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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Review 2021: A House in the Country

All during the war, Ruth, her husband, four friends, and the Adam children have been stuffed into an uncomfortable house in London, suffering privations of every sort. As early as 1941, they all began dreaming of taking a house in the country together, where they could have space, good food, and plenty of fresh air for the children. At the end of the war, Ruth finds an ad for a large house in Kent, 33 rooms. They go to see it and fall in love.

They figure that with their combined incomes, they can barely afford it. Ruth will do the housekeeping. The house comes with Howard, a handyman/gardener who has lived there most of his life and whose assistance proves invaluable.

Adam lets us know right away that this plan doesn’t work, but the descriptions of the beauties of the landscape and garden sometimes made me forget this. Written with a deadpan humor, the autobiographical novel tracks the ups and downs of this experience, through employment issues, attempts at agriculture, paying guests, house sharing. But as Adam repeatedly states, the house was built to be served, not to serve.

The story of the hapless occupants is funny and touching. I found it fascinating.

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Review 2020: #ThirkellBar! Peace Breaks Out

Although Peace Breaks Out begins by returning to Anne Fielding, now almost 19, who was Miss Bunting’s student in the last book, it spends a lot of time with the Leslie family, whom we have encountered in several of the books. Anne has just met Sylvia Halliday, a beautiful, golden girl a few years older, and shortly thereafter, both girls come to the attention of David Leslie.

At 37, David should have toned down his tricks, but he hasn’t, so Anne is smitten while the older Sylvia’s reaction is a bit harder to ascertain. Anne’s being smitten puts her friend Robin Dale in a funk, which is good because he was tending to take her for granted. And David seems to be almost seriously considering her as a wife.

For the first time, we get a true sense of how tired the British are with the living conditions of the war. This is expressed by being upset about the peace, which makes conditions even worse.

In this novel, readers meet or hear of almost all of the main characters from the previous novels. Rose Fairweather, in all her beautiful idiocy, reappears from America, and more importantly, Rose Bingham, a Leslie cousin who we saw a bit of on the occasion of the other Rose’s wedding, returns from the continent.

It’s really been useful for me to have begun reading these novels in order. I only wish I had started out making charts of characters’ relationships, what books they appeared in, and some notes about each one.

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Review 1785: The Half-Crown House

The Half-Crown House is Fountain Court, a once-stately home that has fallen into disrepair after years of money and estate mismanagement and crippling death taxes. Its heir is Victor Hornbeam, a little boy who is coming to live there for the first time, his widowed mother preparing to marry. The property has been supported for years by Victor’s young aunt, Henrietta, who opens the house for viewing, and her cousin Charles, wounded during the war, who runs a market garden. They are struggling to support the estate so that they can hand over something to Victor when he comes of age. The only other family member living in the house is their grandmother, now bedridden, whose ferocious spending and mismanagement has bankrupted the family.

As the novel opens, Victor is arriving on one of the visitor’s days. Henrietta has a wealthy American suitor who wants to buy one of the valuable paintings, and she is hoping to sell it. However, that morning her grandmother tells her that it, along with many of the other paintings and jewels in the house, is a worthless copy that she had made when she needed to sell the original to pay her debts.

The household is wondering if Henrietta will marry the American, but it was apparent to me early on that her heart lay elsewhere. That only increases the little bit of suspense around this decision.

This novel is a meandering one. At times, it is much more concerned with the past elegance of the house and the events of the long-dead Hornbeams than with the living, for it goes off into little vignettes either through the memories of its inhabitants or during the descriptions of its current state. Thus, it particularizes the postwar state of the country, when many large homes were being dismantled or sold.

It’s an odd little book that reminded me a bit of Lady Rose and Mrs. Memmary and a couple of Rumer Godden novels that center around a house over the generations.

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Review 1767: Classics Club Spin! A Town Like Alice

Best of Ten!

I haven’t ever read anything by Nevil Shute, so I decided to put A Town Like Alice on my Classics Club list, and then it was chosen for the latest spin. I’m glad I chose it for my list, because it’s a really good book, hard to categorize—part war story, part love story, part adventure story, about brave and resourceful people and challenges faced. I loved it.

The novel is narrated by Noel Strachan, an elderly solicitor, who finds himself the trustee for a young woman named Jean Paget. After they befriend each other, Jean confides to him that during World War II she was in Malaya when she and a group of women and children were taken prisoner by the Japanese. Since the Japanese didn’t know what to do with them, they were marched hundreds of miles back and forth over the Malay peninsula. Half of them died until Jean made a deal with a village headman that he would allow them to stay there if they helped with the rice harvest. During the time they were wandering, an Australian POW who was driving trucks for the Japanese tried to steal food for them and was crucified by the Japanese. Jean decides to use part of her legacy to dig a well in the Malayan village to thank them for helping.

While in Malaya, Jean learns that the Australian man, Joe Harman, did not die as she thought. She decides to go to Australia to try to find him. As fate would have it, however, he comes to Strachan’s office in London looking for Jean, having learned that she was single after thinking all this time that she was married.

About half the novel is about the couple finding each other, but then Jean sees the nearby town to the remote station where Joe works. She learns that the girls won’t stay in town because there is nothing there for them, and Joe can’t keep men on the station because there are no girls. The resourceful Jean decides that if she can’t bear to live in the town, something must be done to improve it.

It’s easy to see why this novel is so beloved, although caution—there is incidental racism that reflects the times. That being said, I found this novel deeply satisfying—engrossing, touching, full of life and spirit.

