This month, we publish the next of the Virago Modern Classic editions of Angela Thirkell’s best loved Barsetshire series. Here, lecturer and literary historian Kate Macdonald explains the context and enduring appeal of Thirkell’s comic fiction.
During the Second World War Angela Thirkell was a best-seller, publishing a novel every year for most of her career. This isn’t always a mark of literary quality, but it certainly tells you about her self-discipline, and the demands of her readers, who clamoured for more every year. She began publishing in the early 1930s, and published her last novel the year before she died, in 1960. She wrote about the same thing for thirty years: the small-town and country lives of a group of upper-class characters and their servants, tenants and neighbours. This sounds pretty dull, but it was the way she wrote that hooked her readers.
First, she was very funny. She was a great comic novelist in the sharp-toothed pastoral tradition of Jane Austen. She could be vitriolic: she was described, by a very perceptive American reviewer after the war, as being a good hater (no British reviewer would have dared). Her novels are marinated in Victorian literature, and she quite clearly loathed the bad manners and slovenly standards of her own day. Most fascinating of all, she uses the fictional landscape invented by the Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope, setting his Barsetshire in the twentieth century. She used his character names, his topographical features, his family histories, and the events of his novels to construct a brilliant parallel universe in which to enact her saga. Her purpose was to satirise modern county life with an affectionate eye, and to be very unpleasant about character types and modern institutions that she could not abide.
Her readers loved her because she was a raconteur and a mimic. She filled her novels with literary allusions to obscure Victorian fairy tales, and was scathing about the habits of the modern young. Her nice characters detested the radio and all other modern inventions. She expressed her contempt for the cinema by allowing only one film to come to Barchester in each novel, which stars the same actress each time. Glamora Tudor (for it is she) is quite clearly in the same sort of film each time, but has a different leading man each time, with the most improbable but yet wickedly plausible names: Hash Gobbet, Croke Hosskiss, Crab Doker, Croke Scumpter, Hake Codman, Washington Swop, Buck Follanbee, Buck Pickaback, Hick Pilldozer. Very few of these would look out of place on a Hollywood film poster today.
Thirkell made a virtue of her scatty plotting and huge cast of recurring characters, but she maintained good control over her stories. She was particularly good at encouraging the reader to feel the excitement of what in another writer’s hands would have been very mundane events. People meet at each other’s houses to have lunch or dinner, and sometimes they go to a county event, like a Pig-Breeders’ Association Show, or the church fete. Such were the thrills of English country life before the Second World War. The banality of Thirkell’s subjects might have defeated her ingenuity in time, if it hadn’t been for the war. Most of her novels were aggressively anti- something. Before the war she was anti-Communist, anti-sloppy dressing, anti-rudeness-to-parents, and she ripped apart a set of fondly created character types: the pretentious lady writer, the pompous modern artist, the irritatingly frugal housewife who insists on feeding guests with leftover scraps, the tedious bullying husband who needs to orate at his wife and guests. This could so easily have become too repetitive, even for Thirkell fans, but the war saved her.
The war gave her much better material to be bitter about, and her fiction really shows this. It gained depth, conviction and a vastly increased moral strength. A middle-class housewife in an industrial town who does her own cleaning would probably find it hard to feel sympathetic about a 1930s Thirkell housewife whose chief grief is that her parlour-maid and her cook are always squabbling. The war put the British on a much more even footing, in terms of economics and status: rationing applied to everybody, everybody had to queue for food, and everybody living in the countryside had to entertain refugees and evacuees. This communalised living brought about the best in Angela Thirkell’s humour and let her write passionately about self-reliance and endurance instead of the tyranny of the parlour-maid. She wrote six novels during the war, which are a fascinating way to read how it unfolded over time on the British Home Front. The first in this series is Cheerfulness Breaks In, and it is one of her best.
