It may be silly and superficial, but one of the reasons I was so excited to read The Headmistress by Angela Thirkell – even more excited than I usually am to read any of Thirkell’s Barsetshire novels – was because it was the last one I had left unread from the war years. I love Thirkell’s pre- and post-war books but her gift for capturing contemporary details and emotions makes the war-time ones particularly fascinating.
Published in 1944, The Headmistress begins as the Beltons of Harefield Park are leaving their home, having leased it to the Hosier’s Girls School. Mr and Mrs Belton have moved into a house in the village – a pretty, convenient house, it is true, but one that still serves as a reminder that they can no longer afford to live in the home they love so much. It is a sad come down for them but they are determined to make the best of their situation. Their voluntary eviction is made much pleasanter by the extraordinary tact of Miss Sparling, the headmistress of the school. Though the locals had feared her arrival, Miss Sparling soon finds herself earning their respect, the Barsetshire residents overcoming their usual prejudices against educated women in the face of one who is so appropriately authoritative, intelligent, and pleasant.
The Headmistress also marks the introduction into the series of Sam Adams. Loud, opinionated, and wealthy, industrialist Sam Adams is a self-made man who follows none of the rules of conduct on which polite middle-class Barsetshire relies. He is friendly but shrewd, easily able to earn the respect of those he meets even though it takes a number of years for many of them to overcome the awkwardness they feel in his presence. Following Sam Adams over the course of the next six or seven novels, as he transitions from social outsider to accepted pillar of the community, is a fascinating glimpse into societal changes in post-war Britain and the nature of human relationships. But here we meet him – and his teenage daughter Heather – for the first time and see how it is they begin their path to social acceptance: through an unlikely friendship with the Beltons, specifically Mrs Belton.
The Beltons have three grown-up children, Freddy (age 29), Elsa (age 25), and Charles (age about 22 or 23), who Mrs Belton had, before the war, fancifully hoped would be able to restore the family’s fortunes:
In happier days she had hoped that in her children the family might at last come into its proper place again. Freddy was to marry a very rich delightful heiress and put proper bathrooms all over the house when his father died and he left the Navy and came into the place, Charles was to make an immense fortune in business, be a kind wealthy bachelor uncle and leave all his money to Freddy’s children, and Elsa was to marry very well, preferably the heir to a dukedom or at least a marquisate, and present Freddy’s girls at court.
Instead, the war has seen to it that all three children are away from home and living very different lives than she would have planned for them. Freddy is a commander in the Navy, Charles is enjoying his time in the Army, and Elsa has a hush-hush job in London of enough importance to warrant her own secretary. Of course, during the period covered by the novel, they all find themselves on leave and able to come home for a few days at a time so that they can inject both stress and excitement into their parents’ lives.
As in any Thirkell novel, characters are gleefully paired off. The middle-aged Miss Sparling comes to an arrangement with the Oxford don Mr Carton, a delightfully sharp-witted gentleman whose caustic and perfectly-expressed opinions caused me no end of delight:
‘Why children, a loathsome breed who should be kept under hatches or in monasteries till they have acquired some rudiments of manners and consideration or others, should be encouraged to think themselves of importance now, I do not know. The English as a race have always been sentimental about dogs, and draught horses in Italy where most of them have never been, but this wave of sentiment about children is a new and revolting outburst.’
Meanwhile, Elsa Belton does her best to make herself miserable by not coming to an arrangement with Christopher Hornby, a naval officer with ties to Harefield but whom she seems to have befriended while working in London. Elsa and Chris’s friendship is well-established by the time the book begins, which makes it all the more intriguing to me. There is very little explanation about how these two, from different parts of the country and with fifteen years between them, became so friendly. All we know is that by the time the story begins, they are comfortable enough with one another that Christopher had taken Elsa around the house in Harefield he had inherited from his dead aunt and, when her parents were leaving Harefield Park with no idea where to go, Elsa was unembarrassed enough to reveal her fears of homeless parents to Christopher and ask if he would let his house to them. The reader actually sees very little of their romance, mostly conducted over lunches in town it seems; we just get to glimpse an odd sort-of proposal and Elsa’s emotional turmoil once in love. She is deeply confused by this being in love business, which leads to some very strange behaviour. Elsa is used to being very calm and in control; when her emotions come into play, she has no idea how to deal with them, creating a great deal of fuss both for Elsa and those around her. As Dr Perry says, “She’s as strong as a mule and not a nerve in her body. But being in love plays the very deuce with the tough young women.”
