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One From the Archive: ‘Pomfret Towers’ by Angela Thirkell ***

I am under the pressure of time constraints at the moment, and so am rescheduling a post from 2014 to coincide with mine and Yamini’s 50 Women Challenge.

Angela Thirkell’s Pomfret Towers, first published in 1938, is the 589th book on the Virago Modern Classics list, and is the sixth novel in the Barsetshire Chronicles series.  In Pomfret Towers, the young female protagonist ‘finds adventure during a Friday-to-Monday at a grand country house in this classic, deliciously diverting 1930s romantic comedy’.  The Lady magazine calls it ‘a perfect balance of satirical observation and chocolate-box charm’.

‘Pomfret Towers’ by Angela Thirkell (Virago)

Pomfret Towers is the seat of the Earls of Pomfret in the fictionalised county of Barsetshire.  The blurb states that the Towers ‘makes a grand setting for a house party at which gamine Alice Barton and her brother Guy are honoured guests…  But of all the bright young things, whose hand will Mr Foster [Giles Foster, nephew and heir of the present Lord Pomfret] seek in marriage, and who will win Alice’s tender heart?’  At these very words, it is almost possible to hear fans of Virago-esque novels swooning.

Much of the novel takes place over a single weekend.  Thirkell sets her scene by opening the book with a history of ‘the most delightful town’ of Nutfield, which can be found on the Pomfret estate.  We are introduced to the Barton family, residents of the town, almost immediately.  Patriarch Mr Barton ‘was a passionate lover and faithful guardian’ of the Jacobean house in which his family live; his wife writes historical novels and consequently ‘sometimes found it difficult to remember where she was’; and their son Guy ‘had inherited his mother’s good looks, together with his father’s peaceful temperament, [and] found life a very straightforward, pleasant affair’.  The young girl of the family, Alice, is first referred to as ‘delicate’.  She longs to be an architect but, ‘failing this, she found solace in painting’.

Alice and Guy have been asked to Pomfret Towers to attend the party which is being thrown.  She is reluctant to spend time in unknown company, and is adamant that she will not go under any circumstances.  Rather predictably, her mind is changed only when friends of the siblings, Sally and Roddy, speak of their wish to be present at the gathering.  Still, her timidity is well outlined, and Thirkell describes the way in which she is frightened of almost everything: with dogs, she finds the ‘loud, indiscriminating hospitality [of dogs]… rather overpowering’, and at the thought of spending two whole days away from home with strangers, our omniscient narrator says, ‘if there were to be girls, Alice thought she had better die.  They would all have wonderful dresses and exquisite shoes, and be permanently waved and made up, and be frightfully clever and know all about people and theatres and films, and despise one, and why couldn’t Mother understand that girls of one’s own age were simply the most awful thing one could be asked to face’.  The urgency of her language and the way in which it runs on at such points within the novel is a great tool to exemplify Alice’s building fear.

Angela Thirkell with her grandfather, Edward Burne-Jones (1893)

Many other characters come into the narrative as it progresses, from the lovely and kind, to the utterly indifferent.  Lord Pomfret himself is portrayed as rather a cold character from the outset, and for good reason: ‘His eyes were small and often looked very angry.  It was so long since his only son, Lord Mellings, had been killed in a frontier skirmish and his wife had decided to be an invalid, that very few people remembered what he used to like’.

During the party, Alice is taken under the wing of Phoebe Rivers, Lord Pomfret’s niece, who had ‘the most elegant legs, the thinnest stockings, and the highest heeled shoes imaginable’.  She attends the parties merely to get away from her novelist mother, Hermione.  Again, rather predictably, Alice rather quickly falls for Phoebe’s pompous and self-important artist brother, Julian.

