Read Pat’s review today in the New York Times Book Review of The Liar’s Dictionary, Eley Williams’s comic novel about love and lexicography.
[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.
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I was always fussy about my hair, but I had to tighten the purse strings when things fell apart. To save a few pennies, I’d take my own colors to Annette’s House of Aloha: Miss Clairol, an ounce of Topaz and an ounce of Moon Haze. I still had beautiful hair, as nice as when I was a schoolgirl. Maybe a little nicer, if I say so myself. I waved naturally, which I didn’t as a girl. Believe it or not, I hadn’t permed since I was in my twenties and unattached.
Annette used to set my colors with two ounces of L’Oreal, but I made her switch to Clairoxide after the Disaster. It was sixty-five cents less and my dear friend Kitty saw something in Florida Today about how this big shot at L’Oreal had been a Nazi during the war.
If I needed a good treatment, Annette would shampoo me with Wella, first the conditioner, then the conditioning shampoo. My boys used the stuff, too—Dewey, my oldest, and Zoot, number two—but only the shampoo, the one with cholesterol.
Annette knew a terrific trick. She’d rub in a tiny amount of conditioner as she applied my color. This was so the tips shouldn’t dry out. She learned that in Pawtucket, where she had a unisex before moving to the Space Coast.
Of course, everyone in Florida came from somewhere. Sid and I used to live on Kimball Terrace, the dead-end block next to Yonkers Raceway. We had a detached brick with a flagstone patio in back and a finished basement. It took Sid half a summer vacation, but he put up the paneling downstairs all by himself, a very nice wormy cherry.
I discovered Annette soon after moving to Satellite Beach, where we bought when Sid retired from teaching radio and television at Gompers, his vocational high school in the Bronx. This was a few weeks into 1981, not too long after the Reagans got to Washington.
I was still a mere bobby-soxer of sixty-five, barely old enough to get my senior discount at Mercury Marquee (Sid used to call it the Sin-a-Plex). He was sixty-six, nearly four years younger than Reagan at the Inauguration. Day in and day out, Sid was carrying on about that cowboy in the White House. Little did he realize, but Reagan wasn’t the rustler we had to worry about.
To be fair, it was Kitty who found the House of Aloha, Annette’s beauty parlor in Spaceport Plaza. Annette was between Reliable Realty—don’t get me started on that—and Golden Chopsticks, Sid’s favorite Chinese restaurant. He was very picky when it came to Chinese, wouldn’t touch anything but the most boring dishes from the chow mein school.
Spaceport Plaza, by the way, wasn’t exactly a mall, but one of those older-style shopping centers on A1A where you had to step outside to go from store to store. All the shops were stucco, pink stucco with little aquamarine awnings in front—Spanish style.
Kitty had always been the pioneer. She discovered Pelican Pond, our retirement village in Satellite Beach. She bought first, then I did, and Rose brought up the rear. Rose was forever last, the sweetest person in the world, but a faint heart who was always waiting for Kitty and me to show her the way.
We’d been together through thick and thin. The Three Musketeers—that’s what everyone used to call us when we were growing up on Livonia Avenue in Brooklyn. We wouldn’t let anybody separate us. We had plenty of aggravation from our husbands, let me tell you, but we insisted on finding three houses close to one another in Yonkers. Rose lived down the street from me on Kimball Terrace and Kitty was one block over on Halstead.
Kitty was the brave one. I remember when we were in tenth grade at Thomas Jefferson and she took Rose and me into the city for Chinese at the Singapore. This was the first time any of us had tried Chinese food and Rose was acting like Daniel in the lion’s den.
“What the hell are you afraid of?” Kitty hollered for the whole room to hear. “Christ Almighty, it won’t jump up and bite you. You’re supposed to be doing the goddamn biting.”
I should have warned you about Kitty’s mouth. All ears were burning at the tables around us. Even the Chinese waiters were getting an earful. Well, Rose may have been a crybaby, but I wasn’t exactly Selma the Lion-Hearted when I saw the menu.
I couldn’t tell my egg foo from my mu shu in those days, let alone the more exotic stuff—octopus suckers, chicken toes, eye of newt, for all I know. I kept asking our waiter if the dishes had onions. I didn’t like cooked onions. I could eat raw onions chopped up with tuna and other things, but not cooked in my food.
Onions never agreed with Sid, either, raw or otherwise. He was of the opinion—and not just an opinion in his case—that onions give you gas. Sid always had an opinion, too many of them in my opinion. We wouldn’t have been in such a state if he’d listened to me.
I wanted to be on the pond, but Sid knew better. Kitty and Leo had already bought a lovely Hacienda, one of the higher-quality waterside villas. Rose and Sol were still hemming and hawing, but it looked as if they’d take the plunge and get a Hacienda, too.
Sid had other ideas. The way he figured it, we’d be throwing good money away to be on a pond, especially an artificial one, when we didn’t even have a canoe. He wanted us to get a Chalet, the cheaper unit with a breezeway instead of a garage. The Chalets were over by Tropicana Trail and the traffic congestion. As an added attraction, you had a lovely view through your picture window of Luna Lanes, the bowladrome across the street.
