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.
Oh 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.
Christmas 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 Rising, Wild 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 http://www.reallylikethisbook.com.