“There are few pleasures like really burrowing one’s nose into sweet peas.” (Angela Thirkell)

Hello lovely bookish blogosphere and a very Happy New Year to you all! May 2020 bring you lots of reading joy.

I disappeared from the interwebs for the last few months of 2019 because pesky real life got in the way. Work was hectic and I had renovations going on in my tiny flat which although minimal, still somehow involved turning my home into a dusty, dirty assault course for weeks on end and all my books piled up in boxes. Definitely #FirstWorldProblems and I’m not complaining, but it did put paid to my blogging, and catching up with all your blogs.

Now my books are back on brand new shelves (grand total of sacks cleared out to the charity shop: 22! Effect on my bookshelves: none whatsoever!) and my computer isn’t under a layer of filth I’m looking forward to posting again and reading all your wonderful words.

While all this was going on I found it hard to read anything too demanding or stressful. This was not the time for reality, especially with the election being part of that reality ☹ I needed escapism. I needed rescuing. And rescued I was, by a woman who died in 1961.

Angela Thirkell was born into privileged circumstances (as can be guessed from the portrait) and was connected to lots of famous types including pre-Raphaelite painters, Kipling, JM Barrie and Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. Her life wasn’t all roses though, and I think her novels set in Trollope’s  fictional Barsetshire are fully intended to be a pleasant distraction rather than any attempt at portraying reality.

In High Rising (1933) widowed writer Laura Morland arrives in the titular village with her brattish son Tony to spend Christmas (they have a London flat for the rest of the year, obvs). What immediately won me over was that Tony was an immensely irritating child and at no point are readers supposed to find him sweet or endearing:

“Laura wondered, as she had often wondered with the three older boys, why one’s offspring are under some kind of compulsion to alienate one’s affections at first sight by their conceit, egoism, and appalling self-satisfaction […] 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 is awful, but he’s not a bully or spiteful, and he is unintentionally funny. There’s no sentimentality here about motherhood, or widowhood, as the dear departed is described thus:

“Laura’s husband, that ineffectual and unlamented gentleman”

The death of Laura’s husband meant she had to earn a living and she decided to do so by writing sensation novels:

“I thought if I could write some rather good bad books, it would help with the boys’ education.’

‘Good bad books?’

‘Yes. Not very good books, you know, but good of a second-rate kind.”

 I know Angela Thirkell didn’t rate her own writing, so it’s hard not to see that as an autobiographical touch, but I think High Rising is a bit better than that. It’s a funny, warm and affectionate portrayal of the village inhabitants and plotted with the lightest of touches.

Laura has a friend, fellow writer George Knox, who lives in Low Rising with his daughter Sibyl. He has a new secretary, Miss Grey, who is viewed with suspicion by all. More suspicious to me was the fact that George was published, because if he wrote anything like he spoke he’d be absolutely unreadable:

“ ‘My dear, dear Laura,’ he cried, sweeping her into a vast embrace, ‘this is divine. I must kiss you, on both sides of your face, owing to my French blood. I was half asleep upstairs, desiccated in mind, ageing in body, and now you are here and everything lives again.”

Can Laura rescue George, foil Miss Grey, find Sibyl a husband and stop Tony from falling on the railway tracks? What do you think? 😉

Secondly Wild Strawberries (1934) which was given to me by Sarah from Hard Book Habit, who sadly don’t seem to be blogging anymore and are much missed for their funny and insightful reviews – fingers crossed for their return.

I didn’t enjoy this quite as much as High Rising, but I did still find it diverting at a time when I really couldn’t manage anything heavier. Matriarch Lady Emily Leslie is absent-minded in the extreme, causing mild-mannered chaos and disarray wherever she goes.

“At her daughter Agnes’ wedding to Colonel Graham she had for once been on time, but her attempts to rearrange the bridesmaids during the actual ceremony and her insistence on leaving her pew to provide the bridegroom’s mother with an unwanted hymn book had been a spectacular part of the wedding.”

