I’m never sure how much I like Angela Thirkell, which might sound odd having already read four of Thirkell’s Barsetshire novels and the collection of High Rising short stories. overall, I think I do, although there were moments in those previous books that I got a bit irritated with the fluffy silliness. I realised, when looking back at those previous novels, that the stories haven’t entirely stayed with me. Though there is something very comforting about Thirkell’s world, I have learned not to take her too seriously. I find it faintly absurd that she is constantly likened to Barbara Pym and Nancy Mitford, she is not like either of them, she is, quite frankly, not as clever or as witty, as Nancy Mitford nor as sharp as Barbara Pym. August Folly, is probably the silliest of those that I have read, and possibly my least favourite, it was also the last one I read – well over a year ago. I think I was put off going back for more, despite still having two Thirkell books unread, but I did, and I’m glad that I did.
Summer Half – is light, bright breezy, and often very funny, I found lots to enjoy in it, I certainly preferred it to my last Thirkell novel, and will definitely read more.
The school setting of Summer Half attracted me, and I was in the mood for something old fashioned and cosy, and Thirkell fitted the bill. My reservations (whilst remembering this is not the sort of book to take too seriously) is in the way Thirkell writes women. Here we have the vapid, selfish, beauty, the sweet tempered little home-maker type and the talkative, teenage classics and Shakespeare loving romantic school girl, more than once described as rather Amazon like. I’m not sure I am entirely comfortable for each female character – to be a type. Still, I probably shouldn’t apply twenty-first century sensibilities to a 1930s comedy, because these ‘types’ probably exist, then as now. Thirkell writes her characters well, and they perfectly suit the period and the light, comedic nature of the novel.
Colin Keith, a law graduate, decides it is time he begins to earn his own money. Realising with some dismay that it will be years before he will earn money as a lawyer, he sets his legal training to one side to take a job as a school master at Southbridge School for the summer term. After which he will decide whether to return to the law, in the chambers of Noel Merton.
At home, his family greet Colin’s news with equanimity – looking forward to hearing how Colin gets on, his father though, hoping he will return to the law after earning some money. Younger sister Lydia declares she would rather die than be a school master. Noel Merton, whose offer of a place at his chambers, Colin has deferred, comes to stay with the Keith family, and is initially attracted to Kate, Colin’s other sister, the home-maker, who always seems to have her sewing kit to hand.
Southbridge school is a traditional boarding school, classics, sports days, scholarships with many boys eventually destined for Oxford. Colin is asked to take the mysterious sounding ‘mixed fifth’ – one member of whom is Tony Moreland – the hilarious child character (now several years older) we first encountered in High Rising. He is I am glad to say – slightly less ludicrous, though every bit as irrepressible as he was in that first book. Colin, not certain really, if he’ll ever get used to boys, seems to be accepted without much comment by his charges. Distracted as they and almost everyone else is by the chaos which surrounds headmaster Mr Birkett’s daughter Rose. The Birkett family live in the headmaster’s house within the school grounds, invitations to the headmaster’s Sunday suppers are eagerly anticipated, and no one can help but be aware of the drama which follows in Rose’s wake. Silly, feather-brained Rose has engaged herself to Philip Winter, one of her father’s assistant school masters.
“Mr Birkett was more concerned for his assistant master than for his daughter, and said as much to the ardent suitor. Philip replied that no one had ever properly understood Rose.
‘I dare say not,’ said the harassed father. ‘I don’t understand her myself, and I don’t suppose you do. But it is always awkward when a junior master is engaged to the Head’s daughter, in fact I’m almost sure it is forbidden in Leviticus. I won’t have the school work upset by it, and as Rose is barely eighteen I’m not going to let her marry yet. Forgive my being brutal Philip, but Rose is a very silly girl, and not good enough for you.’”
Colin is installed in the house presided over by Everard Carter, who is totally smitten with Colin’s sister Kate – when they eventually meet, though he assumes she likes Noel. Philip, also living in this house, is horribly jealous of Colin, who Rose has become instantly interested in, unaware that nobody else even likes his fiancé. Tony Moreland and his friends Eric Swan and classics star; Hacker are senior boys in the house. Hacker, with his chameleon Gibbon, who nearly burns the house down, was my favourite character.
Rose can’t help but crave attention – whenever a new male appears, she flirts and prattles nonsense to attract their attention, there’s no malice in her, she is just extraordinarily silly. She drives everyone ever so slightly mad, and it becomes the mission of several characters to separate the increasingly miserable Philip Winter from his ridiculous fiancé.
“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.”
There are sumptuous teas, messing around on the river, lots of misunderstandings talk of classics, scholarships and Oxford. It is all very 1930s – the seriousness of the outside world which existed at this period, at no time intrudes into what is essentially good comfort reading. I suspect that in 1937, with Europe in turmoil, the world teetering on the brink of war, Summer Half would have been a glorious bit of summery escapism, which I think it still is.