August Folly is a book that I enjoy when I read it, but I don’t read it as often as others as I dislike some of the characters or are embarrassed by them or for them. (Terrible way to begin an essay, I know!) Even though it is still funny and light, in many ways I feel that this is Angela Thirkell’s cruelest book in part because of the stresses within the Tebben family, which might mirror stresses that Thirkell was feeling toward her two elder sons, who were growing increasingly estranged from her.
However, while this is not my favorite of Thirkell’s works, perhaps because I feel so sorry for Mrs. Tebben, it is one of the best-plotted ones. We have the story of Richard Tebben’s poor degree at Oxford and his parents’ concern over what will become of him, Richard’s infatuation with the beautiful Mrs. Dean, the gentle Margaret Tebben’s hopeless future and her potential romance with Laurence Dean, the machinations of Mrs. Palmer and the play, Hippolytus, that she is putting on in the barn, and the crusty Oxford don Mr. Fanshawe’s growing interest in Helen Dean, who is a rather confused young woman who has an intense adoration of her brother Laurence and a consequent hatred of anyone who might come between the two of them.
In addition to the deft plot, August Folly has almost none of the snobbery that will make increasing appearances as we move along. We have nothing about high-, low-, and middle-brow readers, nothing about class differences or the golden era of the late Victorian and Edwardian times. The one sustained jab we have is against women university students: their unproductive seriousness, their crushes on their teachers, and their entire want of true intellect or insight.
Before I go into the plot, I want to highlight the book’s opening paragraphs, which are important for two reasons. The first is, that while the county is still not named, in this novel Thirkell for the first time gives us a sense of the layout of a small portion of it. Trollope’s fictional county of Barsetshire included one small town called Eiderdown, and Thirkell takes this joke one step further, although she will retain in later books many of the principal features of Trollope’s map. Here she will evoke the wool-oriented Cotswold counties, which is mildly ironic because none of the landowners and farmers who we will meet in the future raise sheep: they are fixated on pigs and cows. Oh well; it’s still a good joke,
The little village of Worsted, some sixty miles west of London, is still, owing to the very defective railway system which hardly attempts to serve it, to a great extent unspoilt. To reach it you must change at Winter Overcotes where two railway lines cross. Alighting from the London train on the high level, you go down a dank flight of steps to the low level. Heavy luggage and merchandise are transferred from the high to the low level by being hurled or rolled down the steps. From time to time a package breaks loose, goes too far, and trundles over the edge of the platform on to the line, but there is usually a porter about to climb down and collect it. When your train comes backwards into the station, often assisted for the last few yards by a large grey horse and its friends and hangers-on, you may take your seat in a carriage which has never known the hand of change since it left the railway shops in 1887. If it is market day at Winter Overcotes your carriage will gradually fill with elderly women, carrying bags and baskets, who prefer the train to the more expensive motor-bus, children with season tickets coming back from school, and one or two old men who still wear a fringe of whisker. As your train pulls out on the single line which joins Winter Overcotes to Shearings, a small junction fifteen miles away, you are back in the late Victorian era. . . . The line meanders, in the way that makes an old railway so much more romantic than a new motor highway, among meadows, between hills, over level crossings. At Winter Underclose, Lambton and Fleece, the train stops to allow the passengers to extricate themselves and their baskets from its narrow doors. It then crosses the little river Woolram and enters a wide valley, the further end of which is apparently blocked by a hill. Just under the hill is Worsted, where you get out. The valley is not really impassable, for a few hundred yards beyond the station the train enters the famous Worsted tunnel, whose brutal and unsolved murders have been the pride of the district since 1892.
It’s funny, because of the names, but it’s also very evocative of rural England of long ago. Oh, wait! What do I know of REOLA? Well, though I get confirmation of it from the mysteries of Allingham, Christie, and other contemporary writers who set their stories in rural England, as an American one of my principal informants about REOLA is actually Thirkell. So this is all rather self-referential—although some of my impressions were confirmed when I first visited England in the Seventies and saw some remnants of this past, like the horse-drawn beer delivery carts.
The second key point is the paragraph that follows the previous ones, in which Thirkell presents us with “three local dynasties”: Margetts, Pattens and Polletts.
