"I had a little nut tree and nothing would it bear; but a silver nutmeg and a golden pear…."
-A nursery rhyme and also made reference to in this book title.
This book, written by the accomplished Margery Sharp, was the perfect book to get me out of a bit of a reading rut. I was feeling generally whiny in that late-February way and I idly reached for a flimsy little WWII edition of The Nutmeg Tree. Feeling pretty unimpressed, I opened it and proceeded to become completely engrossed for the several hours that the little book lasted.
The Nutmeg Tree centers around the very charming, very much lower-class, middle-aged theater woman named Julia. When she was very young, she got pregnant with and consequently married a soldier during WWI and, after he died, she went with the baby girl, Susan to her new in-laws house. However, this proper, upper-middle-class life was completely stifling for Julia, so she leaves Susan to be raised by her grandparents and returns to the city life without a pang.
Fast forward 20 years later to Julia Packett who is in a sad state without a current man and not a prospect in sight. She receives a letter from her very, very proper daughter urging her to come. Susan has fallen in love with and wants to marry an improper man and grandmother doesn't approve. Eager to win her daughter's respect and love, Julia determines to go and sort out Susan's problems, while remaining at all times a perfect lady. But Julia, who can't seem to avoid some trouble at once realizes that her prospective son-in-law is definitely the wrong sort, begins to fall for Susan's eminently respectable godfather, and has to find a way to solve her pressing money troubles. Can Julia, through all of these trials, come to respect herself in spite of her rough past, or will she continue to keep up the facade of a respectable lady?
I'm sure that Julia's life affairs must have been truly shocking for the time this was written. While Julia's actions definitely don't raise eyebrows today the way they did back then, I am still amazed that we can come to love, even respect Julia through the book. It shows real skill, I think, to be able to pull off a sympathetic, but not entirely respectable character, particularly at that time. I really appreciated the emphasis Sharp placed on Julia's good traits rather than her social standing. While Julia had had a rough past, she was still a kind, generous woman who was quick to sympathize and willing to help and that, in the end, was what counted.
I was also interested in how lightly Julia's abandoning her daughter was taken. In fact, that is one area where I think you would see more social stigma today as opposed to in the late 30s. Julia states very pragmatically that Susan will have a better education, better opportunities, and will generally become a more respectable member of society if she stays with her grandparents as opposed to traveling with her free and easy mother. I think that attitude, while still in existence is at least less apparent today. Of course, one attitude makes a very good story and the other, more modern attitude would probably not be as interesting to write about.
I completely fell in love with these characters while reading this short book. This was one of those books that you read as slowly as possible in order to draw out the story. The Nutmeg Tree is out of print now, but I think you could still find it many places. I own this book, but I know that my library also has it. Really, seek this book out. If only for a few hours, it raised me out of my late-winter doldrums.