Sunday, October 30, 2011

Angela Thirkell

Angela Thirkell
When last I lived in Brevard, I came across Angela Thirkell's books. She was a favorite author of the "Miss Read" author, so I gave her a try. Thirkell lived from 1890 to 1961, a Brit who spent time in Australia. She wrote to make money when money was tight. She wrote about 40 books, sometimes one per year. Right now, I'm rereading this one:

The large body of Thirkell's novels are set in the fictional English county of Barsetshire, a place first invented and explored by my favorite novelist, Anthony Trollope. Trollope wrote only six novels set in Barsetshire; Thirkell went far past that! Her novels are set around the time of the two world wars. She is winsome, humorous, satirical, fun, and never melodramatic. There is occasionally a tinge of sadness because of the time she lived in, but not much. Like Trollope, her characters as so "spot-on" that the reader occasionally thinks, "Yes! That's it exactly, although I've never been able to describe such-and-such a person just so." And because I know Barset almost as well as I know Brevard, reading her novels is a bit like going back home. If you're looking for a good read, try one of hers; your library may have a few. I think I read about twenty of hers last time I read her, nearly 8 years ago. It's been long enough that I've forgotten the plots and characters. (Let's hear it for having a terrible memory!) Thus, I can enjoy them all again.

(There's even an Angela Thirkell Society!)

Now, for those who are not yet bored, I'd like to give you a more in depth look at Thirkell by examining Chapter 1 of Before Lunch. I read it last night before bed. I had quite a few chuckles, and I do not chuckle readily while reading. Thirkell makes me chuckle. So, let's begin:

We're introduced to Mr. Middleton, a 50ish gentleman farmer of strong personality and slightly spoiled habits. He's used to his own comfortable ways. He's received a letter from his sister, making an unwelcome request. "In his hand he held a letter, with whose contents he angrily refreshed his mind from time to time."  See? Doesn't Thirkell nail us humans? Don't we do that? As soon as our tempers begin to cool, we're sure to fire them up again with a revisit to the source of our unrest.

In the letter, his sister asks to come for an extended visit, with her two adult step-children, whom Mr. Middleton doesn't like. "... the son was delicate and the daughter, as he shudderingly remembered her, not delicate at all, and at the moment both states of health seemed to him equally repulsive."  Can't you picture Mr. Middleton physically shuddering, from his shoulders down, as he contemplates the step-daughter? He is a man who can be equally displeased by two opposite things. Oh yes.  The next sentence? "Giving his camel's hair dressing gown a petulant twitch ...." Do you know any grown men who are occasionally, privately petulant?

And I'd be remiss if I did not record here Mr. Middleton's encounter with his morning coffee:
"The cup of coffee that he had poured out ten minutes ago was now tepid with a crinkling skin on its surface. It was more than flesh and blood could stand. He strode to the door, opened it and bellowed his wife's name into the passage .... He ... spooned the horrid skin clumsily into the saucer, drank the tepid coffee to which nauseating fragments of milky blanket still clung, and looked at the rest of his post."

Sigh!!! Don't you just love British writers? This is exactly my kind of stuff. A writer that can so succinctly describe the film on a coffee, is a pleasure. Don't we enjoy Mr. Middleton's discomfiture?

I can't regale you with all Thirkell's chuckle moments. She takes us through a brief history of Mr. Middleton's acquisition of the farm. Then she tells us, "His mother, who was unwillingly installed in the country, preferred a hipbath in her bedroom and soon languished and died." Heehee!!  Okay, that's not funny. Only it is funny! Clearly, Thirkell had little time for Grandma Middleton, so she killed her off immediately. If only Trollope had killed off Mrs. Proudie as promptly!

Mr. Middleton married rather late, when he was 50 and she was 30. "Mr. and Mrs. Middleton had no children, but as Catherine Middleton truly said, once one had got over the mortification it was really a very pleasant life." You just have to laugh at a writer who's willing to put those words into her heroine's mouth, in the first chapter.

He goes to find his wife in the garden. She looks at him and says, "You look very nice and peculiar."  I'm lovin' this woman already! And Thirkell's description of Mr. Middleton's farmer-garb justifies the word "peculiar." "It is true that no gentleman farmer off or even on the stage ever wore so preposterous an outfit or wore it so unconsciously, but to go about looking like an eccentric gave Mr. Middleton such unalloyed pleasure that his wife had not the heart to point out to him the marks his nailed shoes made on the parquet floor of the library."  And some people are just like that -- they adore being peculiar and looking peculiar. Mr. Middleton does not wear these clothes to the law office in London, thankfully.

I can't type out all the couple's conversation, so you'll have to imagine what gentle fun Mrs. Middleton has at her husband's expense. Then the reader moves on to meet Mrs. Pucken, some of the help, and she is silly and fun as well.  If you enjoy mostly silly and fun, a bit of romance, and lovely British countryside, Thirkell is for you. And she's not always silly;  I couldn't stomach that. Her books, taken together, as a good blend of the serious and the silly, and so well done. I hope this gives you a little taste.  Tata for now!!

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