Archive for the ‘Angela Thirkell’ Category

ThirkellMy (well, technically everyone’s but I have less faith that the world-at-large has been marking the days off their calendars as I have) long-anticipated Thirkell-filled Spring has arrived!  Yesterday, Virago released their three new Angela Thirkell titles: Summer Half, August Folly, and The BrandonsThe Brandons is as charming as Lavinia Brandon herself, August Folly delights with the foolish summer activities of a wide cast of characters, and Summer Half…well, Summer Half might just be my favourite Thirkell novel of all.  Happy reading, everyone!

Read Full Post »

Christmas at High RisingI 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).

Read Full Post »

It is possible (just possible, mind you) that not everyone spends as much time as I do anticipating Virago’s releases of Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire books. Yes, they are publishing two next month (Pomfret Towers and Christmas at High Rising) but what I am most excited about right now are the three titles they are releasing in May 2014: August Folly, Summer Half, and The Brandons.

The cover art is now available and all three look gorgeous:

August Folly

Summer Half

The Brandons

Read Full Post »


I picked up a few books just before I left for Europe, all of which I am very excited about:

Three Houses by Angela Thirkell – I haven’t read this yet but I am very much looking forward to Thirkell’s memoir of the homes where she grew up.  It sounds rather like the sort of book Slightly Foxed might have eventually gotten around to publishing if Allison and Busby hadn’t gotten there first.

In these beautifully nostalgic memoirs, eminent author Angela Thirkell recalls in rich detail the three houses in which she grew up and the childhood memories their walls contain. Focusing first on ‘The Grange’, where her grandfather, the celebrated Pre-Raphaelite painter Sir Edward Burne-Jones, set the cultivated tone, Thirkell also reminisces over her parents’ home in Kensington Square and the Burne-Jones seaside retreat, where Angela’s cousin, Rudyard Kipling, lived across the green. Her elaborate portraits of the three houses and the lives within provide an invaluable insight into late Victorian life, while the personal recollections of Thirkell’s famous grandfather reveal a loving family man behind the renown.

The Harold Nicolson Diaries, 1907-1964 edited by Nigel Nicolson – I have been wanting this for ages and finally broke down and bought it.  Only my concern over damaging the paperback cover prevented me from taking it along to Europe with me.  Once I’m back, you can bet this is what I’ll be picking up first.

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson – I borrowed this from the library, read it the same day, and then went out the next day to buy my own copy.  That is how much I adored this extraordinary fantasy novel.  I am already looking forward to reading it again and you can be certain that it will be high up on my “Best of 2013” list.

Alif has encountered three strokes of bad luck. The aristocratic woman he loves has jilted him, leaving him with only a mysterious book of fairytales. The state censorship apparatus of the emirate where he lives has broken into his computer, compromising his business providing online freedom for clients across the Islamic world. And now the security police have shown up at his door. But when Alif goes underground, he will encounter a menagerie of mythical creatures and end up on a mad dash through faith, myth, cyberspace, love, and revolution.

Read Full Post »

Pomfret TowersYou may remember how excited I was when I first discovered that Virago was republishing Pomfret Towers by Angela Thirkell but, if it is possible, I think I may be even more excited now that I’ve seen the cover.  It looks absolutely beautiful and, like the VMC editions of Thirkell’s High Rising and Wild Strawberries, the image is perfectly chosen for the book’s content.

Angela Thirkell VMC

Read Full Post »

AngelaMackailWhile it looks like Pomfret Towers will be the only Angela Thirkell title Virago is publishing in 2013, there is exciting news for 2014: according to The Bookseller,  The Brandons, Summer Half, and August Folly are set to be released in summer 2014.  These three titles are all perfect summer reading and Summer Half is one of my favourite books in the entire series.  Wonderful, wonderful news!

Read Full Post »

pomfret towersMark your calendars, ladies and gentlemen: on November 21, 2013, it looks like Virago is going to be releasing Pomfret Towers by Angela Thirkell!  It is already (316 days ahead of publication) showing available for preorder at various online bookstores (both the one intent on world domination and the one with free shipping).  Pomfret Towers (which Laura just reviewed a few days ago) is one of my favourite books in the series but copies are very difficult to find at reasonable prices so this is really wonderful news.   I found out when Hayley mentioned it in her review of Wild Strawberries and have been ecstatic ever since.  Now I just can’t wait to see the cover design!

