Published in the same year as The Demon in the House, Wild Strawberries is a charming and extremely funny but rather conventional romance which, if it had been Angela Thirkell’s only novel, might (still undeservedly!) be called a “woman’s novel” of the type to be read while eating a box of chocolates, but it contains countless gems of pointed humor and the seeds of the social satire that is to come. Neither Thirkell nor her contemporary readers were aware that this was an early installment in what would become a saga—the county in which the action takes place is still not named. With the benefit of hindsight we can see how beautifully Thirkell works with her various threads: she will have no difficulty connecting Laura Morland from High Rising with the characters in this installment. Loosely speaking, Wild Strawberries is the story of twenty-three-year-old Mary Prescott, who spends the summer with her uncle’s wife’s family, the Leslies. She falls in love with David, the spoiled playboy youngest son, but ends up marrying John, the staid widower of seven years. Put like this, it sounds scarcely strong enough to hold up a short story, but it is more than enough!
When I think of this book I think of English country life with a golden haze over it—this is a romantic paean not to love itself but to the “lost” country house life of Angela’s youth. We know that there has been a war because two characters’ fathers died in it, but other than that there appears as yet to be no change in the lives of these upper-class people. To cope with three little children, there is a Nannie and an under-nurse, Ivy; there appear to be countless footmen to deliver nursery meals and coal and carry the babies up and down the stairs; there is no shortage of labor and no mention of the lack of jobs that returning soldiers encountered. All is golden and serene. Here is a small example of the image: just one of the five long paragraphs describing the nursery at the top of the house.
Just inside the door was an enormous upright mechanical organ, product of the Fatherland in its milder days. Into this you inserted a large metal disc covered with perforations, and then turned a handle. A huge metal roller, studded with spikes like some engine of the Inquisition, could then be observed in motion through the glass front of the upper part, and crashing melody poured forth. The discs, also from the Fatherland, were for the most part extracts from such masterpieces as William Tell or La Sonnambula, varied by such well-known English airs as Oft in the Stilly Night. This triumph of Euterpe’s art, known as a Polyphone, was still in good working order, and the delight of James, Emmy, Clarissa, Nannie, and Ivy [the under-nurse].
And here’s another: the image of the butler who sounds the gong for the meals.
To sound the gong was, though he would have died rather than confess it, one of the great joys of Gudgeon’s life. The soul of the artist, the poet, the soldier, the explorer, the mystic, which slumbered somewhere inside his tall and dignified presence, was released four times a day to empyrean height unknown and unsuspected by his employers, his equals—these being but two, Cook and Mrs Siddon, the present housekeeper—and his underlings. . . .To see Gudgeon sounding the gong for dinner was to see an artist at work. Taking the gong-stick, its round end well padded with washleather, which it was his pride to replace with his own hands from time to time, he would execute one or two preliminary flourishes in the manner of a drum-major, or a lion lashing itself to a frenzy with the fabled claw in its tail. Then he let the padded ends fall upon the exact centre of the gong, drawing out a low ringing note. With increasing force he sounded it, the end of his stick moving in ever-widening circles upon the dark, pitted surface of the gong, till the sound filled the whole house, booming through corridors, vibrating in every beam, thrilling and pleasantly alarming Agnes’s children in bed upstairs, making David in his bath say, “Damn that gong; I thought I had five minutes more,” making Mr Leslie, in the drawing-room say, “Everybody late again as usual, I suppose,” making Lady Emily as [her grumpy French maid whose name is Conque which the other servants pronounce as “Conk”] Conk pinned up her hair, “Has the gong gone yet, Conque?”
In this installment we meet the Leslies, who will form an important part of the canon. Let’s have a quick précis of the family now because they will be popping in and out over the next thirty-five books.
