Dress Down Sunday: Summer Days in Thirkell





Summer Half by Angela Thirkell

published 1937

Summer Half 2

Noel sculled up in a leisurely way to the diving pool, where Lydia practised her diving, taking off each time with a violence that made Noel afraid that the boat would capsize. Old Bunce, the ferryman, came and stared at Lydia long and unwinkingly, after which he went back to his cottage and told his wife and three daughters that Miss Lydia was no better than the Babylonish woman, and if he caught any of them in such goings on he’d give them the stick.

As the Bunce family were all celebrated for never taking off any of their clothes by day or by night, the warning was quite unnecessary. Mrs Bunce said, ‘Don’t be an old fool, Bunce,’ and his daughters giggled and said Father was a one, so old Bunce went back to the river. But Lydia and Noel were on their way home, Lydia wrapped in a new bath-robe which she had taken from Colin’s room without asking.

Summer Half

commentary: Summer swimming and hot days for an August entry...

I never know whether it’s my own mood that dictates my response to an Angela Thirkell book – sometimes they annoy me a lot, sometimes I just sink into them and enjoy. And they always have great clothes, very funny moments, and superb sociological details. I’ve done quite a few of them on the blog, and once said this:
I think the difference between Thirkell and Nancy Mitford (apart from the fact the Mitford was an avowed champagne socialist, to the great disgruntlement of her close friend Evelyn Waugh) is that as a reader I feel excluded by Thirkell’s shallow thoughtless aristos, whereas Mitford manages to persuade us that she feels the lower orders are perfectly heavenly. Thirkell makes you wonder why there wasn’t a Russian-style revolution in England, Mitford explains why not.
-- which about sums it up. But this one managed not to annoy me too much – she was equal-opportunities rude about all kinds in this one, even if the old Nanny preferred the young gentry she looked after to her own children.

Given the date, a mention of blackshirts outside the cinema was interesting:
‘It was a man selling little books. One of those blackshirt fellows you know, like Puss in Boots in a polo jersey.’…
‘I’ll tell you another funny thing about those blackshirts,’ said Lydia. ‘No one knows who they are, or where they go. I mean, have you ever seen one, except standing on the pavement in waders, looking a bit seedy? You meet quite a lot of Communists and things in people’s houses… but you never go to tea with someone and find them sitting there in their boots.’
Not mixing in Mitford circles then – Diana and Oswald Mosley were received at the best houses.

Thirkell is very rude about a young woman who gets her Shakespeare and her Hamlet mixed up, but very strangely she and the ‘nice’ characters teasing the philistine seem to have confused Antony and Cleopatra with Julius Caesar, so the joke doesn’t really come off…

The plot is the usual collection of young people trying to sort themselves out: part of it takes place in a boys’ public school, where Tony Morland (one of the delights of Thirkell’s High Rising) is a pupil, the rest at a Manor House and Rectory where people go for the weekend or the summer. There are romances and tennis games and trips out on the river. Thirkell has a vulgar realistic streak that makes this all much more fun and original than it sounds in fact.

She handles huge casts of characters with ease explaining (without tedium) how 10 or 15 people will assemble for a picnic – what each group is bringing and how they are travelling and who is short a boat to go home in. She works out who has gone to church, and by what means, and so how two romantically-inclined young people can walk home together.

At first I was thinking of those logic problems about the fox, the goose and the corn and how to get them all across the river without anyone being eaten. But then I was struck with a blinding flash: Thirkell should have written murder stories, the kind Ngaio Marsh wrote where there are endless chapters of who was where and when. She would have excelled at that, and her sections would not have been as dull as Marsh’s….. here and all over the blog.

The Lydia above is the character in The Brandons who is involved in a lot of fairground double entendres in this blogpost.

Top image from Flickr. In honest truth, although the figure is described as ‘diving’ in the caption, it is actually performing physical exercises on the ground. But I thought the silhouetted figures were delightful.

Second picture from the Australian National Maritime Musuem.


  1. Oh, that would be interesting, wouldn't it, Moira, if Thirkell had written mystery novels. Certainly with a whodunit, you need to have that kind of writing (who was where, doing what, in love with whom, etc..). Interesting point you make about Thirkell's rudeness, too. I know just what you mean about the way that can impact you, depending on your mood. And there's something about telling a young-people-coming-of-age sort of story that just calls for realism. Glad you enjoyed this.

    1. Thanks Margot - yes it had a lot going for it, but now I am quite taken with this idea that she should have done crime...

  2. Not something I'll be adding to my tubs, thank you.

    1. No - very much not. I bet you didn't even need the Mitfords mention to know that...

  3. I have heard of this author but not read anything by her. Not sure that I ever will but could be interesting.

    1. MIght not be your thing (no crime or fantasy) and I don't really know why I like her books so much, but they are comfort reads for me.


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