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Archive for September, 2014

Cheerfulness Breaks InSometimes, there is no accounting for what makes a book a favourite.  I’ve read twenty-three of Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire books now and, without even having to think about it, I can list off which ones I think are her best.  That said, my personal favourite ranks nowhere near the top of that list.  While the rest of her war-time novels are uniformly strong, Cheerfulness Breaks In, which focuses on the first year of the war, is disjointed, clumsy and full of decidedly un-Thirkell-like jingoism.  Despite these flaws, I adore it and have reread it five times since first discovering Thirkell in 2011.

Cheerfulness Breaks In opens with the wedding of Rose Birkett, the feather-brained and oft-engaged daughter of the much beloved headmaster of Southbridge school.  Manhandled down the aisle by her family, friends, and fiancé, the Birketts are shamefully delighted to be free of their exhausting daughter.  But one trial is about to be exchanged for another: they may be free of Rose (safely on the other side of the Atlantic, stationed in South America with her naval husband) but the war has just started and Southbridge is to play host to the evacuated Hosier’s Boys Foundation School from London.

Nearby, Lydia Keith, now twenty one (by Thirkell’s bizarre counting, which has little to do with arithmetic as we know it), has harnessed her energy and forcefulness for good.  Though “her family had thought that when she left school she might wish to train for some sort of work in which swashbuckling is a desirable quality,” Lydia has instead chosen to stay at home, running the estate and caring for her invalid mother.  She is no less blunt and unromantic than before – “To all such young men as were prepared to accept her as an equal Lydia extended a crushing handshake and the privilege of listening to her views on all subjects” – but she has moved beyond her girlhood.  While her girlfriends have exchanged Barsetshire High School for nursing wards and her closest friend, Noel Merton, has left his lawyer’s chambers for a military career, Lydia is bossing about matrons at Red Cross sewing parties and dishing out rabbit stew to grubby evacuees.  It’s not a particularly romantic life but, nonetheless, Lydia is our heroine.  Since she has always been my personal heroine, ever since her first appearance as a gauche sixteen year old, it is not difficult then to understand why I love this book.

Both the residents of Southbridge and Lydia find their worldviews upset during the first few months of the war.  Lydia finds herself uncomfortably (and unknowingly for a long time)in love and in Southbridge the Birketts and their friends must adapt to the evacuees in their midst.  These dual storylines are not gracefully managed so it is difficult to review them in any cohesive way.  Lydia’s story is a quite straightforward romance, though she does spend quite a bit of time capably counselling her friends and helping them set their own romances straight.  The situation in Southbridge, however, is altogether more interesting…

At the beginning of the war, Laura Morland moves in with the Birketts for the duration, having let her house in High Rising to friends from London.  This brings her into contact with members of the school community (familiar from Summer Half) but also other, less familiar neighbours.  There are Miss Bent and Miss Hampton, Barsetshire’s most entertaining and alcoholic lesbian couple, and, with the arrival of Hosier’s Boys Foundation School, there are Mr. And Mrs. Bissell.  The principal of Hosier’s, at first Mr. Bissell and his wife seemed like everything the Birketts had feared: common and Communist, they are the antithesis of Conservative, middle-class Barsetshire.  But, rather to everyone’s delight, Southbridge discovers that it is more broadminded than previously suspected and the Bissells find that the middle classes aren’t as entirely useless as they’d expected them to be.  Also, the lubricating powers of alcohol in easing class tensions are appreciated by all.

One of the things I have always appreciated about Thirkell is her cross-generational approach.  While her romantic pairings are largely restricted to the young (or young-ish), Thirkell does not neglect her middle aged cast whose concerns are mainly for their children.  Understandably during a time of war.  The Archdeacon’s wife, remembering the last war, boils with anger when she thinks about how this war will disrupt the lives of young people, especially her daughter Octavia and her friends: “Would these girls care to marry?  How many would lose a lover, a friend that might have been a lover. ..Were Octavia, Delia, Lydia to go on being nice useful girls for ever?  She almost champed with rage at the thought.”  The girls see the war and their involvement in it as a great adventure, which it was.  However, it is their mothers who count the years in terms of what has been postponed or lost.  Laura Morland is cursed with a novelist’s imagination and, with four sons of military age, spends more time than she ought imagining dramatic and highly improbable deaths for them all after learning of major battles.  She keeps herself busy and fretful:

…visualising her explorer son transported by magic from a thousand miles in the interior of South America to the scene of the naval battle and there dying a hero’s death, her naval son who was on the China Station circling half the globe in a few days only to perish among shot and flame, her third son having unknown to her become a Secret Service Agent and arrived at Las Palmobas in time to foil an enemy plot at the expense of his life, not to speak of Tony, now well known to be with friends in Gloucestershire for part of the Christmas Vacation, having got into the Trans-Atlantic Air Services and so to Las Palombas and a heroic if unspecified end…