Read Full Post »

I always have fun making this list but, for the first time, it was easy as well as fun.  There was no struggling over what belong in each spot and no angst-ridden hours spent juggling the merits of one book over another in deciding which deserved to make the list.  These are, without a doubt, the ten best books I read in 2012.  They have stuck in my mind since I read them and I cannot go a day without recommending at least one of them to friends, family members, other bloggers or people I randomly meet on the street (like the woman I met at the coffeeshop on Friday.  Such are the dangers of engaging me in conversation).  Without further ado, here are ten best books I read in 2012:

Best Books of 2012 - Part 1

10. The Home-Maker (1924) – Dorothy Canfield Fisher
This is, quite rightly, one of the best-loved Persephone titles among readers.  It is a wonderfully thoughtful book about gender roles, societal pressure, and personal fulfillment and treats all of its characters – adult or child – with respect for the everyday struggles they face.

9. Two-Part Invention (1988) – Madeleine L’Engle
This book was heartbreaking, beautiful, and, above all, surprising.  It is a portrait of L’Engle’s forty year marriage written during her husband’s final illness but it is also a reflection on her faith and what religion meant in her life.  It is a highly emotional and intelligent book and I cried more tears over this than anything else I read this year.

8. The Siren Years (1974) – Charles Ritchie
No matter how many times I read this (and I have lost count at this point), it remains the best wartime diary I have ever come across.   Ritchie’s diplomatic and social connections in London exposed him to an extraordinary variety of people, from political leaders and petty bureaucrats to authors and exiled royalty.  The joy of Ritchie’s diaries comes from the meld of political details and domestic ones.  I find it just as interesting to hear about how the Canadian High Commission handled refugee claims as I do to discover what Ritchie saw on his walk through London each day on the way to work or what he talked about at lunch with Nancy Mitford.     Best Books of 2012 - Part 2

7. Leningrad (2011) – Anna Reid
I still get chills thinking about this book, which looks at what happened to those trapped in Leningrad while it was under siege during the Second World War.  It is uncomfortable and upsetting to read but so very well done.

6. The Headmistress (1944) – Angela Thirkell
Possibly the most perfectly-formed of Thirkell’s Barsetshire novels, The Headmistress focuses on the experiences of the Belton family during the Second World War.  Mrs Belton, the middle-aged mother of three, is one of Thirkell’s best heroines.  Her struggles to understand her adult children and to live with her constant fear for her sons broke my heart.

5. The Laskett (2003) – Roy Strong
A gardening tome that even non-gardeners would love, this book describes the evolution of Strong’s garden at his country home, The Laskett.  Though there are plenty of details about the garden’s layout and plant choices, what makes this book special are the stories Strong shares about the friends and experiences that influenced the garden’s formation.  This is a garden that clearly reflects both Strong and his wife’s personalities and experiences and it is a book that acts as a tribute to their delightfully unique lives.  Best Books of 2012 - Part 3

4. Good Evening, Mrs Craven (1999) – Mollie Panter-Downes
A wonderfully varied collection of short stories about life in England during the Second World War.  Panter-Downes’ domestic focus exactly suits my tastes as does her interest in the quiet disappointments and muted struggles faced by her characters.  There is nothing sensational about the events in these stories, making them both relatable and, to me, touching.

3. It’s Too Late Now (1939) –  A.A. Milne
2012 was the year of Milne and as much as I loved his plays, his pieces for Punch, his passionate plea for pacifism, and his light verse, it was his autobiography that gave me the most pleasure.  Looking back on the first fifty-odd years of his life, Milne joyously recalls the happy days of his childhood and, later, his determined pursuit of a writing career.  It has nothing in common with gossipy tell-alls and that is part of what I loved about it.  It is a fun book to read and I suspect Milne had even more fun writing it.

2. Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther (1907) – Elizabeth von Arnim
It has been a long time since I’ve fallen as hard for a fictional character as I did for Fräulein Rose-Marie Schmidt.  These letters, written to her erstwhile suitor Roger Anstruther, reveal a woman who is both romantic and practical, youthful and mature.  She is clever and funny and resilient and I want to be her almost as much as I want to befriend her. the-element-of-lavishness

1. The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell  (2001) – edited by Michael Steinman
I read this in January and, honestly, no other book I read this year came even close to eclipsing it in my affections.  I had never read anything by either Warner or Maxwell before and knew very little about either of them but that made no difference.  Through their letters, I got to know both of them intimately and to witness the wonderful warmth and depth of their friendship as it evolved over the decades.  While both were extraordinary writers, it is Warner’s letters I remember the best now, almost a year after I read them.  She wrote beautifully about the domestic details of her life and the letters written between the death of her partner Valentine and her own death are as good a record of aging and loss as I have ever read.

