Reviewed by Claire/The Captive Reader
When I started blogging in early 2010, I had never heard of Angela Thirkell. Then, slowly, I started hearing whispers. A casual reference here and there on obscure blogs, a mention in the foreword to Persephone Books’ Greenery Street of how she teased her brother Denis Mackail as they were growing up, and then, miraculously, the discovery of the Moyer Bell editions of several of her novels at my local library. In 2011, I started Wild Strawberries with no great expectations. Now, several years later and having read twenty-three of her twenty-nine Barsetshire books, I can safely class myself as one of her ardent admirers and, I hope, one of her more vocal advocates.
Thirkell wrote about a charmed, imaginary place but one that was clearly an extension of the world her readers knew; the problems and emotions of her characters were (and are) very real and recognizable. While her wartime and post-war novels are so richly embroidered with the details of daily life that they prompted Elizabeth Bowen to remark “If the social historian of the future does not refer to this writer’s novels, he will not know his business,” it is Thirkell’s prewar novels that show her at her technical best. Working in small corners of Barsetshire (a setting she borrowed from Anthony Trollope) with compact but varied casts, she is eloquently acid as she observes the middle classes at love and at play. To my joy, Virago, which started reprinting Thirkell’s books in 2012, recently released three of her best pre-war works: August Folly, Summer Half, and The Brandons.
As August Folly begins, Richard Tebben has just left Oxford and returned home to Lamb’s Piece, having done nothing to distinguish himself as a scholar. Moping about under the watchful eyes of his mother, who he would love much more if only she would feign complete disinterest in him and his affairs and never engage anyone he knows in her particularly embarrassing style of conversation, Richard seems doomed to spend the summer wallowing in his misery, when not helping to train the chorus for what promises to be a particularly awful village production of Euripides’ Hippolytus. But then Rachel Dean arrives with her outspoken, energetic family and Richard falls desperately in love with the exquisite matriarch. Meanwhile, Mrs Dean’s eldest son Laurence is falling in love with Richard’s sister Margaret but doing a particularly atrocious job of expressing himself, and Helen Dean, Laurence’s favourite sister, is struggling with the change in her once very close friendship with her brother while Charles Fanshaw, a middle-aged friend of the family, is coming to realise his love for her. It is, to say the least, a busy summer, particularly after you throw in rehearsals for Hippolytus, donkey rides, and an escaped bull.
The only truly age-appropriate pairing of the book is between Margaret Tebben and Laurence Dean and the progression they follow is far more interesting than that of many of Thirkell’s youthful couples. Once they realise they are in love (which you never doubt they will), they become predictably silly, but the conflict that pushes their relationship forward (after Laurence’s singularly ill-considered, drunken proposal) brings up some fascinating issues. Margaret resents her lover’s careless generosity: the way he thoughtlessly provides all sorts of expensive foodstuffs for Tebbens’ dinner party, which they could never afford on their own; the way he forbids Margaret from looking for work as she needs to do…just his general obliviousness to the Tebbens’ financial situation and their pride. Laurence has some form of employment in the city but the Deans have never had to worry about money. Both Mr and Mrs Tebben work but can’t support both their adult children on what they make. Margaret, having just arrived home as the book begins, after having spent some time in Switzerland, has to face up to what her future holds:
There were careers and futures to think of. Richard must find a job. She must find a job too, if she could, though it wasn’t very easy for a girl who had no particular education. She could speak French and German fairly well, and cook a bit. That wasn’t going to get one anywhere. Probably it would just come to this: living at home, trying to be patient and good, helping daddy perhaps by looking things up or doing some typing, helping mummy in the house…
Margaret’s anxiety about her future hits a sombre note, even though the reader is confident that a suitable marriage will see her well-provided for at the novel’s end.
Really though, August Folly is about siblings, not lovers. The Deans come into the neighbourhood to be near Mrs Dean’s brother. Young Robin and Susan Dean liven up the novel with their marvellous camaraderie and exuberant antics. Richard and Margaret Tebben, as they are tossed in love, are able to trust and confide in one another, as well as share the burden of such embarrassing parents. And, of course, there are Laurence and Helen Dean. Poor Helen is distraught to realise her special brother (as opposed to the many others) has found someone else to confide in and, though she loves Margaret, she struggles to adjust to the change in her relationship with Laurence, knowing she’ll lose her closest friend once he marries. Laurence, rather rudely, seems to be completely oblivious to all this and takes his sister’s affection for granted, hardly considering the change that his marriage will force. I’m always impressed by and drawn to the strong family relationships Thirkell includes in her novels. While the romantic pairings mostly serve to amuse, it is the parent-and-child bonds and the sibling loyalties that bring some reality into her stories; her comments on these relationships are the ones that make me stop and say ‘yes, that is exactly how it is’ or ‘yes, I’ve felt that way thousands of times’. She always writes amusingly but her observational humour about families is, I think, her best.