Alice is such a sweet creature, and she learns an awful lot about herself as the novel progresses.  The situation of the party gives her confidence, and she begins to throw her inhibitions to the wind and flourish.  Her character arc particularly is so believable, and Thirkell treats her with the utmost love and kindness throughout.  The author is unfailingly witty and shrewd, and is as good at describing scenes and situations as she is her characters.  Pomfret Towers is an entertaining novel, which stands alone from the rest of the Barsetshire stories marvellously.

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‘Findings’ by Kathleen Jamie ****

Findings by Kathleen Jamie is a beautiful book, which I revisited for mine and Yamini’s 50 Women Challenge.  Before initially reading it back in the early summer of last year, I had wanted to read Jamie’s work for such a long time.  I seized upon Findings when I found it in the library.

Throughout the volume, Jamie – both a poet and a self-confessed lover of nature – describes her travels in Scotland, demonstrating the power of the country’s landscapes upon her, and upon the wildlife which inhabits it.  Throughout, Jamie touches upon so many elements of nature – the use of darkness in respect to harbouring evils, Neolithic remains, the way in which technology has infiltrated even the oldest sites, whale watching, and the specimens inside Edinburgh’s Surgeon’s Hall are just a few examples of the essays she has written here.

Findings, as I expected it to be, is absolutely fascinating, and the photographs throughout add so much to each essay.  It is a wonderful volume to take away on holiday, or to read in the comfort of your own home.  The thoughts which it provokes, and the awareness which the reader will give to their immediate surroundings for months afterwards, is just wonderful.

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One From the Archive: ‘Because of the Lockwoods’ by Dorothy Whipple ****

I revisited this beautiful novel for mine and Yamini’s Fifty Women project, dipping in and out at will.  Below is my original review, which was first published here in February.

Because of the Lockwoods is Persephone’s 110th publication, and the eighth Dorothy Whipple book upon their list.  First published in 1949, Whipple’s penultimate novel focuses upon two very different families living in a small town in the north of England: ‘One, the Lockwoods, wealthy and powerful, in a position to patronise and help the second family, the poor Hunters, who have been left fatherless with a weak, ineffectual mother’.

The preface to the volume, which is at once well-developed, coherent, and very nicely written, has been penned by author Harriet Evans.  She begins her introduction in a marvellous way, by showing her love of Whipple’s work as follows: ‘If, like me, you are one of the thousands of readers who discovered Dorothy Whipple through Persephone’s reissues, you know well that feeling of resigned bewilderment suffusing the sigh of satisfaction you utter after finishing one of her novels.  Why isn’t she better known?  Why has she been so neglected, when every time someone picks her up for the first time they almost always become a fan?’

Evans goes on to write that Whipple – ‘an intensely moral writer’ – ‘wrote books quite unlike any others, for all their seeming “ordinariness”‘.  ‘She never preaches,’ Evans tells us, ‘merely lets us think she is observing and conveying information…  She is so damned unputdownable…  You are desperate to read on, to know that good, as personified by the heroine, Thea, and her family will prevail; that the world is not as dark as Whipple shows us it can be so often’.

As well as the well-evoked northern landscapes which the Lockwoods and Hunters live against, part of the story takes place in a beautifully drawn French town named Villeneuve.  Whipple is an incredibly perceptive author, who reveals the standings of both families almost immediately: ‘Mrs Lockwood decided to invite Mrs Hunter and her children to Oakfield for New Year’s Eve.  It would be one way of getting the food eaten up’.  All of her characters are deftly and distinctively built; Whipple gives one a vivid picture of each of her protagonists, and then follows one or two of them during each subsequent chapter.  This is a wonderful way in which to demonstrate the contrast and differing priorities between the two families, as well as allowing the story to unfold in a natural manner.

Because of the Lockwoods is a compelling read, filled as it is with beautiful writing and wonderfully drawn characters.  Whipple is an intelligent and rather fascinating author, whose plot stays with the reader long after the final page has been absorbed.  I, for one, am definitely a new convert to Whipple’s work, and can only hope that this reprint allows even more readers to discover her.

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