Angela Thirkell, Snob and Comic Genius

I have an ambivalent relationship with Angela Thirkell.  She is very, very funny; she is also very snobbish. My favorite of her novels is August Folly, which I described here in 2016 as “a hectic comedy in which a bossy village matriarch directs a summer production of Hippolytus in her barn.”

In her nonsensical Barsetshire series (yes, she borrowed Barsetshire from Trollope), Thirkell populates a ridiculously upper-class imaginary world with distracted widows, charming headmasters, smart headmistresses, eccentric lords, lovesick vicars, lonely secretaries, and obnoxious, silly schoolboys.  Thirkell wrote a book a year:  the first in the series, High Rising, was published in 1933, and the last, Three Score and Ten, in 1961.  One of the pleasures of the series is following the careers of recurring characters.  I am very fond of Mrs. Morland, a writer whose hairpins fall out as she plots her popular thrillers;  the unpunctual Lady Leslie and her constant dropping of prayer books; and Lydia Merton, whose muddled classical allusions make me chortle.

Some of her books are much better than others.   It can be wearisome to read about the characters’  attitudes toward “inferiors,” “the Empire,” and eastern European refugees. On the other hand, they volunteer for the Red Cross and care for the evacuees. They have good morals and values.  If only all snobs were like that!

I prefer the interwar novels of the 1930s, but her more rambling books of the 1940s are an invaluable source of history, as she more or less documented English civilian life.  I think of her as a comic Nella Last.

Still, Thirkell occasionally irritates me with her silliness and superciliousness.  Evelyn Waugh is much funnier about the war.   Waugh’s Put Out More Flags, a satire which features a family of evacuees so destructive that people pay money in order not to billet them, does not strike me as snobbish, because Waugh is a more skillful writer.

The Thirkell revival is in some ways surprising.  She was nearly forgotten  In 2005 when Robert McCrum, in an excellent essay about literary societies, wrote,

Who, for example, reads Angela Thirkell these days? Yet there is a society devoted to her memory which organises group outings, promotes group discussion, and – I’ve no doubt – in the nicest possible way, gives Thirkell’s publishers hell about out-of-print titles.

All press is good press–and the Angela Thirkell Society organized an e-mail campaign to change McCrum’s mind.  If I remember correctly,  McCrum menitoned in a later article that he intended to try some Thirkell over the holidays.

N.B.  The Virago Modern Classics group at LibraryThing is sponsoring a monthlong reading of Angela Thirkell.  My Thirkell of the month is The Brandons, parts of which are brilliant, though it is not my favorite. I do find it very funny when Mrs. Brandon has to pretend to be interested in the vicar’s reading of his paper on Donne.  He is in love with her.  Fortunately, there are so many interruptions that he doesn’t make it past the first sentence.

10 thoughts on “Angela Thirkell, Snob and Comic Genius

  1. I must admit I have problems with Thirkell – it’s the hunting thing that bothers me a lot, and also I find some of her characters so intensely annoying I’ve tended to avoid her. I know she’s popular with many VMC lovers, and I’m probably missing out on some wonderful humour, but not for me at the moment I think!

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  2. I really like Thirkell and I haven’t even found much hunting in the ones I’ve read. Those Eastern Europeans are v tedious, though. I’ve done Summer Half this month already and have The Brandons lined up as my other Thirkell of the month, thus covering All Virago / All August and the group’s author of the month AND 20 Books of Summer!

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    • Thirkell is so funny! No, I haven’t seen hunting myself. I’m trying to reread them in order (which I didn’t do when I found the later ones at Borders some years back), but Iost Pomfret Towers on a plane so I had to skip.

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