High Rising appeared in 1933 and I consider it a tour de force, springing like Athena fully armed from the forehead of Zeus. While Angela Thirkell had written many articles, short stories, and one previous novel—all written because she needed the money as her principal character and avatar Laura Morland does—this is the first of what would be a long series of inter-connected works. The tone is assured and confident, witty and observant. She does not yet name her imaginary county or connect any characters to Trollope’s; it is just a slice of idealized, upper-middle class English life.
If this is your first Angela Thirkell novel and if you are not into romanticized English county life, you might be tempted to say OK, it’s funny, it’s “nice,” but what’s the big deal? If you are that kind of reader the big deal comes a few novels hence, when we move into the War years, with each novel being written in the time it is set in. Here’s where we get the splendid, page-long sentences, the social commentary, and the details of life in War and the more dreadful Peace. If you are not that kind of reader, and are enjoying High Rising for the comic-romance that it is, then you will enjoy the rest of the series. As one anonymous reviewer on Amazon commented, “if you like this kind of book, this is the kind of book you will like,” a pungent summation indeed!
This post itself is not going to be a true summary but more of a meander and an introduction to some of the characters and some of my favorite bits of Thirkell’s writing.
High Rising opens with the writer Laura Morland attending the prize-giving at her youngest son’s preparatory school, Southbridge, run by Mr. Birkett, aided by his wife Amy. Tony is an amusing, exasperating, and (mostly) loveable boy of about eight or nine (here we will note that Thirkell, like Oxenham and other writers of their period, keep their children “babyish” beyond the years that we would experience them today; I don’t recall my children acting or talking the way Tony and his good friend Master Wesendonck do). His passion is his model railway.
The plot of this comic-romance is slight, but there is actually more of it than we will find in Thirkell’s later books. The widowed historical biographer George Knox has a new secretary, Una Grey, who is bent on controlling and eventually marrying him; his sweet but silly daughter Silvia, who breeds dogs, doesn’t know what to do about this. Mrs. Morland and her part-time secretary, Anne Todd, who has a dotty and rather mad mother with a heart, see the situation with concern and plan to separate George from Una. Laura’s publisher Adrian Coates, comes to visit her and falls in love with Silvia, but sort of proposes to Laura on New Year’s Eve under the influence of a stirrup-cup. Adrian presses Silvia to show him the poems that she has written that he assumes must be delightful, but they are not, and then he anguishes about telling her that they are dreadful. Old Mrs. Todd dies, leaving Anne destitute. Dr. Ford proposes to her but she turns him down. Mrs. Birkett reveals that Una was secretary for a while for her husband, at whom she made a set, and this is why she had to leave Southbridge School; Laura and Anne reveal that they know this to Una, thereby spiking her guns and causing her to leave for a better post, and George and Anne, Silvia and Adrian end up engaged. That’s it. But the fun is in seeing this unfold.
This is not a novel nor a series in which characters grow and change; Laura and George and Dr. Ford appear here pretty much as they will appear throughout the books, although Laura will be presented as increasingly “snipe-like”—more on that at some point—in her apparently wacky but really insightful connections between one thing and another.
When Laura’s “uninteresting” husband died, fortunately when he was abroad so Laura never has to go visit his grave (!), Tony was only a few months old and there was little money.
Laura had written for magazines for some years past, in a desultory way, but now the problem of earning money was serious. She had considered the question carefully, and decided that next to racing, murder and sport, the great reading public of England (female section) like to read about clothes. With real industry she got introductions, went over big department stores, visited smart dressmaking friends, talked to girls she knew who had become buyers or highbrow window dressers, and settled down to write best-sellers. Her prevision was justified, and she now had a large, steady reading public who apparently could not hear too much about the mysteries of the wholesale and retail clothes business. One of her novels had even been dramatized with considerable success, its central scene being the workroom of the famous Madame Koska, where a minion of a rival firm got taken on as a bodice hand, and made notes of advance season models. But a judgment fell on her when, in the handsome traveler [salesman] for a French silk manufacturer, she recognized the lover she had robbed and left some years ago. How he also recognized her, the struggle in his breast between love and duty, how the honour of the dressmaking world got the upper hand, how he denounced her to Madame Koska, how Madame forgave her, how the mannequins struck half an hour before Madame’s spring opening, how the minion went on and wore forty-eight frocks with such ravishing grace that Madame Koska took ₤5,000 worth of orders in that afternoon alone: all this is too long and improbable to relate. But, most luckily, it suited the public taste, and so did the others, and Laura had educated Gerald and John, and got Dick into the navy, and now there was really no anxiety and only the inscrutable Tony to be dealt with. She was quite contented and never took herself seriously, though she took a lot of trouble over her books.
