Sunday, October 29, 2006

Reading. Thirkell.

The first book I read by Angela Thirkell was The Headmistress, or perhaps it was Growing Up, about life during the war in the English countryside. Rations, blackouts, petrol shortages, loved ones away from home in the distant war; themes that run as the background to the relationships that form the story. (In those days I made my way slowly through the fiction section of my school library alphabetically, but I cannot recall when I finally made it to the T's). They are part of a long-running series of novels set in the imaginary British county of Barsetshire, before, during, and after World War II. The different stories involve interwoven families and their lives, through births, deaths, marriages; everyone is connected somehow by birth or marriage or life-long friendships.

There are deaf elderly men, headstrong young girls, sweet mothers, caring fathers, tyrannical ex-nannies who bully their old charges, cranky old retainers, prep-school boys (and former prep-school boys who become prep-school teachers), retired Oxford dons, women writers, and Mixo-Lydian refugees, dukes and duchesses, dowagers and lords and ladies (I can never get the titles straight). Old families live in the ancestral homes, burdened by taxes and death duties and dwindling families; during the war years they retreat to servant's wings or smaller quarters as the big houses are taken over by hospitals or schools or War Offices. Fathers worry about how they are going to keep the family estate running, mothers worry about their children marrying the right (or wrong) sort of person, sigh with relief when their child finds some nice person they've known all their life or has the right county background or lots of money or something.

The thing about reading a long-running series is that if you start in the middle, you don't know all the characters and their past histories. You have to go back, to see them as they were as schoolgirls or young men, go forward to see them as mothers and fathers. Central characters in one novel become secondary ones in another, or fleeting figures passing through on their way to visit someone else. It is rather like being included in a circle of friends who have known each other forever, who have their own shorthand and language and understandings, and you come to know them, one by one.

The world of Thirkell and her Barsetshire is a tranquil one, even during the war years and the uncertainties of life afterwards. Her words bring everything to life with such detail that I can almost imagine each scene unfolding in my mind's eye, the ghastly monstrosities of grand houses that were the mad creations of earlier generations, the tea parties, the faded drawing rooms and libraries and dining rooms where the dramas unfold, the ruins of old summerhouses on the vast estates where our heroes and heroines played as children. There is something comforting to her stories, like a cup of hot tea by the fire, a bath drawn by a bullying former nannie who has known you since the day you were born. It is all part of a lost world, even if it is imaginary; it seems almost as this kind of world once existed, a faded print on a library wall.

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