Private Enterprise by Angela Thrikell – Post war Barsetshire

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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!

 

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…

Close Quarters by Angela Thirkell – The characters are all….

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A late novel in the Barsetshire series (1958), Close Quarters is a little unusual in that it features several deaths. Not that it is a gloomy read at all; there is sadness, but as always the narrative keeps moving as life continues in the fictional houses of Barsetshire. Clergy establish their parishes, family matters discussed, and the vexed questions of where the displaced are to live continues. Those that can gain mysterious access to the rare and nearly rationed do so, while romance is still found. There is much trivial talk of other people’s affairs, and there is as usual only a slight plot to speak of, but there is much to fascinate and indulge in for those who enjoy the life of those Barsetshire people and their daily concerns.

The book opens with a Bring and Buy sale which is meant to benefit the Mixo-Lydians (Thirkell readers will understand) but ultimately benefits a clergy family greatly, thanks to small acts of kindness. It also emerges that Margot Macfadyen’s husband Donald is seriously ill, and as the inevitable takes place she finds support in many places as people appreciate her continuing devotion to her elderly parents. She begins an odyssey of staying with people as she seeks a new house, and during her visits she encounters all the usual suspects as dinner parties and excursions yield everything except a house which is near enough to her parents yet not so close as to begin her servitude once more. An astonishing number of people do visit the elderly Admiral, and are willing to listen to his re-enactments of naval battles which some joke go back to Nelson. Set pieces of dinner parties abound as some characters are almost caricatures of themselves, especially Mr Belton whose very clothes proclaim his role as squire. Long remembered treasures emerge, and are adapted for a new era when the great houses cannot remain in one family’s hands. Canon Fewling emerges as more than a kind observer, and Rose Fairweather, longstanding practical friend to Margot, maintains her aiding and abetting of romance. There are the usual references to other authors; Dickens is praised while George Eliot on clergy is condemned.

This novel is less suited than many as a starting point for those new to Thirkell’s books, as the way characters are dealt with is more enjoyable for those who know of them from several novels. As in many of these books, characterisation is all; from the local undertaker who knows about trees to the delicate confusion of the recently bereaved. There are still difficult moments as the new town is seen as so separate from the established county set, but local prejudices are hard to overcome as Thirkell appreciated. The Mixo –Lydians are still not really dealt many would wish, but there is a certain gentle teasing rather than outright condemnation. Thirkell admits that she does not find it easy to keep up with all the names, and I particularly dislike the way Margot is continually referred to as “Mrs. Macfadyen” throughout the novel, but that is in the nature of the books. Sadly this book is less easy to obtain than many that have been reprinted by Virago, but for the true Thirkell fan it ties up some loose ends in fine style.

Meanwhile we are recovering from a journey to Sheffield in the pouring rain while the overnight snow stubbornly remained. Northernvicar’s driving skills were frequently tested! I hid in Waterstones while he did good works, and acquired one or two gems. (including the autobiography of ‘Margo’ Durrell, which is very funny). Later today I am doing a talk on my ‘Lifelong Passion’ …for books of course. Here’s hoping I get a few friends to hear me!

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?

Growing Up by Angela Thirkell – a wartime gem!

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This one of the wartime Thirkell novels that work so well. It reflects a time when the Second World War had been going on some time, written when the outcome of the fighting was still not apparent, when there was no indication of exactly how much longer it would go on. The fear of whether one of the characters had survived the evacuation of Dunkirk was in the past, but the drama of D Day and similar decisive action was still very much in the future. Men, brothers, husbands are still liable to be sent abroad; there is the real fear of them not returning. There is a certain settled acceptance of war time arrangements such as an entire hospital being billeted in the local big house, wounded soldiers being invalided out of the army, women taking on roles that would never have been envisaged pre war. This is the civilian side of war, but not one of bombings and blitz, but still there is some grief and fear.

Sir Harry and Lady Waring are living in part of their large house, the rest having been converted to a hospital for wounded soldiers. They lost their only son in the First World War, but are more than accepting that their nephew Cecil will inherit the house, provided that he survives his naval service. His sister, Leslie arrives on the scene having been involved at a high level in war work, but having suffered when her ship back from foreign work was torpedoed. At the beginning of the novel Lydia and Noel Merton are sent as paying guests to live with the Warings. Both have appeared in the Barsetshire novels before; Lydia was the memorable Lydia Keith, outrageous and noisy as a girl, now utterly devoted to her husband Noel and a settled character. She has become someone able to deal with many people and situations in a mature way, but still she has doubts. The servants in this novel are real characters, far from being dismissed as being unimportant. The scary Nannie Allen, overprotective of those she cares for, her daughter Selina, the focus of many male hopes while she cries at any situation, and Jasper the gamekeeper all contribute to the novel. Meanwhile the soldiers and nurses in the other part of the house contribute greatly to the story. There are a few set pieces which are particularly funny, including Mrs Spender who otherwise features in the Northbridge Rectory novel and Mrs Laura Morland, who gives a talk at the hospital. The latter sounds very much like a real experience on Thirkell’s part.

This is a very satisfactory episode in the Barsetshire series. There is no denying the fear and tension in the background; Thirkell in common with everyone else had no way of knowing what the outcome of the war would be; while the immediate fear of invasion had receded by this point, there was no foreseeable end and many people were still being sent secretly abroad. This novel does not contain the subtext of suspicion of refugees that some of the other books feature, each character has respect and understanding. I have really enjoyed rereading this book, and anyone who likes Thirkell’s novels will appreciate it.