If a Margett is station-master, you may be sure that there is a Patten in the goods yard, or on the platform. If a Patten is engine-driver, his fireman can hardly avoid being a Pollett. If there is a Pollet in the signal-box, there will be a Margett to open the gates of the level crossing and warn the signalman that the train is coming. All three families are deeply intermarried.
Thus, if Wild Strawberries gave us the wealthy, landed Leslie family, August Folly introduces for the first time the equally important country working folk. Fully aware of their role and importance in what we might call the county’s ecosystem, these characters will wander in and out of more prominent peoples’ stories, sometimes offering a word of advice here or a bit of lumber or a brace of illegally-snared rabbits there; frequently having babies, less often getting married; needing help with things like forms and ration cards because the compulsory education most of them had to the age of fourteen never really “took”; practicing a sort of country socialism based on a web of bartered services and goods; fiercely independent and often disgustingly “Anglo-Saxon,” they are the sturdy roots of the countryside. I have called Thirkell a snob, and she was, but perhaps the better word is a romantic. She is evoking a pastoral England that, if it ever really existed, certainly took a death blow in 1914.
Let’s move on to the story of August Folly.
When the story opens Mr. and Mrs. Tebben are waiting with mingled love and anxiety the return home of their son, Richard, who has just taken a poor Third at Oxford—while in the U.S. you can earn your baccalaureate with honors, otherwise you either get the degree or you don’t, but in England at the time, and even now according to our friend W. Pedia, the degree is “graded:” First, Second, Third. Richard has done badly, and the senior Tebbens who are both scholars, he of Icelandic studies and literature and she of economics, are taking this hard. The Tebbens are quite poor and unfortunately Mrs. Tebben does not manage things well—she is both bossy and incompetent and both her children are made impatient by her. Her little mis-economies, like offering visitors a bit of cheese that she has scraped most of the mold off of or a half-eaten jar of gooseberries that has not quite begun to turn, are funny to read about, although they also make one feel very sorry for her and her family. Without a good degree, Richard will find it hard to find a job; and, to top it off, his parents know despairingly that no matter what they say to him, he will despise them for it. One of Mrs. Tebben’s economies, because they cannot afford a car, was to set up with a donkey, Modestine, and a cart, and knowing that these embarrassing horrors await the ungrateful adolescent Richard at the train station, you can be sure that it won’t go well.
I will add that Modestine and Gunnar, the cat, have several conversations about their people and this is another reason why I am a little tepid on August Folly, despite its brilliant plotting. I prefer my talking animals to stay in Narnia.
Richard gracelessly wonders why his parents can’t get a motor car—you can apparently get a “decent” one for twenty-five pounds, which makes us wonder about the value of money at this time.
“I don’t think your mother would like it,” said Mr. Tebben, sadly wondering why the inner affection he felt for his son should always be changed to embarrassed dislike at the very moment of meeting. “She’s outside in the donkey cart. How are you?”
“Oh, all right,” said Richard, adding in a stage undertone, “Oh, my God!” which was meant to show that he resented his mother’s appearance in the donkey-cart and his father’s unnecessary inquiry after his health and possibly his examination results, which would not be out for some weeks and were not his father’s business, and wished them to know it without the trouble of having to tell them.
In deep depression Mr. Tebben led the way silently through the booking office to the little station yard.
“My dear boy,” cried Mrs. Tebben, throwing her arms wide.
Richard recognized with disgust that she was wearing the raincoat which reminded him forcibly of the appearance of the wives of Heads of colleges at garden parties, and that her untidy bobbed hair was escaping in every direction from beneath a hat suitable for Guy Fawkes. That her face was irradiated with affection escaped his notice.
