Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Thirkell for Christmas

Pomfret TowersOh joy: Virago Books are reprinting the novels of Angela Thirkell! I have two in hand: one I thought I knew well, but find that I didn’t, Pomfret Towers of 1938, and a new one, a collection of Thirkell’s little-known short stories, Christmas at High Rising. The editions are lovely: nice thick paper, delightfully colourful period-appropriate cover designs, sold at a very reasonable price.

I somehow haven’t reread Pomfret Towers very much because of the phenomenally ugly cover and design of my 1970s reprint, so the new Virago edition is a great improvement. But I’ve always liked the story: paralysingly shy Alice Barton goes to stay at Pomfret Towers with brother Guy, and local friend Roddy and Sally, as the guests of the Earl and Countess of Pomfret, for a Saturday-to-Monday. So far, so conventional for a country house novel of the 1930s. But Thirkell adds jabs and satire to her comfortably recognisable romance, so that we are continually distracted from the really important business of second-guessing which eligible girl Gillie Foster, the Earl’s slightly unwilling heir, will propose to, by the jokes about women writers, about grasping authors and publishers, about artistic pretentiousness in all its forms, and especially about the pushy behaviour of a ghastly woman author who only writes about herself when really she just wants her children to love her.

I’ve already written about the very successful real-life novelist Ann Bridge on Vulpes. Pomfret Towers is the novel in which Thirkell lays Ann Bridge out to flay. Nothing is spared her, so if you think I was harsh about Ann Bridge merely by basing my opinion on her published fiction and memoirs, you should read Thirkell and see what an expert in malice aforethought can do by simply being bitchy for the length of a whole novel. But Thirkell’s demolition of a fellow novelist’s pretensions is nothing to what she does to that character’s son, the modern artist Julian Rivers. He is unnaturally good-looking, a crashingly bad painter, is selfish and self-centred, but (far worse) he has shocking manners. His appallingly rude treatment of his mother, in public, is so vile and unfeeling that he reduces even that hardened and brazen woman of the world to tears, and makes shy, petrified Alice Barton shout at him to get out of the house. It’s all go in Pomfret Towers, and you’ll enjoy every minute of it.

Xmas High RisingChristmas at High Rising is a mixed bag of five Thirkell short stories which up until now have been inaccessible in the pages of long forgotten magazines (there is also a rare Thirkell essay, triumphantly proving that Shakespeare knew nothing about good manners when dining out). Some years ago the Angela Thirkell Society arranged the reprinting of four stories under the title of The Demon in the House, since they were about Tony Morland, the most irritating child in Thirkell’s Barsetshire. Even from a baby he knew everything, had little respect for anyone’s feelings or property, caused devastation merely by entering a room, and was an expert on the Russian Ballet at an age when he ought to have been studying Hornby’s railways. Christmas at High Rising brings us more joy from Tony Morland, so you will enjoy this collection if you like experiencing social chaos at a remove. An additional pleasure is the pomposity of George Knox, one of the many, many authors who inhabit Thirkell’s Barsetshire, in these stories a clear forerunner of Mr Middleton from Before Lunch. His efforts to speak his mind without interruption are a cruel and most enjoyable parody of the interminable periods of Henry James. However, I wouldn’t recommend Christmas at High Rising as a first Thirkell for beginners: get them Pomfret Towers instead, and keep Christmas at High Rising for completists.

Virago clearly love Thirkell. Three more reprints (Summer Half, The Brandons, and August Folly) are expected in 2014, while two (High RisingWild Strawberries) came out in November 2012. Read their feelings about the comforts of reading Thirkell here.

Angela Thirkell, Pomfret Towers (1938) (London: Virago Books, 2013) ISBN 978-1-84408-971-0, £8.99

Angela Thirkell, Christmas at High Rising (stories from 1928-42) (London: Virago Books, 2013) ISBN 978-0-349-00430-3, £6.99

Kate has podcasted on Angela Thirkell’s novels Cheerfulness Breaks In, Northbridge Rectory, and Summer Half, at

About Kate

Blogger, lecturer, podcaster, writer, critic, reviewer, researcher, and publisher (, in and on British literary history. Preferred occupation while listening to podcasts: cooking or knitting. Preferred soundtrack while reading: the sound of silence.

