by Angela Thirkell
I can’t remember where I read about this author – it was a couple of weeks ago, while browsing the internet. Perhaps it was on another book blog, or in a review of another book, or in one of those lists you find all over the place. Whichever, it was serendipity. I needed something relatively light to read over the Christmas holiday. This is a time when I find it hard to get down to ‘serious’ reading, what with the demands of guests and a more than usually active social life. I had started reading an excellent biography of Attlee, but was ready to put this aside for a week or two and take up something lighter.
Thirkell’s book proved to be the ideal holiday read. There is humour, but also pathos. With a huge cast of characters, it is inevitable that some will be sketchily drawn and others caricatures, but there are also characters who seem real enough to leap off the page and arrive on your doorstep, hoping to be invited in for a sherry.
Yes, sherry seems to be very much à la mode in the Barsetshire of Thirkell’s book. Most of her novels – and her output was prolific – are set in the fictional town of Barchester and surrounding villages, that are the setting for Trollope’s Barchester chronicles. There are oblique references to some of Trollope’s characters too, though of course their activities are already in the past by 1939, the time this novel opens.
This is a love story and also a story of social life in a village at the start of the Second World War. The people who populate the book are affected by the war, most notably by the arrival of an evacuated London school which shares facilities with the local public school, and evacuee children who are billeted around the villages. Most of the ‘action’ takes place in social settings: parties; a ‘communal kitchen’ organised by the ladies of the area to give the evacuee children their midday meal; a Christmas party for the evacuees. Private moments between the key characters are snatched within these social events. The novel ends with an understated cliffhanger, as the heroine, Lydia, receives a telegram that may or may not be bad news about Noel Merton.
Thirkell published at the rate of about one novel a year from the age of 40 till her death thirty years later. Most of these novels are set in Barsetshire. Having only read this one, I don’t know whether any of the characters reappear – but I get the impression that each novel is quite separate, and populated with its own group of people. Virago has published a number of Thirkell’s books in its ‘Modern Classics’ collection, and happily they are also available as Kindle editions.
Don’t expect the profound understanding of human character and social relations that Trollope does so well in his Barchester Chronicles. Look instead for gentle humour and sometimes sharp wit, well-observed characters and a satisfying, if not particularly tidy plot – and you will find it in abundance in this book.