“What ho, what ho!”
Welcome to Angela Thirkell’s fictional county of Barsetshire! I have had a lovely summer reading through her 28 books, wallowing in the dizzying details of the county and its inhabitants—so interesting and so confusing, just like real life.
As I wrote in a previous post, I approached this project with a little trepidation, fearing that her novels wouldn’t hold up as well as I remembered them, but I am happy to say that they do. (“Too, too gratifying!” as one of her characters would say.) They are richly observed, fascinating in their detail, with sympathetic characters—and sometimes not-so-sympathetic ones like the odious Geoffrey Harvey, whose equally odious sister Frances is in the Department of Efficiency and Purging charged with getting rid of Undesirables in the government. They are funny, often in a surprisingly savage way; sometimes sentimental; and while they are romantic, in a yearning for the Golden Past sort of way, they are not really, after the first one or two in the series, romances.
(Above: This is actress Thelma Todd, but she looks as if she could be Glamora Tudor, doesn’t she?)
In a couple of weeks, I’ll write about the first book in the series, High Rising (1933), which I hope you are reading and enjoying, but here are a few thoughts as we start our journey.
Thirkell was a frightful snob but a complicated snob and, I think, not unaware of her own snobbismes.
She didn’t wholly believe that being a belted Earl with a pedigree and castle going back several centuries was better than being wicked old Bunce at the ferry, who is illiterate and beats (and is beaten) by his daughters every Saturday night—but she certainly believed that both together were a team better than the nouveaux rising class—in other words, the undistributed middle. Her early books focus on a popular distinction of the day between High-Brow (loosely speaking, Shakespeare), Low-Brow (jazz) and Middle-Brow (schlock, perhaps as best represented by movie actress Glamora Tudor (see below)), with High and Low equally admired and Middle despised. She loathed—with significant justification—Them, the petty bureaucrats of the second war to end all wars and their endless regulations and the various Ministries of Red Tape and Sealing Wax. She was generally unsympathetic to foreigners, especially the inhabitants of her imaginary Balkan states: Mixo-Lydia and Slavo-Lydia. She was harsh towards University-educated women: earnest, be-spectacled, and overly focused on minutiae. Frequently, the most admired female characters—Lucy “I’ll tell you what” Marling comes to mind—are practically uneducated, having slipped through the hands of That Beast Miss Pettinger’s Barchester High School unscathed by knowledge. (“Be marble to receive and wax to retain,” as P.G. Wodehouse’s character Augustus Fink-Nottle once proclaimed, and Lucy fits the bill.) Yet Thirkell’s own writing is stiff with “relusions,” as Sam Adams calls them, and while my young eye skimmed over them carelessly, my mature eye, aided by Mr. Wikipedia, is gob-smacked at their subtlety, frequency, and breadth. She was proud of her own quick wit and well-read background, and she did not pander to people who could not translate French or do not know their Dickens, their Bab Ballads, and their Kipling. And, of course, their Trollope. I came to Trollope because of Thirkell, but it has been a while since I’ve read Framley Parsonage or The Warden, and while I hope to get back to him, I’m not sure I can wade through Thirkell and Trollope and hold down a full-time job. . . .
And yet, despite this snobbisme, or perhaps because of it, one of her most interesting characters is the self-made millionaire Sam Adams, who evolves from a vulgar and pushy upstart when we first meet him to being a force in the county equivalent to Old Lord Pomfret.
He is elected to a Labour seat from Barchester to the House of Commons, but—most disconcertingly for his handlers!—refuses to vote the party line and votes his own opinion, which is increasingly Conservative, instead. He is gradually, and believably, accepted by the county, and his mark of acceptance is his happy marriage to Lucy Marling, the daughter of one of the oldest families. Their story is one of my favorites.
She is perhaps the best social historian of the changes in English country/county life ca. 1935-1960 and especially of the War and the even more horrible Peace years.
