August Folly is the fourth book in Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire series of novels. It is light, bright breezy fun – and although I couldn’t possibly read more than one at a time, these novels are perfect fare for occasional, lazy, tired weekend reading. In short, as enjoyable as these Thirkell books can be – I do really need to be in the right frame of mind for them, which is why they have been sitting unread for some time. As it was, last weekend I was just in exactly the right frame of mind and I gobbled this book up in two days.
Set in the Barsetshire village of Worsted, we could only ever be in England amongst a certain class of person, with offspring down from Oxford, butlers and summer productions of Hippolytus. Richard Tebben is a young man just down from Oxford, knowing he did terribly he awaits his degree results. While other, wealthier young men enjoy themselves on the continent, Richard must endure the parental home for the summer, and all the irritants that go with it. His mother a former economics scholar, writes text books, his father a civil servant part of the week, devotes the remainder of his time in ancient Norwegian and Icelandic studies. Richard’s mother’s devotion is of that particularly excruciating kind which inflames Richard’s irritation even further. His parents living at Lambs Piece – paid for by his mother’s books, are not well off, they have no car, they prefer to economise with a donkey (Modestine) and cart, utter mortification to Richard. The Tebben’s one servant an atrocious cook, whose tendency to deliver tasteless meals goes unnoticed by the deliciously vague Winifred Tebben.
Mrs Palmer – a rather managing type of woman, is known for organising an annual play – and an impressive number of people just calmly accept they will play their part. This year the play is Euripides’s Hippolytus, and Richard is to train the chorus. The wonderfully glamourous Dean family – related to Mrs Palmer by marriage, are to be spending the summer at The Dower house in Worsted, and several of them will be taking part in the play. The Palmers are comfortably off, childless and pillars of the community, Mrs Palmer can’t help but be proud of her husband’s sister and her family, they are very well off indeed. Mrs Dean is a very young looking beauty and the mother of an awe-inspiring nine children – although only six of them are in Worsted with their parents. Richard’s sister Margaret, also home for the summer arrives; a girl often over-looked by her parents who has spent a year in Grenoble as a governess. The Dean offspring arrive next, including one daughter who tears around the countryside in a racing car, another who wishes nothing more than to be a great scholar and can be a little priggish, and a rather eligible son, the stage is set indeed, for farce, romance and gentle comedy. Margaret it appears met this eligible son Laurence Dean while abroad, and Laurence’s sister Helen is not sure quite what she thinks of this burgeoning friendship. Richard’s head however is turned by Mrs Dean the moment he sees her – and the smitten young man begins to go to great lengths to help and impress the gentle goddess.
“Sparrow was now lighting candles on the table, and Richard was able to see his neighbour for the first time. If she had a grown-up son, she must be at least as old as his mother, Richard guessed, but no one would think it. With a backwash of irritation he compared his mother’s untidy, shorn hair, her shabby trailing clothes, her maddening enthusiasms, with the still composure of this Mrs Dean, who wore her shining dark hair in a knot, was dressed in something shimmeringly white, and hated Greek plays. That Mrs Dean had always had money did not occur to him. There was something about her stillness that gave her a disquieting charm, which even Richard, very self-absorbed, and not at all sensitive except about himself, could not help feeling.”
As rehearsals for the play get underway, Laurence’s pursuit of Margaret does not – needless to say – go smoothly; he does in fact make rather a mess of it. Meanwhile Helen, who is confused and unhappy by the change in her relationship with her favourite brother, confides her feelings to middle aged family friend Charles Fanshawe. Charles, another academic, former tutor to Richard and Margaret’s mother, slowly begins to acknowledge his feelings for Helen, so very much younger than himself, who, he has noticed is spending quite a lot of time with Richard. Richard has to face up to realities, and put aside his childish infatuation, smarting slightly at the lesson he has learnt in the process.
“Richard went round to the stable-yard with the words ‘nearly fifty’ sounding unpleasantly in his ears. He had never thought of his divinity having any particular age, but now he came to think of it, if Laurence, as he happened to know, was twenty-seven or nearly twenty-eight, Mrs Dean could hardly be much less than fifty, unless she had married unusually young. Fifty was rather a drab word. Of course age meant nothing with such a woman as Mrs Dean, but one oughtn’t to have to think of it.”
In August Folly we have several relationships which develop between people of very unequal ages and siblings have to contend with the reality of the changes that naturally occur when romance rears its ugly head. Thirkell paints a vivid picture, of a certain kind of English life between the wars, families have clearly defined positions in society – all of our central characters here are of the upper-middle classes, but it’s their financial positions which set them apart. I also enjoyed spotting the literary references, with Thirkell’s allusions to Jane Austen characters and Robert Louis Stevenson. The one thing I could really have done without, if I am being honest, were the couple of (thankfully) short sections of whimsy – that recount conversations between Modestine (often called Neddy) the donkey and Gunnar the Tebben family cat – all very cute I’m sure – but for me irritating and totally unnecessary. August Folly is a joyous enough read when one is in the right frame of mind, there is a delicious lightness of touch, but Thirkell conceals some sharp commentary behind what could so easily be called froth.