Published in 1934, this book has little value as social history—except perhaps in documenting the curious desire of the gently-born English of the time to get rid of their children, especially their boys, for the greater part of the year—but it is delightful nonetheless. The Demon is the irrepressible Tony Morland and the book chronicles his adventures during the Easter, Half-term, Summer, and Christmas holidays. Tony is an obnoxious, busy, grubby, boastful, voluble, exaggerating little boy based on Angela Thirkell’s youngest son, Lance Thirkell, who was born in 1921 making him, at the time of publication, about thirteen.
Tony is actually presented on paper as being thirteen (mid-way between the two youngest girls at the Rectory with whom he often plays (and spars): Rose at fourteen-and-a-half who adores him and Dora at twelve-and-a-half who does not, and I think the purpose of this age was to give him long trousers and send him off to the Upper School at the conclusion of the installment. In fact his speech and actions are that of an eight- or nine-year old boy and the action—what there is of it—of the story takes place a year after that of High Rising as Adrian and Sybil Coates have just had a baby girl. So ignore the stated age—it’s just there so his mother can worry about whether his spirit will be crushed by the move to the Upper School. (Adrian Coates tells her his sympathies lie with the masters and the other boys.)
As will so often be the case as we read along with Angela, one of the gentle themes of this installment is that of writing and reading. Laura is reading “an excellent thriller”: The Howling Horror. She tells Dr. Ford that the Horror didn’t howl after all: “It was only called the Howling Horror because it lived in a village called Howling. Most unfair. But thank you for lending it to me all the same.”
“It’s a jolly decent book, sir,” said Tony. “The Horror was a man who was all deformed because he had shell shock, and his jaw was all eaten away. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to act it after tea, mother? I’ll be the Horror and I’ll frighten everyone. I bet Annie and cook will be frightened when they see me with my jaw all eaten away. Dr. Ford, if a person had their jaw all eaten away—
“Shut up,” said Dr. Ford.
(This is his usual response when confronted by the voluble Tony.)
In another nod to the writing life, Laura takes Tony and his silent school friend Wesendonck (an enthusiastic if melancholy performer on the mouth organ (harmonica)) to visit Rising Castle, owned by the elderly, deaf Lord Stoke. The latter compliments Laura on her latest book and says that he enjoyed it very much (Tony adds that portions of it are quite dull but that he (meaning his host) “wouldn’t notice that”; “Shut up” says Dr. Ford) and then says that he hopes that Laura won’t put him in a book, being “one of those people who are under the impression that all authors go about studying their friends with a view to copy.”
“I couldn’t,” said Laura. “You would be much too difficult.”
Lord Stoke bridled. Dr. Ford caught Laura’s eye and knew that they were both having the same thought, namely that any book with Lord Stoke as a principal, or even a subordinate character, would fall dead with its own weight.
Laura is working as usual at short stories about her dressmaking heroine, Madame Koska: notably “The Affair of the Serpent Skin Bag” as well as another one “commissioned by an American magazine,” in which Madame Koska:
. . . was in frightful difficulties because her head fitter, on whom much of the success of her establishment depended, had been mysteriously absent for two days. As no one knew where she lived—for on these lines did Madame run her business—her employer had just called in the police. Laura, who was writing form hand to mouth without any idea of what was to happen next, could not decide whether the fitter, known by Madame to be a Russian ex-aristocrat, had been abducted by political enemies, or had merely gone to the nearest bomb factory to join the anarchists. So she sat with pencil poised and her hair wildly disheveled, waiting for inspiration that would not come.
Presumably this is meant to be a self-portrait. While Thirkell’s early novels appear to have been reasonably carefully plotted, it is true that, as the canon goes on, the amount of “divagations” and discursions increases and the endings can become somewhat hastily wrapped up.
Another possible autobiographical bit comes when Adrian Coates, who had proposed to Laura in High Rising, asks if she is still “solitary hearted,” to which she responds that “if you are born lonely, you die lonely. I expect I’m rather lucky really, because though I sometimes nearly break my heart with loneliness, it is better than not being alone.” She continues:
“You see. . . loneliness gets to be a bad habit, like taking drugs. I’m not very good at making friends—I’m a bit stupid and stiff—so I shut myself up with my own dull self and am not unhappy. Tony is my only key to things. Of course, I am very fond of you and George and a few other people, but your lives are going on: mine isn’t. It went on very hard while the boys were all little. Then it got slower and slower. Now that three of them are independent, it is only about a quarter of what it was. When Tony is on his own it will stop. I don’t mean that I’ll put my head in the gas oven, but I’ll be a dull hermit, less and less wanting to make any effort. I’ll go on writing for you if you still want my books, because I feel a sense of responsibility towards you, but I shall hardly be there.”
Sad. This blog is not going to dwell on Thirkell’s life, but I’ll note that after a rather enchanted youth she contracted a disastrous first marriage and then a poor second one and did indeed have to support herself and her three sons by her writing. This is the first and, as I recall, the last time that Angela Thirkell’s avatar will share such personal thoughts with us.
Back to the writing: Tony himself has written a story and is anxious to read it to Adrian, his mother’s publisher, and George and Anne Knox. (Recall that Knox is said to be modelled on E.V. Lucas whom we met in the last post.) He tells them that it is called “Dick Montfort, or the Hero of the Sixth.” Adrian says that the title seems familiar, as indeed it should as this kind of title was absolutely what boys read then.
