Two lovely gentle reads today before I plunged into a lovely big book about design for Shiny New Books then embark upon a Margaret Atwood double (re-reading “The Handmaid’s Tale” tomorrow; “The Testaments” arrives on Tuesday and will be gone into immediately (not sure what I’ll read on Monday!) – anyone else starting reading “The Testaments” on publication day apart from Ali, who I already know about?

Slightly annoyingly, Virago republished these two in time for lovely LibraryThing Virago reader Cate to buy them for me for Christmas 2018, but the one between them, “Cheerfulness Breaks In”, doesn’t come out until next spring! So I decided to just read on through them – after all, I read “The Headmistress”, which comes way after these, in November 2017, slightly by accident.

Angela Thirkell – “Before Lunch”

(25 December 2018)

A delightful novel with excellent characters, ‘low’ characters who are only slightly patronised and no funny foreigners. The Middleton’s find that Jack’s widowed sister and her two stepchildren are planning to rent the house next door for the summer. They draw close to the Bonds, as Denis charms Lord Bond with Gilbert and Sullivan evenings on the sly and Daphne charms his son and heir. Lots of characters I should recall from previous books pop in and out, especially at a load of meetings to discuss endlessly and never resolve a problem with a jumped up nouveau riche chap trying to build on a bit of land and the Agricultural show, but there is also real pathos in the growing ‘understanding’ between Denis and Mrs Middleton, and I must watch out for mention of her (Jack Middleton is much older than his wife) in the corners of later novels. Charming.

Angela Thirkell – “Northbridge Rectory”

(25 December 2018)

Just as light really as the previous one, but maybe the wartime setting gives it a higher value in terms of the atmosphere and daily life (amusingly, quite late on in the book a lady author who writes boring novels about day to day life is mentioned). I hugely enjoyed this, which was reminiscent of the Mrs Tim novels, and there were not too many Mixo-Lydians, even though the odd refugee is mentioned and they crop up in the chatter of the dreadful Mrs Spender.

The general atmosphere of early wartime in the village is summed up by Verena Villars, who has only been in the village for a year with her husband, the Rector:

The two ladies plunged into the intricacies of Mrs Gibbs’s household and Mrs Turner’s camp-beds, while Mrs Villars sat idle and wondered if she ought to have brought some knitting. It seemed unfair that a war, besides wrecking everyone’s summer holidays and devastating their evenings and mornings with blackouts, should give one a serious guilt-complex if one did nothing for a few moments

It’s not quite as dismissive of the privations of war as this implies, however: there are good solid naval and army characters and planes overhead. But also there’s this incisive remark which could be found in any book written about the home front:

In every war, however unpleasant, there are a certain number of people who with a shriek of joy take possession of a world made for them.

You have to love Thirkell for that, and for her exposure of the situations single women got left in, especially those managing difficult parents or aunts, for all her snobbery and indelicate phrasing around the less sharp characters.

The Villars have army high-ups billeted with them and one of them gets a pash on Mrs V – her marriage, however, asserts itself in a very sweet way. Laura Morland is mentioned, with Tony at Oxford, and there’s a cheeky mention of the next book to be read aloud at the working party being Trollope’s “The Warden” [both series of novels are set in Barsetshire, a century or so apart]. There’s some real pathos as well as humour in the complex relationships among some of the older characters, and even though the humour around Old French is a little laboured, this is a very good read.

Finally, a quick Confession – I have had a copy of this in the past but sent it out a-wandering and never claimed it back. As it’s by a favourite author AND features Iris Murdoch as one of the characters, I had to pick up a copy of Paul Magrs’ “Aisles” when I found a cheap one on Abe Books and it arrived today – hooray! Will be read early in the New Year.