Angela Thirkell, Wild Strawberries

Angela Thirkell, Wild Strawberries. Virago Modern Classics, 2012. 19341

Europe was at a turning point in 1934, when this light romantic comedy was published. This was the year Hitler became Führer of Germany, having been made Chancellor the previous year. Mussolini had been increasing his grip as Il Duce in Italy from the 1920s. Britain was still bruised from the effects of WWI, and wary of political engagement with the rest of the continent – a condition it has recently found attractive again, when ‘foreigner’ means ‘not one of us’. We don’t seem to learn from the lessons of history.

Thirkell Wild Strawberries coverWild Strawberries is the second of Thirkell’s almost thirty ‘Barsetshire’ novels, set in a fictional province of England that’s loosely based on Trollope’s world. I read and posted about the first, High Rising, last October. She wrote for money, hence her prolific output. As I said about her novelist protagonist Laura in High Rising, she was unabashed in her role as running a production line of middle-brow, undemanding romantic comedies of dubious and, according to some accounts, uneven literary quality; they were very successful.

I read this one because I was due to undergo tests in hospital and anticipated long waits and delays. I needed something light and diverting. Thirkell is perfect for such situations.

I enjoyed the comedy. There are some very funny situations and jokes (the butler’s name is Gudgeon, which I find implausibly funny). Some of these involve charming, feral small children and their excessively doting mother – though her monomania became tiresome after a while.

Some of the characters produce some engaging humour, too. Lady Emily Leslie, daughter of an earl, is the eccentric matriarch of Rushwater House, the large country seat of her family. She is capable of producing chaos in the most orderly of households; her constant mislaying of her spectacles and other personal items resonated with me – I have a pair of reading glasses in every room to overcome this forgetful tendency.

Her husband is more problematic; he reminds me of the boorish xenophobe Uncle Matthew in Nancy Mitford’s Pursuit of Love and its sequels. We’re supposed, I think, to find his implacable antipathy to foreigners amusing. It isn’t.

Thirkell tends to produce characters with just one defining characteristic, like Lady Leslie’s meddlesome vagueness. This works for Dickens, who also produces more fully rounded characters to offset these caricatures. In Thirkell’s novel of 275 pages the effect is wearing. None of the characters has sufficient gravitas or depth to carry a plot.

And the plot is gossamer light. Will penniless Mary, a cousin by marriage (not a blood relative) of the eligible bachelor Leslies, succumb to the gigolo charms of handsome but feckless, selfish David, or for the more stolid decency of boring widower brother John? I thought it was pretty obvious from the outset what would happen, and didn’t really care either way.

I did find the depiction of ingenuous, inexperienced Mary’s infatuation with debonaire charmer David well done; the narrator makes no bones about his egotism and cruel flirtatiousness. Yet the more caddish and careless his treatment of her, the more she longs for him. Who hasn’t fallen for the wrong person at some point?

The novel works fairly well, as a whole, as an entertaining diversion (but see my conclusions below). I can’t agree with Alexander McCall Smith’s claim in the introduction that this is a different world from Wodehouse’s: these people have jobs, he says, and ‘they do not spend their time in an endless whirl of silliness.’ Really?

Take David, who’s so rich he doesn’t have to work. He goes for an audition with the BBC, and ruins his chances by having an attack of giggles. He doesn’t need the job, and is disdainful of this outcome – instead he launches a campaign in pursuit of the bluestocking young woman who’d have been his boss in that job. One of the high points of the narrative, for me, was when she told him, as his advances became tiresome, to get lost.

There’s a slight element of seriousness that adds a bit of substance to this frothy tale: the death of one of the Leslie sons as an officer in WWI still casts a shadow over the family, and the pain of his loss in the carnage of that war is still with them. ‘The War broke up the happy life of county England,’ the narrator tells us at one point. But this refers to the social whirl, the complacent luxury of the upper classes; Thirkell has no interest in wider issues – unless we count the dabbling among the younger generation of characters with French Royalism. And this could easily tip over into some further politically dodgy attitudes. Fortunately Thirkell loses interest in this plot line – as she does with all the others, and the novel fizzles out into a disappointing, predictable ending.

