[One of our favorite authors, the 20th-century British novelist Angela Thirkell, was not fond of Christmas. In observance of the holiday season, we’re reprinting an essay Pat wrote about her for the December-January issue of the Literary Review in London.]
Patricia T. O’Conner
I’m always reminded of Angela Thirkell as Christmas casts its thick gloom (her word, not mine) upon a weary world. ‘No one has ever yet described with sufficient hatred and venom this Joyous and Festive Season,’ she once wrote. A rector in her Barsetshire novels privately regards the Second World War as ‘little but an intensification of Christmas’. And a mother of four grown sons with delightful families determines ‘to have mild influenza from the middle of December till after the New Year’.
How can you not love a novelist who sees licensed gluttony in the celebratory feasts, naked greed in the joyful faces of little children? These are sentiments that comfort and refresh. As long as we behave well, Thirkell seems to say, we’re free to think the worst of people.
I first read Thirkell in the 1980s as a staff editor at the New York Times Book Review. Publishers were starting to revive her novels in paperback and part of my job was to write a paperbacks column. The day a Thirkell (Pomfret Towers) landed on my desk, I was sucked in. Soon my husband was too. We are still obsessed. We have all twenty-nine of her Barsetshire novels, and whenever a certain longing reaches critical mass we read all twenty-nine again, straight though.
Her attraction is unmistakable but hard to explain to the uninitiated. Reading her, I feel like that lady in the old New Yorker cartoon. She looks up from her book, puts it down, leaves her chair in search of a pencil, returns to her chair, takes up the book and writes, ‘How true!’ in the margin. The characters and situations in these novels are often ridiculous, but they’re utterly true.
Born in 1890, Thirkell wrote thirty-three novels between the 1930s and her death in 1961, most of them set in Barsetshire, the fictional English county she borrowed from Trollope and updated for the 20th century. Many of her families are descended from Trollope’s, with names like Crawley, Gresham, Dale and Palliser (her bishop and bishopess are not Proudies, but they’re just as bad). Trollope’s towns and villages, plus some new ones, surround the county seat, Barchester, where the setting sun still glints on ‘the most beautiful cathedral spire in England’.
This genteel world was familiar territory to Thirkell, who grew up in a home full of art, music and books. Her father, John W Mackail, was a distinguished Scottish classicist and her maternal grandfather was the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones. Rudyard Kipling was a cousin, as was Stanley Baldwin, and her parents’ and grandparents’ circle of friends included William Morris, J M Barrie (her godfather) and many prominent authors, scholars and artists.
Her love for Trollope, she once said, began in childhood when she was ill in bed and her mother read to her from his books. She had other literary loves as well, including Scott, Austen, Tennyson, Thackeray and, particularly, Dickens, because, she said, he made her laugh. But she found Russian novels so dull that ‘they make me squint’.
As for sex, her characters don’t have it – at least not on the page. But she sneaks it in through the back door. Public school boys who torment their teachers are ‘master-baiters’. Moviegoers flock to the Barchester Odeon to see their favourite star, Glamora Tudor, in steamy productions like Burning Flesh, Honka Tonka Bodyline, One Night in the Vatican and the astonishingly titled Legs Round Your Neck. (Glamora’s hunky leading men are invariably Americans, with names like Hash Gobbett, Hake Codman and Croke Scumper.)
Two of Thirkell’s funniest and most shrewdly drawn characters are a lesbian couple who appear in many of the novels and are at the centre of village social life. The dashing Miss Hampton, always in an elegantly tailored coat and skirt and carrying a long cigarette holder, writes pornographic novels with titles like Chariots of Desire (about the sex lives of lorry drivers) and Temptation at St Anthony’s (set in a boys’ school), a selection of the Banned Book of the Month Club. Always in search of fresh material, Miss Hampton grills new acquaintances about their occupations: ‘Much vice?’
She’s helped in her research by the plumper and messier Miss Bent, who dresses in shapeless frocks accessorised with strings of clanking beads. Miss Bent tells their new neighbour, a rear admiral, ‘I would like to pick your brains about the lower deck’, and boasts of a forthcoming book, ‘It will be strong meat. Can England take it?’ At the close of a drinks party, of which they host a great many, the two excuse themselves on the grounds that Miss Hampton was up late the previous night, finishing a book. Miss Bent explains, ‘Hampton does plunge so in bed when she is Writing.’
