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The Book Trail: From Stewart to Smith

I am beginning this instalment of The Book Trail with a Mary Stewart novel, which I very much enjoyed reading during January.  As ever, I am using the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed…’ tool on Goodreads to collate this list, and have copied over the blurb for each title.

1. Airs Above the Ground by Mary Stewart 11031430
When Vanessa March arrived in Vienna she knew all about the white Lipizzan stallions at the Spanish Riding School. But she never expected to get involved with them or, indeed, with suspected murder.

 

2. While Still We Live by Helen MacInnes
It began very innocently. A holiday visit to Poland. But before enojoying the sights and sounds of this fascinating new place, happiness took a violent turn and became a nightmare of terror…when suddenly you’re mistaken for a Nazi spy, and to save your life, you have to prove you are innocent.

 

3. Mrs Tim of the Regiment by D.E. Stevenson 6620855
Vivacious, young Hester Christie tries to run her home like clockwork, as would befit the wife of British Army officer, Tim Christie. However hard Mrs Tim strives for seamless living amidst the other army wives, she is always moving flat-out to remember groceries, rule lively children, side-step village gossip and placate her husband with bacon, eggs, toast and marmalade. Left alone for months at a time whilst her husband is with his regiment, Mrs Tim resolves to keep a diary of events large and small in her family life. Once pen is set to paper no affairs of the head or heart are overlooked.When a move to a new regiment in Scotland uproots the Christie family, Mrs Tim is hurled into a whole new drama of dilemmas; from settling in with a new set whilst her husband is away, to disentangling a dear friend from an unsuitable match. Against the wild landscape of surging rivers, sheer rocks and rolling mists, who should stride into Mrs Tim’s life one day but the dashing Major Morley, hellbent on pursuit of our charming heroine. And Hester will soon find that life holds unexpected crossroads…

 

4. Before Lunch by Angela Thirkell
Middle-aged Catherine Middleton, married to an obtuse but endearing older man, is the still center of a swirl of two generations of gentry on the brink of WW II. The activities of youngsters and contemporaries go on around her and it is only gradually that one sees how, without conscious manipulation, nothing happens without her. The characters are subtly and humorously drawn–keep an eye on the hypochondriac and self-absorbed Miss Starter who displays a shrewd gift for defining the essentials and deflating the fatuous. At the end, youngsters and oldsters are properly sorted out and paired off, mostly as expected, after several false starts. Alistair, the older man who sets off after the ‘ing nue’ is nudged back into place with Catherine’s sister-in-law (his contemporary). She, in turn, sees ‘her young man’ off to seek his dream, leaving her bereft of the companions of her mind and heart — duty and honor intact, with the notion of ‘self-fulfillment at all costs’ decades away.

 

2137755. Fireflies by Shiva Naipaul
Fireflies tells the story of Trinidad’s most venerated Hindu family, the Khojas. Rigidly orthodox, presiding over acres of ill-kept sugarcane and hoards of jewellery enthusiastically guarded by old Mrs. Khoja, they seem to have triumphed more by default than by anything else. Only ‘Baby’ Khoja, who is parcelled off into an arranged marriage with a bus driver, proves an exception to this rule. She is the heroine, and her story the single gleaming thread in Shiva Naipaul’s ferociously comic and profoundly sad first novel.

 

6. The Polyglots by William Gerhardie
The Polyglots is the story of an eccentric Belgian family living in the Far East in the uncertain years after World War I and the Russian Revolution. The tale is recounted by their dryly conceited young English relative, Captain Georges Hamlet Alexander Diabologh, who comes to stay with them during a military mission. Teeming with bizarre characters—depressives, obsessives, paranoiacs, hypochondriacs, and sex maniacs—Gerhardie paints a brilliantly absurd world where the comic and the tragic are profoundly and irrevocably entwined.

 

7. Pictures from an Institution by Randall Jarrell 80989
Beneath the unassuming surface of a progressive women’s college lurks a world of intellectual pride and pomposity awaiting devastation by the pens of two brilliant and appalling wits. Randall Jarrell’s classic novel was originally published to overwhelming critical acclaim in 1954, forging a new standard for campus satire—and instantly yielding comparisons to Dorothy Parker’s razor-sharp barbs. Like his fictional nemesis, Jarrell cuts through the earnest conversations at Benton College—mischievously, but with mischief nowhere more wicked than when crusading against the vitriolic heroine herself.

 

8. Topper Takes a Trip by Thorne Smith
Cosmo Topper, the mild-mannered bank manager who was persuaded to take a walk on the wild side by the ghosts of George and Marion Kerby in Topper, finds himself reunited with his dyspeptic wife for an extended vacation on the Riviera. But he doesn’t have long to enjoy the peace and quiet before the irrepressible Kerbys materialize once again and start causing fracases, confusing the citizenry, alarming the gendarmes, getting naked, and turning every occasion into revelry or melee. Soon Marion decides that Topper as a ghost would be even more laughs than Topper in the flesh. And all she needs to arrange is one simple little murder.

 

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which have piqued your interest?

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One From the Archive: ‘Christmas at High Rising’ by Angela Thirkell ****

‘Christmas at High Rising’ by Angela Thirkell (Virago)

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.

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One From the Archive: ‘Summer Half’ and ‘August Folly’ by Angela Thirkell ***

First published in May 2014.

