Angela Thirkell – novelist of Barsetshire

You may have heard of Barsetshire. It’s the fictional shire created by Anthony Trollope as a setting for his best known novels, the Barsetshire Chronicles. They start with the wonderful The Warden and continue with Barsetshire Towers. You may have seen the tv version staring the likes of Alan Rickman and Susan Hampshire. If not, the dvd is available. The Victorian church has never been so funny and interesting….

You may well wonder what that has to do with a woman author called Angela Thirkell. Well, in the 1930s she began to write the Barsetshire series of novels. She continued to write the novels, based in the contemporary Barsetshire, through the Second World War, roughly one a year, until the 1950s. In that time she managed to refer back to the original Trollope novels (at least some of the characters) as well as creating new families and memorable individuals who inhabit a certain geographical area of middle England. There are about thirty books in the series, but frankly they do not all need to be read in order.

So, I half resolved to keep an eye open for Thirkell’s books. Then I spotted that Virago were bringing out some of her books in paperback. Having read High Rising

and encountered the memorable Mrs Morland, the author of many books, her enthusiastic son Tony, George Knox and the rest, well I was hooked. Since then I have been eagerly searching out the other novels, managing to pick up some first editions (thanks, Northernvicar and Hexham Oxfam Bookshop and many many others who have helped me search all over the country) as well as assorted large print editions and paperbacks. They have been sent from across the country and world, meaning I have a collection of about 50 books, including some omnibus editions.

If you want to find out whether you would also be interested in trying to follow the intermingling families and fortunes of the people of Barsetshire, Virago have produced about five reprints which are available in many bookshops, not just secondhand investigations. I believe that they are bringing out about another six during May and November next year, so more opportunities to find out what goes on. They are not in series order, but still stand up to reading as and when.

Why do I like them? Well, anyone who has enjoyed Persephone books will recognise the style of twentieth century British woman’s writing.  It is a complicated series of intermarriage and generations, but as Thirkell admits herself in Jutland Cottage she cannot sort out all the generations, given the long period over which she was writing. Some have attempted it, and produced maps and family trees and even background books. I have not read all of them, but they may be available. Yes, there are racist elements, but only those which would have been prevalent at the time, and certainly not outrageous. The politics are a little right wing for my taste, but again are reasonable for the time given the Labour victory of 1945 and the fact that most of the characters are, or linked to, minor aristocracy.

I do hope I have not put you of these books, as they represent an almost Jane Austen like world of marriage, disappointed hopes as well as the odd (in all senses) clergyman, all comfortably getting along in a world sometimes dominated by War ( probably the most interesting novels ) and postwar realities. It is not always sunny, and characters do die, but the the overall feeling is of a comfortable world of reoccurring characters and beautiful images of country life.   If tales of Middle England in the mid twentieth century written by a woman is your sort of thing, you will not be disappointed.

The Other Side of You – Salley Vickers

After a long rest from reviewing; lots going on, not really reading anything earth shattering etc, I could not avoid putting thoughts down about The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers.

It’s not her most recent book, that being The Cleaner of Chartres which I read last year and enjoyed. The Other Side also features a male doctor, this time a British psychiatrist called David. One of the strengths of this book is that he is seen to have other patients apart from the main subject, Elizabeth Cruikshank. These other patients are challenging in their own ways, particularly when he finds everything else is changing for him. It is the attempted suicide and subsequent admission of Elizabeth to hospital which means that they meet and talk for an amazing seven hours, in which much is revealed to both speaker and listener.

This book had been chosen by our book club, and I must admit that I was not initially attracted by the subject matter. The first chapter did not help; with references to the Holocaust  and the death of the narrator’s brother in a childhood accident. I did continue reading and I am glad I did. Against the background of the narrator, David’s, unsatisfactory marriage, we begin to discover that Elizabeth in her own words, was ‘faithless’. This is not a simple matter of an extra marital affair, however. It begins to emerge that Elizabeth’s story is one of true connections made then lost, of a fascinating man who enters her life, shows her a new way of living. It is a matter of faith in another human, and the colourless life that it is possible to live.

The drama of Elizabeth’s life is gradually revealed over one long session, but David is not an impassive listener. As she talks, and there are small interruptions, he realises things about himself and the small objects he keeps in his office. The change and release that comes is dramatic, with implications for other people.

Without revealing everything about the book, it is difficult to describe its impact. I enjoyed the other characters, especially the whisky (and chocolate) loving Gus. He also introduces one of the other themes of the book, the paintings of Caravaggio. I am certainly no expert on these, and gazed at the picture reproduced on the inside cover. The other pictures are viewable online, and help explain some of the narrative. It is the reaction on the part of the characters to the pictures which is significant to the story. The title, from Eliot’s Waste Land, is also important as  people’s ‘other side’ is revealed.

This is not a flawless book. (is there such a thing?). There are times when it is frustrating, when the actions of the main characters are just wrong. It is also scattered with pronouncements from characters, which are profound, but not really in the right place. There are a few places where the mundane gets a bit heavy going.

This is a good book, a good read, and ultimately  an uplifting story. Our book club found a lot to discuss, and it is worth tracking down a copy.