Saturday, 20 December 2014

Xmas in Wartime: Northbridge Rectory by Angela Thirkell

published 1941






[Mr Downing has been invited to a Christmas tea-party]

The drawing-room was a blaze of comfort. The blackout had already been done, a wood and coal fire was throwing out grateful heat, all the lights were on and the room was full of laughter, smoke and noise. Mrs Turner, sitting on a sofa before a low table, was pouring out tea. Her other niece and Mr Greaves were sitting side by side at the piano with a large plate of cake and two cups of tea by the music stand, singing a duet and sharing the accompaniment


[Two others] were sitting cross-legged on the bearskin hearthrug and toasting scones. Mrs Paxon, in a red coat and skirt and a bright green halo hat, was near the tea table having a violent flirtation with Colonel Passmore, and Mrs Turner’s two good little evacuee boys, Derrick Pumper and Derrick Farker, were sitting under the piano dressed as Red Indians, with a third little boy, wearing a mask with a dog’s face, whom Mr Downing subsequently discovered to be their cousin who has been invited for Christmas because his mother had a new baby. All three little boys were gently playing mouth-organs, [and] someone had left the wireless on at full blast in the dining-room…




observations: Although the party is shown as being delightful, Thirkell has prefaced this social event with some more cynical sentences:
No one has ever yet described with sufficient hatred and venom this Joyous and Festive Season. As the Rector when off his guard so truly said, the war was little but an intensification of Christmas in that it either separated families that wanted to be together, or far worse, herded together families for whom normally 12 counties were not large enough.

This is the early days of the war – the whole of the book is set in the period – and people are making the best of it. One of the characters above is never given a name: Mrs Turner has a niece called Betty, and then there is someone who is referred to throughout the entire book as ‘Mrs Turner’s other niece’ or sometimes just ‘the other niece’ when being informal.

One interesting thing about the book is that no-one dies in it – not even in the normal run of things, let alone because there is a massive conflict raging not that many miles away. And also there are people who are figures of fun in it – as mentioned in this earlier entry on the book  – but no real villains, no-one behaves horribly badly.

The lovely photos of a wartime Christmas party come from the ever-excellent Imperial War Museum collection.

18 comments:

  1. Lovely lovely piece :) I haven't read much Thirkell yet though have enjoyed the ones I have and have 3 others though not this one waiting to be read. Those pictures are so nistslgic even to me not born untill the end of the 1960's.

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    1. Thank you Ali! I loved the pictures so much - the Imperial War Museum is a treasure trove of images from the home front, as well as more obvious military pictures. And I enjoyed the book, exactly, as a picture of the home front.

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  2. Reading about Angela Thirkell's books has an almost hypnotic affect on me. I immediately want to pull the particular book off the shelf and start reading it. Northbridge Rectory is a favorite of mine, because of Mrs. Villars.

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    1. Until fairly recently I had only read her books set in the 1930s - I hadn't realized she went on writing into wartime. I like the details in the wartime and post-war (Peace Breaks Out) ones.

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  3. Moira - Oh, that more cynical bit about Christmas gatherings really got me laughing, I admit. I really like what used to be called 'the pluck' of these characters (and of course it was true in real life too) in determining to have a good holiday despite the war. A little oasis of (admittedly sometimes maddening) normality in the midst of the horror of war. There's something to be said for that...

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    1. Yes - probably small parties and a chance to laugh with friends were important in keeping going. And I like reading books written at the time, when the author didn't have any hindsight, didn't know how things were going to turn out.

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  4. I love Thirkell, having just finished Pomfret Towers and Before Lunch, both for the second time. I was just considering what to read next. Northbridge Rectory it is!! Also, that quote about Christmas expresses all that I have felt about the holidays since I was 21.

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    1. You made me laugh this morning with that comment... I like Christmas but can find it trying and exhausting. This is a classic Thirkell in terms of her observations and clever way with dialogue.

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  5. Interesting post about Christmas gatherings in the war, and the photos are very nice, especially the last one. For many years we have spent Christmas here, watching movies, and I will admit that I am happier doing that than visiting the relatives.

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    1. The photos did it for me, I loved them so much. We are the hosts to my family, which is fun but exhausting - when we were first married my husband and I always spent Christmas alone together, and I look back on that with nostalgia.

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  6. This is a new one on me, and I'll be getting it out of the London Library asap. Thanks so much for an interesting post..

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    1. Lissa, I think you will find this fascinating. Couldn't be a more different world from Crooked Heart. Very funny and readable, although I think I would have disliked her in real life. She makes me go all bolshy and inverted snobby. Just been reading her on the subject of the Labour victory in 1945 in a later book.... She was upset. GOOD.

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    2. When I read diaries etc of the period, it always feels as if that the vast majority of the country scented that huge political change was coming (and was necessary) at the end of the war, apart from a few detached souls who stood blinking in amazement that anyone could even THINK of voting against Winston...

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    3. Yes indeed. My primary school teacher (and this is a long time later!) lectured us firmly about the complete betrayal of Winston. It is a political event that always fascinates me.

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  7. A more interesting book (to me) than some of the other recent posts, but I'll take a pass. You must be saving all your noir for January!

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    1. Because of the TBR pile project, the crime books got used up early, I've mostly been looking at other kinds of books. And I must say, I am really missing my crime fix.... roll on 2015.

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    2. Aah, so it wasn't my imagination then.......indeed roll on 2015!

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    3. No indeed, and if I were planning this again I would NOT leave myself such a strict diet of non-crime!

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