Summer Half by Angela Thirkell

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.

Image result for Summer Half thirkell

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.

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15 thoughts on “Summer Half by Angela Thirkell

  1. Lovely book, brightens up the winter as well as suiting the summer! Lydia Keith is a joy, she’s so single-minded and although highly intelligent regards school as a nuisance – a good counterbalance, given that a lot of the action happens in Southbridge School (for boys only). Thirkell says slyly “Everybody hoped she had stopped growing” (probably something that happened to AT herself, who was very tall.) She adores getting filthy and making a mess, which is a lovely contrast to her Latin studies. She gets on very well with Morland, Swan and Hacker who are about her own age, but also interests the London barrister Noel Merton just by being her incorrigible self. Three more contrasting young women you could not find – and they are much more interesting than the men, though Philip Winter’s hopelessness with the appalling Rose might raise some sympathy, and a friend in the Midlands swears she was at a dinner recently where Noel Merton was present. The Virago cover is good, thank you for posting that, Jules.

  2. One of the very first novels by A. Thirkell that I read. It is part of my cherished books for the pace she maintains throughout, for the fun the characters seem to have and the joy they exude. It had been reprinted in the UK by the Hogarth Press some thirty years ago and was rather easily found. But it is fie to see it again via Virago. Thank you for your reviews of AT. 🙂

    1. I’m glad you appreciate them! I enjoy writing them as I am quite evangelical about Thirkell, and would hope that I am trying to make at least the easily available novels more accessible. I read about “The Barsetshire Series” frequently before I actually read one, if only because I enjoyed Trollope’s series based in Barchester so much.

      1. I am very much partial about AT. She is a great comforter when I do not feel well – not beause she is a comfort writer but quite the contrary. I recognise a way of life that existed still with my grand parents and my parents, and because her sharp irony pushes me forward to live.

  3. By the way, the Angela Thirkell Society has a varying stock of secondhand books for sale. Available to members as part of their £10 p.a. subscription – but if I know what you’re looking for I could always ask the organiser to release one!

    1. I would love to join the Society but find the website very confusing and a little out of date. I am also trying to work out what I have and what I still need, but thank you so much for the offer.

      1. I understand! The person doing the website was until recently doing almost everything else as well, but we’re hoping that our new arrangements will improve things.

  4. Oh, so this is a kind of prequel? Maybe fun when you know what happens to everyone. I think I’m reading these in too spaced-out a fashion, but I suppose I can race through them all again in order when I have them!

    1. Thirkell has so many characters it’s perfectly possible not to meet one group again for a while. I think she left them to “simmer” to see what they might do a couple of years later – for instance, Laurence and Margaret are clearly far too boring to develop!

      1. Yes! One of the reasons I like Thirkell is her confidence to leave some characters on one side and yet produce a great novel about others, because there are so many characters that she can write about effectively.

    2. I can see why some readers have tried to construct family trees and maps! I am vaguely trying to read them in some sort of order having read them when I could get hold of them in the pre VMC edition days. Now I have read the paperbacks as they have come out and am easily confused who married who and such like. I read somewhere that Thirkell also got confused about that as well.

      1. Unlike some readers I don’t feel the need to pin down where the places are, although members pointed out to me the other week that a journey taken in one of the novels goes by quite the wrong route! And as for people’s ages, it never bothers me if they’re about 105 or the young children would “really” be teenagers.
        Yes, AT did get in a muddle although her typist sometimes pointed out errors to her. And she admits it, saying that this is cloud cuckoo land and you must not believe a word of it. Two Ludovics is a bit much though! Despite the attempted rationalisation I’m sure that was a mistake.

  5. I must get back ‘into’ Angela Thirkell! A few decades ago I bought a huge pile of her novels from a s/h shop, but then, after reading them all, and needing space, I gave them all away! 😦

    1. Well, at least you read them all first! They must have been quite bulky as it’s only now they are bringing out the small paperbacks. At least the VMC editions are turning up in charity and secondhand shops quite frequently now. I remember looking at The Brandons a few years ago and the only copies seemed to be the old hardbacks which cost a fortune, or the U.S Moyer Bell editions which I am not so keen on. The new paperbacks are much readable, if only they would bring out some more. I would love to think that the reviews I post attract some people into reading or rereading Thirkell. There was so little written about the books when I first became addicted.

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