Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Northbridge Rectory - Angela Thirkell

I've been happily immersing myself in Angela Thirkell's Barsetshire with the care of Virago's reissue of 'Northbridge Rectory' and 'Before Lunch'. There is also a kindle edition of 'Cheerfulness Breaks In' which I'm wondering what to do about. The nearest I've got to an ereader is a kindle app on my phone, but it's a far from satisfactory way of reading a book and if I'm going to spend almost the same as a paperback would cost - well I'd rather have a paperback. Especially for Thirkell, who I can't imagine approving of ebooks. On the other hand I do want to read it - it's all very annoying!

My first brush with Thirkell was almost a decade ago and courtesy of an old penguin edition of 'The Brandon's' picked up in a second hand bookshop because she sounded vaguely familiar. I liked it enough to buy (and read) more of her books as I found them, and if they were cheap enough, but it's only really been since Virago started reprinting her that I've come to appreciate Thirkell properly.

That's partly because they've increased the number of titles to be easily found at reasonable prices, partly because more people I'm aware of are discussing them as they come out revealing all sorts of details in the process, but mostly because I've re read quite a few of them along the way. Thirkell is definitely an author who rewards re reading.

This is the first time I'd managed to get my hands on 'Northbridge Rectory' and I raced through it. Not very much happens, but it doesn't happen in a very enjoyable way. It's 1941 (or at least that's when the book was published) war is becoming familiar, but for the residents of Northbridge life is continuing much as normal albeit with some ominous clouds on the horizon.

The book centres around 'Mrs Villars' the rectors wife. Her ten bedroom rectory (this seems like an enormous number of bedrooms, more so as I'm not sure it includes servants quarters) has had 8 officers billeted in it, who are probably much less trouble than evacuees. There's no problem with servants, rationing isn't posing any particular problems, the Villars have plenty of money, and their sons though both in the forces are neither of them doing anything especially dangerous. Mrs Villars is, all things considered, a lucky woman, but does she know it? And will her luck continue?

For anyone reading these books with hindsight (I wonder how far away the world described here felt in 1951, I think almost as far away as it seems to me now) we know this comfortable upper middle class world is under all sorts of threats. Mrs Villars is a capable women, she would need to be to run her large household successfully, but she's a manager dependent on her staff and a private income and she's unsettled by signs of social change. The evacuees that have invaded Northbridge with a city bred indifference to the niceties of the county social order make her see that her world is being eroded away, but she, I suspect like Thirkell herself, can see no way to bridge the gap. I can only guess that Thirkell dealt with the world that disturbed her by writing the world that she wanted.

Meanwhile there's the usual cast of people falling in, or almost in, love and just generally getting by. The most interesting of these (to me at least) is Miss Pemberton. Unattractive  to look at, relatively poor, fearsomely educated, and something of a bully, it looked for a while as if she were destined to be the ugly sister, or the dragon from which her lodger, Mr Downing, will need rescuing and then there's a change of heart.

Miss Pemberton is revealed as someone who wants someone to care for, and so she cares for Mr Downing with some inconvenience to herself. It's a very human desire to love and seems if anything to be maternal in nature. When she guards him from the possible advances of the towns ladies it's not so much because she wants him for herself as that she knows he can't afford to support another person. In the end she becomes an (almost) noble character, and one to sympathise with, which is new to me in Thirkell, normally she mocks.

It may be a book where nothing very much happens, and where the author doesn't bother to name one of the characters who ends up with the required engagement ring at the end (which is a lot funnier than I've made it sound), but none the less it's given me plenty to think about

14 comments:

  1. That is exactly where I am with Cheerfulness Breaks In! I would like a real book, please. I do wonder why that particular title is only available electronically. So odd. And now you've made me want to start at the beginning and re-read all of them!

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    1. There seem to be a few coming out just as ebooks, I don't know if that's to test the waters, or for some other reason, I've not read it so have no idea if there's any question over the comparative quality of Cheerfulness, but Kate Macdonalds review suggests not so it is odd. I prefer paper books anyway, but especially for a series like this. Maybe the actual books will follow?

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  2. One good thing about reading books on an iPad or an ereader with a stand means it's easy to knit and read at the same time...

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    1. Hah, I think that level of multitasking would be beyond me! I can knit to TV or radio but made some terrible mistakes on a cowl when fake or fortune got too exciting.

