Growing Up by Angela Thirkell – a wartime gem!

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This one of the wartime Thirkell novels that work so well. It reflects a time when the Second World War had been going on some time, written when the outcome of the fighting was still not apparent, when there was no indication of exactly how much longer it would go on. The fear of whether one of the characters had survived the evacuation of Dunkirk was in the past, but the drama of D Day and similar decisive action was still very much in the future. Men, brothers, husbands are still liable to be sent abroad; there is the real fear of them not returning. There is a certain settled acceptance of war time arrangements such as an entire hospital being billeted in the local big house, wounded soldiers being invalided out of the army, women taking on roles that would never have been envisaged pre war. This is the civilian side of war, but not one of bombings and blitz, but still there is some grief and fear.

Sir Harry and Lady Waring are living in part of their large house, the rest having been converted to a hospital for wounded soldiers. They lost their only son in the First World War, but are more than accepting that their nephew Cecil will inherit the house, provided that he survives his naval service. His sister, Leslie arrives on the scene having been involved at a high level in war work, but having suffered when her ship back from foreign work was torpedoed. At the beginning of the novel Lydia and Noel Merton are sent as paying guests to live with the Warings. Both have appeared in the Barsetshire novels before; Lydia was the memorable Lydia Keith, outrageous and noisy as a girl, now utterly devoted to her husband Noel and a settled character. She has become someone able to deal with many people and situations in a mature way, but still she has doubts. The servants in this novel are real characters, far from being dismissed as being unimportant. The scary Nannie Allen, overprotective of those she cares for, her daughter Selina, the focus of many male hopes while she cries at any situation, and Jasper the gamekeeper all contribute to the novel. Meanwhile the soldiers and nurses in the other part of the house contribute greatly to the story. There are a few set pieces which are particularly funny, including Mrs Spender who otherwise features in the Northbridge Rectory novel and Mrs Laura Morland, who gives a talk at the hospital. The latter sounds very much like a real experience on Thirkell’s part.

This is a very satisfactory episode in the Barsetshire series. There is no denying the fear and tension in the background; Thirkell in common with everyone else had no way of knowing what the outcome of the war would be; while the immediate fear of invasion had receded by this point, there was no foreseeable end and many people were still being sent secretly abroad. This novel does not contain the subtext of suspicion of refugees that some of the other books feature, each character has respect and understanding. I have really enjoyed rereading this book, and anyone who likes Thirkell’s novels will appreciate it.

Sadly, Virago have not so far produced this novel as an actual book, just on kindle. As I think I have said before, Thirkell’s books never seem to be the sort to suit the ebook format, but maybe that is just my view. There are copies out there ( I seem to have acquired two produced in wartime) and there is probably a Moyer Bell edition to be had from the USA. If you like Thirkell’s wartime books, and I think that they are the best, this is definitely a gem.


14 thoughts on “Growing Up by Angela Thirkell – a wartime gem!

  1. I am always interested in books written during a conflict. They can often reflect views and emotions entirely different to those we assume to be appropriate with the twenty twenty vision of hindsight. Suite Francaise is an example, I think. The attitude to collaborators in 1941 when it was written is very different to that at the end of the war.

  2. A lovely review, thank you. I, too, find books written during war-time, with so very much in doubt, most revealing. I have yet to read Thirkell in e-book format; somehow just doesn’t feel right not to have an actual book in my hands…preferably with a hint of mildew.

  3. I agree that the wartime books are Thirkell’s best. I also think that they must have been so comforting to women of that time as she goes off on rants about rationing and other things that must have caused them such stress. They’re a real social history window into those times

    1. Another book which covers the rationing /shortage question in a very funny way is “Bewildering Cares” by Winifred Peck – one of my favourite ever books reprinted by Dean Street Press.

  4. I also am drawn to Homefront novels. I’m reading the Thirkell novels in order and am up to The Brandons so haven’t got to this one yet. It looks like one I’ll enjoy particularly since some familiar characters are featured.

  5. This sounds wonderful, what a shame that Virago haven’t done a print version. I too am drawn to books written and published before the end of the war was clear – how poignant they are.

      1. I read A House in the Country by Jocelyn Playfair not long ago and really enjoyed it. Winifred Peck’s House-Bound is another good one.

      2. Yes, those two are the two Persephones I was thinking about. Also EM Delafield’s Provincial Lady in Wartime and I think some Mollie Panter-Downes.

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