“Everyone wants to be on the pond,” Sid argued as we examined the prospectus in Yonkers. “You have to pay top dollar there. Why should we go into debt to be on the water?”
“But that’s where I want to be, on the pond next to Kitty and Rose.”
“We shouldn’t tie ourselves down with a mortgage at our age, Bubbie. If we buy away from the water, we’ll have our home free and clear. And we can put the leftover into a nest egg.”
“I don’t want an ugly bowling alley in my face. I don’t even like bowling. And what are we going to do with a nest egg? Sit on it until we hatch chickens?”
“I’m sorry, but I’m not a high roller like some other husbands I could mention. I had to slave in the school system all my life.”
“You’ll be getting a very nice bundle from your variable annuity when you retire, $22,215 in cold cash, as you never cease to remind me. Why can’t we use this manna from heaven to buy a Hacienda? We’d need to borrow only ten thousand more.”
“It doesn’t make sense to pay double-digit interest rates to be on a phoney-baloney pond. Who needs water?”
Listen to him, Sid Waxler, the Answer Man. Let him speak for himself. You should have seen me as a girl. I used to slice through the water without a splash, just like the girls in Billy Rose’s Aquacade. Even in Florida, I could have swum circles around the tadpoles sunning themselves topless by the pool of the Econo Lodge on A1A, the place with the turquoise tiles.
As soon as we got to Pelican Pond, I joined Aquacise at the Olympic pool. Maybe I shouldn’t be the one to say this, but I was a sensation. Loretta Liebowitz, our lady lifeguard, said I had more natural talent and enthusiasm than the rest of the class combined, though that might have been a slight exaggeration.
Sid used to take me to Orchard Beach in the summer, back when we had the one-bedroom on Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx, our first home together. We used to suntan in section twelve, where the musicians congregated. Sid would lie back on a beach towel, his eyes closed, as I serenaded the crowd with my mandolin, an old Gibson.
Sid wasn’t much of a swimmer—more of a splasher, actually. I have a picture from the old days. He’s at the beach, holding Dewey on his shoulder. Dewey in diapers, such a tiny thing. Sid’s hair is stuck to his head like a wet washcloth. He’s a stringbean, standing there in his trunks. They were navy, the trunks, but you can’t tell from the picture because it’s a black-and-white.
Sid’s hair was still as black as ever when we got to Florida, but he never appreciated his good fortune. I worked so hard to get my color right and he didn’t have to lift a pinkie. It wasn’t fair. He was still a stringbean, too. I’d like someone to explain that. I had to struggle every day of my life to keep my girlish figure. Sid, on the other hand, could stuff whatever garbage he wanted into that big trap. Not an ounce stuck to his bones. This had to be the metabolism or something, maybe hormones. At night, I’d look at his tiny little size-thirty belt draped over the armchair in our bedroom and feel like strangling him with it.
As usual, Sid had his way about the Chalet. We got it for $74,895 plus closing costs, just about what we cleared from selling the house in Yonkers. And he insisted we put the entire $22,215 from the school system into a one-year CD at Sun Bank, the branch on South Babcock in Melbourne. It had the best rate around, fifteen percent compounded, and you got a pocket calculator for opening the account.
Sid moved the rest of our money, a few thousand from Yonkers Savings, into a joint checking account at Southland, the bank with the drive-in window around the corner on A1A. It was across from the Econo Lodge and next to Oinkers, the barbecue place on the ocean. You could get a platter of ribs for three ninety-five, a platter big enough to hold a ten-pound turkey.
For some reason, it made Sid feel good to have that nest egg in the bank. You would have thought it was a Fabergé from listening to him. But what were we saving for? Unless I was mistaken, burial shrouds were still being made without pockets.
My God, the aggravation we went through over that money. I get sick thinking about it. I curse the weasel responsible for what happened. His bones should be broken and trampled into the earth. Excuse me, but a bitter heart makes you say such things.
Well, I gave in on the Chalet, but I insisted on a kitchen with room for our Inca gold dinette set from Yonkers. That’s why we bought a Chalet Luxe, the two-bedroom end unit with a bath and a half and an eat-in kitchen. It was equipped with new Hot Point appliances, wall-to-wall carpeting, and a tiled Neptune green tub in the master bath that you stepped down into.
Sid liked the idea of the spare bedroom that came with an end unit. I furnished it with twin beds, in case the boys decided to do Sid and me a big favor and pay us a visit. Not that Dewey, the snob, or Zoot, the hipster, would stay with us—let alone Fleur, Dewey’s socialite wife.
All we got from the children was grumble, grumble, groan. Mostly they complained that the only thing we did was complain about them, which I couldn’t figure out, since there was no way to get a word in edgewise with all their complaining. I have a question, Dr. Brothers. If we were such rotten parents, how did they turn out to be so perfect?
Well, I’m not the only person to tumble into the generation gap and crack my skull. Kitty emerged black and blue from raising Myra, her little sweetheart. And Rose had a concussion or two, thanks to Becky and Zach, the sweetness and light of her life.
