This is an excellent example of a book of its time, (1947), when rationing, shortages and the exhaustion of war is still heavy, yet there is an underlying sense of relief. The characters and the settings are the usual mix of Thirkell favourites, with certain people introduced and others placed in different, sometimes difficult situations. This is a novel in which Thirkell is completely in control, adding twists but also pursuing the obvious as the usual ending of matrimony for some emerges. Not that she claims that a happy marriage is always the end; sometimes the tensions of life can make couples and those around them sad. This, however, is overwhelmingly a happy, comforting read, of faithful dependability on characters for those who have already discovered Barchestshire, and an intriguing and attractive introduction to those newer to the world that Thirkell created.
The weather in May in those post war times is grey and generally awful. Thirkell opens with the phrase that “the weather has got the bit between its teeth and was rapidly heading for the ice age”. This is a country at peace after a six year war, in which families and couples have been separated, but it is “the peace which certainly passed everyone’s understanding”. The government voted in are referred to as “They”; Thirkell was no socialist and gossip relates to the common enemies of the government and the Bishop. She knows her Church of England, as a new Vicar is introduced and there is a suitable exchange of houses. Colin Keith is asking everyone to help him find a suitable house for a mysterious widow, a Mrs Arbuthnot, in who he is showing too much interest much to the chagrin of his otherwise loving sister, Lydia. Her husband, Noel, also shows much interest in this attractive woman, while her sister in law also creates excitement among local birdwatchers. Fortunately Jessica Dean and others are on hand to help, with common sense and an uncommon knowledge of human nature. In this volume of the Barsetshire chronicles women are the main characters, while certain men seem to be completely hapless in the face of circumstances. We see everyone in action, from a talkative gardener to the local gentry, with touching yet very funny situations involving the aged sexton of the parish church and others. The Birketts are leaving the headmasters house and there is a funny yet sentimental end of year service in which Mrs Morland, autobiographical character throughout the series, tries to express much in her usual confused way.
There are phrases and sections in this book which would perhaps shock today’s reader. Women are often known by their surname alone, emphasising their married or widowed status rather than their own first name. Lydia, obviously a favourite character, is drawn carefully and honestly. There is a class prejudice which can shock, but often there is a greater understanding of life to be found within the workers. There is anti German feeling, which is hardly surprising given the time in which this novel is written, but may be off putting. This is a delicately balanced novel, skilfully written, observing the state of the nation after a war which affected everyone. Class, romance, reality all play their part in constructing in a world where people come to terms with the shortages of post war Britain, characteristically grey and cold weather, and the variety of people’s obsessions.
My somewhat wayward path through Thirkell’s novels continues into the postwar period, in the knowledge that some of the later books do lose some coherence. This is volume, not always the easiest to get hold of in the series, is definitely worth tracking down, if only to understand the subsequent books’ running references to elements of Barsetshire life and people.
I am rejoicing in a repaired laptop! When most people say their electronic devices are broken, they usually mean a glitch in their running the internet etc; my laptop was literally coming apart. Very heavy handed….Thank you, Code Red Computers of Ashbourne, Derbyshire!