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.