Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell
An early Thirkell, and typically light and gentle, Wild Strawberries is more of a comedy and character introduction than many of the later novels. This is a book which introduces characters such as Lady Emily, who is remembered with affection throughout all of the Barsetshire Chronicles. It also introduces the charming and feckless David, the gentle Agnes who achieves much, but almost unseen, and the first sighting of Clarissa and the other children who grow up to wreak havoc in the later books. The book is not only introductory as many of the characters have their own moment before they become background to later stories.
This book, like Thirkell’s other early novels, takes place in a long summer of peace before the outbreak of the Second World War. In 1934 the emerging BBC is offering employment to women graduates, while many girls are limited to naïve assumptions about love and marriage. Not that such girls cannot hold their own socially when lunches, parties and other events decide true affections. Lady Emily is a high maintenance lady in that she has much “portable property”, being glasses, scarves, art supplies and so on. She also delights in meddling in every arrangement, creating confusion in a gentle way. She accidentally arranges for the boring Mr Holt to visit to everyone’s inconvenience, but Agnes’ child fixation soon agitates him beyond measure. Mary experiences a crush on David, John emerges from his great loss, and Martin is a teenager quickly distracted by new ideas. The French family who come as paying guests to the Vicarage are a beautifully drawn family of recognisable individuals, including the boastful Madam Boulle.
This could be seen as a trivial book of small events and delicate romance. It is a comedy of manners of a long lost age, when servants were not a problem but had their individual quirks and traditions. There are lovely set pieces of a church service nearly wrecked by Lady Emily’s interventions, all well intentioned, the concert which bewilders Mary but is a tried and tested formula, and the celebration of Martin’s birthday which echoes a party held to mark his father’s coming of age before his wartime death. This book lacks the strong stories of the later books, especially the wartime novels, and some of the sadness and loss which typify them. In some ways it is an introduction to the Barsetshire Chronicles set in a blissful summer, before the sharp class distinctions and anti – foreigner language creeps in, but others may find it too light. In the context of all of Thirkell’s books it is indeed a lightweight read, but its reissue in the Virago Modern Classics series in 2012 has made it more available and a favourite re read mentioned very favourably in contemporary novels such as Peck’s “Bewildering Cares”. High recommendation indeed!
I am working my way through the Angela Thirkell books that can be easily found as a result of the VMC reprints of the last few years. I am not sure if they will bring any more out, so I am still collecting the original books where I can find them! Hay on Wye was an obvious hunting ground, and I found “The Old Bank House ” at Elizabeth Gaskell’s house. Hooray for accessible historic buildings!