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!

A Double Affair by Angela Thirkell

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This is a late novel in the Barsetshire series of novels. Sometimes that means that it is not as sharp, in a good way, as some of the wartime novels. I feel it is simply not quite as entertaining, that Thirkell knew her books would sell so some of the focus slipped, and that this book was simply a criticism of one or two of the characters. That said, it is still a novel by a wonderful author with the confidence to expand on her characters, themes and setting, and on a first read through I really enjoyed this book.

The first part of the book is a dominated by a wedding. Miss Merriman, perfect companion, secretary and personal assistant to Lady Emily of blessed memory, and since then assistant to the Pomfrets, has become “quietly and happily engaged”  to the Reverend Herbert Choyce, Vicar of Hatch End. The opening chapters describe the build up to the wedding, overseen by the lovely but vague Lady Graham. Over the years Miss Merriman has made many friends and gathered admirers so her wedding preparations are populated by many presents and discussions about the ceremony. Her progress before the great day shows how she will still be a force for good, still be able to bring out the best in people and situations, still be touchingly surprised by the amount of affection she creates, especially among the Leslie family. This section of the novel is the happily ever after piece writ large, the details of a wedding universally welcomed.

The rest of the book is devoted to various people in gentle life changing events. A single lady living with her mother develops her life ambition, and in its success creates an opportunity for an adult son to see his mother happily settled and begin to develop his own matrimonial plans. Another wedding is anticipated, and all seems well. The dominating character is a young woman, Edith, Lady Graham’s youngest and at this stage, most challenging children. At eighteen she is in some ways grown up, having been to America with Uncle David and his practical wife, but in other ways she feels the way she is treated as an child is unfair. She is unsure about what she wants, a career in estate management, to marry into land, to find her place in local society. In some ways she knows there are young men who are friendly towards her, but they and others still treat her as a child, at least in her eyes. Her behaviour is seen as unfriendly and immature, described in a time before ‘teenagers’ existed. All is not lost, however, and a happy ending beckons for Edith and many others.

This is an enjoyable book, full of the small pictures of rural life among the minor aristocracy. The characters are full of life, gentle and real, full of local concerns and frustrations. In this edition at least there is not the jarring obsessions of class and nationalism that are negative elements in some of the other novels, but rather a contented acceptance and working out of life stories. I did not detect as many inconsistencies in martial names and status as some of the other late books, but as always ages are fluid as people of the older generations seem to survive to enormous ages if they are required for narrative purposes. This is a very readable book, full of what makes Thirkell a special and memorable novelist, and the Barsetshire Chronicles such a memorable series.

The copy that I read is another ancient library book. It is certainly more obscure than some of the Thirkells I have posted about on this blog, but it is Angela Thirkell Reading Week  (a facebook group) at the moment, so I thought it was well worth reviewing now. After a quick visit to London on Monday, I have two more Persephone books to review together with some tasty tomes I rounded up in other bookshops. I managed to get to the Persephone shop itself, so had a good look around at their fifty books they wish they had published. A couple of nice hardbacks as well…

Love At All Ages by Angela Thirkell

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This is one of Thirkell’s novels that has not been reprinted by Virago, so it may prove a little more difficult to track down. It is also one of the last of the Barsetshire chronicles, appearing in 1959, and it has the tell tail signs of a late Thirkell; when she admits to being unsure about some of her own characters, and admits she cannot make the effort to fill in a back story for those not central to the tale. On the positive side, it triumphantly continues and completes the story of some characters, and hints that others will develop well with time. Love comes for an older pair, favourite couples discuss their long standing relationships, and young people take their first tentative steps in romance. There is a resolute bachelor and Nurses and Nannies aplenty. This book ends some stories and begins new ones, but Thirkell’s grasp of some of the details of her created world do waver, and this may affect the enjoyment of the novel by those readers who have studied her novels thoroughly.

This book rejoices in many aristocratic titles and some of the characters resign themselves to studying their Burke and Debrett more closely in order to understand those around them. A baby is born to titled parents much to the delight of an American Duchess and her predecessor, the Dowager. The Christening provokes a wedding, and a visitor suggests a new focus for the sister left behind. Lydia and Noel Merton celebrate their long relationship and some of its vicissitudes, including the fearsome arrival of a wartime telegram. Lydia remains one of my favourite characters, and her professionally distinguished husband Noel is one of the most interestingly described men, with his harmless flirtations. Ludo, of whom much is expected, is growing into his role, full of references back to his success with the Clover theatricals in “Coronation Year”, and becomes attracted to Lavinia. So the major families of Barsetshire flourish and continue, even if sometimes the names seem a little muddled; Wickham and Wicklow are both men who know the country and estates, and I have been trying to separate them over many volumes.