I remember when I worked for Ansonia Shoes before the war. It was just off Herald Square, which was why you could always find me in Macy’s at lunch time. I was the steno in the office, but I did a lot of other things—the sales floor, the cash register, the account book.
I sent the checks to Mrs. Wolfowitz, the boss’s wife, when she went to Grossinger’s over the summer. I even filled in when the model was sick. I wasn’t a model size—she was a four and I was four and a half—but I’d squeeze my foot into it.
The point is, we got the most beautiful stuff at cost from Binghamton and the other shoe places upstate. I rated beautiful shoes and made sure my friends had them, too. No wonder I had such good friends. You have to be a friend to have one.
Well, maybe I should have put up more of a stink about the pond, as if that would have changed Dr. No’s mind. He could be very stubborn, ignoring me till I wilted like a warm salad. He was just as obstinate about the Disaster, but I don’t want to talk about that.
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See the Compulsive Reader review of Swan Song, Stewart Kellerman’s humorous novel about the Three Musketeers—Selma, Kitty, and Rose: “Selma is the heart of the story. Her humour, reminiscences and her common sense opinions bring the story to life.”
A review of Swan Song by Stewart Kellerman
Reviewed by Ruth Latta, Aug. 26, 2019
by Stewart Kellerman
Paperback, 280 pp, $9.99, ISBN 978-0-9801532-8-6
Stewart Kellerman’s Swan Song is an entertaining story about a couple who retire to Florida in the 1980s. Through the witty first person narration of the protagonist, Selma Waxler, the author shows the concerns of older adults, which are pretty much the same in the 21st century as they were in the 1980s.
When Selma’s husband Sid retires from his teaching position in Yonkers, New York, in 1981, they move to a retirement development, Pelican Pond, on the “space coast” of Florida. In their mid-sixties, these “young” seniors, still in relatively good health, are able to enjoy many activities. Selma participates in fitness and music programs and charitable organizations, but Sid’s favourite activity is “pull-ups.” “He’d pull on the lever of his La-Z-Boy to make the back go down and the footrest go up,” says Selma.
When Sid wants to attend a talk on money management, she is elated that he’s tearing himself away from the TV. “Little did I realize,” she says, “once the genie was out I wouldn’t be able to get him back in the bottle.”
Selma’s best friends’ husbands are also at loose ends without their jobs. Kitty’s husband, Leo, has his mind on the hardware business he left behind in New York in the hands of their daughter. Rose’s husband, Sol, eats. Kitty, Rose and Selma still have their work as homemakers and are better than their spouses at socializing.
The heartwarming story of the three women friends is a unifying thread in the novel. They met as children living on Livonia Avenue in Brooklyn, and became inseparable. Kitty, “the brave one,” introduced the other two to Chinese food, and pursued her love of dance into a career at Radio City Music Hall. Rose and Selma had more prosaic jobs, Rose in the garment industry and Selma in a shoe store. Several times she tells the reader that she did not merely sell shoes, but did accounts, and that her high school teachers all wanted her to go on to college. Higher education, however, was beyond her parents’ means.
Through flashbacks, readers learn about Selma’s parents’ generation. One of the most inspiring characters is Zissel, Selma’s mother, who immigrated to America in 1907 and worked in sweatshop conditions until the International Ladies Garment Workers Union improved things. Though she married a carpenter from her home village in Russia who earned a living in America, she always worked outside the home, progressing in her craft to embroidering designer dresses and making wedding gowns. She mothered Selma’s friend Kitty and offered her money for her dance lessons.
“The hardest work in life is to be idle, Selma,” she said in her old age. Selma carries on her mother’s tradition of kindness to others, hard work and caution with money. Listening to real estate developer Arlee Sparlow talk about “wealth management,” her suspicions are aroused. He’s too friendly—“a false front like the town in a cowboy movie.” Dismissive of conservative investments, he warns his audience that if they do nothing with their money they’ll outlive their savings.
Sid’s involvement with Arlee Sparlow’s mortgage and real estate schemes is the spine of the novel, providing the dramatic tension, but Selma is the heart of the story. Her humour, reminiscences and her common sense opinions bring the story to life. When she raises objections to Sid investing their money, he dismisses her, saying “Women just don’t understand these things.” When she asks, “Why can’t we stop when we’re ahead?” he replies: “If it were up to you the human race would still be crawling on all fours.”
After Sid’s financial adventures bring the novel to a climax, the rest of the story shows the sadder aspects of old age. Even so, we see the characters savouring everyday pleasures and blessings, and staying connected to friends who come through for each other in crises.
While the back cover blurb of Swan Song has a condescending tone, the front cover is delightful. A photograph shows three smiling young women in 1930s finery, out on the town, smile at the camera. In her Foreword, Kellerman’s wife, author Patricia T. O’Conner, says that it’s a family photo of Kellerman’s mother Edith, flanked by her two best friends. Both of Kellerman’s parents, now deceased, gave him information about growing up in New York City in the early 20th century. Swan Song’s appeal lies in the characters, who, in O’Conner’s words, “are universal and at the same time so utterly individual.”
For more information on Ruth Latta’s upcoming novel, Votes, Love and War, about the Manitoba women’s suffrage movement and World War I, visit her blog.