Posts Tagged ‘Angela Thirkell’

With thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

I have written before about my feelings towards Angela Thirkell – how I want to like her more than I do, how I get more than a little irritated by her world view – her snobbery and casual xenophobia. So, I’ll not repeat myself – you can read some of my thoughts about her in my previous posts like Before Lunch, The Headmistress, The Brandons and others, I have now read quite a few Thirkell – like I say I really do want to like her. Growing Up is set in the middle of World War Two – and as many of you know I do like a wartime novel – (written during the period for preference). As it was All Virago All August too – I decided to give dear old Ange another go – and while she will always irritate me I have to say I did really enjoy this one.

Angela Thirkell was a prolific writer, her famous Barsetshire novels number nearly thirty. It would seem that Virago – for reasons best known to themselves I am sure – are publishing these Angela Thirkell novels out of order, and I have certainly not been reading them in order. There are characters in this novel who I am reliably informed appear in earlier novels in a younger and unmarried state – so if you are reading these novels in strict order there may be unwitting spoilers ahead.

Wartime or not Thirkell’s world is still very recognisably her own. Her class conscious snobbery is present – but is less objectionable. Her working class characters less infantilised than in previous novels, though their overflowing love and deference toward their ‘social superiors’ is hilariously unrealistic. I suppose what I would quite like to see – but never will – is a rabble rousing left wing character to come lurching down the village street loudly proclaiming the end of the class system – posting notices of union meetings on the lampposts.  

Wartime has brought change to Barsetshire and Beliers Priory is now a convalescent hospital for wounded soldiers. The Priory’s owners: Sir Henry and Lady Waring have moved themselves into the old servants’ quarters – which they are finding surprisingly comfortable and practical.

“Lady Waring sometimes wondered if she ought to be so comfortable, but as Sir Harry worked in town four days a week on matters connected with regimental charities, spent two days hard work on county jobs and was rarely free on Sundays, besides doing a good deal of the gardening, she hoped her comfort would be forgiven, wherever these things are judged, because it made a restful home for her husband.”

The hospital is run competently by Matron – who having lost her cat in an unfortunate shooting incident is given charge of a new kitten Winston – she is very much a cat person and enjoys extolling Winston’s virtues every chance she gets. There are some wonderfully entertaining characters in this novel, from the absurdly emotional Selina Crocket and her mother Nannie Allen to the gamekeeper Jasper who believes his grandmother returns from time to time in the form of a black hare and is determined to shoot her. Laura Morland and Dr Ford pop up when Laura gives a talk for the men at the hospital. Her son, Tony Morland now older and less annoying and in uniform also shows his face, and we see that poor Dr Ford has never really got over his dislike of the young man. Laura finds herself among a large gathering of fans as she comes to deliver her talk – and Matron explains carefully how she got one of the nurses’ uniforms wrong in a previous novel.

“Mrs Morland, in spite of her large and constant public, was always surprised, interested and pleased to hear than anyone had really read her books, though sometimes a little depressed by the way in which her friends lent their copy, to one another, and she took very seriously any technical criticism that came her way.”

The Waring’s niece Leslie arrives for a visit – she has not been well – and very much needs time to recover herself. Having worked in a hush-hush job with the navy she was torpedoed on the way home from America and her nerves are frayed from the experience and overwork. So, when the Warings are asked to house an intelligence officer and his wife, they agree with some reluctance. Their guests turn out to be Lydia and Noel Merton – and with them they bring a breath of fresh air – Lady Waring is soon enjoying Lydia’s company, and Leslie makes a great friend of her. Walking from the station to the Priory upon her arrival, Lydia was delighted to have bumped into another old friend – who is billeted nearby – and soon it seems as if the attentions of almost everyone locally are centred on Beliers Priory in one way or another.

This is a novel written at a time when the outcome of the war was still uncertain – there was still a lot of anxiety about for people with loved ones abroad. Both Leslie and Lydia have brothers serving abroad that they are desperate for news of – and we are reminded of the impact of war with the knowledge that Sir Henry and Lady Waring’s only son was killed in the First World War. Dunkirk is talked about with some reverence – and in the hospital now housed in Beliers Priory there are plenty of reminders of what war can mean. Wartime also brings new opportunities for women – both Lydia and Leslie have benefitted from the chance to do things they never would have done in peacetime. Neither of them really want to be idle – they wish to be useful and busy – and they both have a lot to offer.

Against the backdrop of war and all the uncertainty it brings Thirkell tells a story of a community coming together – a little romance and perhaps just a bit of hope for the future – all being well.

Read Full Post »


I have now read several Angela Thirkell novels, and it would be fair to say I have had an on and off relationship with them. True, I have criticised her a bit – I not keen on her class consciousness, and I do think she infantilises her working-class characters especially domestic servants. However, even in those novels I have criticised in the past, there were things I really enjoyed too. I like her humour very much, her world (did it ever exist? – I think probably not in quite this way) is one it is rather comforting to spend a little time. We are always pretty much assured of a happy ending – and there are moments when we need such assurances.

