Angela Thirkell’s High Rising

high-rising-angela-thirkell-paperback  Moyer bell-cover-artI have an almost complete set of Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire series.

It started when a friend shrieked,  “Pomfret Towers!” 

We were at a bookstore.

She wanted to know if I had read Angela Thirkell.

“Yes,” I said vaguely.

I had tried something by Thirkell when I was about fifteen, expecting a cross between Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer.  Her style was too prolix for me.

In 2000, however, I read and enjoyed Thirkell’s interwar novels, though I found her later novels badly organized and disappointing. (True Thirkellites don’t think so.)  The American publisher Moyer Bell reissued many of Thirkell’s books In the ’90s and the early 21st century, and Virago has just reissued the first two of her Barsetshire series.

Thirkell’s unique sensibility occupies a zone between the sharp wit of Nancy Mitford and the silliness of P. G. Wodehouse.  Her world of upper-class England is sympathetic, if snobbish, and she paints her endearing characters with a kind of droll detachment. She thrills us with witty dialogue about peculiar subjects like folk-dancing, bad poetry, and “why on earth headmasters’ wives in novels fall in love with assistant masters, or assistant masters with them, for that matter.”   Thirkell, the granddaughter of Burne-Jones, and a widow with children, wrote her humorous Barsetshire series, set in a fictional county based on Trollope’s Barsetshire, to support her family.

In a recent rereading of High Rising, the first novel in the Barsetshire series, I enjoyed Thirkell’s verbose, artificial, but engaging style.  After a few pages, I was hooked on the fascinating intrigues of her eccentric characters.

high rising VMCWriters have fun writing about writers, and Thirkell’s heroine, Mrs. Morland, is her alter ego.  Laura Morland, a widow with four children, writes thrillers about a fashion designer named Madame Koska, who is forever finding cocaine, or worse, in her shop.  Laura’s hairpins fall out as she tries to plot her novels, or, indeed, does any kind of thinking, and people are forever picking them up for her.  Her secretary, Anne Todd, who also cares for a mentally ill mother with a bad heart, loves to read about fashion, and when Laura is overwhelmed, Anne sometimes writes the fashion magazine articles for her from Mrs. Morland’s notes.

It is a good secretary-bad secretary kind of novel.

Anne is the good secretary, but Una Grey, the evil, dominating, neurotic, perhaps  lower middle-class  (anyway, she’s not acceptable) secretary of George Knox, the biographer, is trying to seduce and marry her boss.  Laura, Anne, and even the servants are up in arms, and are terribly worried about Sibil, George’s silly daughter.

And I must say Una is very unlikable, though she is portrayed as competent, and even sometimes charming.

Thirkell is brilliant here.  The juxtaposition of good secretary-bad secretary is fascinating.  Does it have something to do with class?  The secretaries rule behind the scenes. Anne is Laura’s equal, though poor:  they were friends before she began to work for her.  But Una is nobody’s friend, and is much condescended to.

There are, of course, other subplots.

Family is a very important theme.  Three of Laura’s four sons are grown up, but Tony, the youngest, is at boarding school.  When she fetches him from school for Christmas, he jabbers for hours about his model railroad, and asks repeatedly if he should buy the Great Western model engine for seventeen shillings, or the L.M.S. for twenty-five shillings.  Confident Tony is unperturbed when his mother finally snaps over his moving his railroad into the main part of the house, but Thirkell shows how characters should behave:  adults should have their own lives, and children should not be allowed to impinge on them.  Laura oes to Tony’s prize-givings at school, makes sure he washes his hands, and listens to his poems, but she is not a soccer mom.

Weddings take place in all of Thirkell’s books.  People are always proposing to Laura, but she doesn’t want to get married.  Laura’s publisher, Adrian Coates, who published a volume of poetry as an undergraduate and still shudders when anyone mentions it, is a frequent visitor at Laura’s house in the village High Rising, and at one point he proposes marriage to her.  At another point, the voluble George also proposes, and this strikes Laura as ridiculous:  he is as loquacious as Tony.

Anyway, Adrian is really in love with Sibil, George’s daughter.  She has been throwing them together.  And George is interested in…you’ll never guess!

I love all the gossip about publishing.  Here is Laura on her books, when she first meets Adrian at a dinner party and he asks to see her book.  She says,

“It’s not highbrow.  I’ve got to work, that’s all.  You see, my husband was nothing but an expense to me when he was alive, and naturally he’s no help to me while he’s dead, though, of course, less expensive, so I thought if I could write some rather good bad books, it would help with the boys’ education.”

I know exactly what she means.  I love good bad books!

Anyway, these are very light novels.

Don’t worry. I don’t read just good bad books. I’ll write about a classic soon.

11 thoughts on “Angela Thirkell’s High Rising

  1. Please keep reading Angela Thirkell and also writing about her. I have read quite a few of her novels, in no particular order, because I so much enjoy her portrayal of a particular class of people. They have no more ability than others (sometimes less) but they know who they are and how they probably should behave. The touch is light and always cheers me up.


  2. Thirkell seems to be everywhere at the moment. I’ve come across a number of bloggers writing about her and a couple of weeks ago Radio 4 serialised her memoir of growing up in and around her grandfather, Edward Burne Jones’ house. I found that fascinating but as I’ve never read any of her books couldn’t make any links through to her novels. If Virago are in the process of republishing them then with luck I shall be able to pick them up at the library and read them alongside the memoir.


  3. Silver Season, I have read many of them out of order, and think they might make more sense if I read them in order. I probably won’t get through the whole series, but they are fun.

    Alex, how interesting that she’s known again! The Angela Thirkell Society must be thrilled. They’re a very nice group that have worked to promote her. Yes, it’s nice that Virago is publishing her. The books have been long out of print, and the Moyer Bell editions might not be available in the UK. I don’t know anything about her autobiography, but I’ll look for it.


  4. Pingback: Giveaway: Angela Thirkell’s The Duke’s Daughter | mirabile dictu

  5. Belatedly – the Angela Thirkell Society (at least, in the UK, where we are celebrating in our politely Mrs Thirkell-ish way) is indeed thrilled that she is being republished here, though I rather suspect Virago will stick to the earlier ones. There are some audio book versions as well, which is nice. But the Moyer Bell editions are available here for anyone who gets hooked (and certainly the later ones are not as good, but they have their own fascination). You can also track many of them down via second-hand booksellers – nice if you like first editions, because many are very affordable – and there are usually some to buy from the UK ATS, along with other publications of interest to Thirkellites.


  6. I do love Angela Thirkell and it would be nice if Virago published more of them. But, yes, I do like the Moyer Bell editions, and managed to buy some at Borders before the demise of my favorite chain.

    I heard that Moyer Bell was run by a husband and a wife, and that the wife was responsible for publishing the Thirkell books. Unfortunately she died before the project was completed. Very sad.


  7. Hello Kat, I’m hoping you or anyone can help. I almost purchased High Rising by Angela Thirkell on Amazon but many reviews heavily criticized the publisher Moyer Bell for all of the typographical errors due to lack of proof-reading. Can anyone tell me if the Virago editions have the same errors?


    • I’ve very much enjoyed my Moyer Bell editions, and haven’t noticed typos, and haven’t seen the Viragos yet. But my copy of High Rising is an old Carroll & Graf. It’s great!


      • Thank you for that information. It appears some editions have errors and some don’t. I’ve also read some reviews about newer Carroll & Graf’s which has led me to decide the best recourse is to purchase the book at a physical book store where I can see it before I buy it 🙂


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