At the very top of the pile of books I took with me on holiday last week was High Rising by Angela Thirkell. Thirkell is perfect holiday reading (though I am rather of the opinion that she is perfect for every situation and mood) and, after having read the twenty-one books that follow this, it seemed time for me to finally read the first of Thirkell’s Barsetshire novels, initially published back in 1933. And there could be no more appropriate day to post my review as the beautiful new Virago Modern Classics editions of High Rising and Wild Strawberries are being released today. (Can you guess what items one and two are on my Christmas wishlist this year?)
High Rising has a few minor differences from the later books in the series – some of the action actually takes place outside of Barsetshire! A film actress other than the terribly prolific Glamora Tudour is mentioned! – but it is assuredly a Barsetshire novel, ending with not one but two engagements.
The book centers around Laura Morland and her friends in High- and Low Rising. A widow with four sons, Laura took up novel writing as a way to pay the boys’ school fees after her husband’s death. Now the author of a very successful series of thrillers aimed at women and with only one son (Tony) left at home, Laura is in her mid-forties and quite comfortable. More comfortable, of course, when Tony is away at school, his presence being enough to shatter anyone’s nerves with his constant prattle (his obsession here is with model trains) and complete disinterest in the thoughts or feelings of anyone else. Laura adores her son but has little patience with him:
When, for a quarter of a century, you have been fighting strong young creatures with a natural bias towards dirt, untidiness and carelessness, quite unmoved by noise, looking upon loud, unmeaning quarrels and abuse as the essence of polite conversation, oblivious of all convenience and comfort but their own, your resistance weakens. Tony was no more trying than Gerald had been [...] or John, or Dick, but she was older, and less able to deal with his self-sufficient complacency. She had sent him to school at an earlier age than his brothers, partly so that he should not be an only child under petticoat government, partly, as she remarked, to break his spirit. She fondly hoped that after a term or two at school he would find his own level, and be clouted over the head by his unappreciative contemporaries. But not at all. He returned from school rather more self-centred than before, talking even more, and, if possible, less interestingly. Why the other boys hadn’t killed him, his doting mother couldn’t conceive.
Tony, it must be said, is incredibly irritating in this book. I adore him in later books where his egoism and confidence is so advanced past that of any ordinary human being as to make him irresistibly fascinating but here he really is just an obnoxious schoolboy full of incredibly dull conversation. It is a frighteningly accurate portrayal of the average prepubescent, right down to his longing for any kind of audience at all: he is just as happy to address his remarks to Sylvia the dog as he is to any human.
The book takes place between Christmas and Easter (allowing us to see Tony on his school breaks) and focuses on a small group of Laura’s friends as they gossip and try to organise one another’s lives. The main focus of their concern is George Knox, a widower and author who Laura has been friends with for many years. He is entangled – though he does not quite realise it – in a dangerous situation with his new secretary, Miss Grey (known to her enemies as “the Incubus”). With the assistance of Laura, Amy Birkett (the wife of the headmaster of Southbridge School), and Laura’s own secretary, Anne Todd, the Incubus is routed and George is free to follow his heart – once he takes the time to listen to it. Laura is also responsible for matching Sibyl Knox, George’s daughter, with Adrian Coates, Laura’s publisher. It is an easily sorted affair – Adrian being very receptive to Laura’s guidance and occasional knocks over the head – but the exchanges between the love-addled Adrian and the exasperated Laura were some of the most amusing in the book. When he, consumed by unspoken love for Sibyl, drinks too much at a New Year’s Eve party and crashes his car when driving Laura home, her wrath is magnificent.
For me, the real delight of High Rising was getting to know Laura Morland. Honestly, I thought I had known her. I had, after all, read twenty-one Barsetshire books and Mrs Morland shows up in at least fifteen of them. I thought our acquaintance was pretty firm. I knew her as the hair-pin dropping, slightly absentminded, self-deprecating but incredibly successful author of “good bad books” and, of course, as the frequently exasperated mother of the always trying Tony. I adored her already but this book gave me even more reason to, delighting me by revealing new aspects of her character. She can be direct and forceful, not just in dealing with Tony and his friends but also with her hapless male friends, specifically Adrian and George, who both do their best to try her patience over the course of the novel. Any woman who can refusal a proposal by saying “You great mass of incompetence and conceit, you revolt me” is worthy of my admiration.
High Rising is a delightful introduction to Barsetshire and I am thrilled that for once I will be able to post a review of an Angela Thirkell novel knowing that other readers will easily be able to track down a copy if they so wish!