Read Full Post »


After the week I had, I needed a comforting sort of weekend.  Thankfully, I rather specialise in cosy, cheering activities and so I have had a busy but calming couple of days with my books and my various adventures in the kitchen.

salt sugar smokeAs soon as I finished work on Friday, I pulled out Salt Sugar Smoke by Diana Henry, flipped to the recipe for pink grapefruit marmalade, and got to work.  My grapefruit were fresh and free (having been picked three days before off the tree outside our front door in Palm Desert) so of course I had to try my hand at this.  It was only my second time making marmalade (having made orange marmalade in February) so I hovered anxiously over the stove the entire time but the end result is beautiful and very tasty.  The only problem was that other members of my family kept wandering off with the book while I was needing to refer to it, eagerly looking through the recipes and taking note of the ones they most want to try.  I am thrilled that it interested them but their interest could have been better timed!

Catherine the Great by Robert K. MassieAlso on Friday, I finished reading Robert K. Massie’s wonderful biography of Catherine the Great.  I had started it earlier in the week and sped through the first half but stalled out for a day or two after the news about the firings broke at work.  Really though, it was the perfect book to return to after that, being absolutely in no way related to anything going on in my life.

What I knew of Catherine before reading this book was minimal: our focus in school had been on her relationships with Enlightenment philosophers and other enlightened despots and how she applied Enlightenment ideas to Russia.  Massie does an excellent job of describing this and of putting her policies into perspective versus what the rest of Europe was doing at the same time.  But what really fascinated me was his portrait of her life before she seized the throne, of her life from the age of fourteen (when she came to Russia from Prussia) to the age of thirty-three, when she became empress in a coup d’etat that deposed her husband, Peter III.   Her careful and astute handling of herself and her relationships over this period was extraordinary, reflecting “years of ambition beginning in childhood; the years of waiting, of hungering for power, of always knowing that she was superior in intellect, education, knowledge, and willpower to everyone around her.”  The entire book is masterfully written, making excellent use of Catherine’s memoirs and her letters, which reveal both her intelligence and humour, and skillfully entwining the personal and political, but it is the woman herself who makes it such an interesting story.

P1060193Then, for something completely different, I read What Did It Mean? by Angela Thirkell on Saturday.  While it is not one of her better books (it make actually be the worst of the ones I have read so far), it was exactly the book I needed.  Published in 1954, it focuses on the celebration preparations in Northbridge for the Queen’s June 1953 coronation.   Lydia Merton has been elected chairman of the Coronation Committee and, being Lydia, does an extremely competent job.  She even manages to get the famous Jessica Dean and Aubrey Clover to agree to perform a short play as part of the festivities.

While the number of characters starts out at a relatively manageable size it explodes by the end of the book to include practically everyone living in Northbridge, as well as anyone who can be feasibly dragged in from further afield.  It is nice to see old friends again, especially the delightful Mrs Turner whose not-quite-romance with Mr Downing was my favourite part of Northbridge Rectory, but there are far too many of them.

There are two things that are responsible for my enjoyment of this somewhat uneven book: the blossoming of shy Ludo, Lord Mellings (Lord and Lady Pomfret’s eldest son) and the constant praising of Lydia Merton.  I am perfectly happy as long as people keep saying lovely things about Lydia and a rather ridiculous amount of the book is spent doing just that.

Now, bereft of Lydia, I am spending today baking vanilla crescents (vanilkové rohlíčky in Czech or Vanillekipferl in German), making chicken soup, and reading the new Slightly Foxed quarterly, which arrived on Friday.  A very nice end to a not particularly nice week!

Read Full Post »

At the very top of the pile of books I took with me on holiday last week was High Rising by Angela Thirkell.  Thirkell is perfect holiday reading (though I am rather of the opinion that she is perfect for every situation and mood) and, after having read the twenty-one books that follow this, it seemed time for me to finally read the first of Thirkell’s Barsetshire novels, initially published back in 1933.  And there could be no more appropriate day to post my review as the beautiful new Virago Modern Classics editions of High Rising and Wild Strawberries are being released today.  (Can you guess what items one and two are on my Christmas wishlist this year?)