Lady Emily Leslie is the younger sister of the seventh Earl of Pomfret and carries her title with her into her marriage with Mr Leslie, owner of the estate called Rushwater and breeder of bulls whose names all start with the letter “R”: Rushwater Rackshaw, Rushwater Richmond, etc. These are mostly sold to the Argentinians, allowing Mr Leslie to exhibit some prejudices against Foreigners. The Leslies had four children: the eldest son, Martin, who was killed in WWI, John, whose beloved wife Gay died after a year of marriage seven years ago, Agnes, and David. The Leslies are more or less bringing up their eldest son’s son, also named Martin, who is about to turn seventeen and who will inherit Rushwater. (I think that this was the first Thirkell that I read, when I was so young that I probably understood only one word in ten. I certainly didn’t understand the rules of entail and why Martin, who is an engaging and believable teenager, is treated like a prince, when it is his lawyer uncle John who does a lot of the estate work when not at his chambers.) Agnes, who is presented as “a divine idiot”—a real “Angel in the House,” in fact—is sweet, apparently rather dumb, and single-mindedly devoted to her children. She defers every decision to her husband, Colonel Robert Graham, who had had to be asked by his future mother-in-law to propose to Agnes because the girl was so vague she didn’t even express a preference as to any one her suitors, and her mother despaired that after two Seasons she would never be married. The Grahams have three children: James, about eight, Emmy, a stout five, and baby Clarissa (Edith will come along eventually). It is unusual for this time, I think, for the Grahams to be living with Agnes’ parents, but it is perhaps explained because the Colonel is away much of the time on military matters and because Lady Emily clearly needs a minder.
Agnes, who manages the household and her volatile mother with ease and efficiency, is often said to be an idiot, and indeed she frequently comes out with statements such as needing to take little James to get his hair cut and noting that his hair always grows much faster in the country and she can’t think why, unless it is that she doesn’t have it cut as often. At one point she is said to be doing the flowers—Doing The Flowers, that is, the daily arranging and rearranging of various vases of fresh-cut flowers, was a recognized duty of an Angel in the House. But Thirkell adds her own twist, noting that “[t]his she did by walking about the garden with James and Emmy and talking to Brown, the head-gardener, about his children. Meanwhile, the second gardener had cut the flowers for the house and they were subsequently arranged by Gudgeon.”
David, the anti-hero of this novel and of several others, is, thanks to a bequest, well-off, charming, and talented but lazy and unfocused and careless: a playboy. It does not stretch imagination too much to see him as a bit of a caricature of the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VIII. His father calls him “selfish to the bone,” and he is correct. David will affect many hearts over the course of the saga but he is a flibbertigibbet.
Lady Emily will appear in many installments as an exasperating, loving, charming, “fountain of joy” who delights in fussing and making plans and counter-plans. She is invariably swathed in gossamer shawls pinned haphazardly with diamond brooches, and she leaves her impedimenta all over. She is modelled after Mary, Lady Wemyss, a close friend of Angela’s mother. Thirkell adored Lady Wemyss and the county house existence that she describes comes from staying with her in the pre-WWI years—Thirkell herself was not in the county set that she wrote so much about. More on that later. The novel opens with Lady Emily bringing her family—late as usual—to the Sunday service where she fusses over everybody and everything to the total disruption of the service; but the vicar swore to himself not to try to correct her interfering and loving ways after he saw her “white, ravaged” face the Sunday after the news came that her son had been killed on the front. Even as a naïve young reader I thought this a bit hard on the other mothers in the congregation, who almost certainly also had white, ravaged faces due to the regrettable custom of the time of putting all the men from one village or one part of a county in the same fighting unit, so that villages could unfortunately see all their men of one generation wiped out in a single battle. However, this is Thirkell’s novel, and she means us to love and admire Lady Emily. Here is an example, not of her inconsequential speech, but of her activities, which will tell you more about the family as well as the moneyed existence in which they dwell.
On Whit Monday morning at half-past nine Lady Emily was still in bed, wrapped in two large Shetland shawls, her head swathed in folds of soft cashmere pinned with diamond brooches. On her bed were a breakfast tray, the large flat basket of letters, the small round basket with the green edge which contained answered correspondence, a large piece of embroidery, several books, another basket of combs and pins, and some newspapers. On a table by her side were a paint-box, a glass of water, and a white paper fan, which she was decorating with a dashing design of fishes and seaweed. The large bedroom was crammed to overflowing with family relics and examples of the various arts in which Lady Emily had brilliantly dabbled at one time or another. Part of one wall was decorated with a romantic landscape painted on the plaster, the fourpost bed was hung with her own skilful embroidery, water-colour drawings in which a touch of genius fought and worsted an entire want of technique hung on the walls. Pottery, wood-carving, enamels, all bore witness to their owner’s insatiable desire to create.
