Boston: Little Brown, c1972
Read via Open Library
As my introduction to the books of Margery Sharp, I've read the poignant tale of an "elderly" woman (at least in her 60s!) and her charge, a friend's daughter left under her care during wartime, and one described in the old way as an "innocent".
Cecelia, a former beauty living in this small English village, married a rich American; on her first visit back after 6 years, she leaves her 3 year old daughter with the sweet vicar's daughter, the elderly spinster who narrates the tale - whose name we never learn.
But war intervenes -- while Cecelia and Rab are in Europe, war breaks out and they're called back to the US. When, eventually, Cecelia returns to the village to retrieve her child, about 6 years later, there is discord between this flashy American and the Englishwoman who has understood little Antoinette perfectly and only wants to keep her safe and secure.
To what lengths will she go to keep Antoinette in the quiet and comforting surroundings she is now accustomed to? Especially as Cecelia thinks that with a little therapy and training, Antoinette (or Tony) will suddenly rally and become a regular young woman she can show off in society...
But Antoinette, no matter how developmentally challenged, understands the struggle that is being waged over her. And she knows that's she powerless to affect what is going to happen to her. As the narrator notes:
Resignation belongs properly to the middle years. I myself was I suppose forty before I resigned myself to my humdrum lot. In one's thirties, one still hopes. But to be resigned to one's lot as a child is terrible.Set in the 40s, the story shows many shadings in the understanding of a mentally challenged child in this era. Her foster mother finds that she will do anything for Toni, even though like a good Englishwoman she doesn't give in to sentimentality often. It reveals a fascinating choice made in the final chapters, one which would provide great fodder for book club discussion.
And it's full of wry and clever observations of people, of village societies, of expectations and desires in life. Our narrator comments that "a village is almost as good as cruise ship for throwing people together" and recognizes that social habits have their uses: "It was once a curtsy dowagers recommended, to give a female time to think; in the present day and age I myself would recommend pouring tea."
For a gentle, clever, intelligently told story of a battle waged over the future of an innocent child, pick up this book. There is a lot to ponder here.