novels, half a century ago. It is a bittersweet comedy that encompasses intimations of tragedy — the ‘wrong’ outcome is never impossible here — and, as its title suggests, elements of romance. But it is not romantic fiction and its principal players fall short of the status of romantic hero and heroine.

Miss Diver approaches 40, raven-haired and wraith-like in her thinness. Harry Gibson is stout and down-at-heel, his Kensington-based furriers failing as the Depression bites and it becomes ‘the thing to go shabby’. If Miss Diver continues to wear a Spanish comb in her hair and a Spanish shawl around her shoulders, this is only appropriate for the ‘Spanish rose’ of her lover’s eye of love. He in turn retains for Miss Diver the martial glory of his soldier days in the Great War: he is her ‘King Hal’, her ‘Big Harry’ — the vagaries of time and trade cannot alter that. Dolores Diver was born Dorothy Hogg, but ‘romance being of Miss Diver’s life the essence’, she has changed her name. She lives with her niece Martha, a stolid, stocky girl of nine, who prefers to draw the gas oven rather than kittens, in a house near Paddington station on which Mr Gibson has taken a ten-year lease.

Business — and men — being what they are, Mr Gibson casts aside his Spanish rose. He proposes marriage to the daughter of a fellow furrier, who bails out Gibson & Co, clasps Harry to his bosom and entrusts to him Miranda — petulant, spoilt, like Miss Diver in looks and age. Abandoned, Miss Diver takes a lodger, who also proposes marriage. Stolid Martha goes on with her sketching. It is left to Margery Sharp to find a way out.

In parts the tone of The Eye of Love is as brittle as a crisp Fifties perm, as staccato as the clipped accents of the period it describes, and robustly unsentimental throughout, although Sharp stops short of actual cruelty towards her characters. She exposes the folly of her ageing romantics without apportioning blame: ‘Now both were middle-aged, and if they looked and sounded ridiculous, it was the fault less of themselves than of time’, so that briefly, in the absurd sincerity of their emotions, Mr Gibson and Miss Diver are Everyman and Everywoman in love, victims parodied by a cruel fate and ultimately rescued by a fate that is neither cruel nor kind but exigent, Sharp the novelist being in need of a happy ending for her comic tale.

The Eye of Love is a masterpiece of craftsmanship. Inevitably, it is a novel about perception, about ways of seeing, about the delusions and delights wrought by affection. But it is also about feeling and the heights attainable by love in the most ordinary circumstances: ‘What was moonshine but a belittling name for love? Employed only by the envious?...Love it was.’