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!

Bramton Wick by Elizabeth Fair – a rural comedy with some difficult characters

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This “cheerful debut” novel originally published in 1952, recently reprinted by Furrowed Middlebrow(Dean Street Press) is indeed a comforting read in the sense of rural matters and manners. That is not to say that it is all gentle and lightweight; some of the characters are quite unpleasant, and some totally ineffectual. There are types of people who may be identified in communities everywhere today; the carefully calculating, the misguided, the romantic hopeful, the naïve and the unfortunately loyal. To a certain extent this community dictates the chances and relationships which will occur as limited opportunities to meet and travel in this post war world, when the lives of most of the inhabitants are dictated by genteel poverty. Choices are made, often to the surprise of some, but also lives continue powered by the gossip, minor disputes and general good humour which typify such small communities in this form of literature.

Miss Selbourne is the first character to be described as the book opens, with her rather slapdash approach to housekeeping playing second fiddle to her many dogs,  being pets, business concerns and ultimately her obsession. Her friend, Miss “Tiger” Garrett is shown as a less attractive character, demanding and impulsive, lazy and a truly dangerous driver. This is ironic as her greatest life experience was driving ambulances in the First World War. Laura and Gillian are the daughters of Mrs Cole, neighbours of the two ladies, forced to an extent to come into contact on a daily basis. Mrs Cole lived her early married life in the big house, Endbury, but at her husband’s death she was forced to move into a small cottage with her daughters, finding her comfort in obsessive gardening. Now Endbury is inhabited by Lady Masters who is the familiar matriarch in the tradition of Lady Catherine de Bough, being manipulative and determined, though curiously blind as to the qualities of her only child, the adult son Toby. Laura supposes that if she marries Toby she can return her mother to Endbury, and begins to speculatively encourage the vacillating Toby. Mrs Cole also realises that such a marriage would be life changing, though has no real idea how to encourage it. Gillian is far more calculating and determined, having discovered another local man. Alongside this romantic theme operate the side characters who produce much of the humour, including the gossip, religion and nostalgic dominated Misses Cleeves and their landlord, the devoted and down trodden Mrs Worthy and her frankly unpleasant husband.

Fans of some of Austen and Gaskell’s Cranford will recognise some types here, and Anthony Trollope and Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire books are suggested. Unlike the latter two authors, however, this is a relatively short book and not part of a series, so each character, theme and question of country life must be fairly quickly dealt with by Fair. It is therefore light and suggests the humour of humanity in a rural community rather than developing it. This is a limitation to those of us used to affairs taking longer times to work out as the author tries to tie up each characters’ fates neatly at the end of less than two hundred pages.  It is an enjoyable slice of rural life with its frustrations of transport, tea parties and church services, and I recognised the dangerous driving, women with a fondness for drink and the complicated romances that Thirkell develops in her novels. I am grateful for this review copy, and look forward to reading other books by this confident and skilled author.

Once again we have snow, at least in Derbyshire! Some of us have had to get to places so, not everyone has been enjoying a snow day off, but at least we have had some extra time to read/finish something/ watch tv….Either way, I hope you have all managed to stay warm. Of course, you could be reading this in a place where such snow is not exceptional, so no doubt you think that the U.K. makes a bit of a fuss!

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…