She wrote one book a year and even the weather described in some of those years is accurate—for example, the bitter winter of 1947, when her characters wear every article of clothing they have for weeks on end and pile overcoats on the beds because of the cold and the inability to obtain fuel—remember that many houses did not have central heating and didn’t have the fuel to run it even if they did. She gives us a vivid picture of the rationing in war and the even worse rationing in peace. She shows us the challenges that the country people had in taking in the evacuee children from London, and the endless work that women did to support the troops, refugees and war-work in general. She is one of the few writers of her time to write about the difficulties the soldiers had in returning to civilian life—and she even gives a nod to the stresses that the War placed on a teen-aged girl like Clarissa Graham, who can’t understand the new world that she is must inhabit.
Well, perhaps witty is a better word. She doesn’t set up jokes and situations the way that Wodehouse does; she is more like Austen in her ability to skewer people, whether as individuals or as representatives of a class or group (see snobbisme, above). One of my favorite of her recurring characters is the film actress Glamora Tudor and her many leading men. Think of the movie Singing in the Rain, with its glamorous but ditzy leading lady and the depiction of Hollywood when the talkies came in, and then read this description of one of Glamora’s hits—here, half of the town of Barsetshire are queuing at the Odeon to see:
. . . Glamora Tudor and her new lead Crab Doker in the Greatest and Most Smashing World Hit of the Century, Too Close for Love: a Mammoth Scenario of King David’s court with a distant view of the pyramids, a specially constructed model of the Temple five hundred feet high, a gate under which six African elephants passed abreast and a procession of priests carrying the Ark (which bore a remarkable resemblance to an empty black box with the lid tumbling off left over from Hamlet): while Glamora Tudor as Tamar and Crab Doker as Amnon with the muscles of his arms rippling ceaselessly, regretted the fact that marriage between them was impossible because of consanguinity till Zadok the high priest (with obligato by Handel on the Mighty Wurlitzer) said it was all a mistake and Tamar had been changed at birth, which enabled the producers to make use of six high priests, ten fakirs, ten bonzes and a band of devil-worshippers, besides six peacocks and two performing seals left over from an educational film called Funny Flappers: which would appear to be the end of the sentence. (County Chronicle)
Part of her charm lies in the running gags and tropes and the fun of encountering characters we’ve met before.
Almost every book gives us an update on Glamora and, often, Cash Campo and his Symposium Boys—their most recent hit is “Hebe’s got the jeebies but they’re not as bad as Phoebe’s”—or the books that characters are reading—gory murder mysteries usually, like The Noseless Horror—or writing: Barsetshire is a very literary county! Mrs. Morland (Thirkell’s avatar) writes her mysteries about Madame Koska and her high-end dress design shop at which the beautiful and well-born mannequins (models) foil the dastardly plans of the Villain of the Moment; Mrs. Rivers writes best-selling novels about a Middle-Aged Woman Who Could Have But Didn’t; Oliver Marling is working (forever) on his opuscule about Thomas Bohun, a minor canon of Barchester who wrote erotic poetry and went to London in 1665 to observe the effects of the Plague on the body and never came back; Miss Hampton writes Banned Books like Chariots of Desire, all about the sex life of lorry drivers (“Strong meat!” says her friend Miss Bent of this work, clashing her coral beads on her embroidered Mixo-Lydian bosom in her enthusiasm, and here we see that Thirkell gives us an unusually sympathetic portrait of a lesbian couple fully embraced, as it were, by the county); and so on.
While at least one couple gets married or engaged per book, these are not really romances.
While occasionally a couple will have misunderstandings or difficulties in finding each other, these are not romance novels—the burgeoning relationship can be there to anchor the (very slight) plot, but the real charm of the book is the interaction of all the characters together in all walks of life. In fact, sometimes the romance is so slight that if you read fast you might miss it—Tom Grantly sees that Emmy Graham is looking sad, gives her a hug, and then she asks if they are engaged. He responds that he is even if she isn’t and he’ll marry her tomorrow. I mean, we’re not talking Romeo and Juliet here!
Angela Thirkell knew that she was a female author writing for a largely-female audience, and is somewhat self-deprecatory about her skill.
But this is a ruse. Underneath I think she knew that she was writing something that deserved more attention than it received then and currently gets. I hope to have convinced you of this, 28 books from now.
While you will read for fun, there’s a lot to chew on in Angela Thirkell’s novels!