Three Thirkell novelsI think this is the first actual Virago book in my All Virago (etc.) / All August pile, and it’s a swap in my 20Books of Summer after I was a bit bamboozled when facing three books in a row published in the early 1920s. This one was first published in 1940 so fits into that poignant set of books I seem to quite often come across which were written and published when war had broken out, but the outcome was not at all clear. This is one of Virago’s gradual repreints of Thirkell’s Barchester series; rather oddly, they published ones that come in between these three first, two of which I’ve already read, but feel I want to re-read now so I can get all of the Second World War ones done in sequence. Not least because this one ends on a massive cliffhanger and I’ve already read the next one.

But first, a content warning.

Angela Thirkell – “Cheerfulness Breaks in”

(20 August 2020)

Angela Thirkell presents problems to the modern reader – or at least I hope she does. There are large problems with this book and many of her others, and I always feel I need to raise these when discussing her, as I would hate anyone to think I condoned some of the attitudes she espouses in her books. Yes, she is very much “of her time,” and in fact I’ve found almost exactly the same problem as one of the issues with this one in the next book I picked up (published 1923). But it makes it difficult to read her sometimes and standing silent is the same as being complicit.

So, Thirkell does go in for a) casual and not-so-casual racism (not so evident in this one, and in fact there is a joke at the expense of a missionary that puts his African congregation in the position of power (hooray! but rare) including introducing an entire central European race just to mock them. b) massive overweening snobbery (again, this one is not so bad with that and a character mentions they fear they are being snobbish). c) (a new one in this one I think), very outdated and offensive language around a child living with a developmental disorder. These things are of course unacceptable to the modern reader, and you very much have to put a firm “of those days, thank goodness she wouldn’t get away with this now” hat on.

So why do I continue to read her? Good question. Writing as she does at the time of the events in the book, we get almost reportage on the minutiae of village and country life at the outbreak of the war, from spivs and dodgy folks with too bright headlights on their petrol-filled cars to inventive curtains to keep the blackout, from girls desperate for more than a blackout injury in their hospital to older schoolboys and clergy who feel useless and embarrassed not to be fighting. And there’s an added poignancy to the rumour mill that’s constantly working, as it does today in our times of pandemic. There is real emotional depth in the responses of families sending their sons away and, especially, the masters and old boys of the boys’ school being sent off to fight. We find a celebration of unconventional, strong women, from capable spinsters to the moving development of Lydia Keith from bumptious schoolgirl to serious housekeeper running an estate and a house and doing much volunteering as her mother ails.

More poignancy comes from the rather lovely Noel’s realisation of his feelings for a character he thought of as a friend, when he sees her worn out and wants to support her. and there’s a touching and underplayed scene at old Lord Pomfret’s funeral, where the congregation will never see each other all at the same time again.

There’s also a lot of humour, with some terrible characters being nicely squashed and a perfect scene when the Birketts are treated to an unforeseen proposal:

When they compared notes afterwards they found that noting better than tags from Victorian novels had floated into their minds (p. 261)

This reminded me irresistibly of the time Mr Liz was running a Terrible Temperature and I phoned NHS 111 to ask for advice, then found myself saying, “Ah, the fever will break, will it” which I then realised I had got entirely from Victorian novels.

So, there is more to like than to dislike in this book, for sure, and while it’s important to note the dodgy details, register them, talk about them and make sure they’re not dusted under the carpet, it would be a shame to censor them when the intelligent and fair-minded reader should be able to separate out the wheat from the chaff.

This was Book 18 in my 20 Books Of Summer project. I’m reading Book 19 at the moment so I might even do it!