Monday, August 29, 2011

August Folly – Angela Thirkell

I find the end of summer beginning of autumn a deeply depressing time of year, no season of mists and mellow fruitfulness for me, instead it’s all downhill until after bonfire night when the promise of properly grim winter perks me up no end. As I’ve got older I’ve collected more and more reasons to dislike these next couple of months and probably less control over how the season makes me feel – wonderful things could, and sometimes do happen but I feel like I’m programmed to retreat into a cup of tea (possibly some giant chocolate buttons) and the thing that really saves me from myself – a good book.

Books have been the answer at least since the autumn when I was eleven and read ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’ 16 times in a row to keep the blues at bay. It worked then and it works now. Looking round for something that would cheer me up on a bank holiday Monday that has been so grey and damp I’ve had to have the lights on since morning like it was winter already I hit on Angela Thirkell’s ‘August Folly’. It seemed appropriate for what will probably be the last book I finish this month, and which summed up nicely how I felt today in its title, it turned out to be just what I wanted.

I have perhaps half a dozen Thirkell’s on the shelf, mostly the old penguin editions, all clearly much read if not necessarily by me, and all exasperatingly out of print. Given the current market for rediscovered books and Thirkell’s apparent popularity on the web it seems almost incredible that no one has picked her up yet – she feels ready for a revival to me and ‘August Folly’ would be a good place to start – one frustration with previous Thirkell reads has been coming midway into a sequence and then being totally unable to get my hands on either the previous or next book in her Barsetshire (same Barsetshire as Trollope) series.

 August Folly’ works well as a standalone book, and so for the first time I don’t feel cheated at the end, otherwise it follows the same formula as all the others – lots of county families going about their business, a handful of terrifying and bloodthirsty schoolgirls, a young man with a crush on an unobtainable (but generally amused and kind) older woman, and at the end of it all true love and marriage for at least one (sometimes more) happy couple. What lifts them out of the ordinary is the sense of humour – it’s the place names that I particularly love with Winter Overcotes and Winter Underclose being favourites, Thirkell also seems to have a thing for double entendres which crop up to often and are, I think, to broad to be accidental (I’ll bet she was a hell of a woman to down a bottle of sherry with).

August Folly’ borrows more than a setting from Trollope – sort of hero Richard Tebben is a hobbledehoy in the mould of John Eames (from ‘The Small House at Allington’) and like Johnny he covers himself in glory after facing down a bull. There is something in the authorial tone which casts a nod to Trollope too. I think he might have enjoyed the exchanges between Gunnar the cat and Modestine the donkey (I learnt from reading a ‘The Tapestry of Love’ that Robert Louis Stevenson travelled the Cevennes on a donkey called Modestine and lo in the very next book I read there is a donkey called Modestine – a reference which otherwise would have flummoxed me) which so easily could have been revoltingly twee but are instead deliciously funny.

It seems from the little I’ve read about her that Angela Thirkell didn’t take her own work terribly seriously which is perhaps half its charm, she was quite prolific and there’s an undoubtedly dashed off feel in places. The other half of the charm comes from plots which despite being little more than sunlight and foam maintain an inner integrity because they make no bones about what they are.


  1. There's no way - or not many ways - I'm going to read this, but it is wonderful to read about it.

    I wonder in what novel or memoir or travel book one can find Gunnar the cat.

  2. I always think she put her own ideas about her books and writing into the character of Laura Morland (I can't remember if she turns up in August Folly). Mrs Morland writes to support her family, she often tells people that she writes pretty much the same book over and over, and she is always delighted but flustered that people like her books so much. Like you I'm surprised Thirkell is still under the radar - and that no one has adapted her for TV.

  3. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is my winter blues remedy. And giant buttons are awesome.

  4. 'The Scarlet Pimpernel' sixteen times in a row? I take off my hat to you, and I had a massive crush on it myself (and read many of the sequels - did you? I think they were actually pretty dire. And my elderly copies all smelt a bit funny too.)

    Angela Thirkell sounds lovely, I think I might give her a whirl. But you know what would really get you through the next few months? Some sustained reading of fairy tales! I understand some people may be doing just that (hint hint).

  5. Amateur Reader, Mr Tebben is a scholar of the Norse saga's, I suspect Gunnar must be a character from one of the Edda's but haven't yet checked.

    Lisa May, Thirkell was clearly an intelligent and funny woman. The Barset books are fun for the details and how I wish I could get some more of them.

    Overdue, I loved Miss Pettigrew almost more than giant chocolate buttons

    Helen, in my defence I was 11, it must have been half term and we were a fifty mile round trip from a library. Shetland can be grim in october and I'd just outgrown the famous five. The Scarlet Pimpernel was the only book to hand. Not long after my English teacher introduced me to Georgette Heyer and Dorothy L. Sayers. The sequels were a bit lame, and I'm definitely up for some fairy tales

    Thirkell's enjoyable and worth a look if you come across a cheap second hand copy.

  6. I love her books! A publisher did start reprinting them 10 years ago or so, but never finished - though some of their editions are suddenly available on Amazon again. It's fun to try and collect the vintage editions -- finding a Pomfret Towers a couple of years ago was my coup!

    I've been longing to start re-reading them...I was working m way through them in order, am not sure where I left off, and might just need to start again! I did re-read August Folly again last year (only because I wanted a small paperback to tuck into my purse for a plane flight and that's what I grabbed.

    I feel the exact opposite about the coming of fall, but I'm with you on finding Angela perfect for this time of year!

  7. Audrey, it's always a bit of a thrill to unearth another Thirkell. I think quite a lot of them were reissued in America but not in the UK. Hopefully someone will see the light and start printing soon.

    I think she's good to read any time too, but especially good on dull bank holidays.

  8. I have an omnibus edition of three of the novels on the tbr shelves, I really must get to it soon! AT's one of those authors that I think I should read but somehow never quite get around to. Thanks for the nudge.

  9. Good review, and has changed my mind about my earlier experiences of Thirkell. Perhaps I had just picked up a bad seed before, so will see if I can find this one.


  10. Liz, she is what she is and it may be that she's not your thing. I think this is definitely one of the better ones though so if you wanted to give her another go it would be a good place to start.

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