Friday, 22 August 2014

Northbridge Rectory by Angela Thirkell

published 1941





[Mr Holden has come to Miss Pemberton’s cottage for the first time]

Sitting on opposite sides of the fire, a well-spread tea-table between them, were Miss Pemberton and a spare, grey-haired, intelligent looking man of about 55.

Miss Pemberton rose, for no other word can express her action. Mr Holden saw what was apparently an elderly man with a powerful and slightly unpleasant face, dressed in brown sacking with short grey hair and an amber necklace….

[on a later occasion]

[Miss Pemberton] rose, and gathering up her dress, which was a green sack worn under a kind of art burnous of a dull purple woollen material and set off by some rough silver necklaces, moved with a certain toad-like majesty to the further end of the living-room where an oak table… was spread with peasant-edged linen mats and dull Swedish silver.




observations: Northbridge Rectory was recommended to me by Kate Walker, who is also responsible for my reading Earl Derr Biggers and The Agony Column, and Vita Sackville-West’s Devil at Westease. Thanks again, Kate.

These passages show both what is good and what is bad about Angela Thirkell and her books (High Rising has featured on the blog a couple of times). The novel is a light-hearted look at life in an English village in the early days of World War 2, seen through the eyes of the rector’s wife. All the residents of the village come in for some hearty satirical description, and there are just enough unexpected touches to stop it being too predictable. But some of it just seems pointless and ill-natured. Miss Pemberton, above, has arty and literary pretensions: her lodger is Mr Downing, an expert on Provencal literature. They go everywhere together. The relationship between them (she is anxious to keep him to herself and resents intruders: he likes being taken care of) has elusive moments of being real and interesting, but Thirkell always overdoes it and makes them figures of unnecessary fun, in a way verging on the unpleasant. Also, what is so special about ‘rose’ for her actions (in both sentences)? – it doesn’t seem to need any comment on it.

But this is still a vastly entertaining book (much better than, say, blog favourite Nancy Mitford’s 1940 Pigeon Pie). The war details are particularly fascinating for being so contemporaneous, no chance for perspective or historical smoothing. The Rector and his wife formerly ran a boarding-school, and now they have officers billeted on them and can treat them alternately like difficult pupils or recalcitrant parents, to some comic effect. Mrs Villars is the usual woman of great humour and self-deprecation but terribly attractive to everyone etc etc – see all Thirkell’s books – and a repository for what one assumes were Thirkell’s own views.

The picture, from the Smithsonian, is of Herbert Spencer Jennings and his wife.

Stella Gibbons’ novel Westwood gives another picture of life on the home front, later on in the war.

12 comments:

  1. "the usual woman of great humour and self-deprecation but terribly attractive to everyone" - oh, how I loathe those! Ever read Ann Bridge?

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    1. I read one years ago, but someone has just lent me one. Same problem presumably?

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  2. Interesting how those tropes of arty good taste are still with us, too.

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    1. When reading older books, it's sometimes hard to tell what is meant to be bad taste and what is good. Victoriana was very looked down on at one point, and then it comes back, and then it's out again. I know this is a truism, but authors should beware of being too judgmental...

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  3. Moira - It's interesting to see how authors take a look at their own era isn't it? There's such a fine line between good-natured and mean-spirited, too... Still, this does sound like one of those novels that gives you a really interesting look at everyday life at that time.

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    1. It's the contemporary detail that makes it a winner for me, Margot.

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  4. Mollie Pinter - Downes wrote wonderfully well about the Home Front too.

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    1. Virago used to do some of her books, and I think I read one years ago - but also, she wrote columns for the New Yorker about life in London, didn't she? The wartime ones would make for fascinating reading I imagine.

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  5. This one sounds very unappealing, even though I like books set during or around World War II. I think I would go with Stella Gibbons’ novel Westwood... if I have time or inclination to move away from mysteries.

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    1. I think that's a good call Tracy - the Gibbons is a much better novel. I have a secret soft spot for Angela Thirkell (even though I criticize her), but I don't think she's to everyone's taste.

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  6. Lovely photo, the Posh and Becks of the day? Not one for me thanks.

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    1. Well that made me laugh. What a stylish pair - we can only aspire to such flair.

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