Posts Tagged ‘Angela Thirkell’


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.

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august folly

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.

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pomfret towers
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.

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This was a perfect little read for just before Christmas. Seven short stories – two having a Christmas theme, and an amusing essay about dinner parties in Shakespeare’s plays make up this lovely collection newly issued by Virago. All the pieces in this book were originally published in various journals and magazines between 1928 and 1942. The title – I imagine comes from the fact that five of these stories feature characters from the delicious novel High Rising – the first novel in Angela Thirkell’s series of chronicles set in Trollope’s fictional Barsetshire. I suppose the title could be seen as misleading in a way – but the fact that only two of the stories are Christmassy – and only one of those set in High Rising didn’t in any way spoil my enjoyment of this collection.

These five stories – especially the four featuring the hilarious young Tony Morland – one of the funniest and endearing child characters in fiction – are particularly delightful. However the other characters fans of the novel will recognise are just as good in my opinion, George Knox – the biographer – who is hilariously garrulous, the no nonsense Dr Ford, and dear Laura Morland – who I always see as a kind of befuddled Celia Johnson character. In these stories we see George Knox treating the Morlands to a Christmas pantomime, Tony Morland coming home from school to make valentine cards, attempting to show off his (own imagined)proficiency at horse riding and desperately keen to show his knowledge of electricity and radio waves to his elders also.

“Don’t do that, Tony’ said his mother, eyeing her son’s complacent face with some irritation.
‘But, Mother, that shows. What you need sir,’ he continued, addressing George Knox, ‘is a super het. It wouldn’t cost an awful lot, and it would cut out all that sort of thing. It’s all to do with electricity and you wouldn’t understand it, especially if I explained it, but a super het gets the wavelengths and makes them so that…’
‘Turn that thing off at once,’ said Dr Ford, who had entered unnoticed in the middle of Tony’s exposition and the continued Brocken performance of the wireless.
‘But sir I was just telling Mr Knox..’
‘Shut up’ said Dr Ford

I have to say I absolutely adore these characters and their relationships with one another, Tony’s ridiculous enthusiasm for just about anything that has just entered his head, Laura’s long suffering anxious adoration of him, and her friendship with George Knox and the wife he acquired as a result of events in High Rising and Dr Ford –are all beautifully and humorously observed. I just wish there were more books with these characters in – I have been told that at least one of Angela Thirkell’s books features the character of Tony Morland – and that is one that I shall certainly have to look out for. Angela Thirkell’s world is world that certainly no longer exists – that is if it ever did – but it is one that is quite delicious to immerse oneself in.

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The second of Angela Thirkell’s Barset series of novels is a wonderfully comforting bit of 1930’s froth. That’s not meant to denigrate it at all – as it was absolutely perfect reading for my over tired little brain as the week drew to a close. Light, bright, funny (ok so there is one rather unfortunate piece of racist language – typical of its time, but still unpalatable) and deliciously cosy – it has forced (yes actually forced) me to pre-order the next two Thirkells that Virago are re-issuing next month.

A host of slightly eccentric rather adorable characters a large house in the country, a touching little romance, all in a 1930’s setting – well honestly what’s not to like?

“But it is not that basket, Gudgeon, but the other basket which has my painting things and a dead thrush in it. Martin, did I tell you I found a dead thrush on my window-sill this morning, and I don’t know what to do with it?’
‘Oh the poor darling,’ said Agnes
‘Can I have it for a funeral?’ asked James, raising his head from chocolate pudding.
‘Yes darling, of course. Well then, Gudgeon, I want the dead thrush and a letter with a coronet on the back of it. And who are your tenants, Mr Banister? said her ladyship, who however far she divagated always returned to her subject in the long run.”

