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