This is a late novel in the Barsetshire series of novels. Sometimes that means that it is not as sharp, in a good way, as some of the wartime novels. I feel it is simply not quite as entertaining, that Thirkell knew her books would sell so some of the focus slipped, and that this book was simply a criticism of one or two of the characters. That said, it is still a novel by a wonderful author with the confidence to expand on her characters, themes and setting, and on a first read through I really enjoyed this book.
The first part of the book is a dominated by a wedding. Miss Merriman, perfect companion, secretary and personal assistant to Lady Emily of blessed memory, and since then assistant to the Pomfrets, has become “quietly and happily engaged” to the Reverend Herbert Choyce, Vicar of Hatch End. The opening chapters describe the build up to the wedding, overseen by the lovely but vague Lady Graham. Over the years Miss Merriman has made many friends and gathered admirers so her wedding preparations are populated by many presents and discussions about the ceremony. Her progress before the great day shows how she will still be a force for good, still be able to bring out the best in people and situations, still be touchingly surprised by the amount of affection she creates, especially among the Leslie family. This section of the novel is the happily ever after piece writ large, the details of a wedding universally welcomed.
The rest of the book is devoted to various people in gentle life changing events. A single lady living with her mother develops her life ambition, and in its success creates an opportunity for an adult son to see his mother happily settled and begin to develop his own matrimonial plans. Another wedding is anticipated, and all seems well. The dominating character is a young woman, Edith, Lady Graham’s youngest and at this stage, most challenging children. At eighteen she is in some ways grown up, having been to America with Uncle David and his practical wife, but in other ways she feels the way she is treated as an child is unfair. She is unsure about what she wants, a career in estate management, to marry into land, to find her place in local society. In some ways she knows there are young men who are friendly towards her, but they and others still treat her as a child, at least in her eyes. Her behaviour is seen as unfriendly and immature, described in a time before ‘teenagers’ existed. All is not lost, however, and a happy ending beckons for Edith and many others.
This is an enjoyable book, full of the small pictures of rural life among the minor aristocracy. The characters are full of life, gentle and real, full of local concerns and frustrations. In this edition at least there is not the jarring obsessions of class and nationalism that are negative elements in some of the other novels, but rather a contented acceptance and working out of life stories. I did not detect as many inconsistencies in martial names and status as some of the other late books, but as always ages are fluid as people of the older generations seem to survive to enormous ages if they are required for narrative purposes. This is a very readable book, full of what makes Thirkell a special and memorable novelist, and the Barsetshire Chronicles such a memorable series.
The copy that I read is another ancient library book. It is certainly more obscure than some of the Thirkells I have posted about on this blog, but it is Angela Thirkell Reading Week (a facebook group) at the moment, so I thought it was well worth reviewing now. After a quick visit to London on Monday, I have two more Persephone books to review together with some tasty tomes I rounded up in other bookshops. I managed to get to the Persephone shop itself, so had a good look around at their fifty books they wish they had published. A couple of nice hardbacks as well…