Angela Thirkell, Snobbery, The War, & the Delectable Private Enterprise

AugustFolly thirkell

A friend enthusiastically recommended Angela Thirkell in 2000, and at first I just PRETENDED to like her books.  I  started with The Headmistress, one of the few the library had, and found it rambling and clumsy.  Why did my friend, the radical Jane Austen fan who got us all off pharmaceuticals and  inspired us to do yoga,  Zen meditation, and make our own yogurt, enjoy these snobbish comedies?

But then I read August Folly and loved it. I went on (out of order) to High Rising, Pomfret Towers, and on and on…

There are 29 books in Thirkell’s Barsetshire series, set in Anthony Trollope’s fictitious county.  Her characters are magnificently quirky.  They keep poultry, pigs, and dogs;  Lord Pomfret shows off the trompe l’oeil books in his study;  they tweedily (and tweely) converse at tea parties about archaeological societies and petrol shortages;  they revel at fetes and amateur theatricals;  they have misunderstandings in love; and they rant against the government and lost civility.

My favorite character, Mrs. Morland, the heroine of High Rising, is a novelist and Thirkell’s alter ego. Her hairpins fall out as she tries to plot her novels, or, indeed, engages in any kind of thinking, and people are forever picking them up for her.

I am fond of Lydia Merton and her muddled classical allusions.  “It’s just like Horace,” she’ll say, and you’ll have no idea what she means.

In Thirkell’s last book, Three Score and Ten, Mrs. Morland said, “I’ve written the same story so many times that I’m never quite sure which book I’m in, and I find I’m always making people the wrong age, or mixing up their names, or forgetting whether they know one another or not.”

One knows that Thirkell felt much the same.

Anyway, I am definitely a fan.

So is Verlyn Klingenborg.  In an op/ed piece in The New York Times in 2008, he wrote that he had recently reread nine of Thirkell’s Barsetshire books,would probably reread all 29 and then start over again.  “When I first came upon Thirkell, nearly 30 years ago, she seemed like a diverting minor writer. Minor now seems too slight a word to me for the purveyor of such major pleasures.”

Robert McCrum of The Observer was not exactly a fan  in 2005 (though he may be by now).  He briefly upset the Angela Thirkell Society when he joked that no one read Thirkell anymore. “In a reckless moment during the summer I asked, ‘Who reads Angela Thirkell?’ and ignited a firestorm of protest from across the known world,”wrote McCrum in December 2005, and mentioned that he had a couple of her books to read over Christmas.

I just hope they were her prewar books.  Honestly, her 1930s novels are the best.

Private Enterprise by Angela Thirkell I have recently made an exception for her 1947 novel,  Private Enterprise, a comical, charming novel which I admire, though it does ramble a bit.

In Private Enterprise, peace is proving more difficult than war for the residents of Barsetshire, says Lydia, one of the main characters.  Thirkell paints a fascinating portrait of post-war England, wherein rationing is more severe than ever, everyone is indignant about “them” (the government), nobody understands the points on the ration forms, and the queues get longer and more ridiculous when the government rations bread.  On Saturday mornings, children on the way to the movies hog the bus and buy all the cakes before the housewives can get them.

The housewives, a hopeless minority among these young pests, had to trudge farther afield almost crying with fatigue to find bread, and when their second or third round of shopping was accomplished, for all the shops opened at different times and if one went to the grocer who opened at 8:30 to get a place in his queue one was too early for the fish that didn’t open till 10 or the second delivery of bread that wasn’t in at any specified time, and they wearily trailed home for what they’d hoped was the last time that day, the dear little children coming yelling and pushing and fighting out of the cinemas stormed the ‘buses for a half-mile ride at half-fare, and heavily laden mothers of families had to drag their baskets home as best they could, while each child occupied a grown-up person’s seat.”

Private Enterprise angela thirkell hardbackWe’ve met most of the characters in other Barsetshire books.  Lydia Merton (nee Keith) is married to Noel Merton, a barrister who returned  from the Army a year ago.  She is a happy housewife, and he is charming and very smart but bored, and the arrival in the neighborhood of Mrs. Arbuthnot, a beautiful widow, and her smart, homely sister-in-law,  a birder, threatens their  happiness.  Lydia’s brother, Colin, also a barrister, is in love with Mrs. Arbuthnot, and is surprised that she is not more grateful that he found her a cottage.  She sees him as just another guy with a crush on her.  And she finds it much more fun to flirt with Noel, Lydia’s husband, who is not so serious, or the sophisticated Francis Brandon. Susan Dean, a sensible librarian who had been dating Francis, is also annoyed.  Poor Lydia pines without knowing she’s pining.

Other characters include teachers, a retiring headmaster, and a new headmaster who talk about Latin grammar grammars.  I got a big kick out of the following:

“A good Latin grammar is a permanent source of income if properly handled.”

First I heard of that!

Very enjoyable, though there is a lot of snobbery about one’s “inferiors” and “the empire.”  Well,  we just ignore those parts.  We get it that Thirkell is having a rough time and life is not as smooth as it used to be.