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  3. I always rejoice to see Thirkell back in print and others reading her! However, I am so miffed that Cheerfulness Breaks In was left as an ebook that my usual level of Thirkell enthusiasm is a bit dimmed. It doesn't help that I'm not overly fond of either Northbridge Rectory (though I enjoy it well enough) or Before Lunch (which I won't even pretend to find anything other than tedious - I tried rereading it last week and abandoned it in favour of the perfectly delightful Miss Bunting). The five titles next to be released are all excellent but it looks like only three of them will be available as paperbacks with the other two as ebooks. So frustrating!

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    1. I enjoyed Northbridge Rectory, especially as it was new to me, and I rather fell for Miss Pemberton who became such an unexpectedly complex character. There were other details in it - mostly evacuee based that I found interesting too. I'm reading Before Lunch again now and must admit I'm enjoying it very much, again for the details. But the ebook thing is frustrating, it's not high art but she deserves to be in print and I can't get as excited by a digital file. I've heard that the late titles really aren't as good (I don't know) so could understand books seen as sub standard but still interesting only getting an e release - the sort of book you might read once out of interest but not necessarily again (which says more about my attitude to ebooks than anything else).

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  4. Northbridge Rectory isn't my favourite Thirkell, but I'm always happy to read it again to renew my acquaintance with Mrs Spender ... After a gap I find I've forgotten just how funny Thirkell is.

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    1. I find her funnier every time I read her, and better the more I read her as well which was unexpected. I'm so glad that she's coming back into print.

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  5. I haven't read Northbridge Rectory but I do so enjoy Thirkell. "Not very much happens, but it doesn't happen in a very enjoyable way." is a perfect way to describe a number of her books. Soul-soothing.

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    1. I find them soul- soothing too. I don't much care about the plot, just enjoy her observations and humour.

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    2. I very much enjoy the works of Angela Thirkell, especially the Barsetshire novels, but also some of the others like Trooper to the Southern Cross, Three Houses and Coronation Summer. I can highly recommend joining the Angela Thirkell Society, if you live in the US or Canada the Angela Thirkell Society of North America is probably the best fit:

      http://www.angelathirkell.org/

      If you live in the UK, the original ATS is located there:

      http://www.angelathirkellsociety.co.uk/

      Both societies have meetings, both national and some regional/local ones, where you can meet in person people who share interests in Thirkell and similar authors. Both have publications about Thirkell and her works that are fun to read, and both from time to time have some form of "book redistribution" that allow members to get affordable "dead tree" versions of the books.

      Another fun resource is Going to Barsetshire by Cynthia Snowden, a reference book about the Barsetshire novels that is fun to read from cover to cover as well as informative when trying to determine when a book is set, continuing characters, characters related to Trollope's, etc. Members of the ATS of North America can purchase copies at VERY affordable prices.

      Jerri


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  6. Hi Jerri, thank you for that. I'm a big fan of the dead tree book - especially the paperback, so perhaps for that reason alone I ought to get involved with the Thirkell society. I'm finding her an increasingly interesting author for all sorts of reasons and the chance to know more about her is tempting.

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  7. So glad to have found your posting by chance, Desperate Reader [why desperate? Because addicted or never finding quite what you want?] I think the Angela Thirkell Society chairman commented to Virago on the appearance of titles only in e-book form and they said if the title sold well enough they'd consider hard copy. The Society's membership tends to prefer "proper books", preferably first editions with dust-jackets! But that is a counsel of perfection. There is certainly an increase in interest - academic and normal - in Middlebrow Writers, which is great for us like-minded people. If you're on Facebook the Angela Thirkell Appreciation Group is a good way of sharing opinions as well as here. For the cognoscenti (?) the Society produces its own Journal each year plus two newsletters and an annual meeting, all for £10 - go to angelathirkellsociety.co.uk

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  8. Desperate because I never find enough time to read as much as I'd like, desperate to escape into a book, and yes, desperate because books are a bit of an addiction. Thank you so much for your comment, I'm sort of aware of the society but haven't really investigated before. My preference is for hard copies, and I look askance on a virago policy that will essentially make me cough up twice. But I'll also undoubtedly do it. I'm just so grateful to be able to read more of her books reasonably cheaply. She's a fascinating writer.

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