Later Mr. Tebben attempts to comfort Richard for his poor degree by telling him stories of acquaintances of his who had also been “ploughed” at Greats and who went on to do well in life until poisoned by natives with grudges against them or being otherwise debilitated by various wasting diseases. “‘Thought the harder, Heart the bolder, Mood the more as our Might lessens,’” he tells Richard and this quotation and the stories cheer Richard up as he stares despondently at the backs of the bound volumes of the Proceedings of the Snorri Society. Most uncharacteristically, as she usually assumes that the Reader is familiar with all her sources and therefore she rarely names them, Thirkell identifies the quotation as being from the old English poem The Battle of Maldon, but I have been unable to find out when or where that was published in translation where she saw it—if you are thinking J.R.R. Tolkein you are wrong, as The Hobbit did not appear until 1937 (and didn’t include this quotation anyway), and Tolkein’s adaptation of the poem, The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son, did not appear until 1953 and was first published in a scholarly journal. But this scene is an excellent example of Thirkell’s wide-ranging reading interests and is both funny and touching to boot.
The Tebbens also have a daughter, Margaret, who has received the usual and useless kind of girl’s education and is now au pairing in Switzerland. At Mr. Tebben’s insistence, she returns home, also with no job or romantic prospects.
—One feels that some of Angela Thirkell’s girls could have taken a lesson from Elsie J. Oxenham’s more resourceful heroines, like Rosamund Kane, and taken themselves off to London to earn a Certificate in Cookery or something useful!—
Also newly come to the area around Lamb’s Piece (the Tebbens’ home) are Mr. and Mrs. Dean and their large family. Mr. Dean was an engineer in South America and owns a company; Mrs. Dean is the much younger sister of the childless Palmers who live nearby. Masterful Mrs. Palmer is the local squiress and is putting on a play in the barn—Hippolytus; just your average jolly Greek tragedy in which the principals end up dead—with actors drawn from the village as well as the gentry. Mrs. Dean is very beautiful and very languid; she is hiding a secret worry about her heart. Their eldest daughter, Helen, drives motor cars very fast and is fixated on her brother, Laurence, hating anyone who comes between them. Laurence Dean is another of the charming, selfish young men like David Leslie, whom we’ve met, and Francis Brandon, who we will meet soon: handsome, self-assured, and wealthy with all the lack of understanding of the wealthy to the poor. He speaks of himself in the third person, as if he were narrating a play, and flirts with every pretty girl he meets. Margaret Tebben, who met him in Grenoble when she was au pairing, has a crush on him and is filled with despair about it. I dislike him. (Perhaps you deduced that already.) Finally, we have teenager Betty, who plans to go to Oxford and is quite the bore about it, and Mrs. Dean’s friend Fanshawe, nearly fifty, who is contemptuous of female undergraduates. Mrs. Tebben had been one of his students and she still worships him, despite her own successful books on economics.
Richard immediately falls in love with Mrs. Dean (the theme of a callow young man falling in love with an older woman will occur several more times in the canon); Margaret is in love with Laurence, who is rather casual about it; Mrs. Palmer’s play, in which Laurence plays Hippolytus and Margaret Phaedra, goes badly (arguments over whether the chorus should Intone or Not Intone); Richard brushes and trains Modestine so that his goddess’s youngest daughter, Jessica, can ride him; the Tebbens host the Deans and the Palmers to a dinner party for which Margaret cooks and to which Laurence, acting all King Cophetua-like, brings his mother’s rum, oysters, cigarettes, etc. to improve the meal; Mr. Fanshawe realizes that he is in love with Helen and thinks that she is in love with Richard; Laurence proposes to Margaret who turns him down because she thinks he is toying with her; and Mrs. Palmer is mean to Margaret who leaves the play. It doesn’t sound the stuff of comedy, but it is! Here is a fine example of Thirkell’s humor: the Tebbens are entertaining the Deans, Helen and Mr. Fanshawe, to dinner and all are squashed uncomfortably around the too-small dining table. Aided by Richard and Laurence, Margaret cooks a delicious meal, capped by a jelly-filled omelette with flames of rum.
Richard’s entrance with the flaming omelette was greeted with cries of admiration. It was variously compared to the funeral ship of a Viking (Mr. Tebben), that jolly kind of dish they used to do so well at that little restaurant in Jermyn Street whose name he couldn’t remember, but everyone would know it (Mr. Palmer), a plum-pudding (Mrs. Dean, whose simple point of view nearly made Richard swoon with adoration by its exquisite, childlike quality), Guy Fawkes (Mrs. Tebben, who rather wondered what she meant when she had said it), a motor-car on fire at Brooklands (Helen), the Cities of the Plain (Mr. Fanshawe), and a rum omelette (Mr. Dean).
