This 1948 novel is a late, and relatively difficult to get hold of, entry into the Barsetshire series. Covering a reasonably large number of characters introduced in previous novels, it is perhaps not the place to start with Thirkell’s books, but would work out of sequence, which is the way I have read it first time round. Having read the vast majority of Thirkell’s books at least once, I recognised most of the characters, even if they did cause me some confusion at times. Fortunately, even if the names are sometimes a little too similar, (Lucy and Lydia, Brandons and Beltons) Thirkell was such an able and experienced writer that she makes her characters real individuals, with quirks both attractive and difficult. That is one of the most fascinating skills that Thirkell had, and she exploited to the full even in her less popular books; her characters are annoying, exasperating, and sometimes tiresome. They are not always young, beautiful and attractive; they are perhaps older, negative about many things, and tough to like. They are always memorable, different from each other, though some may share some characteristics (Mr. Middleton’s monologues compared with George Knox’s, anyone?).
This book shows those who have survived the problems of the Second World War, mainly on the Home Front, in various situations. Some lives have changed forever, whereas others have largely continued in a similar way, though perhaps with sad losses. A school has been established in one of the big houses, and the usual complicated links between the staff, parents and the general naughtiness of the children is fully described. The great sadness of Freddy Belton seems to be hampering his relationships with other women; his mother watches on with sadness as more than one women, or girl, is showing an interest. Lady Graham is an older woman still gathering attention from impressionable young men, even if Richard Tebben is more interested in a new love. Jessica Dean is still artistically ensnaring one and all, but her sister Susan is discovering that a new love is disturbingly powerful. A less important character, Mrs Updike, is still having minor accidents, while the servants and gardeners often know exactly what is going on and wield the real power. The distinction between children and adolescents is a grey one; while Clarissa tries to be mature, the Leslie boys are still climbing buildings. At least two aristocratic men are being saved from undue pressure by their noble and able wives, while Miss Merriman hides her secret feelings under the pressures of looking after lovely Lady Emily and her portable property, especially at her birthday celebrations. Will this book, as so many of the Barsetshire novels, end with an engagement, or will there merely be stirrings of affection between those who have given upon marriage?
There is therefore much for Thirkell fans to enjoy in this novel, as people carry on being themselves under a warm sun, friendships changed by war remerge, and even the lively David Leslie seems tamed by marriage and fatherhood. Many of the favourite characters are present; while there is no great drama this is still a comforting slice of mainly rural life of immediate postwar Britain. Class and politics are still discussed, but only as it affects life and supplies. There are passing references to the standard foreign characters, and there is still a servant class, perhaps including the huge family of Ed the mechanic. This may be upsetting to some, but it is probably an authentic view of how certain people reacted to the daily difficulties of life. As always, I greatly enjoyed this somewhat longer book, and recommend it if you can get sight of a copy.
I am actually fortunate enough to have two copies of this book, one a first edition found at the Astley Book Barn. I have discovered that the most unlikely places sometimes hide wonderful books, but they need some tracking down (and to be resistant to dust and cobwebs). I’m still fighting with that big university essay, but I have some wonderful books to read so it is a tough life. Meanwhile, the tortoises are home but the kittens are coming….Here is hoping that Selwyn the Vicarage cat will not attempt to lead an escape attempt again!