My early forays into Thirkell left me with an over all impression that she wrote pleasant, easy, generally amusing books that were as good a way as any to pass a few hours but not much more. As I've found more titles to read and been prompted by the Virago reprints into re-reading so my respect for Thirkell has increased. She is still a nice easy read and a good way to spend a grey afternoon but books like 'The Headmistress' are much more than that suggests. Published in 1944 the Angela Thirkell society describes this as her most acclaimed novel and the story of a strong woman in wartime, I can see why it's her most acclaimed novel but there are at least three contenders for the position of strong woman.
The headmistress of the title is Miss Sparling, a woman who I assume is in her 50's, she and her school have taken over Harefield park from the impoverished Belton family who can no longer afford to live in Palladian splendour. Miss Sparling is an exemplary headmistress and woman who soon becomes popular in the village where there is speculation about her romantic chances with the vicar and Mr Carton an Oxford Don. Meanwhile Mrs Belton would be another contender for the strong woman title, the Belton's are uneasily aware of the fact that the world is changing, their removal from Harefield is officially temporary but they both know it might well be permanent as a way of life has quite decidedly ended for them, and then they have 3 children at war - one son in the navy, another in the army, and a daughter doing something very hush hush and responsible. All three children are at that stage on independence before they can become friends with their parents and whilst they're still quite horribly selfish. My third contender is Mrs Updike the solicitors wife who has an unfortunate habit of picking up cuts, bruises, scalds, sprains, lumps and bumps. Accident prone hardly begins to cover it, pre-war this is a woman who's life would have been cushioned by servants and who has none of the necessary skills for doing without but who also accepts her lot with unremitting cheerfulness.
Of these three Miss Sparling is probably the lucky one, she has a successful career to look back upon and by the end of the book a dignified romance to look forward to, Mrs Updike is an example of an intelligent woman who has never been trained or educated to do anything in-particular which leaves her vulnerable in a changing world but again (barring a fatal accident) she will adapt. Mrs Belton on the other hand is a woman who's outliving her role as lady of the manor, hers will be the regrets of being the generation who could no longer make it work and she is the one who has to watch her children go out into the world knowing that not only is it dangerous and that she can do nothing to protect them, but that she can't even offer them the same old certainties to come home to. Thirkell is clever enough not to lay it on to thick, there is a general air of nostalgia for what once was but also a hint that change isn't so very bad either all overlaid by the familiar humour and need to marry off at least a brace of couples.
Elsewhere I was delighted by the Trollope references - there are plenty of references made to the events in 'Dr Thorne' and the Barchester chronicles generally, and also in the way that she uses the authorial voice. Other bits are pure Thirkell - my favourite being a description of one character wearing a string of pearls just the right length for a country outing. There are also the troublesome moments of casual anti semitism and decidedly un pc attitudes towards women, sometimes it bothers me but this time it simply served a reminder that some change is very much for the better.