High Rising has a few minor differences from the later books in the series – some of the action actually takes place outside of Barsetshire!  A film actress other than the terribly prolific Glamora Tudour is mentioned! – but it is assuredly a Barsetshire novel, ending with not one but two engagements.

The book centers around Laura Morland and her friends in High- and Low Rising.  A widow with four sons, Laura took up novel writing as a way to pay the boys’ school fees after her husband’s death.  Now the author of a very successful series of thrillers aimed at women and with only one son (Tony) left at home, Laura is in her mid-forties and quite comfortable.  More comfortable, of course, when Tony is away at school, his presence being enough to shatter anyone’s nerves with his constant prattle (his obsession here is with model trains) and complete disinterest in the thoughts or feelings of anyone else.  Laura adores her son but has little patience with him:

When, for a quarter of a century, you have been fighting strong young creatures with a natural bias towards dirt, untidiness and carelessness, quite unmoved by noise, looking upon loud, unmeaning quarrels and abuse as the essence of polite conversation, oblivious of all convenience and comfort but their own, your resistance weakens.  Tony was no more trying than Gerald had been […] or John, or Dick, but she was older, and less able to deal with his self-sufficient complacency.  She had sent him to school at an earlier age than his brothers, partly so that he should not be an only child under petticoat government, partly, as she remarked, to break his spirit.  She fondly hoped that after a term or two at school he would find his own level, and be clouted over the head by his unappreciative contemporaries.  But not at all.  He returned from school rather more self-centred than before, talking even more, and, if possible, less interestingly.  Why the other boys hadn’t killed him, his doting mother couldn’t conceive.

Tony, it must be said, is incredibly irritating in this book.  I adore him in later books where his egoism and confidence is so advanced past that of any ordinary human being as to make him irresistibly fascinating but here he really is just an obnoxious schoolboy full of incredibly dull conversation.  It is a frighteningly accurate portrayal of the average prepubescent, right down to his longing for any kind of audience at all: he is just as happy to address his remarks to Sylvia the dog as he is to any human.

The book takes place between Christmas and Easter (allowing us to see Tony on his school breaks) and focuses on a small group of Laura’s friends as they gossip and try to organise one another’s lives.  The main focus of their concern is George Knox, a widower and author who Laura has been friends with for many years.  He is entangled – though he does not quite realise it – in a dangerous situation with his new secretary, Miss Grey (known to her enemies as “the Incubus”).  With the assistance of Laura, Amy Birkett (the wife of the headmaster of Southbridge School), and Laura’s own secretary, Anne Todd, the Incubus is routed and George is free to follow his heart – once he takes the time to listen to it.  Laura is also responsible for matching Sibyl Knox, George’s daughter, with Adrian Coates, Laura’s publisher.  It is an easily sorted affair – Adrian being very receptive to Laura’s guidance and occasional knocks over the head – but the exchanges between the love-addled Adrian and the exasperated Laura were some of the most amusing in the book.  When he, consumed by unspoken love for Sibyl, drinks too much at a New Year’s Eve party and crashes his car when driving Laura home, her wrath is magnificent.

For me, the real delight of High Rising was getting to know Laura Morland.  Honestly, I thought I had known her.  I had, after all, read twenty-one Barsetshire books and Mrs Morland shows up in at least fifteen of them.  I thought our acquaintance was pretty firm.  I knew her as the hair-pin dropping, slightly absentminded, self-deprecating but incredibly successful author of “good bad books” and, of course, as the frequently exasperated mother of the always trying Tony.  I adored her already but this book gave me even more reason to, delighting me by revealing new aspects of her character.  She can be direct and forceful, not just in dealing with Tony and his friends but also with her hapless male friends, specifically Adrian and George, who both do their best to try her patience over the course of the novel.  Any woman who can refusal a proposal by saying “You great mass of incompetence and conceit, you revolt me” is worthy of my admiration.

High Rising is a delightful introduction to Barsetshire and I am thrilled that for once I will be able to post a review of an Angela Thirkell novel knowing that other readers will easily be able to track down a copy if they so wish!

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »