The Headmistress by Angela Thirkell

Another post, another Barsetshire Chronicle from Angela Thirkell. In the face of many wonderful books to read, and new authors to discover, her restful yet insightful characters have drawn me back again. Yet, I think that this book would be a good starting point for anyone curious about her books which describe mid twentieth century life so well.

Image result for the headmistress thirkell I love Angela Thirkell’s books and have avidly collected them for years. This reprint by Virago is more than welcome as it is difficult to get hold of this book, despite it sitting in the middle of Thirkell’s Barsetshire series and it being one of the best for characterisation. Finally getting my hands on this British reprint is great; I have really enjoyed reading it.

This novel is set in the “latter years of the Second World War” and was originally published in 1944. Thus it was actually written when the end of the war could not be foreseen by the vast majority of people either in the army or on the Home Front. The probability of invasion had receded, but those in the armed forces were still liable to be sent on missions from which they would not return, be moved to parts of “The Front” which were notoriously dangerous, and those living and working in big cities, especially London, were never considered to be truly safe. Those with family or friends in uniform such as Mrs Belton had much to be concerned about as well as the financial, social and daily concerns of village life. Much of the War concerns run in the background of this novel, but it resurfaces at times when grown up children reappear on leave with their effects on parents and admirers of the community.

The Headmistress of the title is Miss Sparling, a perfect headmistress according to those who invite her to social events, a perfect scholar to those interested in such things, and the moving force behind the establishment of a Girls’ School in Harefield Park. We learn little about how she feels compared to Mrs Belton, whose old home was the Park. There are many set pieces about tea parties, dinners and the challenges of blackouts, and there are the usual Thirkell descriptions of romantically obsessed servants, land squabbles and unfortunate portraits of non specific Europeans, who never get a good press in Barsetshire.

I found the descriptions of some of the women disappointing, as the female doctor is roundly condemned for just about everything by everyone, some clothes are despaired of, and Elsa, otherwise a successful and responsible woman in her war work, is seen as impossible for her behaviour towards her fiancé. Another headmistress is socially criticised, even though I cannot remember a particular crime on her part elsewhere in the Barsetshire chronicles, but she does form a contrast against the perfect Miss S. The schoolgirls are well described, especially the outings, drama and skating which are very funny pictures. Heather Adams is the girl most focused on, but this is a real person, unflattered but understood. Mrs Belton is especially well described in all her realistic family and social concerns. Mrs Updike is a favourite character as her frequent household accidents punctuate and lighten the mood throughout the novel.

Stylistically we can enjoy small events well described, with memorable characters rather than big storylines. There are asides to the knowing reader, and references to characters found elsewhere in the other novels. This novel represents Thirkell writing at the top of her form, and she has so many characters and situations in her Barsetshire set that she can afford to explore a group nonetheless tied to others. I think that this book is a worthy entry in the chronicles of people, place and time, but works well as a separate novel of 1940s life of interest to many readers.

 

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4 thoughts on “The Headmistress by Angela Thirkell

  1. I agree that The Headmistress is a very good Thirkell to start on; it’s relatively self-contained so that you are not mystified by long-standing relationships and allusions to past events – and there is then the prospect of going on to the other “war novels” perhaps, and working outwards from there!
    Thirkell is really hard on all professional women except Miss Sparling and the young ones like Leslie Waring (who has worked herself into a breakdown) and Elsa Belton who is just bossy. Perhaps a little jealousy there, as with her female academics who are an ungraceful lot?

  2. Even the Nurses (both Medical and Childcare) get a bad press! Of course there is Miss Bunting and other ladies who work for a living, but they are at a different level so they are allowed to be dedicated to their jobs…

  3. I think there is much to criticize in Angela Thirkell’s attitudes to almost everyone except the very small group of ‘people like us’ as her characters call them and I always feel I could well do without her ‘exuberant little boys’ such as Frank Gresham & Tony Morland. Her middle-aged women are also often irritating.

    And yet, I ADORE her novels!! Am having a few medical ups & downs just now and find them the perfect antidote, light but absorbing, fun but with real people & real troubles at their heart.

    And if I want the same sort of thing but sharper, there’s always Miss Read.

    I just feel so lucky as a passionate reader to live at a time & in a country where so many different kinds of books, fiction & non-fiction are so readily available.

  4. I agree! On paper I think I should dislike Thirkell’s attitudes to servants, refugees and women, but some how I forgive her because they are essentially good hearted and not many people escape from her less than flattering portraits, even the white men of a certain class.
    I think that the variety of books I have amassed means that I could withstand most things, and have done. Books are my greatest vice…

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