Unashamedly cosy alert! Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire novels are beloved of many readers, for their humour and charm, Virago have been re-issuing them a few at a time, with these rather delicious looking covers. I now have the next three waiting for me, as I felt I needed them to look forward to.
Alice Barton the painfully shy and rather gauche, daughter of successful historical writer Susan Barton and her architect husband, is terrified at the idea of a weekend country house party at Pomfret Towers, the home of the irascible Lord Pomfret. Having grown up sickly and sheltered there is an awful lot that frightens Alice; the complicated matter of tipping maids and talking to butlers, lively dogs, being induced to speak in front of strangers, just some of them. Despite the invitation to Pomfret Towers including Alice’s older brother Guy, and their good friends, brother and sister, Sally and Roddy Wicklow, Roddy – who already works for the estate – an ever comforting presence to Alice, she is still daunted at the prospect.
The earl is a crusty old so and so, set in his ways but eager to please his wife, whose idea it was to have the weekend party. Angela Thirkell’s characters are wonderful, some of them endearing, some hilariously exasperating. The other main players are; the reluctant Pomfret heir shy, genial Giles Foster, the Rivers family, cousins by marriage of the Earl; they strident writer of travel romances, and her lovely daughter Phoebe, and her selfish artist son Julian. Mrs Rivers is a marvellous creation, referred to by her on publishers as the Baedeker bitch, she writes novels about middle aged women who go to exotic locations to find themselves and meet younger men are tempted, but ultimately return to their husbands reputation intact.
“I once looked at one.’ Lady Pomfret continued, ‘about people in Rome. A woman with a grown up son who lets herself have a kind of affair with a young American writer. When the characters spoke Italian it was not very correct. Of course the heroine was meant to be herself, but that was so foolish. Everyone knows that although she has made her husband’s – Lord Pomfret’s cousin you know- life a perfect burden by her airs, she is a most faithful wife. In fact I don’t think any man has ever looked at her, so she has hardly had much chance.’
Luckily things get off to a really good start when Alice is immediately taken care of by Phoebe Rivers, her lost parcel retrieved by Giles Foster. So finding a blessed bath in the corner of her room, meaning she won’t have to run the gauntlet of trips to the bathroom in a house full of strangers, puts Alice further at ease. The redoubtable Mrs Rivers meanwhile, – who has even arranged for her publisher Mr Johns to be invited so she can bend his poor ear remorsefully, – is determined to marry her daughter Phoebe to Giles. The two cousins have already decided, that friends though they are, spouses they will never be. Alice still has to contend with dinner, talk of hunting and hounds and the alarming red faced man and the strange shrieking girl, but she soon realises that in Phoebe, Giles and Roddy she has allies in abundance. On her first evening Alice is sat between Giles Foster and Julian Rivers during dinner, one look at Julian is enough for the tender young Alice to be smitten. As the weekend continues poor Alice is incapable of seeing Julian as he really is, self-centred and rather stupid, much to the despair of Roddy and Guy.
“Your sister was very kind to me,’ she said,
‘Oh, she’s all right,’ said Julian Rivers, adding, ‘I could make a picture of you, you know. I was looking at you in the drawing-room before dinner. Your face is all out of drawing, and I like that purple tint under your jawbone, and there’s a splendid green bit under you’re your eyes. God! how I could put in your nose with my thumb. I must do it.”
The scene is therefore set for plenty of 1930’s country house fun, with friendships and alliances being formed, and Alice slowly gaining in confidence. Incidently for readers of Trollope’s Barsetshire chronicles – there are some great little references slotted in that are fun to spot.
The old earl consults Mr Johns, in his own inimitable fashion, announcing his wish to publish his memoirs. Mrs Rivers trying to organise the house party her way keeps her beady eye on the friendship developing between Giles and Alice, as well as Alice and her son. Meanwhile Phoebe remains determined she will do anything to avoid her mother’s matrimonial plans. Dog loving, countrywoman Sally Wicklow is able to assist Giles in his plans for the estate, the future responsibility of which so overwhelms him. As the weekend comes to an end, the Rivers are staying on for a while, but Alice, Guy and the Wicklows head home, Alice enchanted with the idea that Julian wants to paint her, and Guy seeming to be a little smitten himself.
Angela Thirkell maybe shouldn’t be taken too seriously, these are the kind of books to curl up following a tiring day, a mug of tea and a plateful of crumpets at your side. They are witty, comforting and deeply charming, and I for one don’t think there is much wrong with any of that. Who will end up with whom? The nice thing about Angela Thirkell is that the reader is fairly sure of at least one happy ending.