Miss Bunting by Angela Thirkell – A wartime book of gentle village life with a dash of humour

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An aged governess brings together several of the noted families of Barsetshire in this gentle novel of the imaginary county as one of the wartime editions of this wonderful series. As with virtually all of her other novels, this is more than a standalone book, as it is independent in its storyline, but makes reference to characters who have featured or will feature in the Barsetshire stories. Although published originally in 1945, this book is one of a series reprinted in the Virago Modern Classics series, which makes it easily available. 

 

 Despite its original time of writing, this is far from a tale of wartime horrors, blitz or even severe shortages. Rather, its gentle humour deals with the problems of class, of acceptable behaviour and taste, and the difficulties of at least one character who has sustained a life changing injury. The most serious ongoing theme throughout is the plight of Jane Gresham, whose naval officer husband is missing in action. Torn by her fears for him in a strange land, her attempts to rationalise her feelings and her need to deal with her young son Frank, she is a resolute yet troubled woman who seeks to maintain her life. Only Thirkell could create and sustain a small boy like Frank Gresham and his friend Tom Watson; fans of the Barsetshire series will recall Tony Morland, who also alternately reduced his mother to fury and despairing affection by his continual talking and wild plans. Frank is a toned down version, but still has the hall marks of the original model. 

 

The Miss Bunting of the title is an elderly governess who has taught in many of the notable families described in the novels. In this book she has been engaged by Sir Robert and Lady Fielding to act as teacher and companion to their daughter Anne who has previously struggled with school. Living in the village brings the shy girl into contact with different people, including Robin Dale, son of the elderly vicar and teacher of Frank and Tom. Less acceptably to her parents she meets Heather and her father Sam Adams. Mr Adams has made his considerable fortune in engineering and has few social skills by Barsetshire standards, and his daughter has not grown up with the understanding of the middle and upper classes that would prepare her for life in the village. As small events and various incidents occur throughout the novel, the humour of daily life amid shortages and war are fascinating.

 

This book’s themes are somewhat dated and would be controversial if examined too closely. Class and social expectations mean than some people and their actions are universally condemned, while there is a lot of criticism of a servant who is in some respects a refugee from the fighting in Europe. This is a book which shows its age. However, It is essentially a good natured book, a gentle book, and a book which deals with its characters in a realistic way. It has rhythms and themes common to Thirkell at her best, and is incredibly sensitive to the plight of Jane Gresham and eventually, Miss Bunting herself. Overall I am very fond of this book, admiring its characters and their interactions. In the scale of Thirkells series of novels it is a favourite for its gentle appreciation of people in their places and the situations in which they find themselves. Its humour and real affection for singular people shines through the writing, and I thoroughly recommend it to all. 

 

This is another review in my occasional series of looking at Angela Thirkell’s books, in which I have picked an unusual path through the Barsetshire tales. I hope they are of interest to both those who know and love the books already, as well as a form of introduction to those who are less familiar with the social world that she created.

 


4 thoughts on “Miss Bunting by Angela Thirkell – A wartime book of gentle village life with a dash of humour

  1. Such a good thing that Virago reprinted this. I can suggest several more to them, especially Cheerfulness Breaks In which they only have as an e-book. Thirkell apparently offended a family with which she stayed by making the portrait of Miss Bunting a little too close to the real-life original who was distinguished by the black ribbon round her throat and her habit of sitting slightly outside the family circle. This character is so interesting because she appears to be insignificant and quiet: but really she is indomitable and the only person the arrogant David Leslie was ever afraid of. Her standards are uncompromising and she doesn’t hesitate to put down her French colleague in a way that settles her hash but can’t be described as rude. She also, surprisingly, understands what the visiting Free French soldiers really need and provides them with cigarettes, smoking one herself in a dashing way. Yet another fashion that has changed since the book was written!

    Would Thirkell have continued to write in this way if it had not been for WWII? She knew she was providing, along with other novelists, an escape-hatch from the very real prospects of mutilation, death and invasion hovering over the country which had no means of knowing if the Nazis would be defeated. Thank goodness the British government saw the light over excessive paper-rationing, realising that morale among the civilian population was of vital importance.

    She is an elitist and an unrepentant Conservative, yet she makes these elements serve her comedy. She probably agrees with Lord Stoke that State education for everyone would be bad for the country and would lead to nobody knowing a Friesian from a Holstein: ‘As none of the company present knew what either of these animals were like, there was a respectful pause.’ It only takes Mrs Tebben to offer some home-made goat’s cheese on the grounds that ‘it doesn’t matter how bad goat’s milk goes, because you can always let it go a bit worse and make cheese with it’ for me to feel that I would not have been a strong enough character to cope with life in the Barsetshire countryside.

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