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Angela Thirkell’s only memoir, Three Houses (1931), is now available again, in a very welcome reprint by Allison & Busby. It’s also (as we write) being serialised on BBC Radio 4, and her two earliest novels have just been reprinted by Virago, so perhaps it’s time for a Thirkell revival. About time too! Apart from her novels, Three Houses is the only work written in Thirkell’s own voice about her life. As well as being a lovely read, this memoir is an excellent insight into how she wanted her early life and family memories to be remembered, and how she presented herself in relation to her Pre-Raphaelite grandfather, Sir Edward Burne-Jones, and her famous cousins Rudyard Kipling and Stanley Baldwin.
Thirkell wrote Three Houses in the early 1930s, when she had just returned to Britain for good, and needed to earn a living. She was reinventing herself in her early 40s, after abandoning her second marriage, and needed to support her two younger sons, as well as help her ageing parents, by her own efforts. In that context, Three Houses can be seen as a way of re-establishing herself, after she had given up on the struggle to find a suitable (in her terms) artistic milieu in Australia, to return to her own culture and family connections in Britain. These had considerably more status, in her eyes, than anything she had achieved in Australia, where she had been a magazine writer and broadcaster for some years, while raising her three sons with her rather feckless though amiable husband George Thirkell.
Her novels are delicious, irresistible reads, and sparkle with amusement and wit. They are also deeply, sometimes resentfully, conservative, which gives Thirkell’s writing more depth and vigour than might be expected for a romantic and family saga novelist from the 1930s to the 1950s. When her annoyance at unstoppable social change in Britain is infused in her well-frothed mixture of engagements and small rural happenings, served up in the updated Trollopian county of Barsetshire, the combination is simply irresistible. As an American critic remarked of her in the 1940s, Thirkell was a good hater, and I find her bite the most interesting thing about her writing. I can wallow very happily in the nostalgia and romance of her novels, and enjoy the ceaseless quotations, her wordplay, her brilliant dialogue (she wrote one play, but it wasn’t very good: weird, that) and her passion for Trollope’s Barsetshire family history, but when she starts to get critical, I am definitely interested.
In Three Houses we are made keenly aware of this uncompromising critical tendency, since she dares to denigrate the furniture designed, in part, by her revered, nay sainted grandfather Burne-Jones, as being among the most uncomfortable known to man. ‘I marvel chiefly at the entire lack of comfort which the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood succeeded in creating for itself. It was not, I think, so much that they actively despised comfort, as that the word conveyed absolutely nothing to them whatever … As for Pre-Raphaelite beds, it can only have been the physical vigour and perfect health of their original designers that made them believe their work was fit to sleep in’.
Three Houses is about three homes in which Thirkell spent a great deal of time during her early years: the London house of the Burne-Joneses in Fulham, west London; her own family’s home in West Kensington, and the Burne-Jones’s country home at Rottingdean, in Sussex on the south coast of England. Written from a child’s perspective in an adult’s voice, the memoir is about the clothes she remembers wearing, the food they ate, the things in the rooms she loved or were scared of, the games she and her brother played, and the explorations and treats and events of their young lives. It’s a perfect evocation of the end of the 19th century in surroundings where the Pre-Raphaelites were just friends of the family: the Holman Hunts, Tadema, the De Morgans and Morris.
Thirkell never sat for her grandfather, since she was too young, but he once dressed her up in scarves and a veil to make pencil studies of her head for his unfinished painting of Arthur in Avalon. She once insisted on a hug from a visiting Princess Alexandra, and was the pet favourite of the glamorous actress Mrs Patrick Campbell, ‘Aunt Stella’, who lived in the same Kensington square. She was very aware of the importance of painting in her grandfather’s house, in which studios were forbidden to little girls, unless by special permission, but also in which he would paint watercolour pictures on iced cakes for family parties, and decorated the naughty corner with cats and birds, so that the truculent Angela would never feel lonely while serving her punishment meted out by Nurse.
Where does the bite come in, in this memoir? Thirkell is vitriolic about changes in architecture. She is repeatedly bitter, and snobbish, about buildings that have sprung up to replace the sites she knew. ‘Mean houses and ugly pretentious flats’, ‘the hideous tide of commerce’, ‘unnecessary monuments’ in Kensington Gardens, ‘some ugly, some merely common’, all because ‘the great aim of democracy is to make everything as uncomfortable as possible for the greatest number’. Remarks like this are very familiar to those familiar with her novels. But this grumpiness is reserved for the London memories: the second half of the book is all about Rottingdean, which is sheer heaven. Thirkell’s memories are suffused with affection for the place, and her family, and the holidays she spent there, and the bliss of being a Victorian child in a land of plenty. She is happy to admit that she was a spoiled and snobbish little girl who didn’t fully appreciate the lovely time she was having, or the marvellous artistic surroundings. But she doesn’t overuse her memories of her famous cousins: the most substantial thing she allows herself to say about cousin Ruddy (a generation older than her), is that he was a good player of games with Angela and his own daughter Josephine, and that she was cross with him for not being kinder about her juvenile writing.
The unexpected thing about Three Houses is the importance of Thirkell’s grandmother, Georgiana Burne-Jones, a figure in Thirkell’s life as important as the houses she lived in. This tiny, idealistic and eccentric matriarch appears more often than any other family member, drawn with love, perplexity and amusement: she epistomises more than the famous men the daily life of artistic idealism, so unexpectedly revealed here. Thirkell’s underlying vein of criticism in the memoir allows us to read Lady Burne-Jones’s life as being beautiful but also uncomfortable, purposeful but also chaotic, but also not as difficult for the idealist that she was as it might have been for a society wife.
Three Houses is a lovely memoir of a very happy childhood, and is written with charm, skill and unobtrusive technical ability. It received good reviews on its first publication, and was a surprise success. A year later Thirkell published her first novel, Ankle Deep, and was finally launched as a writer.
For all you need to know about Angela Thirkell and her novels, look here on the Angela Thirkell Society homepage.
Angela Thirkell, Three Houses (London: Allison & Busby, 2012), ISBN 978-0-7490-1239-7 (£8.99)
Kate will finish writing her book about Angela Thirkell this year. She also podcasts weekly about books she really, really likes on www.reallylikethisbook.com.