If there are (improbably) any Readers here young enough not to know what a high-end mannequin is, I recommend the charming movie Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris starring Angela Lansbury, Diana Rigg and Omar Sharif and featuring some beautiful mannequins and fabulous gowns. We will hear more of Madame Koska and her crime-solving skills—in fact there will eventually be a whole post on her.
Laura is much surprised by her success with readers—and here we again pick up this tone that Thirkell herself somewhat looked down on her own readers and probably felt defensive about the Middle- or possibly Low-Browness of what she was producing—and to her surprise can now afford a flat in London and the cottage in the village of High Rising, as well as having gotten her three elder sons through schools and university, with only the inscrutable and exasperating Tony to provide for.
Laura and Amy Birkett visit George Knox at Low Rising, a mile away, a village so small that his is the only gentleman’s house.
When the party got to Low Rising, they found George Knox at work in the garden. George, whose dramatic sense was not one of the least factors in the success of his biographies, liked to dress his part, and at the moment was actively featuring Popular Writer Enjoys Hard Work in Garden of his Sixteenth-Century Manor House. He had perhaps a little overdone the idea, being dressed in bright brown plus-fours, a gigantic pair of what looked like decayed football boots, a very dirty and worn high-necked sweater, and a tweed shooting coat with its buttons and pockets flapping. Large as George Knox was at any time, this wilful collection of odd clothes made him loom incredibly. From his seven-leagued boots the eye travelled upwards to the vast width of his plus-fours, to the huge girth of thick jacket over thick sweater, only to find, with a start of surprise, that his large face, with its knobbly forehead and domed and rather bald scalp, completely dwarfed the rest of him. He had decided to devote that afternoon to heavy diggings, and was excavating, unscientifically and laboriously a piece of the kitchen garden. The sky was coldly pin in the west where the winter sun was setting behind mists, George Knox’s bare-branched trees made a delicate pattern against the sunset flush, George Knox’s smoke from the chimneys of his Lovely Sixteenth-Century Manor House was going straight up into the air, a light or two shone golden in George Knox’s windows, his feet were clogged with damp earth, his hands were very dirty, and a robin was watching him dig.
“It couldn’t have been better arranged, George,” said Laura as she approached. “Perfect setting for author, down to the robin. I shall have to write a book about the lovely vendeuse who marries the strong, noble son of the soil, and use you as a model.”
On hearing this, the robin flew away.
Ka-pow punch line! And pure Thirkell! Here we have the super-English image, reinforced by the repeated use of George Knox’s name—his house, his smoke, his windows—and then the shade that Laura casts on him and his vanity. We subsequently find out that his gardener doesn’t like him to work in the garden, and, in fact, he has dug up some onions and the gardener will be vexed with him when he finds out!
Amy Birkett notices later as the two talk that there is considerable affection and respect between them. Laura admires his historical biographies and unconsciously keeps him to a high mark; George admires her workmanship. Towards the end of the novel, George, stuck on his latest biography, tells Laura that she raises mediocrity to genius.” He then says that he wants to write novels: not historical nor obscene ones but Awfully Dull Novels.
“Dull novels? But, George, why? Anyone can do that.”
“Laura, they cannot. It needs a power, and absorption, which few possess. If you write enough dull novels, excessively dull ones, Laura, you obtain an immense reputation. I have thought of one Essentially the plot is, as you may say, nothing, a mere vulgar intrigue between an unhappily married man and a woman of great charm, also unhappily mated. Trite, banal, you will say. . . . But, Laura, and this is where success lies, there will be a strong philosophic vein running through the book. My hero shall be an ardent student of philosophy, a follower of Spinoza, Kant, Plato, a Transcendentalist, a Quietist, what do I know—one can read that up with the greatest of ease thanks to the appalling increase of cheap little books about philosophy edited by men with famous names who do not scruple to pander to this modern craze for education, which is, in sum, only a plan for helping people not to think for themselves. Now, mark me, Laura. What really interests novel readers? Seduction. I scruple to use the word in front of you, but art knows no bounds. Seduction; I say it again. Novel readers by thousands will read my book, each asking her, or in comparatively fewer cases, him, or his self: Will seduction take place? Well, I may tell you, Laura, that it will. But so philosophical that hundreds and thousands of readers will feel that they are improving their minds by reading philosophy, which is just as harsh and crabbed as the dull fools suppose, until it is made attractive by the lure of sex.”
It will perhaps not surprise you that in some later book, Mrs. Morland observes that to put George Knox in a book would cause it to be crushed under its own weight.
The Twenties and Thirties were what are considered to be the Golden Age of murder mysteries—not the comfy cosies of today, where the reader can identify the villain pretty easily as the person whom she does not like, but the classic puzzle mysteries where the author seeks to stump the reader. These were the hey-days of Marjorie Allingham, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, John Dickson Carr, and so many more. And what does Laura Morland read?