Before Lunch was included in a marvellous and hugely generous Librarything Virago group secret Santa parcel last Christmas, and it has also served to nicely tick off 1939 in my A Century of Books. Before Lunch joins that group of Angela Thirkell novels I can honestly say I enjoyed. The class stuff is still present – I’ve come to expect it – though I don’t believe there is anything cruel behind it. I think Angela Thirkell must have been a product of her own upbringing and class – and isn’t it nicer to believe that all domestic staff are slavishly devoted to their masters than the reverse?

Anyhow – on with the book. It has a quite unashamedly nostalgic feel, English rural life, where everyone knew their place in the world. Published of course during that last year of peace, Before Lunch reflects a time of small worries and long summer days.

Jack Middleton is a difficult man, rather garrulous and fussy and a little too fond of his dog Flora, he has lots of funny little ways. Luckily his wife Catherine Middleton is able to put up him with quite easily and adores him.

“‘I am glad you can tolerate me as I am,’ said Mr Middleton, still suspicious, ‘for at my age it is very improbable that I shall change. Had I been a younger man when you married me, Catherine, a man more suited to you in age, you might have remoulded my life, shaped me again to your liking. But you took pity on an ageing wreck, your young life twined itself round the rugged roots of a storm-shattered tree, and I cannot alter my way of living, I cannot change my spots.’
‘I do love the way you say everything twice over,’ said Mrs Middleton, ‘and I would hate you to change your spots. What were you calling me for?’
Mr Middleton’s impressive face dissolved in a flash and became as formless as water.
‘I called you because I needed you,’ he said suddenly becoming a heartbroken child. ‘I called you once and you did not come.”

The Middletons rent their very comfortable country home from Lord Bond, the White House next door forms part of the estate and is currently unoccupied. Jack Middleton’s widowed sister; Lilian Stonor, intends to spend the summer at the White House, bringing her grown up stepchildren Denis and Daphne with her. Jack’s equilibrium is somewhat shaken at this news, remembering only too well Daphne’s lively enthusiasm and Denis’s apparent sickliness, which depressed him a bit.

When the three arrive, they soon make themselves at home, quickly becoming a part of local village life. Jack’s business partner Alister Cameron is another frequent guest, charmed especially by the presence of the Stonors, he finds Daphne to be delightful company – though he is closer to Lilian in age. Denis is pale and tired, but the good country air does him the world of good, and allow him to get on with his music, he is writing a ballet – and forms a tender friendship with Catherine, which threatens to leave them both a little heartsore.

Lady Bond gives Daphne a little bit of work typing her correspondence, and this brings her into contact with Cedric – aka C W; Lord and Lady Bond’s son and heir. So, Daphne likes C W, Alister likes Daphne, Lilian is starting to see Alister Cameron in a new light but wants her adored step children to be happy. Daphne hears lots of talk about C W and a certain Betty Dean. Catherine loves her husband and is a little shaken by dear Denis, who is so sympathetic towards her. Cue lots of misunderstandings, tears and sulks before everybody gets together with the right person.

Denis delights old Lord Bond by playing Gilbert and Sullivan for him, and Daphne deals rather well with Spencer the butler who Lord Bond is rather bullied by. Lady Bond is hilarious in a managing kind of way, enjoying calling village meetings to fight against the scandalous intention of Sir Ogilvy Hibberd to build a garage on Pooker’s Piece. A meeting is held to discuss the meeting they will hold to discuss the proposal, and nothing whatever is achieved. Jack Middleton talks a lot about cows, and Lady Bond’s brother Lord Stoke, irritates his sister to distraction, taking the chair without asking and leaving suddenly. It is all very funny and sharply observed.

Before Lunch is a delightful social comedy, which zips along at a cracking pace. It was a perfect quick, comfort read which gave me quite a lot to chuckle over.

Read Full Post »


It doesn’t really seem all that long since I last read an Angela Thirkell novel, but a Facebook group I’m a member of was holding an Angela Thirkell reading week – which finished yesterday, so I am a tad behind in my review. When I read The Brandons – I finally felt as if I started to connect with Angela Thirkell. I have now read seven or eight Angela Thirkell novels – and I think I could honestly say that I like them – but with reservations. One or two have contained elements that were just a bit too silly – and I certainly need to be in the mood for Thirkell. However, The Brandons was my favourite to date. Whenever I have reviewed Angela Thirkell novels I have had people tell me that her 1940s novels are her best, so, I snapped up this ancient orange Penguin of The Headmistress when I saw it in a charity shop several months ago. It’s a slightly longer novel than some of the other novels, something I didn’t immediately appreciate as my copy has only 320 pages, but the print is small.

