I have had a selection of Angela Thirkell’s books on my shelves for a few years now, but I have been reluctant to read them. Because I knew that they were part of a series, albeit loosely linked, that it seemed would be difficult to collect in its entirety. Because I haven’t read Trollope’s Chronicles of Barchester – despite making a few attempts on the first book in the series – and I know that Angela Thirkell borrowed Trollope’s setting, and there are links and references for lovers of both authors to appreciate.
But my resolve weakened when Virago added a couple of Thirkells to the Modern Classics list, and then a couple more, and I believe there are another couple coming in the spring. Suddenly the books seemed more gettable. And I dismissed the Trollope argument. I’ve started the first of his Palliser novels – as a long, slow read – and I’m not prepared to let these lovely new editions sit unread while I work my way through the Palliser novels and then go back for another attempt at the Chronicles of Barchester. After all, there’s always the possibility of re-reading if I fall in love with both.
And the final, winning, argument to pick up ‘High Rising’ – Mrs Thirkell’s first Barchester novel – was that it was published in 1933. Both of my parents were born in that year, and so I wanted something special to fill that year in my Century of Books.
Now I have read ‘High Rising’ I can say, firmly and clearly that I did the right thing -I loved it!
I really can’t think of another author who has mixed charm, wit, cosiness and sparkle to such wonderful effect.
The lynch-pin of the story is Laura Morland, the widowed mother of four sons. Three have grown and flown the nest, leaving just young Tony, who is the very model of an enthusiastic, infuriating, schoolboy at home to entertain and frustrate his mother. When her husband died she took up writing middlebrow novels to support her family.
She achieved a level of success that left her very comfortably off.
I was so taken with Laura; I found her warm-hearted, thoughtful, capable in the very best of ways, but not to much so. She is fallible, she is self-deprecating, and it is so easy to feel that she is a friend.
The story comes from an outsider being thrown into – or I really should say elbowing her way into – a settled society in High Rising and the neighbouring Low Rising.
There’s Miss Todd, who cares for her elderly mother who is physically and mentally frail, and who makes pin money as Laura’s secretary. There’s Laura’ maid, Stoker, who is loyal, seemingly incurious but actually all knowing There’s George Knox, a successful biographer, a wonderful raconteur, and a dear friend of Laura. There’s his daughter Sibyl, who Laura views as the daughter she never had, and who is smitten with Laura’s publisher, Adrian Coates. As he is with her ….
A whole raft of wonderful characters.
The outsider is Miss Grey, who becomes secretary to Mr Knox. She is wonderfully capable, she can be charming, but she has set her sights on becoming Mrs Knox, and will use whatever means she can to achieve her objective. Some are fair but most are foul, and George’s friends are quick to label her ‘The Incubus’ and he himself is completely oblivious.
It falls to Laura to sort out the problem of Miss Grey, and to bring Sibyl and Adrian together.
It’s a simple story, but it plays out beautifully, because it is adorned with so many lovely dialogues, so many interesting incidents; and because everything works beautifully with the characters and their situations.
I do so hope that I will meet some of those characters again, in other books in the series.
I can’t say that ‘High Rising’ is perfect. The story is uneven; there are one or two racial references that would have been acceptable then, but not now; and there were one or two moments when I realised that Angela Thirkell could only see the world from the perspective of her own class. But none of those faults were unforgivable, especially in an early novel, and I am so looking forward to reading more stories set in Barsetshire.
It’s a wonderful recipe: charm, wit, cosiness and sparkle!
And that’s why I picked up ‘Christmas at High Rising’ this afternoon, when I was stretched out on the sofa, woozy from a visit to the dentist in the morning. It’s a slim volume, containing seven previously uncollected short stories and an essay about dinner parties in Shakespeare’s plays.
I read it from cover to cover!
It was lovely to reencounter an authorial voice that felt so familiar, and to encounter characters I had already met, and new characters too. I wonder if I will meet them again in stories still to come. I do hope so.
The right book is sometimes the best medicine, and this was definitely the right book at the right time.