The characters’ choices of what the flaming omelette look like perfectly convey their characters.
Finally, the big scene of the story, set up for many chapters, is that Mr. Dean is anxious for the neighborhood bull, Rushwater Rubicon, to visit his cow (in the animal world, the gentleman always visits the lady), and when he arrives Richard saves baby Jessica from his fangs. (Presumably, while Rubicon lives at the Leslie’s farm, he tours the neighborhood.) Here is that scene, gently mock heroic. Richard is leading Modestine with Jessica on his back and the other children are following along in the lane.
Round the bend in the lane Rushwater Rubicon came gently trotting, an immense animal with a body shaped like a petrol tin, a curly fringe, and wide nostrils through which he puffed fire, or so Susan [Dean] afterwards said. [He is loose, having gotten away from his cowman who, running behind, shouts at the children to get over the fence. Nanny starts screaming. When the donkey sees the bull, he stops dead and Jessica shoots off over his head, landing on her own, and is knocked unconscious.] Rushwater Rubicon walked up to Jessica and blew at her. Richard, quite convinced that it would be his last moment, sprang to Modestine’s head and turned him across the narrow lane, blocking it, while with his foot he rolled Jessica behind him. Nanny picked her charge up and ran back with her to Mrs. Dean while Richard, not knowing what to do next, stood holding Modestine’s head and staring at the bull. Rushwater Rubicon was perplexed. Cowmen he understood and visitors on Sunday, but Modestine he suspected of being something barely human and when that unemotional animal, wrenching round his head, looked at him with his lip drawn back over his upper teeth, the bull was thankful to find his cowman at hand to rescue him, and was led peacefully away into the half-acre paddock, glad to get away from a lane where one met such monstrosities. Richard then sat down in the ditch and wondered if he were going to die.
Well, it’s much ado about nothing, isn’t it? But it is funny. As are the play rehearsals.
You can be sure, of course, that it all gets sorted out. The Deans are very grateful to Richard for his rescue of Jessica, and Mr. Dean offers him a position in the firm. Shortly after, he overhears Mrs. Dean telling her husband what a bore young men in love with one are, and his crush is over. Helen helps Margaret and her brother get together, and the last bit of ice melts in her heart although why she has wasted time and energy over her selfish and inconsiderate brother one doesn’t fathom. Mr. Fanshawe proposes Helen in the moonlight and her wordless response is to rub her cheek against his sleeve and then to go in to retire for the night—ah, these undemonstrative English! Mrs. Palmer apologizes to Margaret; Mrs. Tebben gives Betty Useful Advice about Oxford.
But while the ending is sunny, some of the pain remains. Perhaps this is what makes Thirkell’s works significantly “better” than Oxenham’s, no matter how much I love the latter. There is a lot more meat on the bone.
In terms of the rest of the canon, Mr. and Mrs. Dean, who is later appears practically narcoleptic, have walk-ons as the parents of the enchanting future actress Jessica Dean. Thirkell presents them relatively neutrally—not so the Tebbens. Mr. Tebben will have an occasional sympathetic appearance as the bookish Icelandic scholar called in to give his opinions on Roman or Briton (!) ruins and we will hear that he gives an unexpectedly well-received presentation on Snorri and the Elder Eddas to the convalescent soldiers late in the war, but Mrs. Tebben is always presented as an interfering busybody showing up with nasty messes bursting or spilling out of her string bag. And Richard is not, alas, as improved as we hoped he would have been by entering Mr. Dean’s business at the end of the novel—he will be condemned to marrying a self-absorbed, know-it-all Swedish Viking-ess. Lawrence Dean drops out of the stories—thank goodness! I feel sorry for Margaret.
Looking back on what I’ve written, I feel that I have undersold August Folly, focusing perhaps too much on Richard’s adolescent cruelty towards his parents and Mrs. Tebben’s pathological fixation on economizing. It is really very funny and masterfully plotted, and you will find it worth your while.