I find Elsa fascinating, even though her behaviour (as a result of being in love) is quite irritating during the period covered in the book. She has spent more time at Harefield Park than either of her brothers, knows every last depressing detail about the estate, and cares passionately about it. It is her home and having spent so much time with her father, whose life has been devoted to its care, she has naturally adopted his attitude towards it. Except, as everyone keeps reminding her, it is not her place to worry about Harefield Park’s destiny. Her fate is that of any pretty, loveable young woman: to marry and move away. Elsa is not ready to accept that. Harefield Park is the only real home she has ever known – unlike the boys who were away at school and then set up adult establishments separately – and to her it seems the most natural thing in the world that, on marrying a rich man, she ask him to put money into the estate. After all, they have been saying for years that Freddy must marry an heiress but Freddy is nearing thirty, with no intention of taking a wife. And here is Elsa with Christopher and all of his money! The poor girl has no understanding of boundaries and really cannot understand why no one else admires her solution.
While I enjoy Elsa, it is Mrs Belton who is really the heroine of this story and I do think she is one of Thirkell’s finest creations. She is proud and touch snobbish about her Thorne lineage (I am so pleased I read Doctor Thorne just before this), blood always being a Barsetshire obsession, but not so snobbish that she is not extremely kind to Heather Adams – here, at her most odiously stupid and unappealing – making an incredible and life-changing impression on that woman. Mrs Belton is labouring under a huge amount of stress but is able to rise above her own worries to show kindness to others. Heather and Sam Adams, at least, she knows how to deal with. Her family is a very different matter. She loves her husband, but hardly knows how to comfort him over the loss of his family home. She adores her children, but has no idea how to talk to them without offending them. On top of all that, there is the usual awfulness of war to be got through, with its rationing and hated Double Summertime (an obsession in every corner of Barsetshire). Mrs Belton is, in short, exhausted:
Mrs Belton was very tired and blamed herself for the feeling. A woman in her middle fifties, she said angrily to herself, had no business to be tired. At that age one ought to be full of horrible energy, dashing about in old but well-cut tweeds organizing everything, a jolly elder sister to one’s children, or at least a very competent grandmother romping with the grandchildren while their parents were on war work or abroad. At any rate there weren’t any grandchildren so that was that. All three children ought to have married years ago, but they never seemed to want to. Nor did they want a jolly older sister. All they wanted was a purveyor of beds, fires, food, such drink as there was, cigarettes; someone who could take all telephone messages accurately, never ask where they were going or had been, tireless, self-effacing. All of which she had tried to be and she knew that her husband had too, but at the end of each leave, whether it was Freddy from his ship, Elsa from her hush-hush job, or Charles from the army, she felt she had not given satisfaction.
Like many of Thirkell’s books, the most memorable passages in The Headmistress are devoted to the parent-child relationship. Particularly poignant are the sections dealing with Mrs Belton’s relationship with her youngest child, Charles. She adores him and is thrilled but also a bit terrified every time he comes home, knowing how impossibly easy it is to give offense to adult children. When the Beltons hear Charles at the door at the beginning of the novel, they feel almost sick with dread:
His parents, though they would have died rather than admit it to any outside, to each other, or even to their secret selves, experienced a peculiar sinking of the heart, or rather of the spirits at this sound. Not but that either of them would cheerfully have gone to the scaffold for Charles, or given him the best bed, all the butter ration and the most comfortable chair; but they knew from fatal experience that whatever they did would be just wrong. They also each knew, though they had never come within miles of discussing the subject, that Charles really had much the same feelings himself; that he always came home full of the best intentions, prepared to walk round the place with his father, or accompany his mother to tea at the Perry’s, or even to discuss his own future; that even as he entered the house all those sincere feelings were overlaid by a nervousness and irritation which caused him to be on the whole selfish, graceless, cross if questioned about himself and resentful if he wasn’t. And it was much the same with Freddy and Elsa, though Freddy at twenty-nine was approximating to something human in his parents’ house.
And this feeling, though always frustrating and upsetting, is all the more so because of the war and Mrs Belton’s constant fear that each visit may be Charles’ last. Mrs Belton broke my heart with her mix of anxiety, love, and exhaustion.
Elizabeth Bowen said of Thirkell: “If the social historian of the future does not refer to this writer’s novels, he will not know his business.” The more I read, the more I agree with this statement, finding Thirkell’s wartime and post-war novels to be particularly educational even for someone like me who has spent so much time reading up on that period. And yet the wealth of detail is never included at the expense of the story. Thirkell wrote about a charmed, imaginary place but one that was clearly an extension of the world her readers knew and the problems and emotions of her characters were (and are) very real and recognizable, from the mother trying to find common ground with her adult children, to the family fallen on hard times, to the self-made man trying to give his daughter a brighter future.