What does it mean? by Angela Thirkell – a peace time classic comfort read

This is a strange title for a book which does lack much of a narrative arc, or indeed plot. This is a later book in the Barsetshire series, being originally published in 1954, and while it includes with many of the favourite characters of those who have followed the series thus far, it is far from a novel of action or drama. Rather it is a series of set pieces; dinner parties, rehearsals for a play, committee meetings, in which certain characters come to the fore and there is a development whether great or small. Having said that, this is a most enjoyable book in which those with a working knowledge of the inhabitants of Barsetshire and beyond will appreciate and enjoy finding out what happens to those whose progress they have followed for so many years during war and peace.

Thirkell also wrote a book called “Coronation Summer”, which deals with the Coronation of Queen Victoria; this book deals with the preparations for the Coronation of another young queen, Elizabeth II. As throughout the country, people prepare to watch the ceremony on a few television sets or the quickly released films in the cinema. In Barsetshire there are a couple of people who will actually be at the Abbey in their full regalia, while others are to be in buildings with a view of the procession. The majority will remain in their homes on the great day, especially as the weather was wet and cold, a running joke throughout this novel. The great celebrations will come on the following day, when there will be a Pageant, a children’s Play, and a sketch by celebrated actors. Obviously a committee must be formed, headed by the now very grown up Lydia Merton, and anyone whose has endured or enjoyed a committee or public group will appreciate the humour and frustrations as characters gather and get diverted as they collect costumes and props. Some come forward by habit, others show unsuspected talents. Rehearsals, singing, talented accompanists and other portraits of well -loved characters emerge, full of their confusions and contradictions.  Small problems are solved, slight risks such as speedy driving met, the atmosphere is one of relief at the end of war and the easing of rationing. At the end a love affair is resolved, including self -sacrifice and a gentle tenderness.

This is a book for those who know and appreciate Thirkell’s characters, which makes up   slightly for the fact that it may be challenging to get hold of a copy. I greatly enjoyed its mixture of scenes of country life and reflections of national themes, but it is so character dominated that the plots is difficult to grasp. It is essentially a cheerful book, when those who are challenged by great shyness find a way to cope, and the problem of a huge house elegantly met. There is a generally positive picture of the servants whose moral behaviour is well known; the Bunce girls are active in the plot despite their frequent pregnancies. This is the sort of comfort reading which the later Thirkell books are known for, despite her acknowledged confusion concerning names and even marriages that she had described in the earlier books.  I really enjoyed this book, and found it an enjoyable treat after reading many of the Barsetshire chronicles.

While it may be difficult to get hold of a copy of this book, I seem to have acquired two copies of the first edition, and it is a lovely book to read. How much does the edition you have make a difference to your enjoyment of a novel?

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13 thoughts on “What does it mean? by Angela Thirkell – a peace time classic comfort read

  1. Thank you, Joules! Very interesting. I don’t think I have gotten around to reading any Thirkell, but have wanted to, will move her up my list and go figure out which books are in the Barsetshire series. Kathy from Mrs Hurtle

  2. This sounds a lovely one to round off the series, which I think I am failing to read in order. I don’t mind which edition of a book I read and indeed the only firsts I collect, I have reading copies of as well!

    1. Yes, it is fairly near to the end! I like to have several copies of every AT book; they are one of the book series that I have to rescue from charity shops, and some second hand shops if I can find them and are not too expensive (along with Persephone books, obviously!)

  3. I prefer to have the original hardback copies of Thirkell’s books but in general I’m not fussy about having to have first editions.

  4. Very interesting. It’s one of the five Thirkells I have not read. I just ordered it second-hand from ABE Books.I really enjoy your blog. I’ve started reading Elizabeth Fair, after your recommendation. Thanks.

    1. Sorry not to reply sooner! Thank you. I have seen Elizabeth Fair being compared to Thirkell; I suppose the big difference is that she did not tackle a series as fair as I know, and her books are not quite as long!

  5. I agree that we wouldn’t recommend “What did it mean?” as a starting-point for Thirkell’s Barsetshire novels. Although they are freestanding we need a bit of the back-story really to enjoy the detail while watching the ambling story move gently towards the coronation. Maybe the title is an echo of the Trollope origins, as with his “Can you forgive her?” The peg on which she hangs this admittedly unusual-for-her title is a mysterious prophecy in the story, which of course comes true. Though it might be quite mystifying to overseas or young readers!

    Being in the Angela Thirkell Society I kind of prefer hardback editions of the novels. Some members actively seek out first editions. But I’ll happily read any version and am hoping Virago will continue their good work. We have just been given several volumes from the library of a member who recently died and she had put photocopied dustjackets round her much-loved books to help preserve them.

    1. Yes, I am thinking of listing one of AT’s books for our bookgroup, but I will probably choose “High Rising” or “Northbridge Rectory” if only because they are so much easier and cheaper to obtain, given several members search in charity shops for secondhand copies of the books. Virago have done a great job, but sadly they seem to have slowed down or stopped producing them as real books, though I think there are two on kindle. Not the same though!

      1. Either would be great; you’re right about availability. I’m trying to convince Virago that there is a demand for the wartime titles especially. Also the people who control Angela’s estate are very enthusiastic and have just had some success with the rights in Italy, which I think is brilliant.

      2. Let’s hope so! I started to read AT partly because I found the Virago paperbacks, and I am sure that more people would enjoy them if they continue to be available. Do you have any idea how well the paperbacks have sold?

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