At one point she reads a “very good book” called The Hulk of the Hidden Blood and later The Bucket of Blood, or The Butcher’s Revenge, Death in the Potting Shed, and Who’ll Sew His Shroud? Later still she reads The Windingsheet of Blood, which, alas for Laura fretting over Sylvia and Adrian’s romance, “had no charms, and [Mrs. Morland] found it impossible to care whether the person who had cut off the gentleman’s face with a razor and burnt most of him beyond recognition in the old brick kiln was the blonde typist, or Ti Lung the Parrot-faced Ape.” She also dips into the Omnibus Book of Blood, Torture and Disease and tells her publisher Adrian Coates that she has volunteered to write a book called Why I Hate My Children, to which every mother of her acquaintance has volunteered to contribute, but because they are also so adorable she has never begun it
Are these titles meant to represent good bad books? Or simply bad books? I think the latter. Perhaps Thirkell did not want to give a shout-out to other living authors; perhaps Laura’s taste in books—though she is later shown to be well-read in Austen, Dickens, Kipling, Proust and Trollope—reflects her good-bad writing. Thirkell is harsh on her avatar.
Back to George Knox, who dominates this book as he clearly dominates most conversations. He is a mansplainer: long-winded, pompous and didactic. But Laura Morland and even his future wife Anne are quite capable of taking him down a peg or ignoring him, and he is also shown as being kind-hearted and concerned for others. In one scene, George has kindly escorted Tony and Wesendonk on the 4:30 train from London to High Rising, and he relates his adventures to Anne Todd:
“I talk too much. You and Laura are the only people who will ever have the courage, the kindness, to tell me. I have been a bore, a pest, a curse to humanity with my unrestrained loquacity. It is in the blood, you know. We Latins [his mother is French] must express ourselves in speech. But in Tony, I must confess, I have met one whom I acknowledge as my master. Never,” said George Knox, becoming quite human at the remembrance, “have I had such an appalling journey in my life. If it had been a mere question of conversation, of give and take, I could have held my own, with difficulty, perhaps but I could have held it. But I was as a child, a deaf mute—though unfortunately not deaf—before Tony. What I have not been told about the railway systems of England is not worth the telling. And what made it the more annoying, my dear Miss Todd, was that I strongly suspected a good deal of the information which he lavished upon me to be erroneous, but I had no means of disproving it. And then the effort of listening while the train was in rapid motion. And if Tony ever stopped to take breath, though I must say he appears to be able to speak with equal fluency breathing inwards or outwards, his infernal friend would begin about electricity. What is electricity to me, Miss Todd? I will not add, or I to electricity. Gratefully do I accept its benefits though I have not had it put in at Low Rising, nor shall I until enough of us want it to make it worth while because it would mean making it for myself with a machine which I could not work, and which the gardener would infallibly neglect, or ruin though his incompetence, and there we should be, worse off than before; gratefully in the houses of others, in the Underground railway system—ominous phrase which I have already heard far too often this afternoon and am as it were condemned to perpetuate in my own speech—in all the thousand uses of daily life, such as vacuum cleaners, and other too numerous to mention, do I accept its benefits, but it is all as a miracle to me. To others, to Mr. Ohm, to Mr. Volta, to Mr. Ampere, for I believe these to have been living person, though if they were flesh and blood it would probably be more correct to say Herr Ohm, Signor Volta and M. Ampere, to them I leave the task of understanding what it is all about, although, according to what I read in the very unreliable columns of the daily press, no one—no one, Miss Todd—yet knows what it is all about, though they can make use of it; all is yet in the empirical stage. I as a poor man of letters, prefer to admire it in ignorance. And then this devilish child,” said George Know with a sudden revival of fury, “must needs explain it all to me at the top of his very high, exhausting voice in a rattling train. I give in. ‘Tis well an old age is out and time to begin anew. I am silent before Tony and his friend—silent, subdued.” He sank into a studied apathy.
“You said a mouthful,” observed Miss Todd (who but rarely employed the language of the movies), with some truth.
I hope you find that as funny as I do! Not just the presentation of George and his loquacious mannerisms, but because children do go on at length about their passion of the moment, whether it is trains, Pokémon, dinosaurs, or hobbits. (Oh, wait, no—I’m hobbits. Sorry.) And, as Laura notes, he has taken the trouble to feed and entertain the little boys and has volunteered to escort them.
George is said (by whom, I do not know) to be modelled after the English humorist, essayist, playwright, biographer, poet, and writer Edward Verrall Lucas (1868-1938) who was well-known in his time, publishing countless items, but who did not really leave a literary mark. Lucas’ brother, Perceval, was one of the four dancers of Cecil Sharp’s original morris side who all died at the Battle of the Somme.
By the way, I don’t think that Laura’s last name was chosen by chance. George Morland (1763-1804) was an English landscape painter who produced thousands of paintings, some sentimental, some illustrating English country life, just as Thirkell does. (Right: The Public House Door, 1792.)
