Odd as it is to receive a Christmas-themed book for review in the middle of January, the tales collected in Virago’s beautiful Christmas at High Rising are hailed as ‘warm and witty wintertime stories’. The blurb describes the feel of the stories as ‘charming, irreverent and full of mischievous humour’, and states that ‘they offer the utmost entertainment in any season of the year’.
Indeed, only two of these stories relate to Christmas in any way, and one of them can only be said to rather loosely. The eight tales in this collection – originally published between the 1920s and 1940s and collected together here for the first time – have titles which range from ‘Pantomime’ and ‘Christmas at Mulberry Lodge’ to ‘The Great Art of Riding’ and ‘Shakespeare Did Not Dine Out’.
Christmas at High Rising is one of the almost thirty volumes which make up Thirkell’s beloved Barsetshire sequence of novels. It stands alone marvellously, and does not have to be slotted into the series in any particular order. Each page feels remarkably witty and fresh, and is not at all dated.
Thirkell’s depicts individuals so well, and her characters and their foibles are set out immediately. In ‘Pantomime’, we meet a man named George Knox, who ‘suddenly felt that as a grandfather he ought to take a large family party to the theatre’, and who, filled with his own importance, has ‘already begun to dramatise himself as Famous Author Loves to Gather Little Ones Round Him’. Later, he is described as dressing himself ‘in a large hat and muffler as Famous Author Takes Country Walk’. Her characters are also not at all afraid to speak their minds. When George Knox tells a female acquaintance named Laura that he wishes to take her and her son, along with two of his friends, to a pantomime, she responds with a, ‘Now, George… this is an awful treat that you want to give us, but I suppose we shall have to give in’.
The children which Thirkell creates are particularly vivid. Each and every one is shrewd and rather hilarious. Tony, one of the recurring child characters who appears in the majority of the stories, says such things as: ‘Mother, did you hear me laughing at the funny parts [in the pantomime]? I have a good kind of laugh and I expect the actors liked it’. There is a real sense of Thirkell’s understanding of her young charges throughout, and she clearly takes into account the disparities which just one or two years can make within childhood. The young brother and sister in ‘Christmas at Mulberry Lodge’, for example, ‘lived in London (which Mary knew was the capital of England but William was too little to know about capitals)’.
Do not be put off by the specific seasonal title, as Christmas at High Rising is just as appropriate to read over a summer holiday as it is the festive season. Here, Virago have printed a great little collection of stories, which provides a great introduction to Angela Thirkell’s wealth of work.