13 thoughts on “Angela Thirkell, Snobbery, The War, & the Delectable Private Enterprise

  1. I’ve not read any Thirkell though I do have a copy of The Headmistress. What would you say are the politics of the books? Peace is after all never worse than war. Today the Tories are on another thoroughly dishonest campaign to further iimpoverish the vast majority of UK citizens to benefit their 1%, have engineered a shortage of housing to jack up the prices of what’s left, a hungry desperate insecure workforce is what’s wanted. So a book that re-frames Trollope as completely conservative is functioning for bad uses.


  2. Ellen, Thirkell isn’t particularly political, except in the sense that she is very snobbish. She prefers characters to stay in their places. And her characters do hate the postwar Labour party!

    Ignore the snobbery, which some cannot, and she can be very funny. Her Barsetshire never seems to have much to do with Trollope’s country, though she does have a Duke of Omnium!


  3. I can live with class consciousness, for it certainly was a feature of Mrs. T’s time and upbringing. One thing that saves the books from complete distastefulness with regard to snobbery is that the majority of her “upper” characters work very hard to make ends meet, and are entirely conscious of “doing the right thing,” which is more than I can say of the 1% of today in either the UK or the United States. If we are to balk at every sentiment or POV in literature that does not suit our own, our reading would be dreadfully curtailed and woefully impoverished. The trick is to know where it all comes from.


  4. Yes, I agree with you. Thirkell is so very, very funny that her rants don’t matter much. In her early books, the class consciousness doesn’t bother me, but obviously things become much harder during and after the war, and between expressions of weariness and uncertainty about the future, Thirkell sometimes rants about “inferiors.” I must admit that in Private Enterprise, which is now one of my favorite books, I simply skipped over some of the pontificating about the lower class.

    And, yes, you’re right, the “uppers” do work very hard: Lydia Merton is running the house and the farm and obviously on edge when she makes some of her crazier comments about the lower classes and the empire.

    I love Thirkell’s books.


  5. I don’t balk at every sentiment. Indeed I read Trollope himself than who is often obnoxious: shockingly (even at the time) he defended the British gov’t’s decision not to offer food for free to the Irish, to insist the people go into these dread workhouses, and/or do useless heavy work on roads before given a pittance lest they get lazy or what the gov’t did interfere with the workings of capitalism in Ireland. This is in his Examiners. This is just one of many severely problematic areas in his fiction — the issue is found in Castle Richmond and recently an article in the TLS argued people like Trollope who said it was God’s plan for decreasing the Irish population understood it was a form of genocide. Yet I read him all the time, write about him, am working on papers. He has other aspects.

    What matters is the central node out of which the fiction comes. And for Trollope that is humane — too complicated to go into here. The central node for Thickell is precisely what’s fuelling the Tory parties’ actions today. Probably I speak out because she’s associated with Trollope through her sequels and further skews how Trollope’s seen and the Barsetshire books misunderstood.

    Side issue: on my blog I reviewed a book worth at least starting (for two chapters at the outset). Henry Jenkins, Textual Poachers is a defense of fandoms. It seems to me you can defend them only if you dismiss the actual content of what they bond over. Does not that count? This word “community” is an honorific, so it’s so tremendously great they are a “real community,” well there are lots of bad communities in the world. Fandoms are a wrench stopping any development of real respect. Maybe Thirkell deserves real respect but we’ll never know why unless we first pay attention to what’s really there.

    I think our blogger does that here however briefly..


  6. Ellen, I love brilliant Trollope, but, yes, if we had to judge every writer by his or her politics, there would be nothing left to read.

    I would love to read Textual Poaching. What a remarkable title.


  7. Not read Thirkell but you do have to hang on to a sense of time and place when you read fiction from the 20’s,30’s and 40’s. I’ve been reading Dorothy L Sayers and sometimes the snobbery grates.


  8. What bothers me most about Thirkell beyond her snobbery is her plumb nastiness toward educated women. The few examples in her writings are crude, pitiable or pathetic.The way she sneers at Oxbridge cocoa parties in the women’s colleges leads me to suspect an underlying jealousy that her father, the academic, wouldn’t let her attend.


    • I don’t remember the academic women in Thirkell, but I certainly can imagine this! Her books are fun, but she certainly is a snob. Hard to imagine her looking down on Oxbridge, but…


  9. If you want to enjoy Thirkell’s brilliant writing, you simply must suspend your modern views on many things. The class issues have been brought up so many times, that it is a rather tired complaint. Yes, she is a snob. Yes, she is a product of her time. So are many other authors of high literature and fiction.

    AT insults to educated women are more surprising — since she was highly educated, though not in a university — but they are very likely sour grapes. Since it’s done with great wit and humor, it should also be ignored. Particularly offensive is her treatment of Mrs. Tebben, but let’s face it, the comedy is superb…


  10. Picked up August Folly and Wild Strawberries in a charity shop a few weeks ago and enjoyed them hugely. August Folly is a stronger work, I think – very funny as well, particularly its descriptions of Richard, who comes down from Oxford knowing that he has done badly in his Finals. with and polite to his parents, or else say nothing at all, with the result that by the time they sit down to their first dinner he has lapsed into an enraged and quelling silence. Great stuff! Reminded me quite a bit of Stella Gibbons.


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