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.)
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.)