Review 2037: #ThirkellBar! Private Enterprise

Private Enterprise is Thirkell’s first wholly post-war Barsetshire novel. It reflects the confusion and discomfort caused by government measures that make things seem more difficult even than during the war.

The novel begins with Noel and Lydia Merton. Noel is back at his law firm, and they are now parents of two small children. To them for part of the summer holidays comes Colin Keith, Lydia’s brother, whom we first met in Summer Half. It is immediately apparent that he has fallen in love, with Mrs. Arbuthnot, a young widow. He is trying to find a house for her and her sister-in-law, Miss Arbuthnot, near Barsetshire.

Colin makes a fool of himself over Mrs. Arbuthnot but manages to find the two women a house. They move in and are quickly welcomed into the community. Again, we meet or hear about quite a few of the characters from previous books, including Mrs. Brandon and Francis Brandon, her son. Mrs. Brandon has gotten older, but we remember how young men used to fall in love with her and Noel Merton enjoyed flirting with her. We’re told several times that Mrs. Arbuthnot resembles her.

Unfortunately, Colin is not the only person who makes a fool of himself over Mrs. Arbuthnot. In the meantime, Miss Arbuthnot, older and less expectant, has her own quiet romance.

I noticed Thirkell’s snobbishness more in this novel than the previous ones, maybe because the others were more fun. It is clear that things are changing for the entitled classes and they don’t like it. Still, this novel seems an accurate record of life for these families (and to some extent of those of the less privileged) in post-World War II England, and I am still enjoying hearing about my favorite characters.

A comment about my edition. In the series up to this book, I have been reading the Virago editions, but Virago chose not to issue the post-war books, so I will have to finish the series reading Moyer Bell editions. As always with Moyer Bell, I am spotting lots of typos that seem to result from machine-reading a word wrong and substituting one that doesn’t make sense. Those are trivial, though, compared to the odd selection of the cover design and pictures at the beginning of each chapter. They are all by John Everett Millais, a Pre-Raphaelite artist. I have nothing against the Pre-Raphaelites, but they were a Victorian movement, and Millais was dead by the beginning of the 20th century. The women depicted in his paintings are dressed completely wrong for post-World War II England, of course, which makes me wonder why these paintings were selected for this novel. It’s a very odd choice. Perhaps the editors thought the novel took place after the Boer War?

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8 thoughts on “Review 2037: #ThirkellBar! Private Enterprise

  1. historicalfictionisfiction October 1, 2022 / 9:24 am

    Just finished this installment yesterday. I found it an enjoyable leisurely read for the most part. The last four or five books in the series have really made me research the post-war conditions in England and Europe, so very different from here in the United States. We really had it easy compared to those countries.

    I agree completely about the snobbishness. I still haven’t figured out who the Mixo-Lydians were, or were supposed to be. Any ideas? Or do you think they were “invented” by Thirkell to include any and all immigrants? I was also struck in some places at the very real misogyny, and the constant refrain about marriage and motherhood as the only acceptable options for women. Did you also notice the repeated refrain—sort of—re: the continued stalwartness of England’s “excellent women,” and how they were actually the ones who kept Britain going during those years?

    One of my favorite scenes was the meeting of the Mrs. Brandon and Dean: two of a kind who judged each other as to which of them was the better “type.” I also enjoyed—in an eye-rolling sort of way—Colin Keith’s infatuation, and in Susan Dean’s stern “snap out of it” attitude. (I’m glad she stayed true to herself, instead of deciding to “help” Colin out of his funk!) I was glad for Miss Arbuthnot, but annoyed with Neil Merton and his seven-year-itch. Thank goodness Thirkell pulled him out of it.

    For some reason, I enjoyed the long vignettes of tea parties and various conversations more than I have in the past. I think I fully realized just how good Thirkell is at “showing” characterization through conversation and actions rather than telling the reader about characters.

    Perhaps you’re wise to read these with a month in between; that way, they don’t sound repetitious.

    • whatmeread October 1, 2022 / 10:52 am

      They are a little repetitious. I’ve always enjoyed the conversations at the cocktail parties, but I’m finding some of the remarks, like the slighting ones about women in academia or other positions to be a little more irritating. There’s more of the marriage theme in the next book as well. It’s ironically inconsistent that Thirkell shows women competently taking over all kinds of jobs during the war and constantly mentioning how competent they are, but then mocking them for wanting careers. Perhaps it has something to do with the backlash after the war, we had it here in the U. S., too, because of men coming back and wanting their jobs back from women—and getting them back.

      I think the Mixo-Lydians are supposed to be some flavor of Eastern Europeans. At least, in the next book, which I just started reading, they are definitely under Communist rule post-war. Also, the references to fighting with the Slavo-Lydians.

  2. historicalfictionisfiction October 1, 2022 / 9:26 am

    P.S. I, too, wondered about the cover. It certainly shows that whoever was in charge of such had NO idea when the book was written, or in wht time period it was set. It looks like the next in the series suffers the same fate1

    • whatmeread October 1, 2022 / 10:56 am

      Yes! And this error continues with at least the next book. I just looked it up. The painting is a little more current, but it is from 1904. Still 50 years off, and that’s obvious from what the woman in it is wearing. It is from the Arts and Crafts movement. How odd that they are picking paintings so far out of the time they’re depicting.

  3. Liz Dexter October 1, 2022 / 11:51 am

    That is weird about the editions, and one of the reasons I stopped where I did. I just shipped all my Thirkells to a woman who was keen to have them; it feels good not to have them hanging around the house, esp as even Virago didn’t do uniform editions, some random ones having dark green spines. I’m glad they will be read again. This does sound interesting, catching up with everyone, but the Mixo-Lydian stuff is so tiresome!

    • whatmeread October 1, 2022 / 3:50 pm

      I thought it would go away after the war, but it hasn’t, quite.

  4. bookish17 October 2, 2022 / 2:08 am

    I’ve read a few Angela Thirkell novels myself, Wild Stawberries comes to mind. I haven’t read Thirkell’s later novels – the war and post war ones. She definitely is concerned with class and the ‘lower orders’ knowing their place. That’s true in her earlier books. I’m hoping to read the one set during winter called High Rising.

    • whatmeread October 2, 2022 / 2:01 pm

      She is concerned with class, but I think she’s more nuanced than the lower orders keeping their place. She has Mr. Adams, for example, the rich lower class businessman, who some characters are appalled to have living amongst them in earlier books but later respect and socialize with. And in later books, people who aren’t considered “county” marry into the county families more and more. I think her later novels have her moving reluctantly with the times but complaining about it a lot. She actually is pretty good at observing the changes in society that the war brings. She just has her upper class point of view of it.

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