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.