High Rising by Angela Thirkell

This book has such a beautiful cover, no?  It’s not what drew me to the book, but I admit that it helped me decide to actually purchase a copy for myself. Virago Modern Classics has published new editions of Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire series, of which this was the first, published in 1933, with these gorgeous cover illustrations.  Well done, Virago!  (And I’ve read in some reviews that previous editions were filled with typos.)51BT-VW7WRL

I’d never heard of Thirkell until I read Jenny’s review of the fifth book, Pomfret Towers.   As an admitted Anglophile, it sounded like this was a series I very much needed to look into.  I can report that I was indeed charmed and entertained by the first book.  It’s a delightfully witty, fun read, sort of in the same vein as the works of Barbara Pym.  Only I find Pym to have more substance, and a bit darker lining to her literary clouds.

The Amazon.com description sums up the plot nicely:

Successful lady novelist Laura Morland and her boisterous young son Tony set off to spend Christmas at her country home in the sleepy surrounds of High Rising. But Laura’s wealthy friend and neighbour George Knox has taken on a scheming secretary whose designs on marriage to her employer threaten the delicate social fabric of the village. Can clever, practical Laura rescue George from Miss Grey’s clutches and, what’s more, help his daughter Miss Sibyl Knox to secure her longed-for engagement?

What I liked about the main character, Laura, is the self-deprecating way she views her own novels.  Laura recounts her first lunch with her now agent, Adrian Coates, and the following is how she describes her writing style:

“You mightn’t like it,” said Laura, in her deep voice.  “It’s not highbrow.  I’ve just got to work, that’s all.  You see my husband was nothing but an expense to me while he was alive, and naturally he’s no help to me now he’s dead, though of course, less expensive, so 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.  That’s all I could do,” she said gravely.

Another thing I liked about Laura was the way she related to her young son, Tony.  Her older three boys are grown and out of the house, so it’s just she and Tony together when he’s not at boarding school.  Tony never stops talking – he’s just a very busy, precocious little boy.  One night as her son is going to bed, Laura counts the weeks of Christmas vacation in her head, wondering how she’ll survive it.

Oh, the exhaustingness of the healthy young!  Laura had once offered to edit a book called Why I Hate My Children, but though Adrian Coates had offered her every encouragement, and every mother of her acquaintance had offered to contribute, it had never taken shape.  Perhaps, she thought, as she stood by Tony’s bed an hour later, they wouldn’t be so nice if they weren’t so hateful.

One thing I decidedly did NOT like about this book, however, were the handful of casually thrown out anti-Semitic remarks, usually spoke or thought by Laura.  I realize that this was written in 1933, but surely even then there were those who found racist remarks unpalatable and unnecessary.  There were two or three instances that stuck out to me, and not enough to mar my enjoyment of the book entirely.  But I docked this a half-star on my Goodreads review, simply to note that this was problematic for me and might be to others as well.  In researching the others in the series, I’ve read that they do not include remarks of this tone.

All in all, a fun, light read for those who enjoy British novels from the period between the World Wars.  It was more sarcastic and biting than I’d anticipated, which gave it a sort of modern flair.  I will read a few more and see how I like them.

For another take and lovely review of High Rising, check out Resh Susan’s post at The Book Satchel.

(Book 7 of 10 for my #10BooksofSummer, from Cathy’s #20BooksofSummer challenge.)

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28 thoughts on “High Rising by Angela Thirkell

  1. Just a few more books to be down with your challenge! You can definitely do it. 🙂
    I heard about High Rising in Resh’s blog a few months ago! Glad to see you read her review as well.
    I like the quote you provided. Laura’s so funny! I’m not sure if she’s being intentionally funny or not, though, which makes it even funnier. What’s definitely not funny are the anti-Semetic bits..so I hope they don’t pop up in future novels.

    How many more of them are there in the series? 5 already seems like a lot, but if a writer can keep putting out quality work, then why not keep the fun going?

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    1. Laura was definitely funny in a dry sort of way. I enjoyed that very much. I think there are like 25 in this series (!) so we’ll see how the next few go. I hear that they introduce other characters in this fictional British place, and that in later books they start interacting with one another.

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  2. It’s so awkward to read books from this era and encounter this kind of casual racism/anti-Semitism. I get it sometimes in LM Montgomery books — which apart from that are some of my very favorite comfort books. But it’s incredibly jarring and depressing to find these awful attitudes in books that I want and expect to love.

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  3. I’m afraid anti-Semitism was pretty universal back then – it’s hard to find any authors who don’t lazily regurgitate stereotypes. I do my best to ignore it but sometimes it seems harder than others. If it’s just stereotyping I can cope usually, but when it actually feels racist it’s harder. I wonder what the people of the future will think of the books of today?

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  4. Anyone that is comparable to Barbara Pym immediately goes on my TBR pile… thank you!

