Sometimes, 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 Bissell’s 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 sun 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.