Monday, April 13, 2015

Spring Reading

When I think of Angela Thirkell, images of spring and summer come to mind... 

Maybe because weekends in the country, strawberries and champagne, cricket matches, summer fetes, walks in the garden, and tea on the lawn are featured in so many of her novels. These are books to chase away the winter doldrums. Just look at her titles: Summer Half, Wild Strawberries, August Folly. Now that spring has arrived, I decided to go on a little Angela Thirkell binge and try to make a dent in some of the books I brought home from England last fall. Virago Modern Classics has reprinted many of her titles and when I spotted them in a bookstore in the Cotswolds I snatched up as many as I could find. So far I've read Wild Strawberries (go here) and High Rising. Both of which I loved.  

Right now I am happily immersed in Pomfret Towers and laughing out loud at some of the funny passages about the Earl of Pomfret who rules the little town of Nutfield. Here is the opening of the book: 

"Nutfield is quite the most delightful town in that part of England...The town itself is on the estate of the seventh Earl of Pomfret, who refuses to allow chain store or cinemas, and exercises a personal and terrifying supervision over the exterior of shops and garages. The principal inhabitants of Nutfield are occasionally invited to dine at Pomfret Towers, but without their wives, as Lady Pomfret, who is an invalid, mostly lives abroad. These evenings are celebrated for their appalling tedium, but no one has been known to refuse an invitation. Respectable heads of family have been heard comparing notes about his lordship's dullness and rudeness, even boasting with some complacence when he has singled out one of them by some special neglect or deliberate want of courtesy. Anything that is one's own property tends to acquire lustre in one's own eyes...So did the inhabitants of Nutfield boast about Lord Pomfret's rudeness, looking down with condescending pity upon their less fortunate neighbors."

There are many comic characters and Mrs. Barton is one of my favorites. She is a writer of historical fiction who lives with her husband and children in the old dower house on the earl's estate. Her husband is a prosperous, local architect with a talent for handling old buildings with care and discretion. He has retained the beauty of their old house while making it a comfortable place to live:

"Mr. Barton had a hard struggle with Lord Pomfret before he could install central heating, his lordship having the firm conviction that only foreigners liked their houses heated...

When once the heating was installed, Mr. Barton had no fault to find with his house. The fine Jacobean building on the north, where the kitchen and servants were now housed, the large dignified south front which was added about 1760, were described in every guide book, though not all of them mentioned what was perhaps in its master's eyes its most peculiar beauty. This was a two-storey gardener's cottage...Of...this Mr. Barton was a passionate lover and faithful guardian, finding it of infinite comfort when his wife seemed farther away than usual.

Mrs. Barton was well known as the author of several learned historical novels about the more obscure bastards of Popes and Cardinals...Owing so much to living in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, she sometimes found it difficult to remember where she was. She was an excellent housekeeper, who never failed to care for her family and give them good food, and all servants adored  her, but though she never obtruded her work, or spoke of it as if it mattered, she only had to go into her sitting room and take up a paper or a book, to be at once engulfed in the ocean of the past, re-living with intensity the lives of people about whom little was known and whose very existence was dubious. When the tide ebbed, leaving her stranded upon the shores of everyday life, she would emerge in a dazed condition to preside at her own table, or take a fitful interest in her neighbors. Her own son and daughter she treated as amusing guests who happened to be making a prolonged stay, though her anxiety for Alice, a delicate girl, the younger by several years, pursued her even among her books and research." 

Somehow Thirkell manages to be a combination of Jane Austen, Nancy Mitford and Barbara Pym. 

If you are missing "Downton Abbey" and the time period between the two wars, Angela Thirkell's books are a good place to find it. She wrote 29 novels in all, nearly one a year from 1933 to 1961, all set in the fictional English county of Barsetshire. After two failed marriages, financial problems forced her to come up with a way to pay the bills. She became a writer, starting out as a journalist and going on to create the imaginary world of these comic novels which are now known as The Barsetshire Novels. Mostly they are about bright young women falling in love amidst ancestral country homes and English eccentrics. Funny and often poignant, they are the kind of books that will take you away from it all. When I learned that Thirkell was the goddaughter of J.M. Barrie -- she had a rich literary and artistic heritage -- I wasn't surprised that she became a writer of such sparkling, witty and pleasurable novels.     

