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Thirkell

As you might recall, Virago will be releasing four Angela Thirkell titles this May: Before Lunch, Cheerfulness Breaks In, Northbridge Rectory, and Growing Up.   The covers for Before Lunch and Northbridge Rectory have now been released and both look lovely.

Irritatingly, Cheerfulness Breaks In and Growing Up are only being released as e-books but I shall still rejoice that they will be more readily available to the reading public now.  Privately, I shall brood and weep over the neglect for two of my favourite books in the series.

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angela thirkellExciting news for Angela Thirkell fans: it looks like Virago is releasing more Thirkell titles next year!  According to the Amazon website, the chosen ones are:

Before Lunch
Cheerfulness Breaks In
Northbridge Rectory
Growing Up
Marling Hall

Admittedly, Before Lunch and Northbridge Rectory are two of my least favourite Thirkells (I abandoned a reread of Northbridge Rectory earlier this summer, fed up by its pedantic preoccupation with slang and poor pronunciation), but the other three are favourites and Thirkell releases are always good news!

These books move us into the war years so I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the other wartime books aren’t far behind.  A Virago edition of The Headmistress would make me levitate with happiness.

 

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these-wonderful-rumoursIn this week of wartime diaries, These Wonderful Rumours!: A Young Schoolteachers’ Wartime Diaries by May Smith is certainly the most lighthearted of the books I’m discussing and one of my favourites.  Here, the background anxieties of war are recorded and thoughtfully considered, but not at the expense of a young woman’s still active – and quite wonderfully-observed – social life.

May was twenty-four years old when the war began, an elementary school teacher living with her parents in Derbyshire.  A born diarist (in no small part influenced by the style of E.M. Delafield’s Provincial Lady), May recorded the events of her daily life with a spritely sense of humour.  Unlike the tiresome Joan from earlier this week, May’s life was clearly impacted by the war.  She follows what is going on and comments on events throughout the war.  However, her main topics are the things that really absorbed her attention: the books she is reading (she has excellent and eclectic tastes), the films she has been to see, the clothes she is spending too much money on, the many unsatisfactory hats she seems to buy while in search of the perfect one, the tennis parties she goes to in the summers, and the many complaints she has about her life as a put-upon elementary school teacher.

Having one failed romance in her past (a clerical ex-fiancé whose comings and goings are scornfully remarked on for most of the book), she has two central admirers for most of the book: Fred and Dougie.  Having flipped through the book earlier on and seen the photo of May and her husband in 1978, I knew from the start which man won but that did not impact my enjoyment of her offhanded treatment of them both.  Dougie spends the war plying her with food to bulk up her rations while Fred squires her around to tennis parties and films.  For years, neither makes much visible progress but their attempts at courtship (and May’s deft scheduling to make room for two suitors) provide May with the perfect comic material for her diaries.  In the early years particularly, she doesn’t take either man’s attentions very seriously – all the better for us.  Here is a typical example of her treatment of the Faithful Freddie:

Amy descended liked a locust upon us for tea, but left early to go to Wuthering Heights.  She had just gone when, oh dear! – palpitations and heart-throbs – the Voice of My Beloved came floating over the telephone.  No, it was only Dear Freddie, so my heart remained untouched.  He invited me to the flicks, so having nothing to do, and making use of him, his pocket and his car again, I went.  Saw a mediocre programme and promised to go to the dance with him next Wed.  He smoked a pipe, but he puffed furiously at it as though he wanted to get it over quickly, so I’m sure he only did it to appear the Strong Silent Type and not because he really enjoyed it.  His faults seem to strike me more readily than his virtues.  I must be more forbearing.  (Tuesday, December 5th, 1939)

Poor Fred also comes in for much criticism whenever he reveals a trait not to May’s liking – whether it be a liking for beer or comely WAAFs.  Dougie rarely rouses as much passion, but then he was living in the Fens most of the time and was not close enough at hand to advertise his flaws as Fred did.  Dougie, unlike most of May’s mild-mannered friends, was quite bloodthirsty when it came to the war.  In his letters to May he spoke often of his hate for the Germans, Conchies, and anyone else whom he felt was standing in the way of Germany getting the whooping it deserved:

Letter from Dougie stating with ghoulish importance that he has already picked up one case that refused to take cover in a raid [Dougie was a volunteer ambulance driver] – he will see no more raids, says Dougie grimly.  He also goes on to relate morbidly the deaths of (a) his aunt, (b) a fellow next door and (c) his old school pal, but adds viciously that We Shall Make Those Blighters Pay For It, and he’ll kill everyone he sees if he has the chance, which he hopes he will.  (He gets rather involved and ungrammatical at the end.)  He ends by stating simply that this is not a very cheerful letter – which sentiment I heartily endorse – and the usual solicitous admonition to me to take care of myself.  (Wednesday, July 3rd, 1940)

The reader gets a better sense of the violence and destruction of the German bombing of Britain from May’s summaries of Dougie’s letters than from any commentary she provides.  The raids certainly intrude on her life, but more as a bothersome way of stealing her sleep rather than a source of real terror or destruction.  For the early raids, May and her parents would retreat to the shelter at her grandmother’s house nearby.  Eventually though, they would rarely even rouse from their beds when the sirens went.  What does absorb May’s attention are the little inconveniences brought about by the war: the inability to get either the amount or quality of chocolate she wants, the chaos wrought on her teaching schedule, and, time and again, the incredible difficulty of getting any place:

Travelling in this here war is just about the last word in Refined Torture.  To get to Burton, once so simple, is now a Herculean task, and one must combine the patience of Job with the frame of a prize fighter and the tenacity of a bulldog.  To be timid, polite and unselfish is fatal.  One must either park oneself in front of the hardest and most savage-looking pusher, or else assume the tactics of the rest and jostle, elbow, poke, manoeuvre and otherwise propel oneself forcibly forward until the goal is reached, viz the first step of the bus.  This done, one can reassume one’s better nature, eye the jostling throng with surprise and horror, and proceed with dignity down the bus, aloof and detached from the pushers. (Saturday, December 2nd, 1939)

While May’s voice is reason enough to love and enjoy this book, I was quite fascinated to see through her eyes how the war affected schools and teachers.  Some of the things I knew about – teachers acting as billeting officers to organize evacuees, chaotic classroom schedules meant to share space with evacuated teachers and students but really organized to create the utmost inconvenience for everyone involved – but others were news to me, like the cutting back of holidays and the changes to pay.  No wonder May did not always greet her work with delight:

Back to school with many a moan and sorrowful sigh.  Make my way to the cheerless place with the greatest reluctance.  We now have no heating by order of the Government – and it is not to be put on until November 1st.  The children return to school full of beans as usual and amiably disposed to chatter all day long.  Unfortunately I fail to see eye to eye with them over this.  (Monday, October 19th, 1942)

I was delighted with this book and with May’s addictively dry sense of humour.  The war really is a background element here and I mean that in the best possible way: I’d much rather have a book by a writer who can write well and interestingly about the most commonplace topics than a book by a dull writer on what should be an interesting topic.  May never kept diaries in quite this detailed form after the war.  By then her life was busy with a husband, children, and work.  Still, what a treat for us that she put such time and effort into them when she was younger and unencumbered!

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The Virago Book of Women GardenersIt is a long weekend here and I’ve spent the past two days trying to convince myself to sit down and write this post.  That proved an impossible task on Saturday and Sunday, both beautiful days, but today it is raining, offering me the perfect opportunity to come inside and write.  And The Virago Book of Women Gardeners edited by Deborah Kellaway is the perfect book to write about this weekend, since everywhere I’ve looked the past few days I’ve seen people energetically doing battle in their gardens, getting them ready for summer.

The Virago Book of Women Gardeners is a compendium of garden writing by women from the 17th Century to the end of the 20th.  Some of the women were gardeners first and foremost (Rosemary Verey, Gertrude Jekyll, Margery Fish), others were writers who dabbled in their gardens (Sylvia Plath, Edith Wharton, Colette), and a number were people who I had never heard of before.  Together, their writings form a delightful, fun, and inspiring book.  It made me dream desperately of gardens I will never have and encouraged me to do the best for the meager garden I do enjoy.

Kellaway divides the book into thematic sections, a technique that works very well given how broad the book’s focus is.  I enjoyed all the sections (except, perhaps, for the section on “Flower Arrangers”, who do not belong among gardeners, in my opinion) but I had my favourites.  These were: “Visitors and Travellers”, “Advisers and Designers”, “Colourists”, and “Townswomen”.   And I had my favourite writers, too.  While some of the authors only had one excerpt in the book, others appeared time and again.  These were generally exactly who you would expect them to be: Ursula Buchan, Anna Pavord, Vita Sackville-West, Rosemary Verey, Elizabeth von Arnim and, of course, Gertrude Jekyll.  Jekyll’s writing feels so fresh and engaging, so modern and relaxed, that it is almost jarring to realise how long ago she was writing.  One of the other delights of this book was being introduces to one of Jekyll’s neighbours and contemporaries, Mrs. C.W. Earle.  Mrs. Earle wrote a number of bestselling books, starting in 1897 with Pot Pourri from a Surrey Garden, that were largely about gardening but appear to have wandered on to whatever topic struck their author’s fancy.  I came away from this book with a long list of other books to read – Mrs Earle’s books are at the very top.

Utrecht, 2012

Utrecht, 2012

On first going into a garden one knows by instinct, as a hound scents the fox, if it is going to be interesting or not. 

– Mrs. C.W. Earle, 1897

Freiburg im Breisgau, 2012

Freiburg im Breisgau, 2012

Weeds have a particular fascination for us.  They are endlessly interesting, like an enemy who occupies our thoughts and schemes so much more than any friend and who (though we would never admit it) we should miss if he suddenly moved away.  I know the weeds in my garden better than most of my flowers and, without them, my victories would be insipid affairs.  Weeds provide the challenge that most gardeners require.  They may sometimes appear to us as ineradicable as Original Sin, but we would be sorry to have to admit that, like sin, we were not conscious of a strong urge to overcome them.

-Ursula Buchan, 1987

Victoria, 2011

Victoria, 2011

…the Dahlia’s first duty in life is to flaunt and to swagger and to carry gorgeous blooms well above its leaves, and on no account to hang its head. 
– Gertrude Jekyll, 1899

Vancouver, 2012

Vancouver, 2012

Why should fast growth automatically be an advantage, I wonder?  Instant gardening is no more satisfying to the soul than thirty-second snatches of Mozart, condensed novels, or fast food. 
– Anna Pavord, 1992

Vancouver, 2013

Vancouver, 2013

Half the interest of a garden is the constant exercise of the imagination.  You are always living three, or indeed six, months hence.  I believe that people entirely devoid of imagination never can be really good gardeners.  To be content with the present, and not striving about the future, is fatal. 
– Mrs. C.W. Earle, 1897

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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!

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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).

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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

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