Lady Emily is the delightfully vague matriarch of Rushwater House; here she and her husband Henry Leslie quietly mourn their eldest son killed in the Great War, surrounded by the rest of their large family. Agnes Graham, the Leslie’s daughter, her young children and the nannie help fill the house while Agnes’s husband Robert is away. Also present when not in London are their sons John – a widower of seven years, and David the youngest of the Leslie family, a handsome, sometimes selfish playboy hoping to get a job with the BBC. Martin, the sixteen year old son of the eldest Leslie son who was killed in the war, also stays at Rushwater when not at school. Martin’s mother having wanted him to study French arranged for him to spend his summer in France. Horrified at the thought Martin has come up with a better plan. The local vicar has rented his house to some French holiday makers while he himself is away, and with his help, Martin arranges to study with their eldest son so that Martin can stay at Rushwater for the summer. Agnes is a younger, stunningly beautiful version of her mother; she adores her children, and is endlessly fascinated by them, what she lacks in intelligence she more than makes up for in sweetness. Agnes arranges for her niece by marriage Mary Preston to come and stay for the summer, Mary twenty three, pretty and romantic with a beautiful singing voice, seems to be the answer to Lady Emily and Agnes’s prayers, who immediately see that Mary is perfect for John. However Mary falls head over heels for the handsome David – who promises her wild strawberries.

With young Martin’s seventeenth birthday – and a dance party looming – the Boulle family are installed at the vicarage. Pierre the eldest son of the family is to be Martin’s tutor, while his mother never lets an opportunity pass, to tell anyone who will listen, how everything is superior in France. Martin is a first disgusted by the family – the garrulous mother, her greedy fat daughter and the spotty younger son Jean-Claude who is about his own age. However, soon he and Jean-Claude are fast friends and declaring themselves to be French Royalists committed to restoring the French monarchy. Pierre meanwhile takes one look at Agnes Graham and is instantly smitten. At the birthday dance held on Martin’s seventeenth birthday the fortunes of Mary, David and John are set to be decided.

This gloriously little novel is a quick joyful read, and I can’t wait to get my hands on more Thirkell novels. I don’t pretend that these novels are deep or important pieces of classic literature – but they are hilariously adorable. Alongside the humour, many laugh out loud moments – there are poignant reminders of a generation who mourned those lost in the Great War. When, on the morning of Martin’s seventeenth birthday, Lady Emily and her husband quietly and sadly remember their eldest son it is really very touching, as is John’s grief for his dead wife.

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high rising

I just had to read this book I got for Christmas right away – I had told myself I had to wait – but I coudn’t. This lovely new Virago edition and it’s partner Wild Strawberries were just two of the books I recieved from my Virago Secret Santa. I am already hoping that Virago will re-issue the rest of the series.

This novel then marked the end of my reading for 2012. It is a joyously frothy cosy comedy – which I just adored.
Angela Thirkell famously took the county of Barsetshire created by Anthony Trollope in the nineteenth century, setting a series of something like thirty novels there. Virago Press have re-issued the first two with such pretty covers, and I am thankful to also have the next one Wild Strawberries TBR. However I believe that the books are quite able to be read as stand alones – or in any order. I suspect I will become addicted to finding other books in this series.
Laura Morland an attractive widow and successful novelist, collects her excitable youngest son Tony from school in time to spend Christmas and the New Year at her country home in High Rising. Once settled back home, as Tony plays with his railway and prattles endlessly about which engine to buy with his savings, Laura is made aware that her friend George Knox, another writer, has installed a scheming secretary at his home in Low Rising, who is it seems rather taking over, even pushing George’s daughter Sibyl out of the way in her bid to dominate the poor man. Laura decides she must somehow rescue her old friend from Miss Grey, the woman she and her friends begin to call The Incubus. Whilst sorting out the problem of peculiarly tempered Miss Grey, Laura also manages to aid Sibyl’s path to true love. After which time Sibyl and her intended become ridiculously silly, billing and cooing all over the place.
Thirkell’s characters – especially the young lovers and the children are slight caricatures, but are so entertaining that it doesn’t matter. These entertaining exaggerations of character are definitely part of the charm of these old fashioned social comedies. Gossiping housekeepers paternal family doctors bright young things and innocent children are the stuff of easy, comfort reads. There is also some real laugh out loud moments in this highly entertaining read. Thirkell’s comedy is a sharply observed satire; and a delightful social comedy. It is obviously old fashioned and there are some mild ethnic slurs – which do grate on our modern sensibilities – but I have encountered worse in 1930’s fiction.
All in all this was a rather lovely last read of 2012, and actually suited my mood perfectly.

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