Agnes is now mother to a brood of young children and thank goodness she has nannies and maids because she is flaky in the extreme:

“She now lived in a state of perfectly contented subjection to her adoring husband and children. Her intelligence was bounded by her house and her exquisite needlework, and to any further demands made by life she always murmured ‘I shall ask Robert.’”

The Leslie family live in a country pile “its only outward merit was that it might have been worse than it was” where all the children arrive for the summer – kind John, rakish David, their nephew Martin, a callow youth of 17 who will inherit; and Agnes’ niece Mary who is 23 and enjoying a country summer with relations she hasn’t met.

There is no real plot, except a vague momentum towards Martin’s birthday party. The romantic focus comes from Mary falling for David, who is entirely unsuitable, while a more suitable match remains seemingly out of reach… This is not a novel of subtle characterisation, or complex unpredictable plots. In other words, it was just what I needed and I do recommend it for when you find yourself in a similar predicament.

In recent years, as the overprivileged classes in my country seem so intent on bringing us to ruin with a total disregard of anyone who gets in the way of their acquisition of power, I’ve found it hard to stomach my usual comic reads of Wodehouse and Mitford. I still like both those authors, but I just can’t laugh at daft toffs right now, when they’re so dangerous. I think the reason I could still enjoy Thirkell was that her characters are a bit more concerned with reality, such as the need to earn money (for some of them), and she asks us to laugh primarily at human foibles, who happen to be portrayed amongst the upper classes in this instance, but are by no means exclusive.

However, I should include the warning that there are some repugnant racist views and language expressed in both books which, although short-lived, are really horrible.

To end, I’m starting the year as I mean to go on, with rubbish 80s pop videos. Usually there’s a highly tenuous link to the post and I was going to go with Strawberry Switchblade, but I recently discovered the shocking news that my mother has no memory of this duet, so this is for her. I can only assume Gene had the better agent, because he gets chauffeured about in a snazzy tie and cummerbund combo, while Marc has to hang around by the bins:

26 thoughts on ““There are few pleasures like really burrowing one’s nose into sweet peas.” (Angela Thirkell)

  1. Ah, wonderful duet – what an amazing pair of belters they were!

    As for Thirkell, I confess I failed at my attemptsto read her. Like you, I have been struggling with certain writers – toffs are not my favourite at the moment… I bailed with Thirkell when hunting came up, and I found the unbearable Tony just insufferable, especially in his attitude towards his mother! My loss I guess, and I’m very pleased you enjoyed them. Certainly something light is welcome at the moment – classic crime for me, with the world being put to rights as it patently isn’t in real life!

    Happy new year! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Belters is exactly right!

      Yes, hunting scenes are horrible – I skip them in Molly Keane, who seems so fond of them. Classic crime is definitely the way to go – when I rearranged my books after I got my shelves back I sectioned off the classic crime TBR so I now have a clear idea of all the treats I have in store. As you say, there’s something so seductive about justice being served and everything being resolved at the moment, when we’re living through such a mess.

      A very happy new year to you too Kaggsy 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Aren’t those Virago reprint covers just gorgeous?

    I think I preferred Wild Strawberries to High Rising, mostly because of the aforementioned Tony. I really can’t stand that kid – and he doesn’t improve on further acquaintance.

    Liked by 1 person

    • They really are lovely, aren’t they? My heart belongs to the old green VMC covers that I wish they’d continue, but I thought these worked really well.

      I found Tony’s awfulness quite refreshing 😀 But yes, I can see he’d have to grow out of it. What is just about tolerable in a child is insufferable in a teen or adult!

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  3. Lovely to see you back, Madame Bibi, and with such an engaging post. too! I really enjoyed High Rising when I read it a few years ago. Isn’t Tony the most marvellous creation? As you say, he’s incredibly irritating – a constant source of amusement to the reader at least.

    That said, the one thing I find annoying about Thirkell is her somewhat patronising attitudes towards class and race. I didn’t notice it so much here, but with the Christmas at High Rising collection it was another matter altogether. A pity, really, as she can be quite insightful on other aspects of life.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Jacqui! It’s lovely to be back and I’m looking forward to reading everyone’s posts. Tony really is awful – on the page he’s funny but were he real I’m sure I wouldn’t last 5 minutes in his company!

