Day 1139: Framley Parsonage

Cover for Framley ParsonageIn the fourth of the Barsetshire Chronicles, we meet some old friends and make some new ones. Of particular interest to Framley Parsonage are two occupants of the parsonage, Mark Robarts and his sister, Lucy.

Mark Robarts is a young clergyman who has been remarkably lucky and successful because of his friendship with Lord Lufton and his patronage by Lord Lufton’s mother, Lady Lufton. Instead of slaving away at a curacy like most clergymen of his age, he has the living at Framley, given to him by Lady Lufton, at a very good income. His lovely wife, Fanny, was chosen for him by Lady Lufton and makes him very happy.

Perhaps Mark has been too lucky, for he begins to think that his good fortune is due to his own efforts. He is a good man, but he is still only twenty-six. In any case, he ignores Lady Lufton’s prejudices against a set of people headed by Lord Omnium, her particular enemy, and accepts an invitation to Gatherum Hall. He believes he can better himself through acquaintance with the politicians he will meet there.

At this gathering, he is befriended by Mr. Sowerby, an insolvent member of parliament. Mr. Sowerby talks him into signing a bill for him for 500 pounds, promising repayment (reminding us of a similar subplot in Middlemarch). But Sowerby has no means by which to pay. Later, Sowerby talks Mark into compounding his error by signing another bill for £400. Mark is now in debt for his entire yearly salary.

Lucy Robarts, Mark’s sister, comes to live at Framley Parsonage after her father’s death. Lady Lufton has been trying to match her son with the beautiful Griselda Grantly, daughter of archdeacon Grantly, but Lord Lufton falls in love with Lucy. Lady Lufton is not at all in favor of the match.

Among these new acquaintances are old friends and acquaintances. The wealthy Miss Dunstable, whom Frank Gresham’s family wanted him to court in Doctor Thorne, is now being sought in matrimony by Mr. Sowerby. Doctor Thorne and his niece, Mary, also make an appearance. And the Grantly’s were, of course, prominent characters in the first two novels. We also see a lot more of Bishop and Mrs. Proudie than we have since The Warden.

I am really enjoying this series, and I like how Trollope ties in all of the characters so that some who are important to one book appear as minor characters in another. Trollope examines in this novel the standards of behavior expected of a gentleman, particularly a clergyman. Mark Robarts has broken with those standards, and as slight as his offence may seem, is forced to pay the consequences.

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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 997: Doctor Thorne

Cover for Doctor ThorneBest Book of the Week!
In this third of Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire Chronicles, the main character, Doctor Thorne, is presented with a dilemma. The outcome of the novel is fairly easy to predict, but the pleasure is in getting there.

Trollope begins the novel by explaining the situation of the Greshams of Greshambury, a proud but declining family. Squire Gresham has done his best to waste the family fortune, aided by his wife, Lady Arabella. When the novel begins, it is an acknowledged fact among Lady Arabella and her de Courcy relatives that young Frank Gresham, just of age, must marry money. Unfortunately for their plans, Frank has just declared himself to Mary Thorne, Doctor Thorne’s niece, who hasn’t a penny.

Mary has not encouraged Frank. In fact, she believes he is too young and injudicious to make such a decision. She refuses to listen to him, but she does begin to wonder about her own position, for she knows nothing about her own parentage. She has been brought up by Doctor Thorne to have a pride in breeding without understanding her own.

In truth, the story is not a good one. Her mother was the respectable sister of a stone mason until Doctor Thorne’s disreputable brother seduced her with promises of marriage. When Mary Scatcherd got an opportunity to marry and leave the country—only without her daughter—Doctor Thorne promised to raise the child as his own. This he has done without the knowledge of Roger Scatcherd, the child’s other uncle, who is now a wealthy member of parliament.

Doctor Thorne has continued to treat Roger Scatcherd, but he fears the man’s dedication to drink will soon put him in his grave. Since Scatcherd’s son Louis looks to follow in his footsteps, Doctor Thorne thinks that neither of them will live long. So, he is taken aback when Scatcherd confides that he will put his money in trust for Louis until he is 25, but if both of them die, he leaves his fortune to his sister Mary’s oldest child. Doctor Thorne urges Scatcherd to be more particular, because of course Mary’s oldest child is his own girl, Mary Thorne, whom Scatcherd thinks died as a child.

In any case, the Greshams find that Frank cannot be dissuaded from Mary Thorne. Although Mary has been raised with their daughter and is the best friend of Beatrice Gresham, Arabella banishes her from the house and eventually asks Beatrice not to see her. When Doctor Thorne, already sore because Mary is being punished for something she didn’t encourage, realizes that Mary actually does love Frank, he thinks it will all come right but is unable to tell anyone so because perhaps it will not.

Doctor Thorne is written in a different vein from the first two Barsetshire novels. For one, it is looking at a different strata of people. Some of the characters from the other novels are mentioned but do not appear. To be frank, I missed the delicacy of good old Mr. Harding. Dr. Thorne is rougher but no less principled, though. I did not enjoy as much the descriptions of Scatcherd’s doings, but after a while, I got to like Dr. Thorne and be interested in the outcome.

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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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