The Demon in the House by Angela Thirkell – an early Barsetshire novel of Tony Morland

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This book, not often mentioned as being in the Barsetshire series, is a little bit of a curiosity even given the range of books tackled by Thirkell. While many of her books tend to focus on one family, or individuals within it for much of the novel, they often broaden out to include the other local preoccupations and concerns, especially given the wartime context of many of the books. This book, however, is almost exclusively centred on a boy, Tony Morland, his mother Laura, and quite a limited number of his friends and acquaintances. These are characters introduced in “High Rising”, but here they are far more undiluted by outside concerns, when even those women who dominated the action in that book of romantic mishaps and action are side lined. As an early book (1934), this is very much an attempt, I feel, to push a character as far as it will go, rather than look at a situation.

Tony Morland is twelve years old, the youngest son of the widowed Laura, and a strong motivation for her to carry on writing to earn enough to keep him at school and run two establishments with her devoted servant, Stoker. Tony always has advanced views, bordering on obsessions, and Laura finds it easier to give in than fight the constant chatter and reasons why he must have a bike, how fast he can ride it, and why the current bike is woefully inadequate to his ambitions. The fact that she suffers a dozen fears of his imminent demise as the result of his cycling is immaterial to him. He has his admirers; the Vicarage daughters Dora and Rose, only occasionally argue with him, and he is often accompanied by his friend from school, Robert Wesendonck or “Donk”, who limits himself to expressive mouth organ playing. The book records the various school holidays during a year, as Tony is at a good boarding school. Not everyone is a fan of Tony’s, as Dr. Ford is particularly acute in condemning his more outlandish actions. George Knox, introduced in “High Rising”, is a sort of adult version of Tony, seeing himself in various guises as author of brilliant (if uninviting to the general reader) of historical biographies,  and lacking the ability to know when he has said enough. George is to find successors in the Barsetshire series as several men suffer from a lack of perception about their own powers of speech.

This book is a curious book of school boy humour and adult insight into daily life. There are times when the book, like Tony’s incessant chatter, can a little wearing, and it is best tackled, I believe, in short chapters. It is undoubtedly gently amusing, and does much to provide background for characters such as Laura, who may well be the autobiographical portrait of Thirkell, driven to write popular books to earn money. Laura is a character who appears in many of the later books as the distracted author, called on to speak, act as companion and generally support while the main action of the novel goes on around her.  I found her attitude to Tony familiar, driven mad with fantasies of his injury, maintaining her equilibrium in the face of his constant ideas, coping with the other characters who demand her attention. There are some lovely descriptive passages as Tony and others find the beauties and curiosities of nature, and George Knox leads a trip to a Cathedral. Altogether this is not the strongest book in the series, and the Demon, or Tony, is an acquired taste, but it is an enjoyable read which sets the reader up for the rest of the Barsetshire books.

Being determined to review all the Thirkell books, but not in order, I continue to look for editions of all the Barsetshire novels. Barter Books seemed to be lacking last week, but there was a few to be found at the Astley Book Farm including a first edition of “Love Among the Ruins”. I have never seen “Demon in the House” in a bookshop, and the Moyer Bell edition is a little uninspiring with a completely irrelevant cover, but at least it exists! I still need to check if I have achieved the full set…

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14 thoughts on “The Demon in the House by Angela Thirkell – an early Barsetshire novel of Tony Morland

  1. Demon in the House is notable as, if you were to read in internal chronological order (or order of publication) it is the first one where Barsetshire is actually mentioned. Wild Strawberries and High Rising come before it and are considered Barsetshire novels, since their characters and locations show up in the later entries in the series. But that visit to the cathedral is the first time Thirkell explicitly set the books in Barsetshire. If Tony and George Knox and all hadn’t made that trip, perhaps the Barsetshire novels as we know them wouldn’t have come to be.

    1. Excellent point! Certainly the characters appear in many or most of the rest of the series, and “Wild Strawberries” is so much about the Leslie family that the rest of the novels do seem like a continuation, but I had not realised that the Cathedral visit is the first definite location in Barsetshire.