As always this is a book of the middle classes and minor aristocracy, clergy and congregations. The lower classes are sometimes dismissed as peasants unable to cope with the new post war world, unsure of hospitals and how to handle pensions. There is a survival of servants who know their worth as the last of the functionaries who can actually run houses, but Thirkell as always gives them limited characteristics. The mistake in this book which really stood out for me is the identification of Martin Leslie as the man who suffered the loss of a foot in military service; without checking back I am fairly confident that while Martin indeed suffered a leg injury, it was Robin Dale who actually lost his foot. This is a minor quibble very much in the spirit of Mrs. Morland, whose best – selling yearly books bear a strong resemblance to Thirkell’s during the mid century.

This is a book for Thirkell’s many fans, who will find much to delight and divert in this novel, as characters reappear even if only in passing reference. It would work as a standalone novel, and certainly Thirkell’s books do not have to be read in strict order, but to get the maximum enjoyment from this book which aims to dispel the “Universal Dullness” of the world, a working knowledge of Barsetshire and its many citizens would add greatly to the reader’s enjoyment of this entertaining tale.

I managed to find a copy of this book in Derby Central library in a special display to celebrate the successors of Jane Austen. I’m just a bit sad that it will have to be returned, but I did find another title I don’t own so watch this space for another obscure Thirkell…

Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell

Wild Strawberries: A Virago Modern Classic

An early Thirkell, and typically light and gentle, Wild Strawberries is more of a comedy and character introduction than many of the later novels. This is a book which introduces characters such as Lady Emily, who is remembered with affection throughout all of the Barsetshire Chronicles. It also introduces the charming and feckless David, the gentle Agnes who achieves much, but almost unseen, and the first sighting of Clarissa and the other children who grow up to wreak havoc in the later books. The book is not only introductory as many of the characters have their own moment before they become background to later stories.

This book, like Thirkell’s other early novels, takes place in a long summer of peace before the outbreak of the Second World War. In 1934 the emerging BBC is offering employment to women graduates, while many girls are limited to naïve assumptions about love and marriage. Not that such girls cannot hold their own socially when lunches, parties and other events decide true affections. Lady Emily is a high maintenance lady in that she has much “portable property”, being glasses, scarves, art supplies and so on. She also delights in meddling in every arrangement, creating confusion in a gentle way. She accidentally arranges for the boring Mr Holt to visit to everyone’s inconvenience, but Agnes’ child fixation soon agitates him beyond measure. Mary experiences a crush on David, John emerges from his great loss, and Martin is a teenager quickly distracted by new ideas. The French family who come as paying guests to the Vicarage are a beautifully drawn family of recognisable individuals, including the boastful Madam Boulle.

This could be seen as a trivial book of small events and delicate romance. It is a comedy of manners of a long lost age, when servants were not a problem but had their individual quirks and traditions. There are lovely set pieces of a church service nearly wrecked by Lady Emily’s interventions, all well intentioned, the concert which bewilders Mary but is a tried and tested formula, and the celebration of Martin’s birthday which echoes a party held to mark his father’s coming of age before his wartime death. This book lacks the strong stories of the later books, especially the wartime novels, and some of the sadness and loss which typify them. In some ways it is an introduction to the Barsetshire Chronicles set in a blissful summer, before the sharp class distinctions and anti – foreigner language creeps in, but others may find it too light. In the context of all of Thirkell’s books it is indeed a lightweight read, but its reissue in the Virago Modern Classics series in 2012 has made it more available and a favourite re read mentioned very favourably in contemporary novels such as Peck’s “Bewildering Cares”. High recommendation indeed!

I am working my way through the Angela Thirkell books that can be easily found as a result of the VMC reprints of the last few years. I am not sure if they will bring any more out, so I am still collecting the original books where I can find them! Hay on Wye was an obvious hunting ground, and I found “The Old Bank House ” at Elizabeth Gaskell’s house. Hooray for accessible historic buildings!