'The Brandons' was the first Thirkell I read, I found an old Penguin copy second hand about 7 years ago, experience now tells me it's the one of the easiest to find, it's also what I've come to think of as classic Thirkell. I've read a couple that I think are better books, ones that go a bit deeper beneath the surface and that have a genuine emotional pull, but they're not necessarily as much fun as this. Because it was the first 'The Brandons' has always been my benchmark, re reading now that I'm reasonably familiar with her work has confirmed that benchmark status. This is the work of a writer who's really hit her stride, she knows what her fans like and she's providing it, but it also feels like she's enjoying herself in the process. There's a ridiculous paragraph about a carousel ride which I won't quote because I'm afraid of the sort of spam it might attract but which is ridiculous and sublime and full of the sort of terrible double entendre that you can't quite believe you're reading.
There are two reasons to read Thirkell, one of which is the particular sort of social history she records. The Irish Times describes her as a middle class Nancy Mitford which I take issue with a little, Thirkell's background comes from the heart of the Edwardian artistic and intellectual elite, it doesn't sound like middle class life suited her particularly well when she tried it (in Australia) so she begged money from her godfather (J M Barrie) and cleared off out if it back to London and her family. Life, she felt, was much more peaceful without husbands (a sentiment Mrs Brandon clearly shares in this book). Nancy Mitford is self consciously upper class to a fault - it seems likely to me that Thirkell would have been amused by her efforts.
'The Brandons' is an idealised chronicle of upper middle class life just before the war, almost everyone has plenty of money (which must be nice) and plenty of time (which must be nicer) which is not to say they're entirely free of problems but for the most part it's a gracious easy way of living. The relationship with servants is the comfortable Downton Abbey sort where for the most part they get to share the good things their employers have and in some cases enjoy a domestic tyranny over them. I don't doubt that this is an idealised version of the reality of life in service and can well understand why the second world war really put an end to that way of life but I can also see that especially in that interwar period when choices were opening up for women (and almost all the servants here are women) and the balance of domestic power was changing that it could have been as comfortable as Thirkell describes. Because we know the war is coming and it'll wipe this comfortable elegant world away there's an elegiac quality about the book which adds a certain piquancy to the story.
Otherwise it's a fun romp, Mrs Brandon is a woman in her early 40's who still has claims to beauty (I should think so too), her husband sadly (but not that sadly) passed away fairly early in their marriage leaving her with plenty of money, two children, and a devoted following of retainers, friends, and admirers. Her life would be altogether easier if people would be content to flirt and not fall in love with her. especially tedious are young men who insist on reading the books they're writing to her... Mrs Brandon really comes into her own when she starts taking a hand in Miss Morris' affairs. Miss Morris is the put upon companion of a rich Brandon aunt who keeps threatening to leave her fortune to one nephew or another. It's a light and frothy confection with a genuine heart - there are some satisfying romantic conclusions, appearances from old Barsetshire friends, a glorious lack of the vague anti- Semitism that can mar some of her books, and above all else it's a book that makes me laugh (even more so second time around).