Some books (like this one) finish far to soon. I'm having a definite pre Christmas wobble (will I have the energy, patience, and enough sticking plasters to get through the next 5 weeks in something approaching one piece?) so it was wonderfully calming to spend Sunday immersed in Thirkell's pre war house party world, I wouldn't have complained if it had been twice as long.
I don't know if I started with some ropey Angela Thirkell titles, or if it helps to have read a few more to have a feel for the Barchester she creates, or if it's that her books really do get better and better (I haven't read any of the late ones which I hear really aren't as good), or if it's my taste that's shifted slightly. Whatever the reason my opinion of her goes up with every book I read. On reflection I don't think that the number of her books read makes too much difference because 'Pomfret Towers' works very well as a stand alone book, and perhaps it helps that since reading Trollope's Barchester books I understand a few of the references and jokes she makes that would have been lost on me before.
Alice Barton is the very shy daughter of a successful local architect and his equally successful authoress wife, she was a sickly child so has always lived at home which makes her first grown up invitation to the house party of an elderly and irascible earl utterly terrifying but her parents are determined she should get out in the world and so she duly heads off. Also on the guest list are her brother Guy, and her great friends Sally and Roddy Wicklow, another brother and sister, Roddy is also the earls junior land agent. The cast of young people is completed by Julian and Phoebe Rivers (also brother and sister) relatives of the earl, and Gillie - heir to the title. The Countess has an eye out for a wife for Gillie and a fondness for Alice's mother, Hermoine Rivers a successful but trying novelist wants Gillie for her daughter Phoebe. Phoebe wants someone to get her away from her family, but not Gillie much as she likes him. Julian is far to selfish to think of anybody but himself, Roddy wants Alice, though Alice becomes rather smitten with Julian, and Guy is very taken with Phoebe. Gillie seems to like both Alice and Sally, Sally likes dogs and horses. How will it all work out?
This being Thirkell the reader can take it for granted that there will be happy couples by the end of the book - it's one of the reasons it's such a good winters afternoon read. What you can't take for granted in a book this age is political correctness, but on this occasion I didn't notice any of the casually anti-Semitic remarks that can be so distracting however much you tell yourself to judge by the value of the times - but that was very much an after thought.
What makes 'Pomfret Towers' interesting beyond it's entertainment value is primarily the description of a fairly grand country house party from the days when people still talked of Saturday to Mondays rather than weekends, that it was published in 1938 when that world really was on it's last legs adds an extra pathos. There's the sort of service that will be familiar to anyone who watches Downton Abbey along with Alice's worries about how (and how much) precisely one is meant to tip the housemaid and if will she despise your nightdress. In fact even without the changes war made that Thirkell couldn't have known about there are indications that this way of life is coming to an end including the presence of the Bartons and the Wicklows which suggests a relaxing of social hierarchies.
The two very different authoresses are interesting too, Mrs Rivers writes a succession of very successful novels about women of a certain age (her age) who go off somewhere exotic, almost have an affair with a younger man and then reconcile with newly aware husbands. Her publishers refer to her as the Baedeker bitch for her habit of writing like a guidebook and generally being an unpleasant person to deal with. Mrs Barton writes extremely learned novels about the more obscure papal bastards from the 15th and 16th centuries, a time she's apt to loose herself in. Although she's generally much liked there are hints that her absorption in her work, though fully supported by her husband puts something of a strain on their marriage. His solace is their house, an architectural gem which is his pride and joy. It's leased from the earl, Mr Barton's satisfaction at the end of the book that the lease will see him out left me wondering just what would have happened to a house like his post war. (I think it looks bleak myself.)
I've been delighted that Virago are reprinting Thirkell purely because I enjoy her books and they aren't always easy to find cheaply (luscious covers for this series too) this is the first one that I hadn't read before and it's been a real treat. I can't wait for the next lot coming out in May next year.