Monday, November 4, 2013

Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell

If you are in the mood for a sparkling novel that will take you away from it all, then I have the perfect book for you. Think Downton Abbey, Nancy Mitford and Sabrina (remember the wonderful film with Audrey Hepburn) all rolled into one. It is both funny and poignant. When I was in London and realized I needed a book to read at night (I had shipped all my Hatchards' purchases home), I wandered into a neighborhood bookstore and discovered Wild Strawberries by the little-known British writer Angela Thirkell.

I had never heard of Thirkell and did a little research to discover who she was.  Born in 1890, she had a rich literary and artistic heritage. Her father was a professor of poetry at Oxford and her mother was the daughter of Edward Burne-Jones, the pre-Raphaelite painter. She was related to Rudyard Kipling and was the goddaughter of J.M. Barrie. After two failed marriages, financial problems forced her to find a way to pay the bills. She found the answer as a writer. She worked first as a journalist and then as the author of a series of comic novels that are known as The Baretshire Novels, set in the fictional county of Barsetshire. Her books were popular and sold well. Wild Strawberries and High Rising were two of the most successful. Originally published in the 1930's, they have both recently been reprinted by Virago Modern Classics.

The title Wild Strawberries refers to a promise made by the dashing David Leslie, one of the brothers in the large and eccentric Leslie family, to obtain wild strawberries for Mary Preston, the 23-year old distant niece of David's sister Agnes. Mary has come to stay for the summer with the Leslie family at their ancestral home Rushwater House. Naturally she falls in love with the warm and loving Leslie family, but also with the handsome and charming, though wildly unsuitable David. There is, of course, a much more suitable brother in this family for Mary, the older John who lost his wife after one year of marriage. He is a widower with no children. Smart, dependable and kind, he is a catch. And he  begins to fall in love with Mary. But she is blind to his attractiveness because of her infatuation with his brother David. Definite echoes of Sabrina here.

The Leslie family is one that stays with you. They also reappear in other books by Thirkell. The glue that holds them all together is the matriarch Lady Edith, maddeningly eccentric, but saved from being irritating by her generosity, kindness and loyalty. The family, servants, vicar, and neighbors all adore her. Even though she and her husband Henry are the only official residents at Rushwater, the entire family of grown children seem to always be there. One of the family rituals occurs each morning. Everyone is in and out of Lady Edith's bedroom, where she holds court. They all check in with her as they plan their days. This is the setting for many comic scenes.

Edith's husband Henry patiently endures his wife's eccentricities, though he is another classic English eccentric and will remind you of Uncle Matthew in Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love. I laughed out loud at some of his dialogue. Making up the rest of the family are the two Leslie brothers John and David, mentioned above, as well as their sister Lady Agnes and her two children. Agnes's husband is always away on business, but she never seems to mind since she appears to be completely satisfied by the company of her children and her mother.  There was an older brother, the heir to the estate, who died during the war. His sixteen-year-old son Martin looks exactly like his father, a poignant fact for the rest of the family. He lives at Rushwater where he is being raised by his grandparents. He and his uncle David are very close and act more like brothers than uncle and nephew. Young Martin is one of the most endearing characters I have met in a book in a long time.

Rounding out the cast of characters are the vicar, the nannies, and the servants with all their rivalries and dramas. This is where the comparison to Downton Abbey comes in. The book is a portrait of an old English family living in the time period between the two wars. There are cricket matches, train arrivals, formal dinners, glamorous parties, and drives around the countryside in sports cars. Other characters who get involved with the family are a fawning horticulturist who snares invitations to stay with all the old families in the area, an ambitious young woman who works at the BBC, and a French family who rents the vicarage for the summer, much to the horror of Mr. Leslie.   

Martin is a beloved member of the family and to celebrate his seventeenth birthday, Lady Edith decides to give a glamorous dinner dance. This is the social event of the summer and everyone in the village is invited. Much of the plot revolves around the preparation for this event and much of the drama comes to a climax there.

This book was a fun read, light and frothy, but with a serious and poignant side. The war has affected all of the characters. Martin, who lost his father, must learn to adapt. In his case, the big sprawling Leslie family holds the key to his recovery. This book is a delightful love story and very funny as well.  It will sweep you away to a lighter, brighter world. Reading it is as refreshing and diverting as champagne and strawberries on a summer day.


  1. Thank you Sunday! It sounds like the perfect bedtime read. I can always count on you for a great book review. Wild Strawberries sounds perfectly charming.

  2. This book sounds perfect Sunday! I love Downton, Nancy Mittford and Sabrina! I cannot wait to read this.

    Have a great week!

  3. I read this book a few months ago and I loved it! I am looking forward to reading more of Angela Thirkell.

  4. Thanks for sharing this book with us! You reminded me that it's been languishing in my Amazon wish list queue for a very long time--now I recall why I wanted to read it!

  5. I would have trouble resisting this for the cover alone, Sunday; coupled with your tantalizing review, I'm sure to place it atop my pile of books one day soon.

  6. thanks for the recommendation - I just requested the one copy found at our local library!

  7. This is something I would enjoy. I will have to add it to my To Be Read list. I'm so glad you wrote about it. Thank you.

  8. This book sounds right up my alley. It's pretty cover alone would be enough to make me pick it up.

  9. I've never read a book review of yours that didn't make me want to immediately get the book, which I'm doing this very minute. I need "frothy" right now, and this sounds perfect. Love the cover art as well.