Many of prolific author Angela Thirkell’s novels have been added to the Virago Modern Classics list of late, and May sees the addition of three more of her titles – Summer Half, August Folly and The Brandons. The books have been adorned with Mick Higgins’ lovely cover designs, each of which suit their contents perfectly.
Summer Half was first published in 1937, and forms part of the extensive Barsetshire series, which is comprised of twenty nine novels in all. The novel’s blurb states that Summer Half is ‘humorous, high-spirited and cleverly observed;, and heralds it ‘a comic delight’. The protagonist of the piece is Colin Keith, who decides, to the dismay of his parents, to quit his training for the Bar examinations and take up a post as a teacher at Southbridge School. He was deemed to ‘have more of the necessary qualifications for the post of Junior Classical Master than any of the other candidates’. He takes the job in order to be able to support himself after finishing his University studies, and so doing, finds himself ‘bursting with self-sacrifice’, something which nobody else in the Keith family seems to notice. Thirkell tells us that Colin ‘still clung desperately to his conviction that young men of twenty-two should not be living on their parents, but if no one else shared his conviction, he was going to be a martyr to himself without any of the fun of martyrdom’.
Throughout, Thirkell is perceptive of her characters; she allows them room to develop in terms of their personalities, and creates believable personality arcs in consequence. Her protagonists are well fleshed out, from Colin’s elder brother Richard, who relishes his role as ‘good older brother’, to his headstrong younger sister Lydia. As many of her novels are, Summer Half is focused almost solely upon relations – familial ones within the Keith household, and also in a more professional manner with regard to the students Colin finds under his care. Thirkell also places emphasis upon the ways in which young people are able to make their own ways in the world. The novel is rather a quiet one in terms of plot; nothing overly groundbreaking occurs, but it is a great novel to unwind with. The entirety is not at all taxing to read, but its style is intelligent, and it lends itself well to being picked up and read over a long weekend or during a holiday, for example.
August Folly, which first saw publication in 1936, has been deemed a ‘captivating’ and ‘delightful summertime’ comedy. The novel tells of protagonist Richard Tebben, ‘just down from Oxford’, who is faced with the ‘gloomy prospect of a long summer in the parental home’. August Folly takes place in the village of Worsted, ‘some sixty miles west of London’. It is remote and takes a while to get to: ‘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 distrct since 1892’. In her introductory paragraphs, Thirkell sets out the history of the village and its largely ‘intermarried’ inhabitants.
As with Summer Half, August Folly is largely focused upon its characters. Richard, it is said, ‘had a deep contempt for the ways of his parents’ and ‘did not attempt to conceal his contempt under a mask of courtesy, a social virtue which he condemned as hypocritical snobbery’. Mrs Tebben, Richard’s mother, strives to be an independent woman and does not allow her marriage to ‘interfere’ with her own plans. Rather amusing aspects of her relationship with her husband are told to the reader fromrather early on in the book – for example, Mr Tebben, with his vast library of books ‘always knew where a given book should be found, but could not always summon the energy to dig it out from the back row. Mrs Tebben,’ on the other hand, ‘rarely knew where any book she wanted was placed, but was willing to remove all the front rows, lay them with ready cheerfulness on the floor, and when she had found what she wanted, put them back in their own places’.
The main thread of August Folly comes when Mrs Palmer, a stalwart of the community and host to the ‘impossibly glamorous’ Dean family, becomes once again determined to put on yet another of her ‘disastrous’ annual plays, and to rope everyone from the village into helping her. This year, it is the turn of ‘Hippolytus’ by Euripedes, and upon learning this, Mrs Tebben, whose son has been studying the Greats at University, ropes him in, going ‘into the trance of adoration which any thought of Richard always induced’.
In her style in this novel, Thirkell is not dissimilar to Nancy Mitford: there is the same mould of acerbic wit, similar and rather quiet plots, and the focus upon individuals and the way in which they interact with and relate to one another. August Folly is not quite as engaging as Thirkell’s other work, but it is certainly funnier. Her dialogue is tight and well constructed throughout, and the novel certainly provides a rather quaint and entertaining romp, which deserves its place upon the wonderful Virago Modern Classics list.