From their earliest days, the Leslie children had thought of their mother as doing or making something, handling brush, pencil, needle, with equal enthusiasm, coming in late to lunch with clay in her hair, devastating the drawing-room with her far-flung painting materials, taking cumbersome pieces of embroidery on picnics, disgracing everyone by a determination to paint the village cricket pavilion with scends from the life of St Francis for which she made the gardeners pose. What Mr Leslie thought no one actually knew, for Mr Leslie had his own ways of life and rarely interfered. Once only had he been known to make a protest. In the fervor of an enamelling craze, Lady Emily had a furnace put up in the service-room, thus making it extremely difficult for Gudgeon and the footman to get past, and moreover pressing the footman as her assistant when he should have been laying lunch. On this occasion Mr Leslie had got up from the lunch-table, ordered the car, had himself driven straight to London, and gone on a cruise to the Northern Capitals of Europe, which were not so essentially foreign as more southern parts. When he returned, the enamelling phase had abated and the furnace had been moved to the cellar.
(By the way, since I know that I have some Gentle Readers who do care, the spelling in these excerpts comes from the original—rules of punctuation and spelling have changed in the last ninety years! Microsoft Office certainly doesn’t like some of them either.)
Wild Strawberries gives us our first look at the university-educated woman—a being against whom Angela Thirkell took quite a scunner; we’ll see this more thoroughly discussed in later books. Oxford had had a lecture system for “lady guests” since the 1860s, and later even a residence system, but women could not matriculate into the university nor be awarded a degree until 1920.Thirkell did not attend university—she had the more conventional finishing school kind of education. Was some of this distaste actually envy? Maybe, although Thirkell must have known that in the arenas of literature and perhaps even in history and music her clever and well-read mind could dance rings around many university-educated women. Later in the canon it is only the difficult and somewhat tormented Clarissa Graham who will attempt an engineering degree, though she does not stay the course and becomes happier as a wife and mother. Remember that we are still in the time period and mindset that even if a woman has a successful career, the moment she marries it is understood that she must and will give it up.
But probably Thirkell’s biggest disdain comes from the kind of person who is beginning to get these degrees—they are not quite our kind. Barsetshire county’s “good” young men go to Oxbridge to read (study) Homer and Ovid which is meant to prepare them well for life as a gentleman farmer or a lawyer. The awful kind of graduates, like the odious Geoffrey Harvey and his worse sister Frances who we will meet soon, come from a lower background, and go on to careers in the BBC or, during and after the war, the Ministry of Red Tape and Sealing Wax or similar bureaucracies. In other words, they are not gentlemen. We are seeing a cultural divide between the gentleman who reads “Greats,” and the new professional who studies something like economics, and Thirkell does not bridge this divide gracefully, if at all.
Back to the story. David flirts outrageously with the inexperienced Mary, and promises her some special wild strawberries, flown in twice a week from the Swiss Alps. He invites her to come to London for lunch (his thoughtless invitation would require her to get up early to take a slow train in, but Mr Leslie, while noting again David’s selfishness, orders the car and chauffeur for Mary). Alas, when Mary arrives at the restaurant, David has carelessly invited another young woman, a producer for the BBC, to join them. Both girls hate each other on sight and hate David as well, but he preens himself as he entertains the two young women, oblivious to the currents of emotion swirling around him. It is a hilarious scene! Here’s how the two see each other: a contrast of county and university.
. . . each was conscious of angry and hopeless inferiority. In Mary, Joan saw one of those brainless society girls who have nothing to do but drink and dance and a have a good time. A pretty creature if one liked that ordinary brown hair and blue eyes and that kind of rather generous figure. Probably she had an income of her own and never wore darned stockings. David had said a cousin of his, but that wasn’t what she meant by a cousin.