Ultimately the novel is marred for me, and I find I can’t recommend it, because of the casual xenophobia and racism. Smith, in that introduction, concedes some of the language ‘offends the modern ear’, but it ‘merely reflects the attitudes of the time.’ I see this excuse so often, and I find that I don’t agree that this condones these attitudes.

It did take my mind off the hospital appointments, so it served its purpose.

PS update/afterthought. I meant to mention, in relation to the rise of fascism at the time of this novel’s publication, that Thirkell includes a chilling moment in the narrative. Some of our main characters are at the railway station when a train from the city arrives and disgorges hordes of young people dressed in hiking clothes, out for a ramble in the country. As they pass our young toffs they give a fascist salute. Thirkell simply relates this and passes on, unperturbed – no comment, nothing. I found this very disturbing: the salute, and the lack of authorial comment.

Angela Thirkell: High Rising

Angela Thirkell, High Rising. VMC 2013; first published 1933

Thirkell H Rising cover

The VMC cover demonstrates the retro charm of this frothy confection of a novel

Angela Thirkell was quite someone: a granddaughter of the Pre-Raphaelite artist Burne-Jones and goddaughter of JM Barrie, her father was Professor of Poetry at Oxford, and she was related to Kipling and British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. Like her enterprising protagonist Laura in her second novel High Rising, she took to writing potboiler-middlebrow ‘rather good bad books’ about which she has ‘no illusions’ as to their literary merit, to make a living when left alone in the world:

She had considered the question carefully, and decided that, next to racing and murder, and sport, the great reading public of England (female section) likes to read about clothes.

There’s a character in this novel who reluctantly shows Laura’s publisher her novel; Laura is relieved to find she’s one of those ‘rotten’ writers who knew they couldn’t write’ – a typically self-deprecating reference that surely applies to Thirkell herself.

So Laura churns out, as often as Thirkell did, frothy romances set in the world of fashion, ‘opium’ as a friend and fan of Laura’s describes the experience of reading them. Laura is slightly embarrassed to add to the pile of what would now be derisively known as chick-lit, but happy to cash the royalties cheques. She’s level-headed, a realist who’s learned to exploit her own limited talent and the even more limited tastes of her target market. (Elizabeth Taylor does a much more witty, interesting and sophisticated job on this in Angel.)

Unlike Laura, whose husband had died (though she says he was an expensive nuisance when alive), Thirkell left her second husband; her first she divorced on the grounds of adultery. Men tend refreshingly to be portrayed as the weaker sex in this novel, and it’s the spirited, sensible women like Laura who win through – ‘excellent’ women, to borrow Barbara Pym’s phrase – a writer to whom Thirkell is often compared, but who is a far sharper, more accomplished artist.

I won’t summarise the rather predictable but amusing plot – links to other bloggers’ posts at the end supply outlines. I’ll just single out the few points that amused me in this undemanding, often saccharine entertainment. It’s ideal for a rainy day or sickbed – a guilty escapist pleasure that was a bit too much for Karen of BookerTalk, who likened it to an indigestible ‘meringue’. She craved something edgier and saltier. I know what she means, but I (mostly) enjoyed this novel. I didn’t care for the casual anti-Semitism; it’s not sufficient to put it down to the opinions of the period. Look what was going on in Germany in 1933.

Thirkell set these comedies in Trollope’s Barsetshire – a feature that appealed to me, as my recent Barsetshire posts indicate. She’s not in his league, of course, but wouldn’t claim to be.

Laura’s young son Tony divides critical opinion: to some he’s a charming, precocious chatterbox; I’m with those who found him irritating, with his obsession with trains and the patrician manners his private school encourages. But he reminded me of my grandson when he was that age. Now he’s scared of trains. Existential pre-teen angst has replaced innocent pleasure. Tony will probably become Transport Minister in a Tory government and close unprofitable country lines like the one passing through High Rising.

I preferred Laura’s cheerful maternal doting on him mixed with prevalent hatred. On several occasions she could happily kill him, our narrator tells us. She contemplates writing a book: ‘Why I Hate My Children’. Reminds me of the recent bestseller ‘Why Mummy Drinks’.

