The shine has worn off Christmas a bit for me now (I've had two months of it already and the milk of superhuman patience is drying up which is unlucky when I consider what the next three weeks has in store for me...) I'm also to tired to concentrate on anything overly complex so have picked up and re-shelved George Bernard Shaw's 'The Intelligent Woman's Guide', Ali Smith's 'Artful' went the same way, and I think it's probably better if Alexander Solzhenitsyn's 'Apricot Jam' waits until I'm in a more receptive mood too. For now my reading is mostly being sponsored by E.F. Benson's 'Night Terrors' and Angela Thirkell. Thank god for Thirkell and Virago.
I've hoped that somebody would start to reprint Thirkell for a long time now but must admit my money was on Vintage doing it - Thirkell fits much the same niche as Stella Gibbons and Vintage have a nice habit of doing the whole back catalogue even if it is only as print on demand. My knowledge of Thirkell is limited to the half dozen or so easy to find second hand copies here in the UK, and they are all from fairly early in her Barsetshire series, the later books are far to expensive to be attractive. I've heard that the quality of her work was somewhat variable and wonder if this is why the later books weren't as widely printed? Either way I'd be happy to see plenty more.
I realised when I started 'High Rising' that I'd read it before albeit a while ago, now so far I've thought of Thirkell books as a bit of fun but perhaps slightly throw away, a second read has made me reassess her. 'High Rising' centres around the novelist Laura Morland (mother of the irrepressible Tony) she's a widow who has turned to writing to support her four sons through school and into their various careers, Tony is the only one left but feels like quite enough boy to be going round. Laura, who is surely based on Thirkell, is a woman happy with her life and in her skin, and who for all her apparent absent mindedness has no intention of letting the comfortable balance of that life slip. She has an old friend - George - who's secretary is making eyes at him, and Laura is having none of it... So will George be rescued from the ambitious Miss Grey, will his daughter find love,will Laura manage to fend off inopportune proposals, and will Tony Ever Stop talking about trains?
Everything bounces along in a jolly enough way with plenty of snappy one liners, first time round I was probably caught up more by the story which is a little unevenly paced - everything happens in fits and starts, but this time it was the humour that drew me in and that, I think, works a lot better than the plot. Thirkell takes some time to explain Laura's approach to novels; she wants to write good bad novels, repeatedly making the point that her work is second rate but as good as second rate gets.
This is actually something I have quite a bit of respect for, too much high art gets a bit wearing, and Thirkell's gentle, well crafted, humour absolutely has it's place. I think in this book, and in Alexander McCall Smith's introduction there is perhaps too much apology for Thirkell's perceived shortcomings - she's good at what she does and books like this are the perfect antidote to stress filled winter days.
More problematical are some of Thirkell's prejudices, she makes casually racist observations in a way that absolutely reflects attitudes in the 1930's but which can be quite abrasive to modern sensibilities. In 'High Rising' it's some throw away comments about Jews - the context takes much of the sting out of it but it's those moments that show the books occasional shortcomings, although from a historical perspective it's also what makes it really interesting - it's another reason I'd like to read some of the later books in the series; to see if those attitudes change or are edited out.
'High Rising' is a perfect winter read, and was a much bigger treat than I expected (the perfect stocking filler for any Virago lover) I have everything crossed that more Thirkell's will join the list.