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.