Monday, May 12, 2014

Introducing Angela Thirkell

"Her often caustic wit, her accurate and wickedly funny realisation of unforgettable characters, and her interpolation of an extraordinary range of references and allusions, ranging from Homeric similes through English literature from Shakespeare through Dickens (and of course Trollope) to her cousin Rudyard Kipling, historical episodes, nursery rhymes, laced with a sound knowledge of what everyday life was like, mean that one can read and re-read her books."—Angela Thirkell Society, UK. Portrait by John Collier, 1914
We currently have a rather spiffy set of uniform editions with lovely covers of novels by English writer Angela Margaret Thirkell (1890–1961). They're from a small publisher called Moyer Bell, and I've personally collected several of these handsome reissues in the past because I have long admired Moyer Bell's lists and trust their literary judgment. Daedalus is now offering a veritable bonanza of Thirkell, with Three Score and Ten, Miss Bunting, Enter Sir Robert, Jutland Cottage, High Rising, Happy Returns, The Duke's Daughter, and Private Enterprise.
Angela was the elder daughter of John William Mackail, a Scottish classical scholar and civil servant who was the Oxford professor of poetry from 1906 to 1911. Her mother was Margaret Burne-Jones, the daughter of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones. Her first husband was James Campbell McInnes, a professional singer. Born in 1912, their first son, Graham, became a diplomat and writer. Their second son was the novelist Colin MacInnes. In 1917, Angela divorced her husband for adultery, amidst great publicity. (Above: Angela Mackail as a child, by her grandfather, Sir Edward Burne-Jones.)
Thirkell with her sons in the garden at 4 Grace Street, Malvern, Melbourne
Angela next married George Lancelot Allnut Thirkell, an engineer originally from Tasmania, and in 1920 they sailed for Australia together with her sons. The lower-middle-class life in Melbourne they led there was not to her liking, however, so she finagled passage back to England, where she happily stayed single. "It's very peaceful with no husbands,'" she was quoted by the Observer in its "Sayings of the Week" column.
Money troubles led to the inception of her writing career, which took off with her second novel, High Rising (1933). She set most of her novels in the fictional Barsetshire, originally conjured up by Trollope. (The Duke's Daughter in particular engages with descendants of Trollope's Barsetshire characters.) Miss Bunting addressed changes in society wrought by World War II, as the title character, a governess, approaches middle age and wonders where her ambitions might take her with the world as she knew it turned upside down.
Another Barsetshire novel, Private Enterprise, is leavened by Thirkell's whimsical humor (as in "The Home For Stiff-Necked Clergy," "Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Ancient Buildings," "Red Tape and Sealing Wax Office," and the "Ministry of General Interference").
The last of the Barsetshire novels, Three Score and Ten comprises an enjoyable reprise of the entire series. It was left unfinished by Thirkell at her death at 75 and was completed from extensive notes by her friend and fellow writer, C. A. Lejeune. Here's the précis of Happy Return (1952) by Amalia Angeloni Jacobucci of the Angela Thirkell Society (which obligingly provides summaries of her books):
The action takes place at a succession of social gatherings, dinner parties, teas, sherry hours, and a dance in the local pub reminiscent of the one in Austen's Emma. The retreat of the gentry continues, now however, buoyed up by the return of Mr. Churchill and "Us" to the government. Despite this, it gradually dawns that hard times do not disappear and an uneasy feeling that the past cannot be recaptured lurks in the background. We have our usual complement of requited and unrequited love. The marriage of Charles Belton and Clarissa Graham is finally brought about by the efforts of friends and relatives to the vast relief of the whole county. Grace Grantly (of Trollope's Grantlys) brings a much appreciated dowry to Lord Ludovic Lufton leaving Eric Swan mildly heartbroken. Minor characters of the whole "downstairs" portion of society continue to re-appear—take note of Edna and Doris Thatcher and their "children of shame", a delightfully un-PC characterization.
And I would have to give a very big "huzzah" for this appreciation of Thirkell by Verlyn Klinkenborg that appeared in the New York Times:
When I first came upon Thirkell, nearly 30 years ago, she seemed like a diverting minor writer. Minor now seems too slight a word to me for the purveyor of such major pleasures…. What interests Thirkell is people talking, and the nonsense they talk. It makes no difference who. It might be the chaotic English of a Mixo-Lydian refugee in a novel set during the war or the inane chatter of the beautiful Rose Fairweather, whose favorite adjectives are “dispiriting” and “shattering,” though she has never been dispirited or shattered. Or the effusive biographer George Knox who, in a fit of illness in the first of these Barsetshire novels, says to his friend, Mrs. Morland, “Even Wordsworth was more interesting that I am at this moment.”
These are novels full of what might be called applied literature, whole lifetimes of shared reading welling up allusively in conversation. The reader hears the constant sound of familiar authors passing back and forth behind the scenes, like servants heading from the kitchen to the dining room in great English houses. And yet the talk is wonderful because it is simply neighborhood gossip. The war encroaches on Barsetshire, but the gossip continues, against a broader, grimmer backdrop.
Thirkell has often been called nostalgic because she is describing a kind of life — English county life — that was vanishing even as her books were appearing. Yet there is nothing nostalgic or sentimental in her tone. She is brusque, judgmental, and also, somehow, tolerant, for without her tolerance these stories would never get off the ground. If she pokes fun at Miss Hampton and Miss Bent, a gay couple living in one of the Barsetshire villages, it is nothing compared to the fun they poke at everyone around them. For every Mr. Bissell — a schoolmaster fond of the word “Cappitleist” — there is a Mrs. Bissell, who is the soul of efficient goodness.

1 comment:

  1. I love books that employ intertextuality, I'm definitely going to have to check Thirkell's work out.

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