While passages like the above are entertaining, Thirkell is uncommonly sentimental in this book.  I can forgive a clumsy narrative but I can’t quite forgive her for momentarily falling under the spell of the famed stiff upper-lip.  It is very unlike her and does not sit quite right with those of us who love her for her sharp-tongued ways.  Part of the great joy of her wartime books is the callous way in which her characters moan and complain about the government, the refugees, and their fellow citizens.  The most damning criticism we hear in this book is of The Times for daring to rearrange its sections:

Mr Keith said he could bear anything, even the Income Tax, if only The Times would stop fiddling about with the Crossword Puzzle and put it in its proper place, down in the right-hand corner of page three or possibly page five.  And as for putting it in small print, he would take in the Daily Telegraph if it went on.  One must have something to cling to in this world of shifting values…

These details are what make Thirkell’s wartime books so good and yet there are far too few here.  Yes, we hear a little about shirkers who run away to America (excellent plan, FYI) and repulsive refugees and evacuees, but even they are dealt with gently by Thirkell, which is entirely out of character.

And still, despite its flaws, I love it.  I love all the drinks parties at Southbridge, I love Noel Merton’s inability to keep himself from getting promoted, and, most of all, I love everything related to the admirable Lydia.  It may not be Thirkell’s best but I love it.

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Library Lust

credit: Beauty at Home by Aerin Lauder

credit: Beauty at Home by Aerin Lauder

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badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Linda from Silly Little Mischief that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

 

Library Loot

How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran – I’ve really enjoyed Moran’s two other books (Moranthology and How To Be a Woman) and am very excited to read this, her debut (autobiographical) novel.

The Unexpected Professor by John Carey – a long-awaited hold that I’ve been looking forward to since reading the FT review back in the Spring.

The Crow Road by Iain Banks – a recent NPR piece reminded me of how long I’ve been planning to read this novel.

What did you pick up this week?

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Library Lust

credit: unknown

credit: unknown

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Europe Trip: Meersburg

Meersburg

Meersburg

The first day of my vacation was a long one – or, to be accurate, two. I don’t think I’ve ever flown to Europe and spent the first night in the city where I have landed. That would be too easy. This year was no different. After two planes, a train, a bus, and a ferry, we arrived at our first destination: Meersburg, a small town on the German side of Bodensee.

Meersburg A

Meersburg was delightful. It was quiet and beautiful, the perfect place to get over our jetlag and ease into our vacation. We hiked, we swam (in the lake, to my delight), we visited the local sights, and we generally just had a wonderful time. We also marvelled at the zeppelins constantly floating overhead because, really, in 2014 where else do you see zeppelins on a daily basis?

An almost as exciting – though not as frequent sight – were the glimpses we got of the Swiss Alps on the other side of the lake. There are few things more lovely at dusk than purple-pink mountains.

Meersburg 5

Alps!

Meersburg 4

Mainau Island

Meersburg 2

View to Birnau from Unteruhldingen

Meersburg 3

View of Meersburg from the lake

This was my first visit to this region of Germany but I know I’ll be back again. The water, the vineyards, the hiking paths, and the nearby mountains provide all the things I could want in a holiday destination.

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Greenbanks
I finished Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple earlier this week and realised that, though this is the fourth book I have read by Whipple, I’ve yet to review any of her works on this blog.  Now, part of this is explained by my relative indifference towards her writing – why spend time discussing an author whose works I find inoffensive but generally unremarkable and unmemorable? – but the main reason has been to avoid outing myself, as I have just done in the first half of this sentence, as a Persephone lover who does not love Dorothy Whipple.

There are things I like about Whipple; chiefly, her books’ ability to sell well for Persephone Books.  She is still, last I read, their top-selling author and as I have great respect for Persephone and wish them well in all things, I am delighted when they find a consistent revenue stream.  They are publishing their eight Whipple title later this year (Because of the Lockwoods) and I hope it sells as well for them as the rest have.

That said, I also completely understand the “Whipple line”, a concept used by Virago in their selection process to weed out sub-par writing.  As someone who for years had philosophical issues with Virago, this was actually the olive branch that made me begin to warm to them (I have thawed absolutely since they began reprinting Angela Thirkell’s novels).  Whipple can spin plots that are absorbing enough to while away a few desultory hours but her melodramas offer nothing challenging or even particularly satisfying.  They may begin enjoyably – I was having great fun when I started Someone at a Distance and even mid-way through it – but I always end them feel like Whipple has disappointed me.  This was especially true of Someone at a Distance, which turned so absurd and artificial that I was livid with Whipple by the end.  She chooses histrionics every time.  While some readers obviously respond to that level of drama, I find myself sighing with disappointment and now resignation.  I’ve learned to enjoy her novels as light, flimsy soap operas (The Priory was particularly good this way) but I want well-rounded characters and more complexity – particularly from her universally-flat male characters – than she is capable of offering.