Mostly I enjoyed The Headmistress – I had a few reservations – more of that later – but Angela Thirkell’s voice though still recognisable, is very slightly more sombre – it all seems a little bit more grown up – a sign, perhaps of the times in which Thirkell was writing.

War has come to the world of Barsetshire, bringing great change. Financial difficulties have obliged the Belton’s to let their large country house to the Hosiers’ Girls’ Foundation School. The school; evacuated from London had been seeking a more happier arrangement than the one they have had on a temporary basis in Barchester. Miss Sparling; the headmistress of the school, superintends the move, relieved on a personal level having had to lodge with Miss Pettinger, of the Barchester school, for which she is pitied by everyone. So, while the school set up home at Harefield Park, the Belton’s take a very nice house in the village.

The Belton’s three young adult children are all involved in wartime service, the eldest, Freddy is a Commander in the Navy, youngest son Charles in the Army – training in various places he is yet to be posted abroad. While the middle child Elsa – is involved in what is commonly called hush hush work, in a place that no one is supposed to have heard of, but everyone has. Mrs Belton is fortunate that her three children are able to get home fairly frequently – Charles, a little irreverent, energetic and often wildly enthusiastic about something or other, he had for me a touch of the Tony Morelands about him, while older brother Commander Freddy Belton, is a more measured man, reflecting the experiences he has already had. Elsa, has a little growing up to do, despite engaging herself to a wealthy Captain, fifteen years her senior. She is deeply upset at the sight of school girls galloping all over her former home.

There are many changes to be got over. The Beltons find it very strange to see a school setting up in their family home, school girls sleeping in their old bedrooms. Mrs Belton, rather likes the house in the village, from where she attends wartime working parties, yet she also feels something of the strain of helping her family adjust to the changes. Meanwhile, Elsa is doing her spoilt daughter act – she so wants to help her father – but goes about it in the wrong way and embarrasses both him and her new fiancé. Mrs Belton has a lot to worry quietly about and putting a brave face on things all the time is so very hard.

“What she would really like, she thought, would be to throw every single thing in her wardrobe out of the window and have everything new and to stop feeling tired and looking her age and go somewhere warm, if there was any warm place left in this horrible world now…”

wartime schoolgirlsMiss Sparling, the headmistress, is dauntless and practical, ably steering her girls through the changes that coming to Harefield Park has brought them. She soon makes her own friends among the locals, Mrs Belton is just one of them, elderly Mr Oriel the vicar – who once knew her grandfather, and Mr Carton, a middle-aged Oxford don vie for her society. There are some wonderful peripheral characters in The Headmistress – one of my favourites is Mrs Updike, surely drawn from life. Mrs Updike, is fairly accident prone, scalding herself, or cutting herself almost on a daily basis, happily declaring that she has ‘a perfect thing about…’ whatever it might be and launching into a long, involved and usually slightly muddled explanation.

Shakespeare readings, servants gossip, and a little romance find their way into the lives of this community in wartime.

“I never did take sugar in my tea, or in coffee,’ said the Vicar. ‘I have always disliked it. But I understood that by taking saccharine, we were somehow assisting the war effort.”

Heather Adams is the only one of Miss Sparling’s school girls that we really get to know – who in her typical class-conscious way, Thirkell lets us know that these girls are very much not of the same class as the Belton family. Heather is an unappealing girl, the daughter of a self-made man, she develops a rather crippling crush on Commander Belton.

So yes, there is quite a lot to like in The Headmistress – about which I had heard generally very good reports from other readers. It is witty and engaging, a gentle comedy of wartime manners. However, as I hinted above – I did have one or two small reservations and irritations.

Firstly, I was annoyed by the portrayal of a woman doctor – Dr Morgan, a rather peculiar figure, who tries to analyse her patients – no one seems to have any confidence in her – and all are rather relieved when good old (male) Dr Perry is able to sweep in with his reliable good sense and there is a sense that everyone is smiling indulgently behind the eccentric lady doctor’s back. Miss Sparling the headmistress has the confidence and admiration of everybody, presumably a spinster headmistress is within the scope of woman but a doctor! I am aware I might be being a little over sensitive. Then there was this little exchange:

“ …It’s no good asking you not to worry, Mrs Belton, but I would like to say again that I have every intention of marrying Elsa whether she likes it or not.’
‘What she needs is a good beating,’ said her mother, much to Captain Hornby’s surprise. ‘I’m ashamed of her.’
‘And Christopher’s the man to do it.’ Said Commander Belton unexpectedly.
‘I would like to beat her; very much indeed,’ said Captain Hornby dispassionately. ‘But I can’t stop to do it now. I’ve got to get back early tomorrow morning…”

Sorry – but what absolute bloody nonsense. It might well be tongue in cheek – but I don’t like it. It may have been a different era however I would say – in defence of different eras – that there were plenty of women writers writing at this period who would never have penned such stuff.

