Review 1883: #ThirkellBar! The Headmistress

Owing to financial difficulties, the Beltons have had to lease the house their family has lived in for 150 years, Harefield Park. It has been leased by the Hosiers’ Girls School, which, having been evacuated from London, had shared space with Barsetshire High School.

Mr. and Mrs. Belton have moved into Arcot House, recently inherited by Captain Hornby at his aunt’s death, which is in the village of Harefield. Although it seems odd not to live in their own house, the person who seems to mind most is their daughter, Elsa, who is away most of the time doing something secret.

Miss Sparling, the headmistress of Hosiers’ Girls School, has not only been sharing the school, she has been living with Barchester High School’s dread headmistress, Miss Pettinger, so she is happy to have her own quarters. The community of Harefield is very welcoming, so Miss Sparling quickly gets to know the village families. She is delighted to find out that the vicar, Mr. Oriel, once studied with her grandfather, a noted scholar.

One of her new acquaintances is Mr. Carton, an Oxford don, who goes around making disparaging remarks about female academics. Little does he know that Miss Sparling’s grandfather was an expert on an obscure poet that Mr. Carton is writing a book about. Further, one of Carton’s few sources is an article published by Miss Sparling herself.

At the Belton’s, Captain Hornby begins discreetly courting Elsa, and an unattractive schoolgirl at Hosiers falls madly in love with Commander Belton, the Belton’s oldest son.

As this series continues, the books become more full of incident, new characters, and references to characters already encountered and thus more difficult to describe. In this one, there is a hilarious description of a working party and a new awareness that the young men may die, although we haven’t heard of any war deaths among our favorite characters (except Lettice Watson’s husband, whom we never met), just of the natural passing of older characters such as the original Lord and Lady Pomfret.

A new character who proves entertaining is the pleasant Mrs. Updike, such a clumsy woman that she is constantly injuring herself. And key to the events of the plot is Mr. Adams, who I fear will become one of Thirkell’s types—a vulgar, wealthy manufacturer who is the father of the aforementioned schoolgirl.

Sometimes Thirkell’s prejudices bother me, such as her overt snobbishness and her disparagement of Dr. Morgan on the grounds she is a woman doctor rather than because she is a nitwit. However, although Thirkell has her tropes and stock characters, I feel that somehow her series is gaining a little substance.

On another note, I will have my usual wrap-up topic for this book with its announcement of the next book next Wednesday, but since that is well into July, let me just say now that the next book is Peace Breaks Out, and that my review will appear one day earlier than usual, on Thursday, July 28.

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