    And thanks for the warning about the casual racism. It can be so difficult to stomach, but it’s still so important to notice when it’s dropped into conversation so casually – because although it feels like things are getting better, there are still moments when the racism in this country glares right back at us.

    Are you on Litsy? There is a group of members picking books from the Lemonade Syllabus (https://issuu.com/candicebenbow/docs/lemonade_syllabus_2016) – it focuses on books related to Black Feminism – fiction, autobiography/memoir, critical theories… seriously, the list is incredible!! And if you ARE on Litsy, we should totally be friends. My username is Neverlistless.

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    1. Katie, you’re welcome. These were just a few instances but they stood out to me enough to make me comment on it. I know it was England in 1933 and anti-Semitism was still very much a thing, but coming from my 21st century reading perspective, they felt so ridiculous and unnecessary.

      I’m not on Litsy. I just can’t keep up with one more social media thing, even if it’s book related. Maybe one day – and if I do, I’ll look you up! Thanks for the Lemonade Syllabus – I’ll check that out!

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      1. I totally get the social media thing. I can’t stand Facebook, I can’t keep up with Twitter, and I’m reminded of the million things that I WISH I had time for on Instagram. Litsy has been perfect for me – not too much pressure and not too overwhelming.

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  5. 1) I can’t believe I’ve never come across Thirkell before – she sounds delightfully readable
    2) That cover is 9 teaspoons of delightful – I love it when they republish oh-so-pretty!
    3) I just did a search and realised there are 29 (!) books in the series.

    Well it is official: I am joining the Thirkell train. 🙂

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    1. Woohoo, Valancy! I know, I was surprised I’d never heard of her either. It’s amazing how so many writers just vanish into the fog of the past. I’m glad I came across the reviews from Jenny and Resh. The other covers of the reissues are just as gorgeous.

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  6. Yes, yes: I’m with you on all of this (and found the prejudice in the 4th volume even more prominent IIRC – it infuses the stories, but sometimes rankles even more than others, I think)! The writerly-ness of the first volume did, however, appeal strongly, and I thought it was neat to see her son appear as the main character (a little older) in the third volume (though, if possible, even more annoying there)! The interconnectedness of it appeals immensely, but I think I will take a break before reading the 5th volume, and read some writers who probably would never have made it to Angela Thirkell’s reading lists!

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    1. Oh dear, I’m sorry to hear that there are more instances of casual racism/prejudice! Thanks for the warning. I’ve bought the second and fourth in the series. The third one hasn’t gotten a reissue for some reason – or at least Amazon’s not selling it. I enjoyed reading this very much, despite the problematic remarks!

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  7. I try not to notice historical prejudice when I read something from an earlier era. It’s like how I read things from our own era that attempt fat shaming–I just pretend I didn’t hear it, like a fart in a room full of dressed-up people.

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  8. Nice review! And thank you for including quotes to show examples of what you’re saying. Not everyone does that. I know what you mean about the anti-Semitic remarks. I’ve been talking about holding people, even those in the 1930s, responsible for their thoughts and behavior for a while now in my Anne of Green Gables book reviews. I think Rainbow Valley has the worst of it, but it all comes from Mary Vance, who is completely uneducated, so I’ll have to think about that. I have to say, this book sounds right up my alley. I cringed when I read that that character is described as a “lady novelist,” but am curious to read more about her attitude toward her own books.

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    1. Thanks, Melanie. Someone else (maybe it was Jenny?) mentioned that about the LM Montgomery books. I’ve only read the first one and it’s been a while so I don’t remember. You should give High Rising a try if you get a chance – it’s very light and entertaining.

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  9. Great review. Nice to read your thoughts about the book.
    I did feel bad for Tony at places though. As if the mother wasnt listening to him. Clearly he had ALOT to talk about trains *however boring that may be*

    This was a nice fun read for me as well. But didnt pick up any Thirkell soon after. I will look forward to your reviews. Thanks for mentioning my review.

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    1. You’re welcome, Resh. I do understand your sympathy for Tony – although Thirkell seemed to portray him as kind of oblivious to his mother’s sarcasm. I don’t know when I’ll get to the next one, but I’ll definitely write about it.

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  10. I’ve been seeing Thirkell around quite a lot lately, and I have to admit, her books sound like something I would like. I’ve got them on my list for books to look out for, but the older English books are hard to get a hold of around here (even at the library). But, not impossible. 🙂
    I’m another who has found the racist comments in LMM’s books very jarring. I love her books so much that it feels disappointing. But I also know that it’s a sign of the times, and I try to tell myself that it might even have historical value? The problem I have with it in LMM’s books is that they’re for young readers. Should they edit those parts out in the new editions, or would that be wrong? I don’t know…

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    1. Oooh, Naomi, that’s a very good question. I hope that young readers would have some sort of context or discussion with an adult or teacher about the racist remarks in books. I felt that way myself when I reread Little House in the Big Woods. I was like, wow, Pa’s a racist! Hope you can get your hands on an Angela Thirkell book sometime. It was a fun read.

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