This is an early Thirkell novel (1939), and introduces several characters to the Barsetshire Chronicles. It also reflects a balmy pre war time of peaceful pursuits, gentle romances and ladies with companions, mourning clothes and investments. The Brandon family, headed by a widow whose effortless conquest of all the males around her is a favourite of Thirkell’s; but here it is managed that no hearts are broken and others are grateful, even if unconsciously, for her matchmaking efforts. There is a Will, cameos of such favourite characters as the Morlands, and overall such a delightful late summer atmosphere of late summer calm and sunshine that it is a worthy addition to the series, but would work as a stand alone novel.
Lavinia Brandon has long come to terms with being a widow, with two grown up children, Francis and Delia, and a small but devoted domestic staff. Her comfortable income is watched over by the devoted but bombastic Sir Edmund, and she is on excellent terms with her neighbours including Mr Miller, the local Vicar. Her gentle idyll is disturbed by a summons to her late husband’s aunt, Miss Brandon, and meets the efficient but frustrated companion, Miss Morris. She and her offspring meet Hilary Grant, a young man who is instantly smitten by the older woman’s charms. His mother is an intruding character who spends her life in Italy, and is a never ending source of embarrassment to him. As it becomes obvious that Miss Brandon is dying, subtle guesses are made as to who is to benefit from her will, and to their credit no one wants to inherit her large decaying house. Much confusion and cross purposes emerge as everyone grows a little older and perhaps wiser as to their feelings and potential relationships.
The plot of this novel is slight, yet effective, and its chief delight is the characters. My favourite is Delia, constantly pursued by Nurse for clothes fittings, fascinated by injury and illness as an observer, still young enough to be innocent in her friendship emerging over stolen fruit from the garden. Francis is an amusing young man, devoted to his mother and completely aware of her little tricks of attraction for the love struck men who surround her. Aunt Sissie is a formidable character who actually understands more than she is credited with, and deals with unwanted visitors easily. I particularly enjoyed the account of the Village fete, with Lavinia’s vagueness being familiar to fans of the other novels, and the efficiency of Miss Morris contrasting with the Vicar’s confusion. There are also scenes where some books are nearly read aloud, but are continually diverted.
This book is of its time, an entertaining novel of family and friends unaware of impending war and shortages, diverting the reader’s interest down comforting paths of middle class concerns without peril. There is a certain element of snobbishness about the descriptions of the servants and their feuds, but no one is ever despised or insulted. The description of a poor family is a little patronising, but good is always is always intended. As with all Thirkell’s novels, there are weaker moments, but overall it is a splendidly comfortable, sunny read from a lost or even imagined era.
This is one of the easiest Thirkell’s to locate, as Virago reprinted it in their Modern Classics series in 2014. I have probably read it three times?!? While getting ready to teach in Derby library the other day I spotted a copy of “Love at All Ages”, a late Thirkell and one of the last novels I have not read! I am trying to remedy this, and am already getting annoyed with George Knox…