Happy Returns is one of Angela Thirkell’s books set in Barsetshire, the setting also of Anthony Trollope’s novels. Thirkell’s novels were written in the 1930’s-50’s and feature, in large part, pleasant and well-meaning characters, gentle romances, and problems bravely dealt with, particularly during and after the war.
Happy Returns is set in 1951 and 1952, just before and after Winston Churchill’s ascension to the office of Prime Minister. Much of the conversation at the beginning of the novel is about the government, called Them, the depredations its taxes have made to the neighborhood, and the characters’ hope that there will be an election that will bring Churchill into office.
The situation of Lady Lufton is one of the focuses of this novel. Her husband is recently dead at an early age, and she is struggling with grief and apathy. The family fortunes have suffered so from death taxes that she is forced to lease half her house to a tenant, Mr. MacFadyen of Amalgamated Vedge. She is concerned because her son, the young Lord Lufton, can’t afford to rent a better place when he goes up to London for Parliament and has to stay with a miserly relative, who does not feed him well in exchange for his ration card. Frankly, the gentle Lord Lufton fears he is too poor to marry.
Charles Belton is another important character. He has been engaged for a year to Clarissa Graham, but they show no sign of marrying. Clarissa has been behaving petulantly, so that Charles has begun to doubt that she wants to marry him. It takes his friend Eric Swan to notice that Clarissa is actually madly in love with Charles and fears he doesn’t love her back.
Swan, a schoolteacher, doesn’t seem very ambitious, but he is actually considering trying for a place at Oxford. But then he meets Grace Grantly and falls in love with her. At this time, fellows at Oxford couldn’t be married, so he decides to put his plans on hold and see what develops.
The whole neighborhood notices that Francis Brandon hasn’t been treating his nice wife Peggy very well lately. She, along with several other women in the novel, is very pregnant and despite her husband’s behavior keeps her good humor.
As an example of the flavor of this book, Lady Lufton and Lord Lufton are having a conversation when Mr. MacFadyen comes in. Mr. MacFadyen observes sympathetically that some of Lady Lufton’s comments are of the type to make a young man impatient, but Lord Lufton always replies gently and patiently.
Most of the characters in Happy Returns are nice people, except maybe the Bishop, who never actually appears. Throughout the entire novel, Mrs. Joram is planning a party but is waiting for the Bishop and his wife to depart for Madeira so she won’t have to invite them. The Bishop is apparently so disliked by many people that when he finally leaves for Madeira and his ship is overtaken by a storm, almost every character wishes for a shipwreck.
I enjoyed this novel with its depiction of the hardships of post-World War II Britain. My only problem with it was the plethora of characters, for I could not keep track of who they all were and what their relationships were. Probably someone following the series from the beginning would not have this problem. I have read several of the books, but that was a long time ago.
There are also quite a few cultural and literary references I didn’t get—and probably many jokes. For the tone of the novel, although it has touching moments, is one of humor, with many funny asides addressed directly to the reader about what will or will not be further explained. I think a fair comparison for someone who is not familiar with Thirkell’s work would be the novels of Nancy Mitford, although they are more obviously unrealistic and caricatured.