Cheerfulness Breaks In begins with the marriage of Rose Birkett, which sorts out the problem daughter from an earlier novel by marrying her off to the one man who can control her and make her behave properly. Thus we see that Thirkell was not in favour of children who do not obey their parents, and disapproved of wives who do not obey their husbands. If this has made your hackles rise, take it from me, a committed feminist, that reading Thirkell is a joy and a treat precisely because she articulates such attitudes so entertainingly. Her politics are on her sleeve, and that’s absolutely fine. Just get on and enjoy the story. This wedding is a good way to meet the characters who will populate the novel, and also to encounter the early signs of trouble in Europe. It is August 1939, and evacuees are already being spoken of. Refugees have arrived, and speak incomprehensibly, causing much anguish for their hostesses. The young men of the county are poised to leap into uniform: there is no place for pacifism here. When war does break out, six weeks later, the population of Barsetshire starts shuffling into different houses as evacuees pour in from London, and they’re not just grubby children from the East End. Well-to-do families evacuate themselves from London, just in case, and a lot of schools get out too.
The focus in Cheerfulness Breaks In is the integration of the Hosiers’ Boys School from London – an invented day school for boys from poor backgrounds funded by one of the City of London Guilds – into the private and upper-class Southbridge School, a Barsetshire public school and county institution. The Hosiers’ Boys School has ancestry, and historical status (which is important for Thirkell), but it is also crammed with lower-class boys and, far worse, lower-class teachers. This is where Thirkell is very interesting indeed. The Hosiers’ Boys headmaster, Mr Bissell, is an East End socialist, and struggles to enjoy his first sherry at the Southbridge School headmaster’s house because it is a ‘Capittleist’ affectation. We see his bewilderment at actually meeting the upper classes in their natural habitat, and at enjoying their food and drink. He also wrestles with completely new ways of thinking, and talking, and indeed conversing at dinner, where the upper-class ladies say what they like to whoever they like, and everyone is polite and friendly above all things. Thirkell simplifies Mr Bissell’s background to caricature, and the effect of this part of the novel is the upper-classes’ revenge against Socialist propaganda, but it surprisingly effective. Class is finally speaking to class, and it isn’t as bad as either might have thought.
When Mrs Bissell arrives, we are plunged into a feminine world where Thirkell really shines. She has already proved in earlier novels how good she is at writing goofy, adolescent, exuberant, eccentric, affected, tiresome, crashingly rude and snobbish women. In this novel she extends her collection to include Miss Hampton, a magnificent lesbian radical novelist in a perfectly tailored suit,and her companion, Miss Bent. They are two marvellous hard-drinking eccentrics unconnected with the aristocracy or the gentry. Their lesbianism is celebrated with sly innuendo, and Miss Hampton is one of Thirkell’s strongest authoritative figures. Thirkell had introduced homosexual characters in some of her earlier novels, but with less affection or admiration, and with a clearly gendered treatment. Her resentful depiction of male homosexuals seems mean-spirited when contrasted with her affectionate portraits of Miss Hampton and Miss Bent.
Miss Hampton’s obvious homosexuality accentuates her social authority and the awed respect she receives for her capacity for strong drink. She is a noted author, and first appears in Cheerfulness Breaks In as ‘a rather handsome woman with short, neatly-curled grey hair, not young, in an extremely well-cut black coat and skirt, a gentlemanly white silk shirt with collar and tie, and neat legs in silk stockings and brogues, holding a cigarette in a very long black holder’. Her first words are ‘Come in and have a drink’, which she and her companion Miss Bent do with no obvious effects. She is also a direct challenge to mealy-mouthed attitudes to sex and sexuality. ‘“So you keep a boys’ school; and in London; interesting; much vice? […] We’re all men here and I’m doing a novel about a boys’ school, so I might as well know something about it. I’m thinking of calling it ‘Temptation at St Anthony’s’.”’ British obscenity laws were stringent between the wars, making an amusing joke of Miss Hampton’s award of the Banned Book of the Month. Thirkell makes quite a few stealth jokes about sexuality that have a camp insouciance, in strong contrast to her otherwise default tone of extreme social conservatism. Miss Bent mentions Rory Freemantle in passing, and the narrative voice adds a reference later to Aurora Freemantle, but only those who had read Compton Mackenzie’s roman-à-clef , Extraordinary Women (1928) would have known that this was a lesbian character. Miss Hampton’s bracing though faithful lesbian lifestyle must have been eye-opening for conservative readers. Miss Bent remarks, adoringly: ‘“Hampton does plunge so in bed when she is Writing.”’