Sadly, Virago have not so far produced this novel as an actual book, just on kindle. As I think I have said before, Thirkell’s books never seem to be the sort to suit the ebook format, but maybe that is just my view. There are copies out there ( I seem to have acquired two produced in wartime) and there is probably a Moyer Bell edition to be had from the USA. If you like Thirkell’s wartime books, and I think that they are the best, this is definitely a gem.

High Rising by Angela Thirkell – a most enjoyable introduction to Barsetshire

This early Thirkell novel is notable for introducing some significant characters to the Barsetshire establishment that were going to reoccur throughout the chronicles, Laura and Tony Morland. Other characters such as George Knox reappear, such as Mr Middleton, notorious for their ceaseless talking and self promotion. This novel begins in the festive season, but the events continue well into the new year, so is certainly not limited to winter reading, despite the cover on the Virago Modern Classics edition. Other characters such as Anne Todd, Stoker and the quickly notorious Una Grey all play their part to make this one of the most memorable of Thirkell’s novels.
The novel opens with a school prize giving in which Tony and his friend, rejoicing in the nickname of Donk, threaten to create mayhem, until Laura, Tony’s long suffering mother, takes him home to their cottage. Her servant, Stoker, takes charge, while Laura reacquaints herself with local author and personality, George Knox. All is not well in the household, as he has acquired a new secretary, who is spectacularly efficient and seems to be scheming to marry her employer. Sybil, George’s daughter, is unhappy as she is becoming attached to Adrian, Laura’s frequently bewildered publisher. Anne Todd is Laura’s secretary, who is also caring for her elderly mother, gaining the admiration of the local Doctor. There is festive drinking, a car accident and proposals of marriage, as people enjoy parties, visits and London evenings out to see King Lear. Laura is self depreciating about her writing, but she actually succeeds in attracting the devoted following that Thirkell herself wanted and probably achieved. Underlying the adult happenings, Tony tries to develop a splendid railway and express his delight in accidents and dogs. He develops his characteristic personality and is even involved in one of the dramatic scenes at the end of the book when all is revealed.
This is overall one of the cheerful interwar books in which the events are happily worked out, people feel real and there is a satisfactory plot. The servants are happy in their work, manage their employers well, and are not disparaged. The difficulty that has been seen in this novel is the treatment and discussion of Una Grey, the secretary with designs on her boss. She is in a difficult situation as a single young woman who needed to support herself by working or find a husband, and it is perhaps a little cruel of Laura and others to refer to her as the Incubus because of her devotion to George. While there are women who need to work in the Barsetshire set as the chronicles proceed, especially during the war years, their work tends towards the voluntary and not many have to work to survive as Miss Grey must, and it seems unfair to criticise her. However, she does proceed to show some nasty characteristics, and maybe the reader’s sympathy is more drawn to Anne Todd, for her devotion to her mother and her lack of financial prospects. Altogether this is a most enjoyable book and a very good starting point for the Barsetshire novels.

Although this was one of the first Thirkell novel I read, the VMC edition makes it a joy to re read.Does anyone know if there are more reprints to come in the series, or is “Miss Bunting” the final effort?

Christmas at High Rising by Angela Thirkell

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This is a book of Short stories by the writer of the Barsetshire Chronicles which mainly appeared in British magazines between 1928 and 1942. Despite the title, it is more winter than Christmas based: for a book solidly set at that season the original “High Rising” would be the book to seek out. This book was issued by Virago in 1913, and is more of a light entertainment than a book which seriously carries on the Barsetshire series. There is no reason to suppose that Thirkell ever envisioned producing a book of short stories, certainly not with this title, and so the quality and subject matter is variable.

The eight stories in this book include four concerning the main characters to be found in “High Rising”; Laura Morland and her youngest son Tony. Anyone who has read the early Barsetshire novels will recognise this memorable schoolboy as his non stop talking and obsessions with trains big and small linger in the mind. When combined with the loquacious George Knox Laura is not the only one who feels overwhelmed; I particularly like Dr. Ford who is the only one who can deal with him effectively. In these stories there is a trip to a pantomime, Valentine blues and a riding lesson as Tony proclaims his abilities, but accepts his limitations in his skills. I really enjoyed “A Nice Day in Town” which tells the story of Laura’s journey to London in search of things in short supply due to wartime rationing. Those who enjoyed Diary of a Provincial Lady will find echoes of the exasperation with shops and transport; it is only sad that it is only a short story.

The other stories vary in quality. There is a Victorian story of a children’s Christmas which is a little weak even if it is familiar territory to readers of “Three Houses”, Thirkell’s own account of her childhood. “The Private View” is an odd little story unanchored Thirkell’s other writing. The best is undoubtedly is “Shakespeare Did Not Dine Out”, an essay in which various of his plays are discussed in the light of the parties and dinner parties which looked at with a humorous eye did not go well. Capulet in Romeo and Juliet, King Claudius in Hamlet, Macbeth and other hosts are seen as poor party givers, and Shakespeare hopelessly lost in etiquette terms. It is very funny writing, Thirkell at her best, and in some ways the best in the book.

In some ways this is a book for Thirkell collectors, and as far as I know this is a collection unavailable in any other format except Virago’s edition. For anyone who does not know Thirkell’s novels this book would be a good start and may get you hooked on her quirky, funny and generally excellent characters. I recommend you track it down!

You too may be disappearing under a pile of Christmas books at the moment; I seem to have acquired a bumper crop of Christmas murder mysteries! At least I have finished all my M.A. assessment work for this term and we do not start again until the end of January, always provided I passed all four written pieces as well as submitting them early….So, reading may well be the order of the day once more.  At least as much as I can with a Vicarage Christmas!