In Joan Mary saw what anyone might call a good-looking girl if they liked that fair type with pale green-brown eyes and a hard sort of mouth. University women were always hard—unsympathetic and conceited as well., She might be useful to David, but that was no reason for her to have such a very well-tailored silk suit. But probably she earned a huge salary and had everything made to measure.
Mutual hatred passed between the girls in waves. Hatred for David also permeated the air, but to none of these currents did David appear to be attuned.
The scene hilariously goes along with each lady unable to really enjoy the treats of the luncheon because neither will affect to like what the other has said that she liked—for example, Mary says that the caviar is delicious and then Joan promptly says that she really only enjoys eating fresh caviar when she is in Russia, so she doesn’t take any—and thus each enjoys less than half of the delightful lunch that David has ordered for them. Worst of all, from Mary’s point of view, David has completely forgotten about the wild strawberries. At the conclusion of the luncheon she has herself driven to John’s chambers where she bursts out in tears and John comforts her, thinking all the while how selfish David is. John later reminds David about the strawberries.
The sub-plot of the novel is that the vicar has let his house for the summer to a French family: bossy mother, down-trodden professor father, oldest son also a professor, greedy twenty-year-old Ursule and the spotty teenage boy. Martin Leslie thinks it would be a good idea to brush up his French with the professor, and we have many scenes in which Madame talks disparagingly about every nationality but the French. Thirkell has a complicated feeling about xenophobia—characters who express it, like Mr Leslie and Madame Boulle, are meant to be laughed at for their pigheadedness and narrowmindedness, but, on the other hand, Thirkell contrives to have us share some of their sentiments. These sentiments will grow stronger in the post-War books, when England still struggled with rationing because the government was sending food to even more devasted European countries.
David has arranged for Joan Stevenson to stay with the Boulles for several weeks in August in order to better her French. The Boulles and their guest are invited to play tennis at Rushworth, and Madame Boulle introduces Joan to Lady Emily. We then have one of her classic conversations in which she proves herself to be even more xenophobic than Mr Leslie. Also, her English is not as idiomatic as she thinks! Note also—and this won’t be the last time!—Madame’s words are not translated for the reader, who is expected to read French well enough to understand it.
“Lady Emily,” she said, “may I present to you Miss Stevenson [who]. . . is an officer of the broadcasting, and is thus in touch with all the most interesting movements of the day. It is really ridiculous that Miss Stevenson should come to us to acquire French, for she already speaks with astonishing correctness and hardly any trace of that English accent which, although disagreeable when exaggerated, is yet rather attractive to a French ear. I will tell you, Martine [she calls Martin by this name, which makes him writhe with shame], that in France we call English la langue des oiseaux on account of the effect, a twittering and sibilant sound as we may say, which it produces on our ears. German, on the contrary, we call la langue des chevaux, because it has a certain heaviness, a clumsiness, not unlike the neighing of a horse. A horse’s neigh is in French hennier, qui se pronounce aussi ha-nir, mais je te conseille d’éviter ce dernier, Martine, which in fact I only signal to you that you may be aware of the fact, for it is a question sometimes asked in exams. The word hennir was doubtless in the mind of your Swift when he wrote about his talking horses, the Houyhnhnms.”
. . . . Everyone present then explained how they pronounced the word Houyhnhnms except Ursule, who giggled.
“At Broadcasting House,” said Miss Stevenson, “the correct pronunciation has been standardized as Winnim. It will probably be out in our next authoritative list.”
[This is a not-so-subtle dig at the BBC and the bureaucracy that requires standardized pronunciation to train the Masses, when the Right Sort know instinctively how to pronounce everything. Madame Boulle then comments on Miss Stevenson’s idiomatic French and, to cap Martin’s embarrassment, adds:] “I am glad to see that he is much with my young people apart from lessons. Thus he will acquire and easy and natural way of speaking French, which is recognized as the most pure and beautiful language of the civilized world. The French of Touraine is particularly noted for its purity. My ancestors, the de Florels, have lived in Touraine since the eleventh century and have always been renowned for the purity of their speech.”
