I love all of Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire books but I find the wartime ones particularly fascinating. Part of what I love so much about her novels is how well she captures and comments on the everyday events over the years, things other novelists and many social historians never think to touch on. I love those little domestic details, particularly when it comes to hearing characters’ complaints about things I would never otherwise have thought about, like The Times moving the crossword to a different page or the frustration of British Double Summer Time during the war. Thirkell published a new book almost every year so in her wartime novels you really have a quite extraordinary, almost real-time record of the general mood and atmosphere as the years dragged on. And in Marling Hall by Angela Thirkell, published in 1942 but set in 1941, she somehow manages to retain her usual humour while addressing the sombre realities of war in the central figure of Lettice Watson (nee Marling), whose naval husband was killed at Dunkirk.
Lettice has come back to her family home, Marling Hall, in the wake of her husband’s death and has been there for some time when the book begins, living a bit separate from the rest of the Marlings, in a self-contained flat in the stable block with her two young daughters and their nurse. In her late twenties, Lettice is by no means resigned to widowhood and, having come to terms with her husband’s death, is open to a new romantic attachment. She not as outgoing as the rest of her family but, even without looking for admirers, she seems to be overwhelmed with them. Will she favour the very tedious Mr Harvey, whose primary pastime is attempting to fend off his intrusive landlady? The dashing David Leslie, as insincere and caddish as ever but still desperately attractive with his good looks and easy charm? Or the steady, sincere Captain Barclay, who is clearly in love with Lettice but is generally considered the property of Lucy Marling, Lettice’s overbearing younger sister who introduced him into their little social circle?
Like Lettice, this novel is quite subdued. I feel like there is more focus on her than Thirkell usually places on any one character and Lettice is so introverted that such a focus means we get to know her usually well. Yes, there are other more light-hearted storylines that Thirkell also follows but the only character I really cared about was Lettice. Usually when I read one of Thirkell’s novels, I’m happy for half a dozen characters to engage my sympathies and while I was certainly entertained by and fond of the other players in this comedy, Lettice was the only one I yearned to see get a happy ending. She is a lovely young woman but, despite being surrounded by family, a lonely one.
But what a family it is. Lucy Marling is very practical and productive but also magnificently bossy and uncouthly curious. She seems to spend most of her time bullying about members of the armed forces, convincing them to take her to see things in restricted access zones. Oliver Marling, their bachelor brother, is inoffensive on his own but provides interest through a romantic misadventure with his secretary, Miss Harvey, which thankfully comes to nothing. Their attraction has more to do with proximity and their advancing ages than any real affection and they certainly do not bring out the best in each other. Watching Miss Harvey become more calculating and obnoxious as the book progresses is a slightly horrifying pleasure – you know Thirkell won’t allow Oliver to be shackled with her but as long as the possibility remains, it’s quite alarming. The elder Marlings appear almost only at meals but Mrs Marling gets one of the most perfectly Thirkell-esque introductions I’ve come across so far:
Mrs Marling, who disliked her name, Amabel, but had never seen her way to do anything about it, was an Honourable, as anyone may see who cares to look her up in Debrett, and connected with most of Barsetshire. She had the tradition of service, the energy, capacity for taking pains and, let us frankly say, the splendid insensitiveness and the self-confidence that make the aristocracy of the country what it is.
Speaking of that aristocratic self-confidence, Sir Edmund Pridham makes a masterful but brief appearance in which he rescues Ed Pollett (mechanical genius, valued handyman and half-wit) from what would have been a truly traumatising army career. I am fairly confident that paragraphs like these are what horrify other, more politically-correct readers even as they make me love Thirkell even more:
In the winter of 1940-41 [Ed Pollett] had registered, and as the doctor who examined the men found it simpler to do nothing but test their ears and pull down their lower lids – a piece of routine mumbo-jumbo that impressed everyone with his efficiency – it quite escaped his notice that Ed, who had always been immune to education, was mentally far below even the standard that the BBC sets in its broadcasts to the Forces, and passed him as A.1. Ed would have found himself almost at once in the Barsetshire Regiment, where he would probably have become really insane through fright and homesickness, had not Sir Edmund Pridham, who took an immense pride in all county idiots, standing between them and every encroachment of bureaucracy and regarding them on the whole as part of our National Heritage (as indeed they are), intervened with the whole force of his position and county authority and forced the doctor to report him quite unsuitable for any kind of military work and of extreme value as a reserved worker.
With the Marlings, there is also Miss Bunting, dear Bunny, everyone’s favourite retired governess, with her calm sense of decorum, her quick intelligence but measured reactions, and her recurring dream of confronting Hitler, whose war has killed so many of her beloved charges. She is always so right – though one does wonder what influence she could have had on Lucy Marling. Are there simply some characters too forceful even for Miss Bunting to tame?
As usual in a Thirkell novel, there is no real plot. People just go about their lives, working, raising families, visiting with friends, and falling in love. Thirkell had a gift for domestic humour and needed no extraordinary events to channel it – the everyday was quite enough for her. A perfect example of this is the brilliant comedy provided by a visit from the Harveys’ former governess, Mademoiselle Duchaux, whose French pride is not particularly well received by some of Barsetshire’s patriotic residents. Her ‘conversations’ with Mrs Smith, the Harveys’ landlady, are particularly magnificent, each woman full of contempt and pity for the other’s nationality (and Mrs Smith only able to express herself in fantastically fractured French). The tension between Mlle Duchaux and Miss Bunting is also wonderfully expressed:
If we have given the impression that the two ex-governesses did not cotton to each other, that is exactly the impression we hoped to create. Mlle Duchaux felt the natural contempt of a French governess, who had spent most of her life in England where the mere fact of her being a foreigner gave her a certain status, for an English governess who spoke rather good French. Miss Bunting felt the even more natural, though less plainly shown contempt of a first-rate English governess who had always taught in good families for a foreigner who would never know what really good families were.
And what to say of Mrs Smith, landlady to the Harvey siblings, antagonist to Mlle Duchaux? Having let her home furnished to the Harveys, she apparently has no conception of what that actually means. She is constantly dropping in to reclaim a favourite lamp, desk blotter, or table, doing so with an arrogance that stupefies the poor Harveys. Like the Harveys, I reacted with horror every time she appeared, dreading how she might impose on them this time. She cheerfully helps herself to what’s in the vegetable garden and, when the Harveys begin keeping chickens, assumes ownership over them as well, picking eggs right out of the henhouse and, in a true show of bravado, making off with one of the chickens. She is terrifyingly plausible, as comic as she is dreadful.
This is not one of Thirkells best books but, even so, it is a very satisfying read. The characters are not as fully developed or as engaging as in her better books but the comic scenes are wonderful – particularly anything involving Mrs Smith – and I was completely fascinated by the glimpse she gives us of a very tired wartime Britain, at a point when the possibility of victory seemed all too distant.