All that said, her books aren’t awful (what a resounding endorsement).  They have their place in my reading diet and for this week, suffering from jet lag and adjusting to my work schedule after two weeks of blissful holidays, she was just the thing.

Greenbanks is the home of the Ashton family.  In 1909, when the novel begins, Louisa Ashton is a matriarch in her late fifties, with a philandering husband, three adult children living at home, and another three children married and off with families of their own.  She is also a dotting grandmother to Rachel, then just four.  There are other grandchildren but they are insignificant, both to the story and Lousia, frankly.  Rachel’s mother, Letty, is the only one of Louisa’s married children who lives near Greenbanks and so the two households meet often, especially with Rachel treating Greenbanks as a second home as the years go on.  Greenbanks, after all, with her doting grandmother and the allure of complete freedom, is far more attractive than her own home, with her timid mother and small-minded, petty father.

The book follows the Ashtons from 1909 to the mid-twenties.  Maybe.  There is a jarring miscalculation or typo when the book leaps forward in time: “It was six years since the war had ended and Rachel was now seventeen a half.”  This is an impressive ability indeed to halt the aging process, since Rachel was four in 1909.  Regardless, it takes us to some post-war period.  The Ashton family is intact though reduced in numbers from their pre-war strength.  More change is afoot, though: Louisa’s youngest daughter is trying to obtain a divorce from her husband after running away with another man; Rachel, grown into a clever and determined young woman, is eager to study at a university, despite her father’s disapproval; and Letty, Rachel’s mother, is coming close to reaching a breaking point after twenty-odd years of marriage to the rigid, unimaginative Ambrose.  Louisa, now a widow, has also brought a companion to live with her at Greenbanks: Kate Barlow, who, more than twenty years before, had an affair with a married local man, bore his child, and then disappeared in disgrace.

Whipple uses the novel to chronicle the social changes in England over this period, particularly in the lives of women.  I didn’t find her approach particularly compelling but, nonetheless, there is food for thought here.  Letty’s dissatisfaction with her husband and longing for adventure cannot help but bring to mind Lotty Wilkins from The Enchanted April (and remind this reader at least how much more skilled von Arnim was than Whipple at writing about women’s internal struggles).  Rachel’s plight, if it can be called anything so dramatic, is a quest for independence through education.  When she wins that (with relative ease), she finds herself in more conventional conflict with her parents – at least her father – over her choice of future husband.  I have to admit, I was a little in sympathy with her generally unsympathetic father here, though our reasons were very different.   Kate Barlow has probably the most interesting situation, though I think Whipple is clumsily heavy-handed in her writing here.  Kate is determined to punish herself for her ‘sin’, despite the welcome extended to her by everyone at Greenbanks and in the village.  She clings to her outsider status, happy to be a martyr and to reject the friendly overtures made to her.

Louisa, placid and pleasant, is the most frustrating aspect of this book, though others don’t agree.  Rachel of Book Snob, one of Whipple’s most articulate and devoted proponents, calls Greenbanks her favourite Whipple novel and sees Louisa “a remarkable matriarch, who radiates love and devotion”.  Well, she does radiate love and devotion, but what good does that do?  Louisa is a born homemaker, delighted with domestic comforts and happiest when she is at Greenbanks with her family.  But an ability to create a pretty home and preserve jam does not necessarily make you a good parent.  Just as Louisa was content to ignore her husband’s infidelities, never mentioning them though she was aware of them from the earliest days of her marriage, she keeps her own council about her children’s choices, never thinking to discuss their lives with them, even when some counselling from a loving mother might have helped prevent years of heartache.  Two of her daughters make unhappy marriages and one son becomes more hard-hearted with each passing year, while another, her over-indulged favourite, floats aimlessly through life.  Louisa loves and worries about them all but she also leaves them all, at times disastrously, to their own devices.  There is much unhappiness among the children of Greenbanks and some of that must be laid at Louisa’s door.  Love and kindness is only part of parenting – Louisa seems to avoid all of the difficult and unpleasant but nonetheless necessary bits.

Obviously, this was not the book to turn me into an adoring Whipple fan.  That said, it had its moments, just as Whipple has her place on my bookshelf.

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badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Linda from Silly Little Mischief that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

A flying post, as I rush through this week.  Three much-anticipated books: one I’ve been looking forward to reading for years, one by an author whose other works I’ve enjoyed, and one I know absolutely nothing about other than that it has a charming cover and a very twee title.

Library Loot

 

What did you pick up this week?

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I’m Back!

P1080422

I have safely returned home after a wonderful two weeks in Europe. I was back in the office today, which was a bit of a shock to my vacation-slackened system but no doubt very good for me. I hope to be back to regular blogging (won’t that be a change!) in the next week or two.  Prepare yourselves for many, many vacation photos. For now, hi!

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Library Lust

via NY Times (T Magazine)

via NY Times (T Magazine)

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