Sunday, July 23, 2017

Cheerfulness Breaks In - Angela Thirkell

I've had the last lot of Virago Thirkell reprints sitting around since November waiting to be dusted down and read, took 'Marling Hall' on holiday with me, and then thought that I really needed to read 'Cheerfulness Breaks In'. It's a source of real irritation to me that Virago chose to issue this as an ebook only. It means I've had to read it on my phone, which I don't enjoy, and makes it very hard to refer back to when I want to check something, remember it, or write about it.

On the plus side it means that it is available to read at a reasonable price. I think I can understand why Virago went down the ebook route as well. Plot wise it's not perhaps Thirkell's best, it's hard to work out/remember what's going on at times as characters from previous books pop in and out (I've not read these books in sequence, and there are so many very similar people then it gets confusing), and this as Thirkell as un PC as I've met her. There's lots of casual racism, anti Semitism, snobbery, and high Tory propaganda. Despite all of that, and maybe because of my own current mood, I found this one particularly moving and relevant.

Published in 1940, 'Cheerfulness Breaks In' starts in the summer of 1939 when it's still possible to hope that war might be averted and finishes just after Dunkirk on a shocker of a cliffhanger. In between people get married and engaged, take in evacuees, get involved with work parties and committees, watch the younger men head off into the various forces, worry about if they're doing their bit, and generally dig in for the future.

It might not be a perfect book, but it captures a moment and a mood whilst reflecting back prejudices and fears in a way that really got under my skin. Well ordered, comfortably elegant, middle class lives are about to be shattered forever and Thirkell knows it. From the older generation of characters who have fought and lost people in the previous war and are now faced with children or grandchildren facing the same destruction there's a palpable sense of distress.

Younger characters can see it as fun, apart perhaps for Lydia Keith who's time s taken up with the mundane but neccesary tasks of caring for her elderly parents, running the family estate so her father and brother can concentrate on other things, and lots of less glamorous committees and voluntary work (work that leaves her smelling of rabbit stew) at an age when she might reasonably have looked forward to parties and fun. Mostly though, it's an elegy to a world that's about to be smashed to pieces and I can't help but feel evident Thirkell's dismay regardless of how I feel about her politics or prejudices.

Her point of view may at times feel controversial by contemporary standards, but that doesn't make it any less valid, or important to remember - or even to consider.

As ever with Thirkell I know that when I come to re read (please let it be in a paper copy by then) this I'll find much more in it. I don't think I made a bad job of spotting some of her references (I got the Radcliffe Hall/Compton Mackenzie one) but there will be dozens more to spot, and plenty more to consider.

One thing I'm definitely considering after reading a couple of her book back to back is the way the title of snob is applied to her. It's in much the same way as with Georgette Heyer, and seems much more pejorative than when applied to say, Nancy Mitford (I'm going to guess that Thirkell might not have considered Mitford quite the thing). I find Thirkell both funnier and more illuminating than Mitford whose affectations can get tiresome and whose characters are hard to care about.

For rather less muddled, and better informed, thoughts on Cheerfulness Breaks In see This from Kate Macdonald.


  1. I agree that it is so annoying that this has only been republished as an ebook, as it is one of the war time books which I particularly enjoy. I also find the whole class and race theme uncomfortable, but it is of its time, and not quite so blatant as Mitford... I have managed to get some old copies of this book which makes the reading far more enjoyable, so here's hoping everyone can get hold of a proper copy soon! I liked this review!

  2. Thank you! I don't mind reading Thirkell's prejudices to much - they're very much of her time/class (though clearly not universal even then) so I find it interesting as much as discomforting to be reminded that otherwise civilised people thought like this. The sidelight she throws on class divides is fascinating- especially when she talks about children. E.reading is horrible!
    I was also interested in how much she seems to approve of her lesbian couple, but how negative she sounds when she mentions the ladylike voices of the BBC men, it seems so contradictory. Mostly though I think it's a remarkable book for the way it captures the excitement of the beginning of a war with all its death or glory dreams and opportunities, as well as the certainty of crushing loss and waste of young life, as well as a hard fought for and cherished way of life for her older generation which they see disappearing.. She balances that all the way through so perfectly that it really was laughs on one page tears on the next for me. There really needs to be a paper copy.

  3. This is another author whom I have not yet read, there are so many of these marvellous women writers!