“Enough,” said George Knox. “Anne, my dear, I shall go to the drawing room and there await you. There is something about school stories peculiarly repellent to the adult intellect. I hold no brief for my own books, far from it, but they are at least not characterized by paucity of invention, improbability of incident, monotony of plot and entire want of taste. No, my boy, deeply as I admire your mother, I cannot bear, I positively refuse to bear, the rehearsal of a story which, considering your age and mental powers, cannot be other than derivative and altogether immature. . . .”
George’s animadversions exactly describe Tony’s story, which is all of those things.
Books (and railways—Tony’s passion) come up again in this delicious conversation among three self-absorbed talkers. Laura and Tony are visiting the Coates, whose baby is about six weeks old. Nurse Chiffinch, who is an excellent “monthly” nurse, meaning that she arrived at the house a few days before the baby was expected, presumably acted as midwife, and stays for the first month or so, is present when the conversation turns towards trains and she contributes that the station at Southhampton West was “quite a paltry affair.”
“I know,” said Tony, evidently under the impression that he had discovered a fellow [train] enthusiast, “but you get marvelous trains from Reading and Bath and Cheltenham and Manchester—”
“Cheltenham is a sweetly pretty place,” said Nurse. “I was there with Mrs. Le Poer who was a cousin of the General’s. Her husband was in India at the time, but the baby was a bonny wee mite.”
“Do you mean the Great Western station or the L.M.S one?” asked Tony, who had been eagerly waiting to get this question in. “The L.M.S. one is called Lansdown and it’s about half a mile from the Great Western one.”
“I couldn’t say, I’m sure,” said Nurse Chiffinch. “You are quite a little authority on trains, aren’t you? I never heard your name. What is it?”
“Tony Morland,” said the bearer of that name sulkily, disappointed in the technical talk to which he had been looking forward.
“Is it your mummie that writes the books?” asked Nurse Chiffinch, with a comprehensive view of all literature. “Well, I never thought I’d meet two authors. What a lucky little boy you are to have a mummie writing such lovely books I get all your books from the library, Mrs. Morland. I quite revel in them.”
Laura, whose first impulse was to distract anyone who professed open admiration for her books, while she secretly despised those who didn’t, because a prey to schoolgirl embarrassment and was unable to say anything. Not so her son.
“I expect you are the kind of audience that would read mother’s books,” he said, studying Nurse with scientific interest. “Her books are pretty good, but there are long places of dullness. I think the improbableness makes them interesting sometimes. Donk and I are going to write a play, aren’t we, Donk?”
“Laura, tell me, in pity, once more, what is that child’s name?” said George Knox.
“I know, I know,” cried George hitting his brow dramatically.
“Don’t say ‘I know’ when I tell you things,” said Laura snappishly. “You are as bad as Tony.”
“Far be it from me, dear Laura, to claim omniscience,” said George Knox. “Anne will tell you how frail, how human is my intellect. But I merely used the expression as one might say ‘Thalassa!’ because—”
“You can say Thalassa or Thalatta, sir,” said Tony. “You couldn’t understand it all if I explained. I dare say you haven’t heard about the digamma and the iota subscript—”
“I know much more about it than you do,” roared George Knox, quite overcome with fury. “I took a first in Greats in nineteen hundred and three. What I was trying to say, Laura, when that ill-omened child of yours interrupted me, was that I suddenly remembered the associations of the name Wesendonck. Wagner’s friends. . . .”
An Astute Reader pointed out this connection to me some weeks ago as I had missed it: Otto Wesendonck was a wealthy silk manufacturer who, with his young and pretty wife, hung out with Richard Wagner in the 1850s. The lady became the lover and muse of the musician. One of them, one adds. Why Thirkell would have saddled the inarticulate little boy with this name and its cultural history is unclear—perhaps just cultural name-dropping that she was accomplished at and that must have made her a slightly intimidating person to converse with—although perhaps Tony provides the answer with the schoolboy chant:
“Donk’s an ass
Bottom of the class!”
Tony will appear in a few more installments about the still un-named county of Barsetshire but then drops out of sight. Perhaps Thirkell couldn’t think of a way to transform his nine-year-old volubleness and volatility into an adult, although during the war years one officer mentions him as a chap who sometimes talks nineteen-to-the-dozen and sometimes is as silent as the Sphinx. We are told that he marries and has a large family, presumably literary payback for his chattiness as a child.
And, now, the title: The Demon in the House. Thirkell is clearly referring to Coventry Patmore’s narrative poem The Angel in the House, published in 1854. The Angel is the idealized Victorian woman: submissive to her husband, attentive to her children, self-sacrificing in all. Later writers, particularly feminist writers like Charlotte Gilman and Virginia Woolf rejected and satirized this image, and, while I have no idea whether or not Thirkell hung out with the Bloomsbury crowd, she would certainly have been aware of the latter’s opinions and works. By gender alone, Tony is no Angel—but he is not really a Demon, either. In the rare times that he can be induced to wash, he appears clean and pink and cherubic to his mother, who alternately dotes on him and wants to strangle him for his boastfulness. I enjoy him too, although I’m sure that if I met him in real life, I would imitate Dr. Ford and say: