Day 1119: Northbridge Rectory

Cover for Northbridge RectoryEclipse day! We are not in the path of totality here,
but we are at about 97%. We thought about driving down into Oregon, but since the state is supposed to have more than a million extra people coming for the eclipse, we decided to stay home. I hope you have a nice view!

* * *

Northbridge Rectory is another of Angela Thirkell’s delightful Barsetshire books. I have been making no effort to read them in order, and this one is set during World War II.

The Villarses moved to Barsetshire only a year ago when Mr. Villars was appointed Rector. Mr. Villars formerly had a career as a headmaster of a boys’ school, and Mrs. Villars feels somewhat inadequate in her new role as rector’s wife.

The Villarses expected the rectory to receive its quota of refugees from London, but instead eight officers of the Barsetshire regiment have been quartered there. The Villarses particularly enjoy the company of Mr. Holden, who is managing some of his work as a publisher’s associate along with his military duties. Mr. Holden has become attached to Mrs. Villars and is constantly wearing her out by telling her she looks tired.

Although Northbridge Rectory is mostly from Mrs. Villars’s point of view, it also deals with two poverty-stricken scholars who share a house. Mr. Downing is a middle-aged man working on an abstruse book about medieval Provençal literature. His hostess, Miss Pemberton, is an older lady working on a monograph about the work of an Italian Renaissance artist. Miss Pemberton spends a lot of time keeping spinsters away from Mr. Downing. Mr. Downing, however, soon begins to feel very comfortable visiting the widowed Mrs. Turner and her bouncing teenage nieces.

Wartime brings everyone among unaccustomed people and activities, as when a watch from the church tower is proposed to look for parachutists. The Villarses spend an excruciating weekend entertaining an unexpected guest who will not stop talking, Mrs. Spender, the wife of Major Spender. Other entertaining characters include the couple of spinsters who so loved living in France that they throw mispronounced and misused French into every conversation.

Thirkell’s books are always funny, with a gentle humor that pokes fun without making anyone entirely unlikable. She has an unusual style of narration that breaks out to address readers directly, as if she is having a private conversation with us, usually just before a zinger.

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Day 1093: Pomfret Towers

Cover for Pomfret TowersSomeone once remarked to me that the Angela Thirkell novels set before or during World War II are the best, and so it seems to me, reading this one. Pomfret Towers is set before the war.

Timid young Alice Barton is terrified when she learns she must accept an invitation for a weekend at Pomfret Towers along with her brother, Guy. Lady Pomfret is home on one of her infrequent visits from Italy, and Lord Pomfret wants some young people around to entertain her.

But she needn’t have worried: almost everyone is kind to Alice. Phoebe Rivers, a cousin of the family, has made sure Alice’s room is next to hers and helps her pick out her outfits for dinner. Alice’s good friends, Roddy and Sally Wicklow, are there, Roddy being the junior estate manager. Gillie Foster, Lord Pomfret’s heir, is extremely kind and fetches her shoes for her from the servants. Even Lord Pomfret, who is known for his rudeness, is kind.

One figure who continues to be terrifying is Mrs. Rivers, a best-selling author. Although Alice’s mother is also an author (a better one, we suspect), she is modest about it, unlike Mrs. Rivers, who constantly talks about herself and tries to arrange things for everyone, as if she were the hostess.

Another egoist is Julian Rivers, but Alice only sees how handsome he is and how wonderful he seems to be. His behavior is sometimes unusual, but he is an artist.

One of the things Mrs. Rivers is trying to manage is a marriage between her daughter Phoebe and Gillie Foster, but Gillie seems to prefer talking to Alice or working in the office with Sally. And Phoebe keeps running off with Guy to look at buildings he and his father are restoring.

Pomfret Towers is another romance by Angela Thirkell, full of delightful characters and slightly winking at society. This novel is one I particularly enjoyed. Alice is a little silly, but she is young and lovable, and we are sure everything will come out all right.

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Day 892: Wild Strawberries

Cover for Wild StrawberriesThis title does not refer to the Ingmar Bergman film but to the second (or third, depending on where you look) Barsetshire novel by Angela Thirkell. Unlike the others I’ve reviewed lately, Wild Strawberries was written before World War II. It is a delightful and gentle comedy with a romantic triangle.

Wild Strawberries is about a summer with the Leslies. Lady Emily is universally adored, a vague woman always leaving a trail of her possessions behind. She is also a managing type whose attempts to arrange things that are already decided repeatedly throw the family into chaos. The novel opens with a hilarious scene in which the family is late for service and disrupts the sermon while Lady Emily tries to tell everyone where to sit. Lady Emily is the mother whose passing is much lamented in Enter Sir Robert, which I reviewed a few months ago.

And if I am not mistaken, Agnes, a daughter of the house, is the same Lady Graham who is a major character in Enter Sir Robert, and as in that novel, Robert is continually referred to but not present. Agnes is a young mother with three children, kind but silly, and entirely obsessed with the children.

Other members of the household are Mr. Leslie, gruff but kind, sons John and David, and grandson Martin. Martin is the son of the Leslies’ deceased oldest son. John is a widower who has been mourning his wife Gay. David is a charming but selfish playboy.

The Leslies have invited Mary Preston to spend the summer with them while her mother recuperates at a spa on the Continent. Mary is Agnes’s niece by marriage, and her affections play a major part in the plot. She is a young, naive girl who is immediately charmed by David. John, on the other hand, falls in love with her when he hears her singing. We find ourselves rooting for John, but in Thirkell’s novels, the characters we like best are not always successful in love.

Providing humor are a visit from Mr. Holt, a toady to the upper class and expert on gardens, who invites himself to visit the Leslies, and the establishment at the vicarage of a French family. Seventeen-year-old Martin gets himself embroiled in a demonstration to restore the French monarchy, and Mr. Holt finds himself rewarded for his gate-crashing by being entertained by Agnes and her children.

This is a delightful novel with sympathetic and engaging characters and a great deal of humor. I enjoyed it very much.

I have to say that my Moyer Bell edition (not the one pictured above) was riddled with typographical errors, including a chapter that literally ended in the middle of a word, to be completed after the next chapter title. I just picked this up at a used bookstore, but next time I buy Thirkell, I will look for a Virago edition.

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Day 820: Enter Sir Robert

Cover of Enter Sir RobertLady Graham and her youngest daughter Edith are the main characters of Enter Sir Robert, set in post-World War II Barsetshire. Thirkell relates her novels as if she’s personally telling you a story, and although all the novels are set in Barsetshire, this one seems a little more rural than the others I’ve read recently. People are always running off to look at the pigs.

Lady Graham is a charming woman whom everyone loves, although she is a little scatter-brained. With most of her children married and her husband, Sir Robert, almost always away on some vital service to the nation, she has only Edith, who is 18, left at home.

Mrs. Halliday has an invitation for Edith. Her daughter Sylvia, who is expecting, is coming for a visit. Mrs. Halliday would like Edith to stay for a while to be company for Sylvia. Mrs. Halliday is taken up with Mr. Halliday, who is not well, and her son George has been working the farm as best he can alone. Meanwhile, Lady Graham is preparing a small memorial service for the anniversary of her own mother’s death.

Edith enjoys herself very much at the Halliday’s, visiting with Sylvia, entertaining Mr. Halliday, and viewing the farm with George, who seems to like her company. When the Hallidays all go to view the Old Manor House, which they have been leasing to a bank, they meet Mr. Cross, son of Lord Cross and also a delightful young man.

Like Thirkell’s other novels, Enter Sir Robert depicts the everyday life of the people of a certain social station with wit and humor. Her characters are mostly nice people, with only a few barbs directed at the bishop. The countryside is lovingly described, and there is always a little light romance. They are a pleasure to read. Oh, and if you care to read this one, you’ll find that the title is Thirkell’s little joke.

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Day 766: Miss Bunting

Cover for Miss BuntingMiss Bunting, an elderly governess, has left her usual home at Marling Hall to live with young Anne Fielding in Hallbury. Anne’s health is considered too delicate for her to live with her parents in Barchester, so Miss Bunting has agreed to take her on, with an eye to improving her health, her poise, and her education.

Miss Bunting is an old-school type of governess, a force in herself, whose presence makes others sit up straight. Still, she is fond of her pupils, too many of whom are being killed in World War II.

Jane Gresham has been having a particularly tough war. Her husband Francis is on an island in the Pacific, and he hasn’t been heard of for three years. She has been living with her father-in-law Admiral Gresham and doing her best to raise her eight-year-old son Frankie.

Robin Dale, son of the rector Dr. Dale, is feeling a bit adrift. He lost his foot in combat. Although his old school has asked him to return to a job as master, he feels he must keep his elderly father company. So, he’s been running a small school for boys preparing for public school.

Jane does a favor for the admiral, going to view housing for Mr. Adams and his daughter. Mr. Adams is a wealthy factory owner looking for a place for the summer, and the admiral is on his board.

This novel is about a disappearing way of life for the British upper class, as personified by Miss Bunting. Class is an important issue in the novel, as the upper levels of Hallbury society are taken aback when Mr. Adams and Heather breach their ranks. Thirkell tells this story with liveliness and wit. Although her tone is sometimes one of asperity, none of her characters are bad, or even ill-meaning, people. Thirkell shows their foibles while still making you like them very much. I’m happy to be rediscovering these novels.

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Day 743: Happy Returns

Cover for Happy ReturnsHappy 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.

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