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 HalfAugust Folly and The Brandons.  The books have been adorned with Mick Higgins’ lovely cover designs, each of which suit their contents perfectly.

indexSummer 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.

indexa

As with Summer HalfAugust 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.

Purchase from The Book Depository

2

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

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.

Purchase from the Book Depository

2

One From the Archive: ‘The Brandons’ by Angela Thirkell ***

First published in May 2014.

The Brandons is the 598th entry upon the Virago Modern Classics list.  The novel was first published in 1939, and the new reprint has been adorned with another of Mick Wiggins’ lovely cover designs.  The Brandons is part of Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire Chronicles series, which is comprised of twenty nine novels in all.

As the title suggests, The Brandons focuses upon the family of the same, and focuses chiefly upon Lavinia Brandon, who is deemed ‘quite the loveliest widow in Barsetshire’.  She lives with her two ‘handsome’ grown-up children, Francis and Delia, in quiet comfort at Stories, the family home.  The central thread of the story is realised when cousin Hilary Grant comes to stay, and ‘promptly falls for his fragrant hostess’ Lavinia.  She, however, is more interested upon making ‘a match’ between the vicar and ‘gifted village helpmeet’ Miss Morris, whilst ‘elegantly deterring her [own] lovestruck suitors’.

Lavinia Brandon has been widowed for quite some time, and has no qualms about being harsh or unfeeling regarding her late husband.  She frequently refers to how cruel he was, and Thirkell says of him, ‘As for Mr Brandon’s merits, which consisted chiefly in having been an uninterested husband and father for some six or seven years and then dying and leaving his widow quite well off, no one thought of them’.  The novel is not overly plot-driven, really, and involves itself heavily with such things as hosting and attending dinner parties and having to marry off one’s children by a certain age, lest they amount to no more than spinsters.

Thirkell writes wonderfully, and sets out the lives of her characters against backgrounds in which they live.  Her trademark wit can be found throughout The Brandons, and one can see how she always picks up on the very smallest details which immediately set out the temperaments of her protagonists.  Young Francis, for example, who appears to have been rather an exuberant infant, was ‘wearing a green linen suit with a green linen feeder tied round his neck, and was covered with apricot jam from his large smiling mouth to the roots of his yellow hair’.  So many elements are considered with regard to actions, settings and conversations that it often feels that one is watching a play as the scenes unfold so vividly.

Stylistically, The Brandons is similar to the other Barsetshire novels, and it is rather quiet in terms of what happens within its pages, but it is entertaining and droll, and is sure to be a great addition to summer reading lists.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

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.

Purchase from the Book Depository

0

‘The Brandons’ by Angela Thirkell ***

The Brandons is the 598th entry upon the Virago Modern Classics list.  The novel was first published in 1939, and the new reprint has been adorned with another of Mick Wiggins’ lovely cover designs.  The Brandons is part of Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire Chronicles series, which is comprised of twenty nine novels in all.

‘The Brandons’ by Angela Thirkell (Virago)

As the title suggests, The Brandons focuses upon the family of the same, and focuses chiefly upon Lavinia Brandon, who is deemed ‘quite the loveliest widow in Barsetshire’.  She lives with her two ‘handsome’ grown-up children, Francis and Delia, in quiet comfort at Stories, the family home.  The central thread of the story is realised when cousin Hilary Grant comes to stay, and ‘promptly falls for his fragrant hostess’ Lavinia.  She, however, is more interested upon making ‘a match’ between the vicar and ‘gifted village helpmeet’ Miss Morris, whilst ‘elegantly deterring her [own] lovestruck suitors’.

Lavinia Brandon has been widowed for quite some time, and has no qualms about being harsh or unfeeling regarding her late husband.  She frequently refers to how cruel he was, and Thirkell says of him, ‘As for Mr Brandon’s merits, which consisted chiefly in having been an uninterested husband and father for some six or seven years and then dying and leaving his widow quite well off, no one thought of them’.  The novel is not overly plot-driven, really, and involves itself heavily with such things as hosting and attending dinner parties and having to marry off one’s children by a certain age, lest they amount to no more than spinsters.

Thirkell writes wonderfully, and sets out the lives of her characters against backgrounds in which they live.  Her trademark wit can be found throughout The Brandons, and one can see how she always picks up on the very smallest details which immediately set out the temperaments of her protagonists.  Young Francis, for example, who appears to have been rather an exuberant infant, was ‘wearing a green linen suit with a green linen feeder tied round his neck, and was covered with apricot jam from his large smiling mouth to the roots of his yellow hair’.  So many elements are considered with regard to actions, settings and conversations that it often feels that one is watching a play as the scenes unfold so vividly.

Stylistically, The Brandons is similar to the other Barsetshire novels, and it is rather quiet in terms of what happens within its pages, but it is entertaining and droll, and is sure to be a great addition to summer reading lists.

Purchase from The Book Depository

1

‘Summer Half’ and ‘August Folly’ by Angela Thirkell ***

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.

indexSummer 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.

indexa

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.

Purchase from The Book Depository

6

‘Pomfret Towers’ by Angela Thirkell ***

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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‘Christmas at High Rising’ by Angela Thirkell ****

‘Christmas at High Rising’ by Angela Thirkell (Virago)

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.

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