Another post so hot on the heels of “The Harpole Report”? I usually have at least one Thirkell novel open at any one time, and this book follows on from August Folly a little time ago. I read it a few weeks ago , and did not want it to disappear back onto my (double banked ) shelves.
This early Thirkell (1937) introduces and develops many of the characters that will continue to entertain, infuriate and interact throughout her Barchestershire series. If this is your first Thirkell, it may take you a while to get into the rhythm of the characters and action; it is a reasonable standalone novel. For those who have already encountered characters like the irrepressible (in every sense) Tony Morland and some others, this continues some of the madness and mayhem that seems to follow him, here paired with the encouraging Swan, whose talent for gently winding up certain teachers is already legendary.
This novel begins with Colin Keith almost accidentally getting a temporary job as a teacher at the boys school where the headmaster, Mr Birkett, is struggling to cope with his challenging daughter, Rose, who gets serially engaged. This story is partly the tale of two families, the Birketts and the Keiths, as they progress through a summer term and holidays. It is also a school based story in parts, which includes the complicated but very funny story of the evening that a chameleon leads to fire and flood, wet feet and a damaged kitchen. Sports days, water adventures and exams afflict the younger members of the cast, while some of the adults reel in dismay. Nothing is too trying, difficulties pass, and overall it is a summery story of romance and misunderstandings.
Of the female leads, the vacant, inconsiderate Rose is stunning in her disregard for feelings of the hapless males she attracts. Kate Keith is a difficult character to modern eyes, as her obsession with mending clothes verges on the annoying. Nevertheless there are funny situations to be enjoyed, as she unwittingly gathers admiration from the eligible males around her. My favourite is Lydia Keith, the strident but touchingly insightful younger sister who leads the riverside games, plans a very grown up trip to the theatre, and shows courage which provides the shove for mixed up situations. Having read later novels in the series, I know what happens to these and many of the other characters, and Rose improves to everyone’s relief. Thirkell is obviously enjoying herself hugely with this novel, and in common with her other early work, this book shows little of the cynicism which would later creep into her writing. Some of her attitudes to female characters are very much of the time, and can be frustrating. Lydia, on the other hand, with her enthusiasms and excitements, is the centre of the novel in many ways, and is obviously Thirkell’s favourite.
I really enjoyed this book, even and perhaps especially on a re read. For some readers Thirkell is a middlebrow, middle class writer without the fireworks and style of someone like a Mitford. This is a comfort read in the best sense, a worthy part of the Barsetshire series, and an enjoyable novel in its own right. This is one of the books reprinted by Virago Modern Classics, and I am glad that it has become much easier to get hold of without internet searching.