Here is a description of her writing from the back of one of her books:

"A perfect balance of satirical observation and chocolate-box charm."
-- The Lady

Exactly what I'm in the mood for now that spring has arrived.

  Surrey, England -- June, 2010

And speaking of spring, wouldn't this be the perfect place to read Angela Thirkell's books?

What are you reading right now? Do your tastes change with the seasons?


  1. I have never heard of her books but I do love a story set in the English countryside so I am adding her to my ever increasing list of books to read!
    Currently I am reading Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway and have Edith Wharton's House of Mirth on my bedside table. I think reading is my favourite leisure activity...along with drinking tea!
    Your floral display is beautiful Sunday....thank you for this cheery and light way to start my morning.

  2. Like this post and the pictures. Uplifting!

  3. Dear Sunday, like the previous comment, I had not heard of Angela Thirkell, but will search out one of her books, as I trust and value your recommendations. You seem to have similar taste in books to mine, except I also like a gripping thriller as a page turning form of entertainment! I love books set in England, whether contemporary or from the Bloomsbury set. Thanks for letting us know about this author. I have also just googled her background. It sounds as if she had an unusual life with her two marriages and quite a strong mindset, to return to England from Australia, minus the husband. her straightened financial situation prompting her reaching out to a writing career! An interesting life!
    Deborah - from Melbourne, Australia

    1. Hi Deborah, if you like gripping thrillers and books set in England, you would probably enjoy "The Girl on the Train." I couldn't put it down! And speaking of Bloomsbury, have you read "Vanessa and her Sister"? I finished it recently and loved it.

  4. I am reading three books........I need to put two down and concentrate on just one!I find I need to make more time in the afternoon for reading as I tend to have heavy lids at night!!!You would love the book about V. Wolfs fact I am all most positive you have mentioned here!

    1. Yes, you are right. I have mentioned it and finished it recently. I loved it! Wasn't it fascinating to read the story from Vanessa Bell's perspective? Like you, I always have a few books going at the same time. Let me know how you like "Vanessa and her Sister" when you are done!

  5. First time commenter from England here. I was delighted to find your lovely blog recently. I have enjoyed reading your past posts particularly about anything Bloomsbury and your like of the ballet as these are great interests of mine. Having finished reading the full set of diaries of Virginia Woolf. I popped into Hatchards yesterday and bought a selection of Barbara Pym novels to relax with before I start on the VW letters. Now the weather is brightening up they are more appropriate for carrying out and about! I read Pomfret Towers over Christmas and Wild Strawberries last summer and enjoyed them very much.

    1. Tara, how lucky you are to have Hatchards as a local bookstore. It is my favorite bookstore in London. If this is the first time you are reading Barabara Pym, you are in for a treat. "Excellent Women" is my favorite. And the Letters of Virginia Woolf are fascinating. Happy reading!

  6. I've just finished reading a book about India in the 1920s called East of the Sun. It was quite fascinating. Another one I recently enjoyed is The Shadow of the Wind.

  7. I do find that my reading tastes change with the seasons. I usually like to read contemporary fiction in the winter/spring and classics in the summer/fall. I'm not sure why - it just always seems to work out that way! I am currently reading a really great 'women's fiction' novel called The Precious One by Marisa de los Santos - super lively writing and vibrant characters. Hope you are having a fun time in NYC!

  8. What beautiful covers! I don't think I've read any Angela Thirkell - will have to give one a go as they sound delightful! Also, I just adore that vase on the table - it's beautiful!!

    Miranda xxx

  9. I'm still reading Irish crime novels, but I did buy Ann Packer's book "The Children's Crusade". I did read "Wild Strawberries" a few years ago and loved it.