If the large number of Angela Thirkell novels now in paperback (not enough, Virago!) are a bit confusing, this early book may appeal. It is not the first in the series, but stands alone well (as most of the books do, really) and while it introduces and mentions characters that have a lot of involvement in the storylines of the other novels, you do not need to know all about them to follow the plot of this book.
It is a simple plot. Alice, shy artist daughter of Mrs Barton, author, is completely terrified of going to a house party at Pomfret towers. Her father and brother Guy are pretty mystified by this, but the inclusion of two family friends, Sally and Roddy, in the invitation gives her some courage. The house seems to be full of authors, established and would be, publishers, artists as well as sundry guests who fill Alice with varying levels of trepidation, but she survives as does everyone else. Some dreams are fulfilled, some suffer agonies of disappointment, others find a new life and partner as a result of a weekend in the country.
This could easily be the setting for a country house murder, but Thirkell is more interested in pushing her characters into less obviously difficult trials of life and love, including publishing, romance and ambitions. It would be better described as a comedy of manners, as the reader waits to see if there is a satisfactory outcome to the various plot strands.
There are some great characters here, as the overbearing mother is contrasted with a no less caring but less ambitious parent, the modern artist with the sensible land agent, and minor aristocracy with those who actually do the work on the land. There is Sally, one of Thirkell’s practical young women, whose attitude to her pet dogs is memorable, as well as Phoebe, forerunner of a later Jessica, who decides that life on the stage is better than waiting for her mother’s matrimonial ambitions to work out. Guy, Roddy and Giles are young men who are not always sure what they want, but are definitely preferable to Julian, artist and difficult offspring.
This book represents Thirkell having fun, before the onset of war and shortage, race and class become so central. It is entertainment, well written and enjoyable, comfort reading for those seeking a safe read with satisfactory endings for nearly all concerned. I would recommend it for its characters and for those interested in a certain section of pre war society, a comedy without complexity.
In other news, Northernvicar and I went to see a production of Cyrano last night at Derby Theatre Royal. Dramatised by Northern Broadsides company, there was music, sword fighting and more rhyming than I expected. If you find it on tour, do go!
I have also been reading the new Lucy Worsley book, Jane Austen At Home. It is a very readable biography which is published today, and I have found the proof copy I received a while ago really interesting. There has been one report that suggests that it is very derivative of other books, but there has been so much written on quite a short life that the same observations are going to be made, the same facts quoted. I will get round to writing about it soon, but if you are a beginner Austen fan or an expert, I think that there will be something in this book for you, and it is an enjoyable read.