The Brandons by Angela Thirkell

published 1937

Brandons bonnet

[Mrs Brandon is newly-widowed]

As it was a cold spring Mrs Brandon was able to go into black, and the ensuing summer being a particularly hot one gave her an excuse for mourning in white, though she always wore a heavy necklace of old jet to show goodwill.

[She meets her dead husband’s aunt for the first time]

It was here that for the first and only time she felt a faint doubt as to the propriety of mourning in white, for her aunt by marriage was wearing such a panoply of black silk dress, black cashmere mantle, black ostrich feather boa and unbelievably a black bonnet trimmed with black velvet and black cherries, that Mrs Brandon wondered giddily whether spinsters could be honorary widows…

‘How do you do, Miss Brandon. Henry will be so sorry to miss you – I mean he was always talking about you and saying we must take the children to see you.’

‘I had practically forbidden him the house for some years,’ said Miss Brandon. To this there appeared to be no answer except Why? A question Mrs Brandon had not the courage to ask. ‘But I would certainly have come to the funeral,’ Miss Brandon continued, ‘had it not been my Day in Bed. I take one day a week in bed, an excellent plan at my age. Later I shall take two days, and probably spend the last years of my life entirely in bed.’

brandons bonnet 2
observations: Twitter friend Amy Towle said this recently:
I'm reading The Brandons by Angela Thirkell which has some pretty gothic costume description esp. maiden aunts attire
So obviously I had to follow this up straightaway, and truly Amy was understating the case if anything: this book is full of wonderful clothes opportunities. I like Thirkell in moderation, and this is by far the best of hers I have read so far: full of very very funny scenes, smart social observation, clever character drawing. The occasional mean-spiritedness and snobbery I have objected to in other books is at a minimum.

This single scene is going to need two posts – the unexpected result of the clash in mourning styles will be seen later in the week.

The plot – such as it is – revolves round how the elderly Miss Brandon is going to leave her money, but nobody takes this very seriously. It’s 1939 and the world is about to change forever, but you wouldn’t know it. Daughter Delia has no (pre-marriage) life in mind other than staying at home with her mother, doing the flowers, playing endless tennis and dancing to gramophone records - although she does take a great interest in any medical disaster in the area. Mrs Brandon does absolutely nothing, but requires constant rests and lying downs – this is a joke, but it is still faintly shocking when the maid and the nanny fight over who is to remove her stockings for her.

The nearest there comes to any politics is when Mrs Grant – an Englishwoman Abroad, who has lived in Italy for some time - says this:
‘After St Francis, Mussolini is the greatest animal lover the world has known. I put them together, don’t you?’
‘I don’t quite know. I never actually met Mussolini,’ said Mrs Brandon cautiously, and somehow implying that she had at some period been introduced to St Francis.
-- and there is a passing mention of the Spanish Civil War.

But this is just for interest – you can’t blame Thirkell for doing a light-hearted novel so well: it must have given a lot of pleasure at a difficult time for the world.

Look out for the follow-up entry shortly…

The top picture – Elderly Lady in a Black Bonnet – is by Mary Cassatt and is from the Athenaeum. The mourning bonnets line drawing is from the NYPL.


  1. Oh, Moira, Miss Brandon certainly sounds like a great 'maiden aunt' character! I just love that idea of the wisdom of taking to one's bed for one day a week. Very clever social satire! And it really isn't surprising that Thirkell skirts round the impending war and the other politics of the day. I think with that and the worldwide Depression, people just wanted to escape.

    1. Yes you're right, Margot, and the book has been giving pleasure and cheering people up ever since - quite an achievement for any author.

  2. I'm thinking the 30's isn't really a reading decade I want to get too involved in

    1. ... and I don't think the 30s books I choose would convince you otherwise, though I'm sure there are some for you somewhere...

  3. Although I have never been interested in Thirkell, this sounds like it could be fun. But I don't think I have time to add her to the piles anyway. The mourning bonnets drawing is very interesting.

    1. I'll read Thirkell for you, Tracy. I don't think she ever ventured into the crime field.


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