I’m now wondering if my reaction to the book was in any way affected by the physical edition that I read. Last week felt like a very long week, I was absolutely exhausted I still am – I was out two evenings after work, and so it ended up being a pretty slow reading week. Added to that I was struggling with the print size in that orange Penguin – and I began to wonder whether I would have got as irritated with parts of the novel had I not been squinting so uncomfortably at it.

angela thirkell

Read Full Post »

the brandons

I’ve said before how I really need to be in the right frame of mind for Angela Thirkell. Well clearly, I chose the perfect time to read The Brandons, I can honestly say it is my favourite one of hers to date. Deeply charming, and gently humorous, I found there was less of the silliness that I have encountered in previous Thirkell novels.

For those readers who love Tony Morland he and his mother are friends of the Brandons and make another appearance in this novel. If you are one of those readers who can’t stand him – he isn’t around much.

Set in a golden interwar period in the fictional Barsetshire, first created by Trollope, The Brandons is typical, ironic, cosy middlebrow fare. Almost everyone it seems has money, if they don’t have money they are in the fortunate position of working (often in service) for someone who does have money, generally in pleasant surroundings, where they are treated well. Everyone has an allotted sphere in life and no one steps outside of it – and should one of Thirkell’s central characters be unfortunate enough to not have much money – we are generally assured they are of very good family – lest we imagine they are of a lower order. Those lower orders exist on the periphery – the children contract chicken pox – the parents sob in gratitude over every little bit of help they are given. In short – The Brandons is of its time, but it is very, very enjoyable – and while it may not offer us a completely accurate portrait of 1930s society, it is a world I revelled in unashamedly for a while.

Mrs Brandon is a very beautiful, slightly ditzty widow with two young adult children.

“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.”

Mrs Brandon is a woman everyone simply adores and for whom almost every man who encounters her develops a crush. Francis and Delia are the grown-up children – if it was ever revealed what (if anything) Francis does I failed to register it – Delia is nineteen (but comes across as about fourteen) – and is ghoulishly fascinated by anything and everything relating to accidents and illness. Francis and Delia’s Nurse is still very much a part of the family, and is frequently found chasing Miss Delia around complaining about the state of her knickers.

“I’m sorry to disturb you, madam,’ said Nurse, ‘but I thought I’d better speak to you. It’s about Miss Delia’s knickers’ she continued, after a glance at the Vicar and a rapid decision that his cloth protected him. ‘She really hasn’t a pair fit to wear…”

Everybody’s main concern is who will elderly spinster Miss Brandon, leave her crumbling abbey to. Miss Brandon has been threatening for years to leave everything to a never seen cousin, unaware that neither Mrs Brandon or her children really want to inherit. Marshalling her offspring to visit the old lady – having been prompted by a letter from Miss Morris; Miss Brandon’s companion, they find her even more confined to bed then formally. They are surprised to meet Hilary Grant, a young man studying classics with their vicar Mr Miller – and who it is revealed is the son of that cousin, and now a possible legatee. Hilary, Delia and Francis become fast friends, deciding that if one of them should inherit – they will share it. Hilary Grant, is a sensitive young man, and has unwittingly fallen under Mrs Brandon’s spell. He isn’t the only one, there have been moments when Mr Miller has cast a dewy eye her way too. To his horror Hilary’s mother decides to visit from Italy – staying at a local hostelry, everyone feels obliged to entertain her regularly. Mrs Grant is the kind of character Thirkell writes so well, loud, tweedy and opinionated. She loves nothing more than to talk about her ‘Calabrian peasants’ at every opportunity. In the midst of all this, Miss Brandon’s health seems to be deteriorating and Mr Miller has a fete to organise, and he really could do with some help.

Mrs Brandon is very delightful, she could so easily have been irritating but happily Thirkell makes her gloriously lovable. Both Hilary Grant and Mr Miller are writing books, and they will come and try and read bits to Mrs Brandon, who is always so easily distracted – and is forever having Nurse or the gardener coming to talk to her that they never get very far at all. Mrs Brandon is particularly concerned by Miss Morris, the lot of the literary companion is not always a happy one, and poor Miss Morris has been rather put upon. Mrs Brandon is completely in her element when she is trying to improve the lot of Miss Morris – who naturally is the most capable and sensible character in the novel.

In some ways, not a huge amount happens in the Brandons, but it is the gentle humour and affectionately drawn characters that drive the novel, making it a lovely, gentle cosy read.

angela thirkell

Read Full Post »


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.

angela thirkell

Read Full Post »

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.

angela thirkell

Read Full Post »

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.

angela thirkell

Read Full Post »


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.

angela thirkell

Read Full Post »


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.

angela thirkell

Read Full Post »

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.

angela thirkell

Read Full Post »