This Angela Thirkell book is the last of the pre Second World War novels published by this author as it came out in 1939. Reprinted by Virago Modern Classics in 2016, it is therefore available to all interested in the Barsetshire series of books, but this volume stands alone as a picture of a fairly select group of people. I enjoyed it for the picture of Mr. Jack Middleton, established in a country house with his long suffering wife, Catherine. He is the enjoyable character of the book, as his frustrations and self delusions stay just this side of driving those around him to despair. He enjoys the sound of his own voice, his perception of his position in local society, and his pronouncements on life. Even his dog, the patient Flora, puts up with his belief that she is devoted to his every wish, as she politely ignores his studied fictions.
Not that this book is devoted to Jack, as an entire series of romances and minor revelations occur without him realising as befits a Thirkell novel. They are essentially accidental, but take some disentangling before many of the characters are happy. Lillian Stoner, Jack’s widowed sister in law, brings her adult step children to stay in an adjoining cottage to Laverings for the summer. Dennis is a delicate musician, whose ill health has given cause for concern, but now he is full of the music he is composing for a ballet, a dream requiring funding. Daphne is a sturdy, determined girl, able to cope with the most difficult individuals, but curiously vulnerable in romantic situations. Lady Bond is one of the determined gentry that Thirkell excels in, keen to organise meetings to do the right thing. Lord Bond is far more uncertain, needing Daphne to achieve mastery over a piano key. The two male leads in the romance stakes are uncertain of many things, as Alister Cameron proceeds with caution, and C.W., the younger Bond, allows confusion to reign. Another situation remains far more delicate, and lingers in the background in in this otherwise robust book.
As always, there is a cast of minor characters, who provide the more realistic background to life in this rural area. They are the ones with real control, real wisdom of a sort, ranging from the expert Ed to the obliging postmistress. Some other characters feature in other Barsetshire books, one of my favourites being Mrs Tebben with her obsession about leftovers which extends to cards at one of the set pieces in the book, the Agricultural Show. Miss Starter is another obsessive, concerned about her diet and royal links, but with quiet insight into other people.
While not being one of the strongest novels in the series, this is another comfort read which speaks of another time, another place before the danger of war and the cynicism about certain characters which typifies the later books in some respects. A lovely summer read, this is a book of characters who remain in the mind and a simple reassuring story line. A comfortable book to both discover and re read.
I seem to be reading a lot of comfortable books at the moment, but fear not, I will soon be back to crime and mystery. I have just finished a fascinating book about a singular lady whose domination of her family is really disturbing. “The Late Mrs Prioleau” will be arriving soon!