Angela Thirkell, A Writer’s Life by Anne Hall – A biography of a woman of wit and letters

Angela Thirkell: A Writer's Life: Hall, Anne: 9781913491246:  Books

Angela Thirkell – A Writer’s Life by Anne Hall

A biography of Angela Thrikell can be a matter of controversy; this book makes mention of one that appeared and caused a lot of unhappiness. Happily this book gives a fair and honest account of a life that was perhaps full of challenges, but also of a skilful and able writer who created a world of gentle humour and incisive observations. It is beautifully illustrated with pictures that illuminate the text, showing not only the pictures of Angela which are brilliant reminders of her family’s artistic links, but also the pictures which show the lifestyle which she recorded. It tells the story of a child born into a family which was interlinked with the celebrity artists and writers of the time; Edward Burne – Jones was her grandfather, J.M. Barrie was her godfather, Rudyard Kipling and Stanley Baldwin were cousins. This account of Angela’s life goes further than listing the names and dates, events and dry facts of a life; it sparks the stories and anecdotes of a woman’s experiences. It presents a vivid picture of her life and times and the relationships which were not always easy. Amid the life events which Hall details with care and sensitivity, there are the references to the writing career which Angela not only aspired to, but which she freely admitted gave her a vital source of income. This is a rich book in terms of presentation, but also in its use of a wealth of research and style, and I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to read and review it on its publication day. 

The Foreword by Hilary Temple draws attention to Angela’s resistance to higher education, and also how her wartime novels featured the burdens of rationing rather than the terrors of bombing raids; the courage of women coping with men forced to depart with no guarantee of return, the injuries that affected their lives for ever afterwards. The highlight of Angela’s Barsetshire novels is given attention, the humour and the wit with which she draws her portrayal of a society not only of gentry and minor aristocracy, but also the people who keep the often gently deteriorating houses and homes going. Angela’s own life story sees her growing up as the indulged daughter and granddaughter, sometimes demanding attention, always sure of what she wanted from life. Her difficult first marriage produced two sons which she would seek to support even when their choices and attitude was painful; Angela is portrayed as a flesh and blood woman who demonstrated a keen insight into those around her, and was capable of creating multi- dimensional characters as a result. Like many of her characters, huge dramatic reactions to events and trying circumstances were not apparently her style as she coped with her second husband’s decision to return to his home in Australia. Using memories of her relatives, friends and other contacts provided the inspiration for her first articles in Australian publications for people eager to understand what was going on in Britain, just as a potentially dangerous voyage gave her the material for a novel. As Hall points out, there were those who complained about being used as the basis of characters but as Angela continued to write she constructed a cast of people who were rarely nasty and usually mutually supportive. 

Hall makes extensive use of both Angela’s own letters and other correspondence which relates to others connected to her. Thus the reader learns first hand of her attitudes to others, gains insight into her genuine wit and written style, and learns much of her view of circumstances. Every quotation is carefully noted and sourced in an impressive “Endnotes” section, there is a list of illustrations apart from the captions, and a full list of her own books is given. The comprehensive index covers a extensive range of people, places and more of the entire book. This is a serious work of biography, and has so many academic credentials. My own favourite is the quotation from “The Duke’s Daughter”, as Angela uses her alternative identity of the novelist Laura Morland to remember the Prime Minister of the day, Attlee’s, mistaken reference to William Morris. It encapsulates the gently wicked wit that permeates Angela Thirkell’s novels, and the well written style of this fascinating and very readable biography which I thoroughly recommend.