I almost didn’t manage to read the only holiday book I own over the holidays. I woke up Boxing Day morning with the horrible realisation that after months of anticipation, I hadn’t yet picked up Christmas at High Rising by Angela Thirkell. I immediately cast aside the book I had been reading (Maeve’s Times, a really delightful collection of Maeve Binchy’s writings for the Irish Times) because, as you should know by now, nothing will stand in the way of me reading a Barsetshire-set book (except my shoddy memory).
Just published by Virago in November of this year, Christmas at High Rising is a collection of short stories written by Thirkell in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. It is a very slim book with only eight pieces, five of which focus on the residents of High Rising. The remaining three – a story of a Victorian Christmas, a rather un-Thirkell-like piece about an art show, and an enjoyable essay entitled “Shakespeare Did Not Dine Out” – are well enough but it was the Barsetshire-set stories that delighted me most.
Tony Morland is perceived with varying levels of joy by Thirkell’s readers. I know some readers would like nothing more than to see his mother’s fears realised, with Tony thrown off his bicycle or horse and his neck broken so that they may be spared his condescending speeches and general interference. I, on the other hand, adore him. There is no such thing as too much Tony and my only major quibble with Thirkell is that she hid adult Tony so effectively from her readers in her later books. Yes, she reports that he is grown into a responsible, even conventional man but how cheated I feel for not being able to witness that myself! But that is an argument best saved for another review. Here, there is more than enough Tony to delight, as he struts through High Rising with the “devil-may-care attitude of a man of the world”, sparing every so often a “glance of passionless scorn” for the imbecilic adults in his life.
And some of the adults are imbecilic. George Knox has never been a great favourite with me and, though there is comic value in his winding, long-winded speeches, they are too winding and long-winded for me. I am also deeply offended by his referring to the divine Donk as Tony’s “friend with the un-Christian name, that sphinx in whom silence probably conceals total vacuity.” How dare you, sir (even though that is a neat turn of phrase).
Tony’s mother Laura is present – or as present as her habitually abstracted state allows – and, as usual, terrified of the trouble that Tony might get himself into. I remember reading The Demon of the House (a collection of Tony-focused stories) a couple of years ago and sympathizing so much with Laura in that book’s first episode, when she frets that Tony will manage to get himself run over by a car while bicycling. In this volume, she has the added worry of horseback-riding lessons, though the groom comforts her by saying that though Tony is an awful rider he is the sort of person who will “never learn to ride, not if he was to ride all his life, but he’ll stick to the horse somehow.” That seems as good a description as any of the enthusiastic and tenacious young Tony, though his mother will (as mothers do) continue to fret even after such assurances.
There was a sad lack of Dr. Ford, whose encounters with Tony are some of the most pleasing exchanges Thirkell ever wrote (even when the dialogue is limited to “shut up” – such blissful words when directed at Tony). Yes, he appears but never frequently enough for my tastes.
After a near miss, this really did make for the perfect holiday reading. I am so please that Virago published these stories and I can only hope they find more to print in years to come (a reissue of The Demon in the House might be a nice place to start).