Summer Half, published in 1937, holds a very special place in my heart and might just be my favourite of all Thirkell’s novels. It also reintroduces the character of Tony Morland, who will be familiar to Virago readers who discovered him (with either delight or horror – responses to Tony are anything but tepid) in High Rising and Christmas at High Rising.
The story centers on the trials of Colin Keith and his fellow masters at Southbridge School, be they personal, romantic or professional (and having to teach Tony Morland, who is still obnoxious and all-knowing if somewhat subdued with age, is a trial by any standard). As the novel begins, twenty-two year old Colin is determined to give up training for a career in law, which would see him relying on his parents for the many years of studying ahead of him, and to take up a junior position on staff at the local boys’ school. Colin feels no calling to become a teacher – he finds the prospect more revolting than alluring – but with the misplaced high ideals of youth feels that he cannot possibly impose on his family’s resources, even though he is clearly better suited to the law and they are more than happy to support him. Still, how happy for us that Colin suffers from such delusions as his time at Southbridge makes for a truly delightful, sparkling novel.
Even before he walks into the interview, Colin’s attitude towards his new profession is not precisely cheery:
It had been madness to think he could be a schoolmaster. Loathsome visions of novels on school life flitted before his eyes. He saw himself falling in love with the headmaster’s wife, nourishing unwholesome passions for fair-haired youths, carrying on feuds, intrigues, vendettas with other masters, being despised because he hated cricket, being equally despised because he didn’t know the names of birds, possibly being involved in a murder which he could never prove he hadn’t committed, certainly marrying the matron.
But because this is Thirkell, Mr Birkett, the headmaster, hires Colin, more as a sort of kind indulgence of the young man’s good intentions than any long-term personnel plan for the school. This is what characters do in Thirkell books and I love them for it, however impractical and fantastical it may be.
Also on staff at Southbridge are Everard Carter, a well-liked housemaster in his mid-thirties, and Philip Winter, a temperamental young man who has the very bad luck to be engaged to the headmaster’s feather-brained, oft-engaged daughter, Rose Birkett. Philip’s suffering is ongoing but even more amusing is the despair of Mr and Mrs Birkett at having spawned such a child:
Why the excellent and intelligent Birketts had produced an elder daughter who was a perfect sparrow-wit was a question freely discussed by the school, but no one had found an answer. Mrs Birkett felt a little rebellious against Fate. She had thought of a pretty and useful daughter who would help her to entertain parents and visitors, perhaps play the cello, or write a book, collect materials for Mr Birkett’s projected History of Southbridge School, and marry at about twenty-five a successful professional man in London. Fate had not gone wholeheartedly into the matter.
Happily, the events of the novel are not confined to school grounds, though any school that educates Tony Morland (still able with his unique blend of condescension and benevolence to make grown men feel several decades younger than himself) and his like-minded friend Swan is of course able to offer ample entertainment, including a classics scholar with a chameleon named Gibbon and a love-struck Captain of Rowing attempting to compose odes to matron. No, we are also introduced to Colin’s family, the Keiths, who are, in turn, just getting to know the sophisticated Noel Merton, “a very rising barrister, a dancer, a diner-out, a man of the world.” Most importantly, we are introduced to Colin’s younger sister and my favourite Thirkell character of all, the engaging and overwhelming Lydia Keith. At sixteen, Lydia is a dangerous delight with her unpredictable mix of enthusiasm and intelligence, youthful self importance and adult confidence:
Lydia’s views were simple, but unassailable. Being apparently incapable of connected thought, she saved herself a great deal of trouble by a kind of mental toss-up on any question that came under her notice. Black was then black, and she thought no more about it.
Despite the large gap in their ages, she and Noel quickly become friends, with him proving to be one of the few people Lydia truly respects and whose criticism she will take under advisement. The managing Lydia dictates and bullies everyone around her, of all ages, when the need arises and the reader can only share Noel’s amusement at her behaviour. Whether she’s telling Noel that she’s coming to London to take him out to a play (already having purchased their tickets) or using Tony and his friends as menial labour, orders from Lydia prove difficult for most of the other characters to resist.
Lydia’s older, significantly milder sister Kate plays a more prominent role in the novel’s romantic plot. To Noel’s dismay, it briefly seems as though Kate may have fallen in love with him. To this perpetual bachelor, the thought is rather upsetting:
Noel was ambitious but marriage was not among his aims. Rather for him the life of the agreeable bachelor who is always in request as best man, trustee, valued guest, for whom good houses with well-bred host and fellow-guests, excellent food and wine, motors, yachts, will always be waiting.
Kate is the sweet, mothering type who likes nothing better than to sit quietly, darning a sock or sewing on a button. She is boring but admirable, a rather perfect match for the boring, admirable Everard Carter who, as a housemaster at Southbridge, can offer up scores of boys who need clothes mended, scraps tended to, and buttons sewn back on – though, as he learns when he first attempts to propose to her, it’s probably best to offer up more than just that when proposing marriage. Declarations of love are not only suitable but necessary.