There is also Eileen, the impervious blonde stunner serving at the bar of the Red Lion; Mrs Warbury, a vile and ingratiating enemy alien displaying a fine obliviousness to how appallingly she is behaving; Mrs and Miss Phelps, a bouncing Admiral’s wife and her even more bouncing daughter who do good works all day long for the sake of the Navy; Lydia Keith, a thoroughly good girl who has resisted the call to go and nurse like all her friends, to stay at home with her invalid mother and run the farm as well as war relief working parties and the communal canteen for evacuee children’s meals. There is also Thirkell’s own alter ego, the dotty but successful detective novelist Mrs Morland, who sheds hairpins wherever she goes and cannot think in a straight line.
Mrs Bissell confounds all local expectations by being a child psychologist as well as a teacher, and is also an expert on tax law for married women. Most unexpectedly of all, she and Mr Bissell become part of the Wiple Terrace set, which seem to spend all their evenings drinking heavily at the Red Lion or at each other’s houses. The Bissells’ joint integration into Southbridge society mirrors the successful and painless integration of the schools, and it also reflects the unsuccessful integration of other incomers into Barsetshire. All the hostesses take evacuee children as a fervent war duty, but hate them because they smell, they are greedy and horrible, they have no manners. The local ladies also resent the evacuees’ parents still in London, whom Thirkell insists are having a holiday from parenting while their children are looked after at other people’s expense. Her facts and history are a bit muddled here, but you don’t read Thirkell for precise details of history, you read her for a general impression written at the time, which is thus a valid piece of contemporary evidence of how one part of the population was feeling about the Home Front. She certainly doesn’t speak for everyone in Britain during the war, or even a majority, but she does speak for her own class, who, oddly, don’t get quite as specific in their disgruntlement as Thirkell does. If you want to read about real class resentment, as well as noblesse oblige, read it here.
Cheerfulness Breaks In is also about engagements, as are all of Thirkell’s novels. This one has a score of two, whereas some, for instance The Duke’s Daughter, end with four. Geraldine Birkett, the gawky sister of the appalling Rose, is rescued from the misery of falling in love with an absolute bounder by Rose’s new brother-in-law, who is just as brisk and high-handed as his brother, and so her fate is settled, and Mr and Mrs Birkett have the joy of being rid of both their tiresome children in little under twelve chapters. The more endearing love story in the novel is between Lydia and the urbane barrister Noel Merton. This is a romance in the perfect tradition of Brief Encounter, packed with inarticulate utterances, stiff upper lips, fleeting glances, and misunderstandings. Just as we think it has all ended happily, we realise that Noel has gone off to Dunkirk, and the novel ends on a cliff-hanger telegram. Do read it: it’s terrific.
This article first appeared in October 2015 on Kate Macdonald’s blog.
Kate Macdonald is an English lecturer and a literary historian, working on 19th, 20th and 21st century literature and publishing. She is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Department of English Literature at the University of Reading. Her latest book, Novelists Against Social Change: Conservative Popular Fiction, 1920-1960 is published by Palgrave Macmillan.
Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire in the war years titles are:
Before Lunch (1939)
Cheerfulness Breaks In (1940)
Northbridge Rectory (1941)
Marling Hall (1942)
Growing Up (1943)
The Headmistress (1944)
Miss Bunting (1945)
Peace Breaks Out (1946)