High Rising by Angela Thirkell – a most enjoyable introduction to Barsetshire

This early Thirkell novel is notable for introducing some significant characters to the Barsetshire establishment that were going to reoccur throughout the chronicles, Laura and Tony Morland. Other characters such as George Knox reappear, such as Mr Middleton, notorious for their ceaseless talking and self promotion. This novel begins in the festive season, but the events continue well into the new year, so is certainly not limited to winter reading, despite the cover on the Virago Modern Classics edition. Other characters such as Anne Todd, Stoker and the quickly notorious Una Grey all play their part to make this one of the most memorable of Thirkell’s novels.
The novel opens with a school prize giving in which Tony and his friend, rejoicing in the nickname of Donk, threaten to create mayhem, until Laura, Tony’s long suffering mother, takes him home to their cottage. Her servant, Stoker, takes charge, while Laura reacquaints herself with local author and personality, George Knox. All is not well in the household, as he has acquired a new secretary, who is spectacularly efficient and seems to be scheming to marry her employer. Sybil, George’s daughter, is unhappy as she is becoming attached to Adrian, Laura’s frequently bewildered publisher. Anne Todd is Laura’s secretary, who is also caring for her elderly mother, gaining the admiration of the local Doctor. There is festive drinking, a car accident and proposals of marriage, as people enjoy parties, visits and London evenings out to see King Lear. Laura is self depreciating about her writing, but she actually succeeds in attracting the devoted following that Thirkell herself wanted and probably achieved. Underlying the adult happenings, Tony tries to develop a splendid railway and express his delight in accidents and dogs. He develops his characteristic personality and is even involved in one of the dramatic scenes at the end of the book when all is revealed.
This is overall one of the cheerful interwar books in which the events are happily worked out, people feel real and there is a satisfactory plot. The servants are happy in their work, manage their employers well, and are not disparaged. The difficulty that has been seen in this novel is the treatment and discussion of Una Grey, the secretary with designs on her boss. She is in a difficult situation as a single young woman who needed to support herself by working or find a husband, and it is perhaps a little cruel of Laura and others to refer to her as the Incubus because of her devotion to George. While there are women who need to work in the Barsetshire set as the chronicles proceed, especially during the war years, their work tends towards the voluntary and not many have to work to survive as Miss Grey must, and it seems unfair to criticise her. However, she does proceed to show some nasty characteristics, and maybe the reader’s sympathy is more drawn to Anne Todd, for her devotion to her mother and her lack of financial prospects. Altogether this is a most enjoyable book and a very good starting point for the Barsetshire novels.

Although this was one of the first Thirkell novel I read, the VMC edition makes it a joy to re read.Does anyone know if there are more reprints to come in the series, or is “Miss Bunting” the final effort?

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11 thoughts on “High Rising by Angela Thirkell – a most enjoyable introduction to Barsetshire

  1. I agree – most satisfactory reading! Not a bad introduction to Barsetshire, given that Wild Strawberries is a trifle …. special, Mary Preston being too boring for modern tastes.

    Not sure about Virago’s publishing plans but I will enquire.

    1. I would be so grateful if you could. While I love my old editions, these Virago versions are so enjoyable to read and make Thirkell so easy to get hold of for new converts!

  2. A lovely review of this first of the series. I coincidentally have just ordered the Virago edition (a second hand copy) of this book. Aren’t the new editions enticing? I live in Washington, DC and don’t have access to all the charity shops and second hand book stores that British readers seem to enjoy. I found your blog about a year ago and have spent many delightful hours reading through back posts. I really look forward to your postings and very much like you book selections and terrific reviews.

    1. Thank you very much! I sometimes wonder if my choice of books is a little unusual, but Thirkell is a favourite. I’m really fortunate in that there are two Oxfam (charity) bookshops locally and Northernvicar is also keen to have a good look around. I really hope you enjoy “High Rising”; it is such a satisfying read.

  3. I always love it when you post another Thirkell review. I’m pretty sure you introduced me to this author, although I may have already owned one of her books by accident. I enjoy your blog very much and am always happy to be introduced to a new-to-me author based on your recommendations.

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