I love Thirkell’s mix of humour and sentiment and I always come away from Summer Half both amused and touched. Her minor characters are handled sometimes more tenderly than her primary characters and, even though they may only appear three or four times over the course of the novel, I came to feel quite affectionately towards them – particularly young Featherstonehaugh, the Captain of Rowing. But her sharper humour, devastatingly employed by both the narrator and other characters, is saved for skewering main characters to great effect. Her romantic pairings are always predictable but nonetheless satisfying. Nice people finding one another (or, in the case of Philip and Rose, violently parting ways to the relief of all) and going on to live nice, happy lives is the most perfect way to end any story.
The Brandons, published in 1939 and the last of Thirkell’s pre-war novels, is absolutely charming, much like Mrs Lavinia Brandon herself. The Brandon family set – consisting of mother Lavinia, twenty-three-year-old Francis and nineteen year old Delia – is really too content and well-adjusted to be of much interest. Mr Brandon is long dead and both Brandon children are adept at handling their mother’s occasionally nonsensical flights:
Francis and Delia again exchanged glances. It was a habit of their mother’s to make them entirely responsible for any difficulties brought into the family by the late Mr Brandon, saying the words ‘your father’ in a voice that implied a sinister collaboration between that gentleman and the powers of darkness for which her children were somehow to blame. As for Mr Brandon’s merits, which consisted chiefly in having been an uninterested husband and father for some six or seven years and then dying and leaving his widow quite well off, no one thought of them.
Happy families are nice but when you introduce Lavinia’s love-struck admirers things get much more entertaining. Hilary Grant, a sort of cousin of the Brandons, falls instantly and desperately in love with Lavinia when he meets her, despite her being twenty years older than him (such is Mrs Brandon’s infinite allure). Much fun is had at his expense by both the narrator and the Brandon children, who classify their contemporary as another of their mother’s hopeless ‘cases’. Poor Hilary is dreadfully earnest in his passion and oh my but it’s amusing:
…his incoherent and jumbled wish had been entirely a prayer to be allowed to die some violent and heroic death while saving Mrs. Brandon from something or somebody, to have her holding his chill hand, and perhaps letting her cheek rest for a moment against his as his gallant spirit fled, all with a kind of unspoken understanding that he should not really be hurt and should somehow go on living very comfortably in spite of being heroically dead.
Hilary does eventually come to his senses before the end of the novel, easily transferring his affections to Delia Brandon, who is as practical and energetic as her mother is scattered and sedate. Like all Thirkell endings, it is highly satisfactory. But, for me, the truly sweet love story is between Mr Miller, the Vicar, and Miss Morris, companion to the now deceased Miss Brandon (an elderly relation of the Brandons). Both now in their forties, the two had known and loved one another in their youth a quarter of a century before when Mr Miller had boarded with and studied under Miss Morris’ father. An ideological rift between the two men had separated the young folk and watching them slowly come back together is an absolute delight.
There is a fete which is the highlight of the book, if only because there are thrilling appearances by my favourite characters: Tony Morland, Lydia Keith, and Noel Merton. Noel had appeared previously in his professional legal capacity when handling Miss Brandon’s estate but he is so much more entertaining in tandem with Lydia. I do feel cheated out of some entertainment by there not having been more attention given to Tony and Lydia’s interactions. Still, any time Tony is about, he has the fantastic ability to steal all of the narrator’s attention for himself and the results are always amusing, never more so than when he is showing off his boundless knowledge on any and all subjects (sourced from who knows where):
Before Tony could collect his forces for a withering reply, the whole of the younger set, hearing the world ballet, burst into the argument without knowing what it was about, intoxicating themselves by the names of their favourite dancers, Russian and English. Tony quickly recovered himself and plunged headlong into the fray, managing to give the impression of one who had lived in the coulisses from earliest childhood, and ogled the legs of Taglioni. Mrs Morland, who knew that her youngest son had not been more than three or four times to the ballet, marveled humbly at his grasp of the subject.
Like any of Thirkell’s books, the story here is simple. Hilary Grant falls in and out of love with Lavinia Brandon, old lovers are reunited, and, as always, the citizens of Barsetshire go about their business, visiting with neighbours, relaxing with their families, and making appearances at any local events of note. These are ordinary lives, made engaging by Thirkell’s customary wit and warmth. The final scene of the novel, with those two dedicated and accomplished flirts Lavinia and Noel doing what they do best, is a perfect frothy end to this light-hearted book.
Angela Thirkell, August Folly (Virago, 2014), 284pp. BUY at Blackwell’s
Angela Thirkell, Summer Half (Virago, 2014), , 283pp. BUY at Blackwell’s
Angela Thirkell, The Brandons (Virago, 2014), 380pp. BUY at Blackwell’s