Before Lunch by Angela Thirkell, A Barsetshire classic

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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!

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10 thoughts on “Before Lunch by Angela Thirkell, A Barsetshire classic

  1. I have a hardback of this.I see they go for a few quid online……Cant beat an old hardback even with no dust jacket.The modern covers are so twee on books by Pymm,Thirkell Taylor and others.

    1. Yes, fair comment on the cover of the VMC paperbacks. The reprint has meant that they can be ordered in any bookshop, so it is relatively easy for anyone to discover Thirkell now. When I first started collecting her novels, it was really difficult to find many of them without either searching online, which was a risk as I was not sure if I wanted to spend £20+ ponds on a first edition, or sending for the Moyer Bell editions from the U.S., which I am not keen on. Now Thirkells turn up in charity shops I can give copies away to those I think need some Thirkell in their lives! I am hoping that VMC do some more titles as books rather than just ebooks…

  2. Sounds like another good one; I keep falling behind with the Virago Thirkell reprints and I think just need to go and get everything that’s come out so far! I prefer this side of your reading so all good as far as I’m concerned!

  3. Most of my Thirkells are the old hardbacks. My favourites are those written in wartime, but I’ve just started reading them all again, in order this time. I’ve also been reading a lot of comfort books recently, unsurprisingly.

    1. All mine are now – but it took a while! And being in the Angela Thirkell Society helps, of course. Don’t know what I’d have done without her since last June – she may be an old reactionary but at least she is not a principle-free politician!

  4. I think the universe is telling me to start reading Angela Thirkell, as I’ve seen several bloggers posting on her books lately (or is it the same bloggers reading multiple books?) I did pick up quite a few of the Moyer Bell editions at library sales and the Half-Price Book chain, but I haven’t read any of them. I really want to read this series but none of her books are owned by the Air Force libraries so I’d have to buy them and there are what, 29 books? Looks dangerous.

    1. Dangerous, perhaps, if only because highly addictive! Some people do not like Thirkell, but that is their loss. I have usually got a Thirkell on the go somewhere in the house, and I enjoy putting reviews on this blog to encourage people to take the plunge! Some are definitely better than others, so if you do attempt one that seems to be not your to your taste, try another. I am no expert, but just love reading and mentally drawing the lines between them.

  5. I’m very fond of this Thirkell. The attraction between Mrs Middleton and Denis is well drawn and crops up again, delicately of course, in a couple of later novels. What I love is the way she is capable of portraying a bore without being boring. As I re-read Thirkell I also find myself more in sympathy with poor Mrs Tebben: I know that in real life you would want to murder her, but I must be getting more tolerant with age. And even Daphne, who is a bit of a thug who can’t solve the simplest crossword clue, turns out to be a sterling character. Perfect summer (and winter) reading!

    1. This is a lovely summary of why I like this book! I was trying to remember when Catherine and Denis appear in another book. I think they just greet each other gracefully? There is such a range of characters and situations in the Barsetshire series we can all afford to have our favourites. I suppose I have some sympathy with Mrs Tebben as a highly educated but frustrated woman, whose family largely ignore her, albeit in self defence…

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