As part of Martin’s birthday festivities there is a concert got up by local amateurs and held in the racquet court at Rushworth. At the last minute, Mary is asked to be the substitute accompanist, and we have a beautiful little scene of an amateur performance.
Mary had no difficult in reading the music provided, but had to exercise considerable ingenuity in following the soloists. All the performers, she discovered, regarded anything played by piano alone, whether as introduction, intermezzo between verses and phrases, or closing melody, as unnecessary padding, put in by the composer to lessen their chances. Taking this attitude, most of them plunged straight into their items, sometimes not even waiting for the key, in their anxiety to distinguish themselves. The audience enjoyed everything. The heat became stifling. A racket court is never at the best of times a well-ventilated place, and crowded as it was with people in wet shoes and coats, it felt like a conservatory in which the favourite plants were damp wool and rubber.
The butler, Gudgeon, has one of the last turns in which he sings the Victorian relic, “The Body in the Bag,” about a gentleman trying to dispose of the body of a tomcat found in his establishment. Apparently, Gudgeon sings this every year, but two verses before the end he requests Mary to keep on vamping while he addresses Lady Emily to let her know that the “crux” of the song is coming up. You have to envisage the whole audience sitting there during the vamp listening to the following:
“Thank you so much, Gudgeon,” said her ladyship. “Oh, and Gudgeon, did you think of seeing that Mr Leslie’s other shoes were sent to be mended? Not the other ones, you know, but the other ones.”
“Yes, my lady. Walter took them over to Southbridge on his bike this afternoon.”
“Oh, thanks, Gudgeon.”
“Thank you, my lady . . .” [and he continues on with the song in which the tom has proven to be a female as there are now nine bodies in the bag.]
For the grand finale, David shows up in a whirl wind, plays some jazz music on the piano and gives Mary a huge basket of wild strawberries, as if it were his own idea. At the dance given to celebrate Martin’s birthday, he embraces Mary in the garden and John sees them. Both Mary and John think that this embrace means that David and Mary are engaged—just as with Elsie Oxenham’s books, a mere hug or kiss in Thirkell-land automatically equals engagement—and both are unhappy because they have come to have feelings for each other. The subsequent morning, Joan Stevenson, when approached by David about having the BBC produce a dramatization of the novel which he will never write, says that she’ll help him and he takes her hand in his.
“It is curious,” said Miss Stevenson, “how much pleasure one can get from a man holding one’s hand, or even putting his arm around one, when any further intimacy would be, frankly, repellent.”
To his horror, David now finds out that she thinks with this handclasp that he has proposed to her. Fortunately for him, she turns him down as she intends to contract a “companionate” marriage with the clearly gay, fellow BBC producer Lionel Harvest, whom she has recently discovered will inherit upon his uncle’s death an income of 4,000 pounds a year. Hmmm…according to the rules this should mean that she would have to give up her position at the BBC, but perhaps the fact that she seems to have no inhibitions about stating that the marriage will be companionate only—i.e., separate bedrooms and she won’t be getting pregnant—means that she will retain it.
David thus realizes that his careless ways have resulted in two young women thinking that he has proposed to them (although this discovery won’t slow him down much), but all ends well for the real lovers. I regret to say that after this installment, John and Mary sink into being called “dull”—nice, but dull. Frankly, I could take their dullness after the flighty David and the oblivious Agnes, but so it is. They will have three boys, Leslies Major, Minor, and Minimus, who start off equally “dull,” but who develop quite a streak of fun and naughtiness.
Wild Strawberries can be read as a comedy of manners with a love story, but there is a lot more going on under the surface. Lady Emily and Mr Leslie are still grieving over the loss of their eldest son, while John grieves over his wife’s death, and these losses provide some grounding to the story. With the introduction of characters like Joan Stevenson, Lionel Harvest, and the BBC we are beginning to see the intrusion of the rather crass and serious-about-itself middle-class into the charmed life of the county house set. Everything is still golden and calm and will be for the next six novels or so—remember, Thirkell was publishing one book a year and this is the 1934 installment—but our eye and ear are being trained for changes to come.