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.


County Chronicles by Angela Thirkell – A later Barsetshire novel of love, change and postwar life

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It is the late forties, and Thirkell carries on the story of Barsetshire through her usual themes: families, friends, allies and mild enemies. It is rooted in the countryside, the houses, cottages and great buildings of the town and county. The memories of at least one war runs through conversations and thoughts as people consider the thankfully few losses of loved ones. Families are nonetheless changed, as traditions are upset and houses are no longer remain in the same ownership. New relationships can now be considered as some of the old rules are relaxed. An individual’s wealth is now important as well as their family, and some interesting relationships are created, not least between the new man of money, Sam Adams, and Lucy Marling from an old established but impoverished family. As the local church hierarchy is mentioned, the Bishop’s Palace is gently upset by the restoration of a bell allegedly used by fish asking for food by some mischievous children. This novel, in common with all of the other Barsetshire books, has a gentle reminder of the Barchester novels of Anthony Trollope, and the character names of his more famous families. Though not one of my favourite wartime novels, this book succeeds in carrying the story forward into a brave new postwar world, even though it is not universally welcomed. 


This is a book where many stories and themes move throughout. Apart from the younger Lucy who discovers love and purpose through her marriage to Mr Adams, there is the mysterious Isabel whose sense of duty to her ailing mother means that even her dependability as a secretary and help must be second in her priorities.  Political issues and the near universally deplored Labour government are seen as the reason for reduction in income, but finance is needed to stand as a Member of Parliament, which the older established families do not have. Sorrow is expressed at the departure of the local Vicar, as his replacement will have a different attitude to the local families. Inheritance is still an issue, with depleted lands and daughters of even wealthy households determined to work amidst the farm animals. 


Lady Agnes is still vague and concerned with clothes and seemingly unaware of reality, but is always saved by her undoubted affectionate generosity. Those who were children in previous volumes are now grown up and causing their own waves in the traditional community, even if the weak and lovelorn Oliver Marling is still upsetting people. Another young man who is being condemned by many is Francis Brandon whose continued presence in his mother’s home together with his wife and children is seen as a deplorable situation. Lady Cora is a duke’s daughter with a sad past of lost loves in the recent war, but with a lot of drive in every respect. Her independence and determination to keep her family home going seems an old fashioned sort of quest, but the reader is left in no doubt that if anyone can save the farm and ancestral home it will be her. That she feels that there is no chance of finding love for herself is a sad note in a book that is full of romances at many ages. 


This later book is sometimes confusing because of similar names such as Belton and Brandon, children and young people whose ages are not always consistent with what has occurred in previous novels, and place names which are not always clear. Thirkell herself admitted that she struggled with consistency in her later books, and it is only relatively recently that her devotees have tried to sort out maps and other questions.  This is an excellent book, as comforting as any of her earlier writing, and I recommend it as a lovely read to anyone who enjoys complicated family and community stories.  


It is a while since I have posted a review of Angela Thirkell’s books, but I am still trying to cover all of her Barsetshire novels. If you wish to find my earlier posts, just look under her name above on the right. I have lost count how many there are! I am trying to fill in the gaps.     

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!