We are also introduced to Laura Morland’s faithful and redoubtable housekeeper-cook, Stoker, who is large, opinionated, and garrulous—so much so that Laura sometimes wishes she could lock Tony, Stoker and George Knox in a cell and see which one could out-talk the other two. Here she is on the topic of folk dancing—and, dear folk dance Readers, this is one of the few mentions in this series that we will have of this interesting topic.
Amy Birkett is staying with Laura for a few days and Stoker comes into the drawing room to announce that she has been at the Women’s Institute. Amy asks what had happened.
“Folk dancing,” said Stoker, with a sniff.
“Was it good?”
“Good?” queried Stoker, with ominous implications. “Depends on what you call good, Mrs. Bucket. I’ve known some that would call an egg or a bit of fish good, when the intentions were in every way contrary, and smell it a mile off. I’ve noting to say against a proper dance while you’re young. There wasn’t many could dance me down when I was a girl and a bit slimmer than I am in my present condition. . .”
She then says that the vicar’s wife hoped that she would oblige by dancing.
“. . . I sat down in my coat and hat to have a look, but when I seen what they were doing, my nerves gave way, just like I told you at Christmas,” she said, turning to Laura.
“Stocker’s back was opening and shutting all the way down at Christmas,” Laura explained gravely, “because of the way Flo [the half-witted sister of Mr. Knox’s Annie] was doing the work.
“How awful,” said the enthralled Amy. “And what happened next?”
“Two rows they stood in, like the photos in a paper after a wedding, and believe me or not, Mrs. Bucket, they had bells, same as like a cat’s bell on its collar, you know, tied round their legs with ribbands. And there they were, jumping and kicking and carrying on, and Mrs. Mallow that’s old enough to know better and has buried a husband too, which is more than those two vicarage girls [servants] will ever be able to say,” added Stoker venomously. [She is suggesting that while they might end up with babies, they won’t bother with marrying the fathers. A frequent representation of the Barsetshire country folk is that they don’t bother with weddings until just before the baby is due, and sometimes not even then.] “So when Miss Todd stopped playing the piano, I got up and shook myself”—here Stoker gave a pantomimic representation of the shaking which would have brought down the house at any music hall, and was nearly too much for her present audience, ‘and I said, ‘Well, I mayn’t have bells on my toes, but I have a ring on my finger, and this is no place for decent women.’ So Miss Todd started in to play again, so I said I’d join in a bit to oblige, and to keep an eye on young Flo.”
We are told by Anne Todd that Stoker stayed and danced for an hour in her coat and hat and “brought the house down.”
Here is another glimpse of Stoker and the combined interconnectedness and inconsequentiality, if that is the word we want, of Thirkell’s imaginary county. Everyone is excited about Sibyl and Adrian’s upcoming wedding.
The wedding was to take place early in June, and Stoker produced a hitherto unknown piece of folklore in the shape of a rhyme running:
Marry in June,
You’ll have ‘em many and soon.
Lord Stoke, a passionate antiquarian, on hearing from Dr. Ford of this interesting find, insisted on coming over to High Rising and having tea in the kitchen with Stoker in the hopes of recovering the remaining couplets. But Stokers, though entirely at her ease with his lordship, showed considerable diffidence about producing further contributions. Her reluctance may be accounted for by the distinctly primitive nature of the only two lines Lord Stoke could subsequently be induced to repeat:
Marry in August,
The first won’t be yours, but father it you must.
Lord Stoke then went off at a tangent and tried to find a common origin for himself and Stoker, by whom he was completely enthralled, but as his family had borne the same name and lived at Castle Rising for five hundred years, and Stoker’s father, who came from Plaistow, locally pronounced Plaster, was really called MacHenry and had acquire the name Stoker owing to his calling, which was shovelling coke at the gas-works, this research went no further.
These two excerpts conform to other accounts, such as Elsie Oxenham’s, of morris dancing for the middle-aged attendees of the Women’s Institutes and also the passion for “antiquarianism” that many of the “county” had for collecting local customs and songs.
I have spent the last two months reading well ahead of where I am writing today, and the house is littered with Angela Thirkell’s books all fluttering with little piece of paper that mark Bits that I thought were particularly pungent or interesting. The books like High Rising from early in her career and those at the very end have the fewest markers, whereas the books from the War years and the more horrible Peace years are stiff with papers and I fear to drop the books and lose my places.
In High Rising, Thirkell is not yet a social historian; she is writing a competent and enjoyable romance with a touch of comedy. While I like this book and have read it many times, perhaps particularly because of Tony, if she had not moved beyond this point, I don’t think she would be remembered today.
And I think her writing deserves to be remembered. I hope at the end of 28 more books I’ll be better able to articulate why.
In a few weeks we’ll move on to another romance, Wild Strawberries (1934).