  2. I am slowly reading the Thirkell books in order of publication (I just finished The Brandons) and was reluctant to read this one as I found Tony so annoying. I found myself warming to Tony as I read this, shaking my head while reading his interpretation of the world. Donk is the perfect friend for Tony as he doesn’t talk at all and Tony talks enough for two people. Laura Morland is my favorite character and High Rising still my favorite Thirkell and I like to see Laura and the other High Rising characters appear in later novels. Lovely review, Julie!

  3. You’re quite right to make the point that new readers ought not to start here, Joules. Although I don’t know why it is so odd, I do know that Thirkell didn’t regard herself as good at short stories; but I wonder if this started out as stories in her mind and then she cemented them together into a novel. I really cannot stomach Rose and Dora, but yes, Tony is modelled on Lance Thirkell (third son) which is how the model railway expertise comes in.

    Irritatingly the Moyer Bell edition lists the novels in alphabetical order of title. But the website angelathirkellsociety.co.uk has a section ‘Books and Background’ where there is a PDF to click on to get a complete list of all her stuff including non-fiction and non-Barsetshire fiction.

    1. You may well be right about short stories; certainly the novel does not really flow towards a climax or resolution. I believe I have reviewed “Christmas at High Rising” a Virago paperback in which only the first story has a Christmas theme, and several stories are non Barsetshire! Thank you for the information re the order. I once had them in the order that I found in a book about AT, now they are spread around again. I think that I have several copies of more than one title, but I have only one Demon in the House, which was tricky when it temporarily disappeared. I have read virtually all of them at least once, but I remember some better than others.

  4. I am quite tolerant of Tony and this one does sound fun. I have two Thirkells coming up in August but I think they are fairly random ones and I’ve lost the nice order I was keeping at one time. Oh well, I’ll have to collect the lot then re-read them in order, won’t I?!

    1. I was in a big book shop yesterday (High Peak Bookstore and Cafe) and I spotted many of the Poldark books. I am fighting the urge to start re reading those! Now I have posted this I will find another Thirkell to re read, but it will not be in order.

  5. I skipped over this one because I couldn’t find a library copy and am reluctant to add more unread print books to the shelves (will have to wait until I can get back to the states and hopefully my new library system will own it or ILL it for me). I do love this series and am mostly trying to read them in order, I’ve read four now and only 25 left to go!

  6. Good luck with the other 25! You may have more luck with Demon in the House in America anyway, as the only copy I possess is the Moyer Bell edition. There are probably other editions out there, but I haven’t heard of one in the wild; I know that some people had trouble getting hold of a hardback copy….

  7. Yes, I agree the cover for this title is pretty useless, but Moyer Bell did keep the Thirkell flag flying when she was being neglected: only I believe they went out of business. This may even have given Virago the idea to re-issue the Barsetshire novels, as they had already reprinted Trooper to the Southern Cross themselves.

    I think Tony has just the right amount of annoyingness, as he himself might say! But I’ve never felt the urge to read Coventry Patmore’s “The Angel in the House” which the title parodies, although it was very popular, particularly in the USA apparently: maybe I don’t aspire to the role of Ideal Woman …

    1. I have not discovered a copy of “Trooper to the Southern Cross” yet, but it should be easier as there must be some Virago editions still around. Do we think that Virago have stopped producing At’s works now?
      I think my husband would agree with the Ideal Woman being a remote one in this house, thank goodness!

      1. All I know is I haven’t had a reply to my enquiry and to the suggestion that at least the WWII titles and their immediate successors (which indicate in a small way how Britain “lost the peace”) would sell because of the re-appearance of some familiar characters and because of their authenticity. Even if it’s only a frisson, knowing that Jane Gresham, for instance, worrying – in Miss Bunting – that her POW husband may be receiving fake news about the total destruction of London represents real fears in real time lends an extra power to the narrative. Bur I can see that Virago do have an awful lot of choice!

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