There’s a weird section in Ch. 9 just like passages in Cold Comfort Farm (published the year before, in 1932): Laura sees a handsome, swarthy rider in Hyde Park:

Rather DH Lawrence-ish, thought Laura vaguely. The sort of person who would turn into a half-caste Indian, full of black, primal secret something-or-other, and subjugate his mate.

Her reverie is ended when this hunky vision speaks in an accent so ‘healthily Cockney that the lure of the he-man vanished.’ The pastiche is almost as good as Stella Gibbons’.

There’s a well done car crash (no one is hurt) when Laura’s publisher gets drunk at a New Year party (as publishers do) and drives her home. The aftermath is a good example of Thirkell making an entertaining meal of unlikely material. The car ends on its roof, with Adrian jammed under the steering wheel, and Laura on top of him. She’s livid.

‘[The door]’s stuck, of course,’ she said coldly. ‘Do we spend the night here? It may be respectable, in view of the limited opportunities, but it’s not my idea of comfort.

Adrian manages to get out:

‘Come on, Laura,’ he said. ‘I’ll give you a hand.’

‘How can I get out of a small window above my head, you soft gobbin,’ said Laura angrily. ‘I’ll never take you to a party again.’

The dressing-down she gives him when they get to her house is classic.

Farcical-theatrical set pieces like this just about redeem a lively but uneven, limited comic novel. They could easily feature in those screwball-women films of the period starring actors like Claudette Colbert.

See Jacqui’s post

Ali’s at HeavenAli

Jane’s blogging as FleurInHerWorld (now Beyond Eden Rock)

Karen’s at Booker Talk

Three books

Walking to and from the shop today (to buy soft food for Mrs TD, who has toothache and is feeling wretched; her dentist recommends root canal work – poor thing) I listened on my phone to the BBC Radio 4 podcast of their weekly book programme, ‘A Good Read’. It’s one of several literary podcasts I subscribe to (I did a piece on this and related topics a while back HERE).

This was last week’s show (link HERE). Guests were the journalist Grace Dent and comedy writer Sian Harries. All three books they chose (presenter Harriet Gilbert gets to speak about her choice each week – she has good taste) gave rise to some interesting discussion:

Lissa Evans: Crooked Heart (2015)

Max Porter: Grief is the Thing With Feathers (2015)

Barbara Pym: Excellent Women (1952)

My Virago Modern Classics copy

My Virago Modern Classics copy

I posted on the fabulous Pym’s book a couple of years ago – she’s sharp and funny. In discussing the book Dent, Harries and Harriet Gilbert speculate whether men would like this sort of novel; I can answer that – she’s one of my favourite authors. My posts the seven novels of hers that I’ve read so far can be found HERE.

I hadn’t heard of (or, more accurately, realised I’d heard of) Lissa Evans or Crooked Heart, her fourth novel for adults (she’s also written children’s books). From the account given of it in the podcast it’s definitely going on the To Read list.

According to Wikipedia she qualified as a doctor in 1983, then had a career in stand-up comedy, was a TV and radio producer and director (including the excellent Father Ted). Crooked Heart and Their Finest Hour and a Half (published 2009) were longlisted for literary prizes. The latter was filmed as Their Finest a year or two ago, and I found it ok as entertainment; maybe the novel is more substantial.

Just looked her up on Amazon and see that her novel Old Baggage, that came out in the UK this summer, is one I’ve seen in the bookshops and passed over.

I’d resisted the Max Porter partly because of the hype about it when it was published, and also because of its subject: grief and bereavement. It just didn’t appeal. Now that I’ve listened to this thoughtful trio of readers discussing it, and having read this review by Kirsty Gunn in the Guardian when it was published, I think I’ll add this title to the list, too.

I’d be pleased to hear from anyone who’s read either the Evans or the Porter novels: are they as good as this podcast suggested? As for the Pym: well, I recommend her work wholeheartedly: beneath the slight exterior (timid or anxious spinsters, vicars and jumble sales, caddish chaps, etc.) her novels are pulsing with intelligence and wit.

I’d started working on a post about Angela Thirkell, but that will have to be completed another day.