High Rising by Angela Thirkell
published 1933 chapter 5
Long, long were Adrian and Laura to remember that New Year’s Eve as perhaps the most uncomfortable dinner-party either of them had ever been at. When they arrived, a little late, the Knoxes, Miss Grey and Dr Ford were already assembled… George Knox handed her to the seat next to him. She found Dr Ford on her other side, then Sibyl, then Adrian, and then Miss Grey, who was thus sitting next to George as well.
‘Well,’ said Laura, as they sat down, ‘I must say, George, your women do you credit tonight.’ And so they did. Laura’s rather noble, battered beauty stood apart, without competing. Miss Grey’s sleek golden hair shone in the lamplight, and in her pale green gown she looked like a water-maiden. The dark-haired, dark-eyed Sibyl, in red, was sparkling unconsciously for Adrian. Both looked extremely attractive.
‘It is you who honour us, dear Laura,’ said her host. ‘You are indeed a goddess tonight. You make me think of Mrs Siddons, in your sables.’
‘More likely Mrs Crummles, George…’
observations: Mrs Siddons (1755-1831) was a notable tragedienne of great renown, famed for her unmatched Lady Macbeth: Mrs Crummles (from Dickens’s Nicholas Nickelby) is an actress in an undistinguished travelling theatre troupe, in a tarnished cloak. Laura is both self-deprecating and learned, and she is a bit too much of a Mary Sue character - plucky but poor, beloved by all around her, witty and charming. But if Angela Thirkell seems to be her own heroine, at least that means you know where you are with her, and the story rattles along in a light-hearted manner, covering the full emotional range of upper-class life, unrequited love, and difficulties with the staff.
The New Year’s Eve party is problematic because of jealousies and affairs of the heart, and one rather unbalanced character (Miss Grey, above) getting upset. Adrian drinks too much and then crashes his car on the way home – not taken very seriously in 1933. The evening will end with an excruciating marriage proposal.
The book has been reprinted as a Virago Modern Classic – it would be interesting to know if they ever considered editing out sentences (horribly typical for the 1930s) like these: ‘If Adrian had a touch of Jewish blood, it was all to the good in his business capacity and in his dark handsomeness’ and ‘You are a Jew and a shark… who battens on widows.’
Links on the blog: There is in the book a (completely irrelevant) description, by the comic but faithful servant, of what would seem to be Morris dancing, which featured in a blog entry on a very different book. New Year's Eve parties feature in How to be Lost, Little Women, and Adrian Mole.
The picture is by Delphin Enjolras and can be found on The Athenaeum website.