Gay men also appear, but they’re treated with less affection. While the two women are accepted matter-of-factly, nobody can stand Fritz Gissing, ‘a totally unworthy object’ who does petit point and ‘ought to be in the Army’. Then there’s Lionel Harvest, a conceited BBC announcer who ‘reads Coventry Patmore quite perfectly’ on the air. ‘Queer boy, Lionel,’ one mother comments. ‘I’d let my girls go out with him, but I don’t know that I’d let my boys.’
For the 21st-century reader, political incorrectness and racial insensitivity stick out all over. A recurring character is ‘the village idiot, a person without whom no village is complete’. A common theme is illegitimacy among the lower classes, who cheerfully produce ‘children of shame’ at regular intervals. And an offstage character is an African princeling, newly graduated from Balliol, who returns to Mngangaland and ritually slays scores of relations ‘to the tune of the Eton Boating Song, with an accompaniment of native drums’.
But Thirkell was a product of her time and her class. For her there are no sacred cows, barring those that win ribbons at the Barchester Agricultural. Despite her Argyll heritage, she satirises Scotland. A Scot visiting Barsetshire says his family seat, Aberdeathly, lies ‘on the slopes of Ben Gaunt, just above Loch Gloom, and about ten miles by road from Inverdreary’. Not even religion is out of bounds. One of her vicars is appointed the head of St Ælla’s Home for Stiff-Necked Clergy, named after a ‘rude Saxon swineherd’ who was martyred for refusing to feed and water his pigs during Lent.
Thirkell often uses crotchety old men to puncture literary and artistic pretensions. Notable among them is Lord Stoke, who still drives a dog cart in the 1950s, remembers the Army and Navy Stores when it ‘was the Army and Navy Stores’ and is immune to literature that postdates Dickens (Trollope, of course, doesn’t exist in Barsetshire). When a lady says over tea, ‘There is one of Thomas Hardy’s depressing little contes –’ Lord Stoke interrupts: ‘Thomas Who? Never heard of the feller. And what’s a cont? Never heard of one.’ When occasion arises, curmudgeonly types actually say ‘Pah!’ and ‘Bah!’ and ‘Tut, tut’ and ‘Good Gad!’
Thirkell delights in skewering her characters’ obsessions – Icelandic sagas, drains, Roman ruins, dubious Viking remains, 12th-century Provençal verse, birdwatching and the propagation of rare and hideous plants. Scholars, too, come in for their share of gentle mockery. They’re deep into critical studies of Fluvius Minucius, the analects of Procrastinator, or Hippocampus, a sixth-century bishop of Rhinoceros. One donnish young man is writing a book about the Reverend Thomas Bohun, a 17th-century canon of Barchester who wrote ‘a number of very erotic poems’, including To his Mistrefs, on feeing fundrie Worme-Caftes.
One of Thirkell’s charms is her tendency to divagate. She took an unusually long time to write a particular passage, she says, because it was composed ‘with frequent intervals to look out of the window and watch the workmen painting the house opposite a most revolting shade of shrimp-gamboge’.
Thirkell had no illusions that her books were Great Literature. She freely admitted that she wrote ‘nice’ middlebrow novels solely to make a living and educate her son, the youngest of three resulting from two disastrous marriages. ‘I expect to write the same book every year until I die,’ she said. But in the process she recorded, in real time, a social history of England in the mid-20th century and chronicled the seismic upheavals that forever changed a people, a landscape, a culture.
She often expressed great affection for her ‘Cloud-Cuckoo-Land’ and its inhabitants. In an introduction to a 1958 edition of Trollope’s Barchester Towers, she wrote, ‘I have loved Barsetshire now for more than fifty years. I should like to think that it waits for me somewhere, with all the old friends alive and as they were.’ As this grim year draws to a close, a year Thirkell would have called ‘too foully dispiriting,’ it’s time I booked a return ticket to Barsetshire.