Delightfully, I have come to the point where I am already rereading some of Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire books, which I only just discovered last winter. When I first read Miss Bunting by Angela Thirkell, it was only my third encounter with her and I was just getting to know her style and her vast, amusing array of characters. Returning a year later after having read a dozen more of her novels, I was in a much more comfortable place to enjoy this simple but brilliantly executed story.
More than usual, I think, this is a novel about nothing, just people stumbling along through the summer of 1944. Seventeen-year old Anne Fielding, under the care of the incomparable Miss Bunting (last seen in Marling Hall), is developing from a timid and frail girl into an intelligent and beautifully-behaved young woman, someone whose company everyone enjoys. Robin Dale, returned home from Italy minus a foot, is attempting to educate a few young minds at his small school but is mostly succeeding in getting in his aged father’s way at home in the Rectory. Jane Gresham is trying to carry on as normally as possible, not knowing if her husband who has been missing in the East for several years is alive or dead. The gauche and deadly dull Heather Adams is cramming for Cambridge and nursing a desperate passion for Mrs Gresham while her forceful father, Sam Adams, is being loud and excessive and embarrassingly useful. The magnificent Mixo-Lydian refugee Gradka is preparing wonderful meals for the Fieldings and occasionally shocking them with her bloodthirsty passion against the Slavo-Lydians. And Miss Bunting is quietly and calmly observing them all. This is not a book where Things Happen, just where people interact in the course of daily life and it is marvellous.
I do think this is the most gloriously snobbish of Thirkell’s novels, which is part of the reason I adore it so. Republican ideals of equality have no place in Barsetshire but sadly ‘progress’ can not be blocked out entirely, leading generally to awkward confusion and embarrassment in situations where deference was once obviously due and pleasantly observed. There is no adequate response now for trades people who find themselves discovered by the disapproving Miss Bunting while slacking off their duties and being given cups of tea by the innocently welcoming Anne:
Miss Bunting took her pince-nez from a pocket, put them on, and looked searchingly at the intruders. Most willingly would have bowed, scraped, curtsied, made a leg, bobbed, tugged a forelock; but civilisation in its backward progress has eliminated all these forms of respect to age or position as uneducated, undemocratic and shameful. So they all went red in the face and looked up, down, around; anywhere but at the newcomer.
Poor Lady Fielding, a classic and well-meaning snob, has no idea what to do with Sam Adams when he begins intruding into her world. The loud manufacturer and his daughter should be so completely outside of her social circle and yet there they are, everywhere she looks. It is an association she cannot avoid but certainly has no idea quite how to handle. But, because this is Thirkell’s world, even they know their place. Miss Bunting also knows her place: she is simply superior to all other beings, regardless of their status, and is recognized as such by one and all. She is even able to subdue the irrepressible Gradka:
Miss Bunting came to Hallbury with Lady Fielding to inspect her new domain, and in one interview reduced Gradka to a state of subservience which roused Lady Fielding’s admiration and curiosity.
‘How did you do it?’ she asked Miss Bunting subsequently, awestruck.
‘I was in Russia before the last war with a daughter of one of the Grand Dukes,’ said Miss Bunting. ‘The Russian aristocracy knew how to treat their inferiors. I observed their methods and have practiced them with some success. ‘
‘But you can’t exactly call Gradka inferior,’ said Lady Fielding, nervously wondering whether she was listening outside the door. ‘Her father is a university professor and very well known.’
‘I think,’ said Miss Bunting, ‘that you will find the facts much overstated. The young woman, who is probably listening outside the door at the moment, is an inferior. No well-born Mixo-Lydian would dream of being connected with a university. Until this war they kept up the habits of a real aristocracy: to hunt and get drunk all autumn and winter, and to go to the Riviera and get drunk in the spring and early summer. For the rest of the year they visited their palaces in Lydianopolis where they entertained ballet girls and got drunk.’
Whether Gradka overheard this or not, we cannot say, but from that moment she recognized Miss Bunting as a princess and the household went very well.