10 comments on “Thirkell for Christmas

  1. Ela
    November 25, 2013

    Oh, Pomfret Towers sounds fantastic! I’ve heard such good things about Thirkell but never actually read anything by her.

  2. Anne Peoples
    November 25, 2013

    I can only be described as one of the completists. I first read all the copies in the library reserve stack (I was working there at the time). I had high hopes when Penguin published three in the nineties, but sadly that was it and I was driven into the arms of the Moyer Bell editions to plug the gaps. This was dedication as these are pretty awful – clearly no-one told the publisher these were 20th century comedies and not Victorian melodramas. I decided a couple of years to complete the set and have been buying up tatty paperbacks, old library copies (including large print) and, throwing caution to the winds, latterly some of the original hardbacks, even an omnibus edition. Now, with the end of my endeavours in sight, Virago has sent me back to the beginning. If only they had done this a decade ago, I might have saved myself some money. On the bright side though, I have inadvertently assembled an interesting history of popular publishing along the way and I have had the pleasure of reading the lot, even the later ones when, one has to say, the quality declines and continuity can go out the window.

  3. Jackie
    November 25, 2013

    Really like the style of the cover art! I’ve heard of this author, but not read her, so I was intrigued by your review.Though many of the people don’t seem likable. The books sound like they work on 2 levels, the surface story and then the inside jokes. I should see if my local library has any Thirkells.

  4. Lisa
    November 25, 2013

    I am awaiting my copy of Christmas at High Rising with great anticipation! And I agree with Anne (above) about the awful Moyer Bell editions. I gave in & bought a copy of their Wild Strawberries, because I couldn’t find it anywhere else, but I had to throw it out – it was unreadable. Fortunately, I found a used Carrol & Graf paperback just afterwards. Hopefully these beautiful new Virago editions will draw in many new readers.

  5. Kate
    November 25, 2013

    How interesting, Anne, we hardly share one edition! I have the same Enter Sir Robert that you have, but I think that’s the only one.

  6. Desperate Reader
    November 25, 2013

    Just on the last story in Christmas at High Rising when I saw this. Realising that Mrs Rivers is a portrait of Ann Bridge makes me want to re read Pomfret Towers after only a week. Thirkell is a writer I want to read much more of, and unusually for me, much more about.

  7. Kate
    November 25, 2013

    I am so pleased to hear such happy Thirkell appreciation! I should also have added these links to the post:
    The UK’s Angela Thirkell Society, at,
    and also via Facebook at
    and the lively Angela Thirkell Appreciation Group on Facebook (
    and the US-based Angela Thirkell Yahoo discussion group, on

  8. Hilary
    November 26, 2013

    Pomfret Towers for me. I read AT avidly when I was a teenager, but then found her world increasingly hard to take when I entered my 20s. Time to try again, I feel, and rediscover the sparkle that I dimly remember. When I read Pomfret Towers all those decades ago, I knew nothing of Ann Bridge, so that’s a great reason to read it again. Sounds like a perfect Christmas treat!

  9. heavenali
    November 27, 2013

    i have both of these too- and I will definitely be reading Christmas at High Rising in December 🙂

  10. Penelope Fritzer
    June 20, 2014

    I believe it was Laura Collins, who wrote the first book of criticism of Thirkell’s Barsetshire novels, who suggested that rather than Ann Bridge, Mrs. Rivers is the negative side of Thirkell herself, because although Thirkell mocks Mrs. Rivers, in many of Thirkell’s novels, particularly the early ones, a young man falls in love with an older woman (Hilary Grant with Mrs. Brandon, Dennis Stonor with Catherine Middleton, Christopher Hornby with Mrs. Belton, Adrian Coates with Mrs. Morland,Richard Tebben and Mrs. Dean etc., etc.) but nothing ever comes of the relationship, which is always unconsummated. So Thirkell is actually satirizing herself. Both theories are probably true . . .

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This entry was posted on November 25, 2013 by in Uncategorized.



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