Saturday, May 21, 2016

Before Lunch - Angela Thirkell

I should probably have re read this one before 'Northbridge Rectory' but as it was a re read I didn't, and in the end it doesn't really matter. The reason I might have done them the other way round is because this one published in 1939 is very much pre war, whilst the 1941 'Northbridge Rectory' obviously is not.

I've been reading a little bit about Angela Thirkell, mostly via blog posts I've found but still don't really know very much about her beyond how very well connected she was. I can well imagine that a lower middle class life in Australia with her second husband wasn't destined to be very successful - in fact it seems neither of her marriages were particularly happy, and neither was the relationship she had with at least one of her sons. The snippets of information (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say gossip) that I've picked up make me wonder how much of herself Thirkell put into her novels. I suspect the answer is quite a lot, but I haven't done enough research to really know.

I'm also coming to the conclusion that she spends a lot of time writing the world as she feels it ought to be. In 'Before Lunch' there's no hint of war in the horizon, if I hadn't checked the date it was written (I get a little bit obsessed with dates) I would have thought it was a good decade earlier - or more, the feel is almost Edwardian. I assume these books were shamelessly nostalgic even when they were hot off the press.

There are spoilers coming.

'Before Lunch' has a series of romances at its heart, there's young love destined to end in a happy engagement despite various obstacles and misunderstandings (in the best tradition) along the way. There's a more sedate affair between a middle aged couple, which also has some obstacles in the way, but is also destined to end happily. And then there's Mrs Middleton, another woman on the threshold of middle age. Her marriage to Mr Middleton is happy enough, but she is clearly not happy enough to be indifferent to the sympathy and care of a younger man, or to be quite indifferent to the prospect of a dear friend marrying another woman.

It's a web of relationships that could feel messy and unnatural, but it doesn't. There's nothing melodramatic (at least I didn't think so) about the set up, though there easily could be, but rather a sense of affections becoming somewhat deeper than they should be for safety or comfort.

Meanwhile, I'm sure Mr Middleton must have been based on someone real, and I'd love to know who.  So far I haven't found any kind of definitive list of who Thirkell may have based some of characters on but he feels like a portrait, almost a chariciture but for a creeping compassion towards him, so my money would be on a family member.

Beyond that it's the affectionate portrayal of county life that draws me back to Thirkell again and again. It may be idealised, she may be entrenched in her upper middle class prejudices and preferences, and quite so much solid comfort may be a fantasy, but she's spot on about agricultural shows.


  1. My lengthy comment just disappeared into the ether so I hope that I can recreate!

    My love affair with Angela Thirkell's books goes back almost 60 years (my grandmother and mother were ardent fans) and over the years I have managed to collect all 29 of the Barsetshire titles. This past winter, having filled in some gaps on the shelf, I decided to start at the beginning and read through to the end. I'm just starting BANK HOUSE which is about 2/3rds of the way through. I cannot tell you how much I am enjoying each and every title. Yes, some are better, and yes, AT gets a bit more complex and later titles are longer, but each and every gook has something to recommend it. The characters, the dialogue, the descriptions, the story lines are all wonderful. Now I've started to slow down because I'm thinking of how sad I will be to end the series. Some authors lose steam as they create a series but so far AT is going strong. Yes, she is writing "of her time," and there are some politically incorrect expressions and opinions but 70 to 80 years ago was a very different time. To help spread out the pleasure I've started reading several other old favorites such as I CAPTURE THE CASTLE by Dodie Smith and my usual fare of Golden Age mysteries (so many more being rediscovered and republished!)

    At was a far better writer than Barbara Pym (to whom she is compared) and Elizabeth Cadell and D. E. Stevenson although all three of those authors are very enjoyable reads. And that is what they should be: good stories, good pleasurable reads. I have just started an O Douglas (the pen name for Anna Buchan, sister of John) who is also a very gifted writer. Another author that I love is Susan Pleydell. She's been being published by Greyladies but every title sells out almost instantly and copies are seldom available on the used book market.

    So, if you haven't read Angela Thirkell, get some of her books wherever you can (I have read various books on e-readers but prefer the real book) and settle down for a really engaging, charming, literate, and pleasurable visit with various folks in Barsetshire.

    There are several websites maintained by the British and American branches of the AT Societies and they are mines of information, including annotated lists of the books in chronological order. Further there are several books (mine are upstairs) which feature in bibliographies on line. There are also forums online discussing various books. One is "discussing" THE DEMON IN THE HOUSE which is about young Tony Morland (could be my grandsons!) and that is fun. My grandmother's generation loved to read AT during WWII (books were rationed here in America) and I'm still loving them today.

    A large map showing the locations of ALL the houses with a legend and keys to the families and events would be helpful. There are end pages in several books with a smallish, poorly printed map but it doesn't list everything that it would be fun and helpful to know.

    Have a great time with Angela Thirkell's books (she may have based Laura Morland on herself) and pity me as I get to the last title!

  2. When you get to the last title you can always start again! I think I might have read about a third of her Barset books (I'd need to check) and would love to get hold of all of them. When I have seen old hardbacks second hand they've been quite expensive, and the Moyer bell (is that right?) editions aren't really available in the UK.

    The more I read, and reread her the more interesting I find A.T as a writer and the more I want to know about her. What I'd really like us a key to the characters who might be based on real people - as for example when she satirises Ann Bridge as Mrs Rivers.

    Initially I thought of A. T as a reasonably amusing but essentially throw away writer, but that opinion has changed, I wouldn't compare her to Barbara Pym who I think is doing something rather different, but she is definatley better than D E Stevenson. I haven't read Cadell so can't comment on that. Susan Pleydell is great!

    I must explore some of the Angela Thirkell societies, but more than anything I simply hope to see her books become widely available again (all of them) even if some of them have to be electronic (but paper would be better) and not just because she's extremely entertaining to read, but because there seems to be so much more going on there too.

  3. I read Thirkell's High Rising a while back and really enjoyed it.