      That’s good to know about Thirkell – these are the only two I’ve read and I didn’t find her too classist
      but its good forewarned about future reads.

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  4. Angela Thirkell is diverting, though I have liked some books more than others. I enjoyed High Rising, Tony is awful but hilariously so, I quite enjoy reading about him. Well done on the bookshelves, I am going to be reorganising mine soon. Lovely to see you blogging again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I think from what others say she is a bit patchy, hardly surprising considering how prolific she was. Reorganising bookshelves is great because it doesn’t really feel like a chore, yet you still feel a sense of smug satisfaction once its done 😀

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  5. Welcome back. I share your thoughts about the smug assumption among the privileged elite that they have the right to rule, and found AT’s obnoxious views too much to stomach in Wild Strawberries – just not amusing in any way, and the bigotry was inexcusable. High Rising OTOH was entertaining and light. I’m reading a Patricia Highsmith as light relief from a long, slow Trollope Palliser novel read over Christmas/New Year.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! I didn’t find WS as obnoxious as you did, but then my brain was also pretty mushy at the time so some of the classist assumptions may have passed me by. I agree the bigotry was repulsive. Patricia Highsmith is a great way to start the new year. I’m hoping I’l have some brain space for some big chunky reads like Trollope in 2020… fingers crossed…

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  6. Happy New Year!

    Sounds like you were in exactly the right mood for Thirkell. I adore Tony but find he’s best in small doses – as is Lady Emily (I should lose my mind if she were a member of my family). Wild Strawberries was my first Thirkell so I’ll always have a soft spot for it, despite it’s general blandness. But there is something so comforting in having a book revolve around characters as dull as Mary and John. And Thirkell, bless her, does mock them in later books for being so boring and staid. But sometimes that is exactly what you need!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Claire, Happy New Year to you too!

      Yes, Tony & Lady Emily would both drive me to distraction. I hadn’t thought about the comfort of blandness but you’re absolutely right. And the comfort of characters you know – I’m glad they make a reappearance!

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  7. Welcome back! I do love escaping into a Thirkell and I’ve been collecting the Virago re-issues as they’ve come out (with the odd one they haven’t done bought second-hand). The racist bits are horrend but you just have to grit your teeth I suppose, but the novels as a whole are warm and comforting, I find. I have a tranch of them coming up on the TBR in a few months’ time!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Liz! Yes, she is really comforting despite the dated attitudes, and the re-issues are a lovely collection to have. What a great thing to look forward to in your TBR – I’m sure you have many delightful hours of reading ahead 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Arent’ renovations and the like dreadful? We had one thing after the other giving up its ghost this year and that meant a constnat flurry of workers in and out. It soundt be this upsetting but it is. As you know, like you, I disappeared from blogging, that was one of the reasons. Hopefully we’ll have a quieter year.
    I remember thinking along similar lines about Mapp and Lucia – uppper class fun is occasionally hard tp stomach hat with everything that’s going on.
    I’m so glad I have these and a third one on my piles. I know, when in the right mood, I will enjoy them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • They really are such a pain aren’t they? I very much share you’re hope that we’ll both have a quieter year – fingers crossed!

      I want to read Mapp and Lucia this year, and I’m sure you’re right – when we’re in the mood these sorts of reads are perfect.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I’m late to this party but I’m glad I kept your post in my inbox. I’ve never heard of Thirkell but she seems a good writer to have on hand for distraction.

    And thank you for teaching me the word “toff”, I didn’t know that one and it can be useful. 🙂

    For recreational read, I’d recommend Mr Hogarth’s Will by Catherine Helen Spence. I’v just had a lovely time with her characters.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Emma, I’m glad you enjoyed the post 🙂

      Unfortunately the word toff is still useful, especially in the UK at the moment when they’re in charge of everything…

      Thank you for the recommendation, I’ve never heard of that book but I will definitely check it out!

      Like

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