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Review 1678: The World My Wilderness

Seventeen-year-old Barbary Deniston has grown up running wild in occupied France and was a member of the enfante maquis of the French Resistance. Now that the war is over, she doesn’t seem to know the difference and is still involved with the maquis, which is hunting down collaborators. Her mother, Helen, was neglectful while happy with her stepfather, but now that he has died, they’ve had a falling out. Helen decides to send her to London to live with her father, Gulliver. Also going is her stepbrother Raoul, who is to study and learn his uncle’s business.

Barbary is a fish out of water in her father’s upper-middle-class home. He is too busy with work to pay attention to her, and his wife, Pamela, dislikes her. In many ways immature, Barbary believes her parents would reunite if it weren’t for Pamela and her baby son, so she is determined to dislike them. Her father enrolls her at the Sloane and just assumes she goes there, but she and Raoul roam the streets and find a ruined section of London that reminds them of home. Soon, they are associating with deserters and thieves.

Macaulay treats all of her flawed characters with empathy, but it was hard for me to relate to Barbary. However, this novel made me realize how chaotic post-war France and London must have been. I haven’t read any other books that deal with that subject.

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Review 1631: Mrs. Tim Gets a Job

It turns out that Mrs. Tim Gets a Job is part of a series. Unfortunately, because I’d rather read series books in order, I never find this out until I mark that I’m reading it in Goodreads. Luckily, the novel seems to stand perfectly well on its own.

The Second World War is over, but Mrs. Tim’s husband is still stationed in Cairo and won’t be getting home anytime soon. Mrs. Tim’s two children are off at school, and she finds herself at loose ends. So, without really consulting her, a friend arranges a job for her at a hotel in Scotland. At first, Mrs. Tim is inclined to turn down the job, but then she gets a letter from her landlord giving her notice to move out.

With trepidation, she sets out to work for Miss Clutterbuck, who she understands is a difficult person. Miss Clutterbuck has been forced to open her family home to the public, and she has a rude manner. Mrs. Tim finds that part of her duties is to talk to the guests, because Miss Clutterbuck can’t bear them.

This novel is written in a light style as a diary, reminding me very much of the Provincial Lady series except gentler and with less overt humor. We follow Mrs. Tim’s progress as she grows to appreciate Miss Clutterbuck, learns how to deal with a housemaid who hates her, and straightens out a guest’s love life. I enjoyed this book very much.

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Review 1462: Not at Home

Miss Elinor MacFarren is dismayed to realize that something must be done about her finances. With World War II just past, there has not been much recent demand for her beautifully illustrated books on botany. She decides, with the London housing shortage going on, that she must find someone to share her lovely family home, filled with treasures.

When she interviews Mrs. Bankes, whose husband is an American journalist, she has some misgivings, but Mrs. Bankes agrees to all her conditions, and she relies upon the warm recommendation of her friend, Harriet Greenway. It’s not too long after Mrs. Bankes moves in, though, that the house is noisy and disorganized. Miss MacFarren’s precious objects are being mistreated, and Mrs. Bankes is using up all the time of the shared housekeeper. She is even taking Miss MacFarren’s food from the kitchen.

Mrs. Bankes proves to be a manipulator and a liar, willing to do or say anything to get her way. The situation is complicated when Mr. Bankes arrives, because he is so nice and appreciative of the house. Miss MacFarren can’t bring herself to give them notice while he is there.

This domestic comedy is thoroughly enjoyable as Miss MacFarren gets out of her rut, meeting new people and re-evaluating old acquaintances. With their help, she tries to figure out how to eject her unwelcome lodger.

I received this book from the publishers in exchange for a fair and honest review.

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Review 1426: The Wardrobe Mistress

In post-World War II London during a cold winter, the famous actor Charlie Grice, called Gricey, has died. His widow, Joan, a wardrobe mistress, is bereft. When a young actor, Daniel Francis, takes over Gricey’s role as Malvolio and plays it exactly the same, Joan comes to believe that he has become Gricey.

As Joan is beginning to befriend Daniel Francis, or Frank Stone, his real name, she makes a horrible discovery about Gricey. Behind the lapel of one of his coats she finds a badge, the emblem of Britain’s fascist party. This is doubly horrible because Joan is Jewish. Asking around discreetly, she finds what everyone else knows—Gricey was indeed a fascist.

The stress on Joan becomes even worse as her friend Frank begins working with her daughter Vera onĀ The Duchess of Malfi. Vera’s husband and his friend Gustl ask her to help them fight the fascists by infiltrating them.

This novel is written from an omniscient viewpoint with a first person plural accompaniment by the ladies of the chorus. This technique lends it a certain ironic tone. It’s a creepy and atmospheric novel that chills to the bone.

I read this novel for my Walter Scott Prize project.

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Day 1275: The Women in the Castle

Cover for The Women in the CastleIn 1938, a group of Germans meet at Burg Lingenfels, a castle in Bavaria, during a party. They are resistors against the Nazis, and they are planning to kill Hitler. After the meeting, Connie Fledermann, a childhood friend of Marianne von Lingenfels, asks her, if the plot fails, to take care of his wife, Benita, and the other wives of the men involved in the plot.

In 1945, the European war is over. Marianne’s husband was executed during the war for his part in the conspiracy. She has returned to the castle and begun looking looking for the wives she promised to help. So far, she has only found Benita, who spent time in a camp, and Anie, the wife of a man she can’t really remember. But both women have secrets, and post-war Germany is a dangerous place. This novel tells the women’s stories through flashbacks as it moves forward in time to the 1990’s.

Although I don’t understand quite why, I didn’t really get that involved with this novel. It may have been because Benita and Anie have some secrets that aren’t revealed until the end, which leaves them relatively unknowable. Marianne is the only character who seems to have much depth.

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