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.

Quotation of the Week: Angela Thirkell on the Greeks

August Folly angela thirkell 21219550It’s a new segment:  Quotation of the Week!

Why?  Because it’s easier to post a quote than actually write about a book.

I just reread Angela Thirkell’s hilarious novel, August Folly, a hectic comedy in which a bossy village matriarch is directing a summer production of Hippolytus in her barn.  Mrs. Palmer corrals friends, neighbors, relatives, servants, and station-masters to act, sew costumes, and train the chorus. I burst out laughing when her neighbor Mr. Tebben learns that, thank God, he will not have to play Theseus.  Here is his quirky response.

“I am relieved to hear about Theseus.  Nothing would have induced me to act, but I had no wish to argue with Mrs. Palmer.  Greek plays!  I have always felt that the Greeks were easily amused.  A stone seat under a burning sun, with a bitter wind that so often accompanies it, four or five people in preposterous boots and masks, plays with whose plots everyone had been familiar with from childhood, and there they would sit for days and days.  Now the Vikings…”

Very, very funny.

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.

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.