The Old Bank House by Angela Thirkell – A Wallow in the Perpetual Summer of 1949

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This postwar Thirkell novel, as ever featuring the inhabitants of Barsetshire, revels in its interconnectedness. Though it could be read as a standalone, mainly concerning the Grantly family, a vicarage family shown in that difficult period immediately after the Second World War, the surrounding characters and the character of the eponymous House are so interconnected with the previous seventeen novels that it will be better appreciated as part of that long series. Grantlys, Marlings, Leslies, and Adams to name but a few families all have their contribution to make in this 1949 novel. While not the most easy to acquire book by Angela Thirkell, this is a novel of country life and people that will be enjoyed by long standing fans of the series, and provide gentle treats for the newer reader.

The story opens in Edgewood Rectory, set in its ancient landscape, but with a family of the time. Mrs Grantly has some vague notions, but loves her brood of four children who have all grown up with the challenges presented by war. Tom, a major in the Army who has returned to Oxford at his demobilisation, is feeling the confusion of a soon to be older graduate about what he can do with his considerable life experience. Eleanor has found a job well known to readers of Barsetshire, in the Red Cross library, but yearns to find a different employment with a family who will come to seem fond of her. Henry is annoyingly and ceaselessly looking for his call up papers for the peacetime army. Grace is at the annoying stage, literally latching onto various individuals. The Rector, Mr Grantly, is bewildered by his family, but accompanies his wife to see the elderly Miss Sowerby who is regretfully leaving the Old Bank House, an ancient and sympathetically described dwelling which has been bought by the blustering but good hearted Mr Adams. Much comedy ensues around a rare plant, taken care of by a boy in the kitchen away from those who would seek its seeds. This is a book in which romance is found, a gentle departure occurs, and some confusion over resulting employment all contributes to a satisfying end. There is the usual element of kindly farce as misunderstandings and personalities combine to work out in the end. With some splendid set pieces concerning a handsome bull, a well, and some interesting children, this is a delightful book dealing with characters who have become like friends to the long term reader.

While this is not one of the most significant books in the Barsetshire series, it does resolve the difficulties of several characters, even if the ages and generations involved are beginning to get a little hazy. This book represents the post war rationing, and the decline of some of the families who once lived in the large houses they now inhabit part of while still having many civic duties. There are still the class concerns of servants who are unmarried yet mother to several, there are still days in which the Nurses bring up children in nurseries. A man who owns factories and successful businesses can still struggle with social conventions, while a matriarch wonders aloud how to say thank you to American friends who still send food parcels.  This is a book for those who know something of Barsetshire, but also those who are beginning to discover its joys. If you are able to locate this gentle, humourous book, I recommend it as a good read, wallowing in its perpetual summer.

 

As the clocks go back, I believe I managed to squeeze an extra hour of reading in, which was fortunate as  have a lot of books to finish and posts to write. Last night was a Variety concert in the church Hall – I read an extract from “Bed Among the Lentils”, one of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads monologues. This one features a Vicar’s Wife with alcohol problems….It all went very well, and there was some lovely music played. Meanwhile the temperature has definitely dropped here, and it is dark. More than time to read many books!

Love among the Ruins by Angela Thirkell; Barsetshire with all its characters in full detail.

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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!

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.