The shine has worn off Christmas a bit for me now (I've had two months of it already and the milk of superhuman patience is drying up which is unlucky when I consider what the next three weeks has in store for me...) I'm also to tired to concentrate on anything overly complex so have picked up and re-shelved George Bernard Shaw's 'The Intelligent Woman's Guide', Ali Smith's 'Artful' went the same way, and I think it's probably better if Alexander Solzhenitsyn's 'Apricot Jam' waits until I'm in a more receptive mood too. For now my reading is mostly being sponsored by E.F. Benson's 'Night Terrors' and Angela Thirkell. Thank god for Thirkell and Virago.
I've hoped that somebody would start to reprint Thirkell for a long time now but must admit my money was on Vintage doing it - Thirkell fits much the same niche as Stella Gibbons and Vintage have a nice habit of doing the whole back catalogue even if it is only as print on demand. My knowledge of Thirkell is limited to the half dozen or so easy to find second hand copies here in the UK, and they are all from fairly early in her Barsetshire series, the later books are far to expensive to be attractive. I've heard that the quality of her work was somewhat variable and wonder if this is why the later books weren't as widely printed? Either way I'd be happy to see plenty more.
I realised when I started 'High Rising' that I'd read it before albeit a while ago, now so far I've thought of Thirkell books as a bit of fun but perhaps slightly throw away, a second read has made me reassess her. 'High Rising' centres around the novelist Laura Morland (mother of the irrepressible Tony) she's a widow who has turned to writing to support her four sons through school and into their various careers, Tony is the only one left but feels like quite enough boy to be going round. Laura, who is surely based on Thirkell, is a woman happy with her life and in her skin, and who for all her apparent absent mindedness has no intention of letting the comfortable balance of that life slip. She has an old friend - George - who's secretary is making eyes at him, and Laura is having none of it... So will George be rescued from the ambitious Miss Grey, will his daughter find love,will Laura manage to fend off inopportune proposals, and will Tony Ever Stop talking about trains?
Everything bounces along in a jolly enough way with plenty of snappy one liners, first time round I was probably caught up more by the story which is a little unevenly paced - everything happens in fits and starts, but this time it was the humour that drew me in and that, I think, works a lot better than the plot. Thirkell takes some time to explain Laura's approach to novels; she wants to write good bad novels, repeatedly making the point that her work is second rate but as good as second rate gets.
This is actually something I have quite a bit of respect for, too much high art gets a bit wearing, and Thirkell's gentle, well crafted, humour absolutely has it's place. I think in this book, and in Alexander McCall Smith's introduction there is perhaps too much apology for Thirkell's perceived shortcomings - she's good at what she does and books like this are the perfect antidote to stress filled winter days.
More problematical are some of Thirkell's prejudices, she makes casually racist observations in a way that absolutely reflects attitudes in the 1930's but which can be quite abrasive to modern sensibilities. In 'High Rising' it's some throw away comments about Jews - the context takes much of the sting out of it but it's those moments that show the books occasional shortcomings, although from a historical perspective it's also what makes it really interesting - it's another reason I'd like to read some of the later books in the series; to see if those attitudes change or are edited out.
'High Rising' is a perfect winter read, and was a much bigger treat than I expected (the perfect stocking filler for any Virago lover) I have everything crossed that more Thirkell's will join the list.
I'm looking forward to the reprint of Wild Strawberries, hopefully as a Christmas present. I didn't really like it the first time I read it, many years ago now.ReplyDelete
I think the very last books are a bit tired, and focused too much on pairing off everybody in sight.
I've just finished Wild Strawberries - parts of it are excellent, parts not so excellent, generally really enjoyable though. I can imagine the series did get a bit tired but I'd still be interested to see how it develops.Delete
I have to say, even after reading a lot of Thirkell over the past two years, I was surprised by the number of race-related comments in High Rising. The later books don't have this to the same extent.ReplyDelete
I do hope someone republishes more of the books soon. This is a good start but I would love to see all of the pre-war and war books at least back in print. By the late forties the series seems to weaken, though the books are still fun to read. I doubt that Virago is the right publisher for this but I know the agency representing Thirkell's estate is working on getting American publishers interested in her books. Sourcebooks, which has been reprinting Georgette Heyer's works, might be a good fit.
Ooh that's interesting news. It wll be interesting to see if Virago print some more, have to say these books are just what I'm in the mood for right now and I'm sorry to have finished these two.Delete
Lovely review! I only know of Angela Thirkell in the context of her being the grand-daughter of Edward Burne-Jones but from your comments her books sound rather interesting. I have a friend who is looking for something just like this to help her through the dubious pleasures of a lengthy family Christmas so I owe you a debt of gratitude - you have helped me out with one Christmas present at least!ReplyDelete
I'm not really qualified to comment on whether Virago are the right publishers for her but they have unquestionably done her proud with regard to the cover - it's a beauty.
Greg - the cover is a beauty and I hope your friend enjoys the book, I'm on the look out for more easy fun reading like this - it fits the bill at the moment.Delete
I hope Virago will publish plenty more of Thirkell's titles but am not sure how many they will consider suitably interesting to merit it. What Vintage have done with a couple of writers - particularly Stella Gibbons who is sort of comparable - is publish a couple of titles with all whistles and bells and then made a whole lot more available print on demand. If demand is high enough they then get proper editions which is an altogether satisfactory arrangement especially as price wise they're much better value than a lot of p.o.d stuff I've seen.
High Rising is the only Thirkell I've read so far. I enjoyed it very much.ReplyDelete
In that case Debbie, I think there are plenty of treats in store for you!Delete