One of the joys of reading this now that I know the series so much better is my increased appreciation of the running jokes. The war against the Bishop and his wife amused me enough the first time around but how much more I enjoyed it now, seeing it as a common cause that has bound kindred souls together through the years. When the delightful Mrs Morland meets Anne Fielding for the first time, anti-palace sentiment acts as a sort of shibboleth, proving Anne as someone with the right sort of mind:
‘Tony always says that I fly at people and kiss them in a kind of higher carelessness,’ she said. ‘But I do assure you I never kiss people I don’t like. If I did begin to kiss the Bishop’s wife, even by mistake, something would stop me.’
‘I only met her once,’ said Anne, finding it, to her own great surprise, quite easy to talk to someone as celebrated as Mrs Morland, ‘at a prize-giving at the Barchester High School and she said prizes really meant nothing, so all the girls who got prizes hated her. If I’d had a prize I’d have hated her too. But I hated her anyway because she had a horrid hat.’
Mrs Morland looked approvingly at a girl who had such sound instincts…
As always with Thirkell’s wartime books, the details here are utterly fascinating. Double summertime, which is barely mentioned in so many other wartime books but is a positive obsession in Barsetshire, is driving everyone mad by keeping them in constant confusion over what the ‘real’ time actually is. Young Tom Watson (best friend of Jane Gresham’s little boy, Frank) is raising rabbits. There are constant laments about all the things that one wants but cannot get, from petrol to bath sponges to items for clearing drains that I cannot even begin to pretend I understand (but which Sam Adams certainly does). Robin and Dr Dale have a particularly perfect exchange over longed-for pork products:
‘Roast pork and crackling,’ said the Rector, gazing into space. ‘Yorkshire hams. Trotters. Pig’s face and young greens. Gammon rashers. Everything.’
Father and son were silent for a moment in contemplation of these raptures.
‘And pork pies with lots of jelly,’ said Robin in a low voice. ‘No, Father, be a man. Think of Spam.’
There are mentions of all the young men and women of Barsetshire in uniform, deployed around the globe from America to Egypt. There is Jane Gresham, who does not know if she is widow or wife. And of course there is Robin Dale. Healthy and only twenty-six, he lost his foot during the invasion of Italy and so finds himself the only young man left in his corner of Barsetshire.
The relationship between Robin and Dr Dale is an interesting one, particularly considering some of Thirkell’s romantic pairings in other books (August Folly’s Helen Dean and Charles Fanshawe come to mind) that echo Dr Dale’s late marriage to a much younger woman. At twenty-six and eighty-two, son and father are several generations apart and the one woman who could have bridged the divide between them has been dead for many years. They love each other dearly and have a very fond relationship but are at such different points in their lives – one just starting out, one drawing to the end – that their living together is not ideal for either of them. It is not precisely a condemnation of late-life marriages and procreation, just a reminder of the consequences. Dr Dale may not be able to relate to Robin, may occasionally say that Robin should have been his grandson, but there is no question that the boy is very precious to him. Robin, equally, adores his father, even if he is “sometimes too like an elderly clergyman to be real.”
It seem tragic that I’ve gotten this far in my review without saying much about Gradka, the most magnificent Mixo-Lydian ever to have drawn breath, but I am rambling on and need to save something to talk about when I inevitably reread this next year.
As the novel concludes, with the death of a major character and the looming end of the war, there is a sense of a certain way of life coming to an end and a terrifying uncertainty taking its place. The older generation are definitely worried (the next book, Peace Breaks Out, is almost entirely devoted to their mournful cries) but the youth – as represented by Anne, Robin, and Jane – seem relatively unperturbed. Sam Adams’s direct talk and businessman ways may make them a touch uncomfortable but more than their elders they seem able to acknowledge and accept the spirit in which his attentions are meant and, more importantly, to recognize that he has a rightful place in their world. Uncertain though it may be, they are all young enough to be excited at what the future might hold for them – and too young, perhaps, to know what it is they are losing.