Reviewed by Hayley Anderton
My first brush with Thirkell was at least a decade ago, courtesy of an old Penguin edition of The Brandons picked up in a second hand bookshop because she sounded vaguely familiar. I liked it enough to buy (and read) more of her books as I found them, and if they were cheap enough, but it’s only really been since Virago started reprinting her that I’ve come to appreciate Thirkell properly so it’s alway a cause for celebration when more appear.
This time they’ve released two, Before Lunch and Northbridge Rectory, as paperbacks, with a third – Cheerfulness Breaks In (which I believe comes between them chronologically) available only as an ebook. I very much hope it makes a paper appearance soon (I want that row of titles on my shelf).
This is the second time I’ve read Before Lunch and it won’t be the last. The things I really like about Thirkell: the way she observes, how much detail she fills her books with, the running jokes, and the literary allusions, all get better with familiarity. Especially the literary allusions; I’ve read more since I first met Thirkell, especially Trollope, so get more of them now. Being able to compare it to Northbridge Rectory which came two years later has also been interesting. (I’m going to have to resign myself to that ebook to finish the sequence.)
On the surface Before Lunch is a fairly traditional romance ending in a brace of engagements, and interspersed with a lot of talk about cows and their respective chances at the local agricultural show. The cows certainly ground the romance. There’s also a third and more complicated story going on which is probably best summed up as a middle aged woman’s mid marriage crisis. It’s hard not to give spoilers here so all I’ll say is that nothing very dramatic or salacious happens – that wouldn’t be Thirkell’s style at all – but that amid all the light hearted froth there’s a recognition of how vulnerable people truly are.
When I first read Before Lunch I didn’t give its vintage much thought, but realising it’s 1939 made me look at it differently. It would be very easy to assume that it was written, or set, quite a bit earlier. It’s not just that there’s no hint of war on the horizon but that the tone feels deliberately nostalgic. This is a world that it’s hard to imagine changing – if it ever really existed; the servants seem to know their place, as well as being plentiful, the lords all sit in their respective manors whilst their wives organise things whilst wearing good tweeds. People weekend well into the week, dress for dinner, have drawing room meetings and tea on the terrace. It is in short a conservative nirvana where one might meet a liberal, but you wouldn’t take one home with you.
I used to think Thirkell was mocking this kind of very traditional county set up, but now I’m more inclined to think she was building a fantasy for herself out of it. Despite that it’s still a recognisable, if idealised, portrait of a certain time and place and worth reading just for that.
On the subject of recognisable portraits I’m also convinced that some of her characters are pen portraits of people she knew, and in the case of Mr Middleton (a magnificent creation), of someone who might have been recognisable to informed contemporary readers. I have no idea who he might be, but Thirkell was well connected to literary, artistic, and even political circles – if anyone can enlighten me I’d be delighted. I’d put money on Mrs Middleton and Mrs Stoner both being versions of Thirkell herself.
Northbridge Rectory, as with Before Lunch also finishes with a couple of engagements but in the two years since the appearance of the earlier book the world has changed and not even Thirkell can ignore it. In this case the engagements are merely a matter of form and seem entirely incidental to anything else that’s preceded them. In truth very little happens in this book at all, but it doesn’t happen in a generally amusing way.
The book centres around ‘Mrs Villars’ the rector’s wife. Her ten bedroom rectory (this seems like an enormous number of bedrooms, more so as I’m not sure it includes servants quarters) has had eight officers billeted in it, who are probably much less trouble than evacuees. There’s no problem with servants, rationing isn’t posing any particular problems, the Villars have plenty of money, and their sons though both in the forces are neither of them doing anything especially dangerous. Mrs Villars is, all things considered, a lucky woman. To some extent she knows this, is grateful for how relatively untouched her life remains, but there is still so much taken for granted.
For anyone reading these books with hindsight (I wonder how far away the world described here felt in 1951, I think almost as far away as it seems to me now) we know this comfortable upper middle class world is under all sorts of threats. Mrs Villars is a capable women, she would need to be to run her large household successfully, but she’s a manager dependent on her staff and a private income and she’s unsettled by signs of social change. The evacuees that have invaded Northbridge with a city bred indifference to the niceties of the county social order make her see that her world is being eroded away, but she, I suspect like Thirkell herself, can see no way to bridge the gap. I can only guess that Thirkell dealt with the world that disturbed her by writing the world that she wanted.
Meanwhile there’s the usual cast of people falling in, or almost in, love and just generally getting by. Arguably the most interesting of these is Miss Pemberton. Unattractive to look at, relatively poor, fearsomely educated, and something of a bully, it looked for a while as if she were destined to be the ugly sister, or the dragon from which her lodger, Mr Downing, will need rescuing and then there’s a change of heart.
Miss Pemberton is revealed as someone who wants someone to care for, and so she cares for Mr Downing with some inconvenience to herself. It’s a very human desire to love and seems if anything to be maternal in nature. When she guards him from the possible advances of the towns ladies it’s not so much because she wants him for herself, as that she knows he can’t afford to support another person. In the end she becomes an (almost) noble character, and one to sympathise with, which.
It may be a book where nothing very much happens, and where the author doesn’t bother to name one of the characters who ends up with the required engagement ring at the end (which is a lot funnier than I’ve made it sound), but there’s plenty to think about here. When I first found Angela Thirkell’s books I saw them as light hearted comfort reading, but the better acquainted I become with her the more I find and so my opinion keeps shifting. It seems to me a very good thing indeed that Virago are reprinting even some of them – she is an author with a lot to offer.
Hayley blogs at Desperate Reader and is well on the way to believing that Angela Thirkell is the best thing since bread and butter.
Angela Thirkell, Before Lunch (Virago, 2016). 978-0349007403, 310pp., paperback.
Angela Thirkell, Northbridge Rectory (Virago, 2016). 978-0349007427, 361pp., paperback.