Mirabile Does Middlebrow: Margery Sharp’s Martha in Paris & Am I a Middlebrow Novel?

I am mildly obsessed with middlebrow women’s novels. They tell me who I am, was, and will be.

Certainly I know more women who enjoy Bess Streeter Aldrich’s middlebrow novel, Spring Came on Forever (which relates to our female ancestors’ Midwestern past),  than Proust’s  Remembrance of Things Past (though I am reading Swann’s Way next month for the centenary).  As individuals, we are not just women.   We are stories.  And though my favorite novel is George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, I am far from being the tragically beautiful heroine of an English novel.

Often middlebrow novels describe the lives of women who live outside our imaginations, like Martha in Margery Sharp’s light comedy, Martha in Paris. Sharp takes our image of fat women and throws it in our face.   Art matters, not fat, and Martha is a fat artist.    A sexual experience jeopardizes Martha’s aspirations, but she overcomes it, despite pregnancy.

martha-in-paris-margery-sharp-001Sharp, the author of The Rescuers (a novel about mice, which was made into a Disney movie), is also the author of The Eye of Love (Virago), in which Martha first appears.

In Martha in Paris, Mr. Joyce, a furrier, has informally “adopted” Martha, the fat 18-year-old orphan who lives with her aunt and uncle.

Aunt Delores cannot understand why Mr. Joyce is interested in Martha.

…what Mr. Joyce had seen in Martha’s youthful drawings was a deeper mystery still.  To Dolores, with the best will in the world, they looked no more than a muddle of criss-cross lines, and to Harry like some sort of blue-print:  the fact remained that Mr. Joyce had been so unaccountably struck by them, he was now paying not only her fees at an art-school, but also three pounds a week toward her keep.  Since Martha ate like a horse, it made a quite substantial difference to the Gibson’s narrow economy.

Mr. Joyce decides to send Martha to Paris to study art. He is sure Martha will not “get into trouble,” even in Paris:  she weighs ten stone.

In Paris, Martha amuses us by drawing and painting stoves and pipes instead of people.  Sitting on a bench eating her lunch one day, she meets a dull English banker who lives with his mother. When she finds herself pregnant and he offers to marry her, she realizes marriage is not what she wants.  I can’t give away the plot, but it is very, very funny.  And she is the best artist in her class.


Here’s my day:  Worked on Apollo and Daphne vampire novel for NANOWRIMO (National Novel Writing Month).  Yes, if I can’t tur  Ovid’s version of the myth into a vampire story, what’s the point of NANOWRIMO?   But the day passes in secretly reading Proust and  checking email when I should decide whether Apollo or Daphne will be the vampire.

Checked my email again (though I have proudly cut back on online time).  Then I spend five minutes writing a comical email that should win the P. G. Wodehouse Prize, but what if my witty online friend thinks I’m a stalker?  Really, I am too hilarious!

Then I stuff my wet-from-shower hair under a hat, put on a LOT of lipstick (to look respectable), and  go on a long walk.  I am crouching in front of the Little Free Library when a friendly runner approaches.  It is my husband.  “Are any of these books yours?”

Yes, I donated two.

And now here’s the R.E.M. song of the day, “Imitation of Life” (performed live, Michael Stipe’s makeup running and Mike Mills’ hair soaked from performing in rain)