I started this book last week for the Undervalued British Women Novelists Facebook Group’s Angela Thirkell Reading Week. Unfortunately, the Reading Week finished yesterday and I finished reading this book today, but I’m still going to post it there and I’m glad I read it. This was the book that Ali had posted me to surprise me when I returned from our Cornwall holiday, and she read the book (in a different edition) at the same time as me – see her review here. We had quite similar views (and reservations) about this book, so it’s nice that we’ve reviewed it on the same day, too.

Angela Thirkell – “The Headmistress”

(7 October 2017 – from Ali)

One of the Barsetshire series, read slightly out of order, although that doesn’t seem to matter too much as it didn’t feature characters centrally that I’ve come across in others of her books. It’s set during the Second World War, and I always find it terribly poignant when a book set at that time was published, as with this 1944 novel, before the end of the conflict. Thirkell wouldn’t have known what was going to happen to her characters any more than we do (maybe a Thirkell expert can comment on whether we meet the Boltons again in a later novel).

A girls’ school has finally found a place to live in Harefield Park, and although this means the Bolton family have had to move out and rent it to them, the rent comes in very useful and they actually enjoy living more centrally in the village (although renting from one of their tenants!). The headmistress of the school, Miss Sparling, is an asset to the small community, making friends with the residents and providing a point of interest (is she a perfect headmistress or TOO perfect a headmistress?) and her girls weave their way into society, too, seen on the edge getting up plays or going skating. Miss Spurling also ends up with two special men friends, and I did like the way romance delicately blossomed for this lady in late middle age.

There’s much to like – a reference to Trollope’s own Barsetshire resident, Dr Thorne, early on, the real pathos of Mrs Bolton’s feelings about her sons and daughter, all rushing around doing dangerous war work, and the psychological acuity on relationships between the women of the village, shown up most during their working parties, and the schoolgirls, not to mention the relationships between the Bolton family members, and the lovely eccentrics, most notably the accident-prone but charming Mrs Updike.  The details of life during the war, too, are beautifully portrayed, with the Vicar trying to work out how to paint a line round the bath to keep down his water usage and the make-do-and-mend and trying moments when all the help has gone to the armaments factories.

However, there’s the trademark Thirkell snobbery, most obvious in the tradesman in his bear-like tweeds and his unattractive daughter, Heather (although she has pathos and does show promise and strength) and the servants that still remain (although, again, the one put-upon maid might just prevail and get her moment of romance after all). Unlike Ali, I didn’t mind the new brisk woman doctor with her new-fangled ideas, mainly because I felt she was only made into a female character in order to produce one effect on another character to do with hats, but I did take exception to a moment where Mrs Bolton cheerfully tells her daughter’s fiance that Elsa could do with a good beating: this seemed out of character for both author and character. There’s also some really quite nasty casual racism around the ‘funny foreigners’, the Mixo-Lydians and Slavo-Lydians, OK just about when they’re a pet project of the silly doctor’s wife, but presented in such a way as tiresome refugees with ancient rivalries that feels like what would now be a somewhat Brexity attempt at the time to humour people who were presumably tiring of real refugees from the war. I heartily wished those sections excised.

However, the good outweighed the bad and I certainly enjoyed reading this more substantial Thirkell and will keep reading her others.

I’m still working my way through “The Invention of Angela Carter”, another gift from Ali – I’m just not liking Carter at all (OK, you don’t have to) and have a few issues with the way the book’s put together. We’ll see. I need to start “The Icebreaker” next to review for Shiny New Books, and I have won two more NetGalley books (leaving my reviewed books percentage hovering neatly at 80%!), Tim Ferriss’ “Tribe of Mentors”, which has inspiring stuff from entrepreneurs and other achievers, and Jan-Werner Muller’s “What is Populism?” which claims to help us understand the rise of populist movements around the world, but I fear might be a bit heavy for me.