Angela Thirkell, High Rising

I was informed that I would really enjoy Angela Thirkell and I did. I was informed that I would find some of her politics (oh look, random anti-semitism, baiting Irish people and being hideously classist) unpalatable and I did. I’ll be reading more by her, anyway.

Column here.

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“We are by no means in Wodehouse territory” claims Alexander McCall Smith in his introduction to Angela Thirkell’s High Rising. By which he means that Thirkell’s characters have normal economic problems to deal with (to be fair, Bertie Wooster aside this is to some extent true for Wodehouse); nor do they “spend their time in an endless whirl of silliness”. This too is debatable. But it’s interesting that McCall Smith should choose to make that comparison because the two authors are similar in ways that he does not, perhaps, anticipate. Both authors’ stories take place at one remove from reality while ostensibly being set in “real” England; Wodehouse’s characters, as Evelyn Waugh has been widely quoted on book jackets as saying, are “still in Eden”; Thirkell’s books are set, less ideally, in the fictional Barsetshire of Anthony Trollope’s novels.

Then there’s the plot, as it appears in the back cover, filled with unsuitable marriages, overbearing secretaries and the need to unite young girls with the men they want. We’re only a pig and a couple of imposters away from a Blandings novel, and it’s a little jarring to realise that the book has us ranged on the side of an unpleasant Wodehousean Aunt.

Laura Morland is a widow and a novelist, who has supported four boys through boarding school, has a house in London and one in the country, and at least one servant (whose irascibility, rather than any financial consideration, is cited as the reason there are no more servants), a lifestyle that Laura herself doesn’t seem to class as particularly wealthy. Laura’s neighbours in the country are a distinguished writer of historical biographies and his beautiful daughter; to this household has been added an attractive secretary whose designs upon her employer are seen as a real danger.

Difference in class is never stated as the reason behind the unacceptability of Miss Una Grey. We’re given plenty of other reasons to dislike her—she’s underhand, has an awful temper, is encroaching, is revealed to have a history of falling for her employers—but the weapons employed against her have everything to do with her background. Jokes about the Irish (she is from Ireland) are thrown around lightly to make her visibly uncomfortable, while various social manipulations are brought into play to keep her away. Multiple women band together to prevent an “unsuitable” marriage between two adults, apparently believing a reasonably powerful grown man in dire need of protection.

There’s something a bit distasteful about all of this, and I wonder if this undercurrent is why McCall Smith’s introduction launches into a defense of the book’s politics as being “of its time”. Unfortunately, while it’s possible to love and respect literary works with dubious class, gender or race politics (I thoroughly enjoyed High Rising), the of-its-time defense never makes the work or its defender look good. History is no more homogenous than the present, and by the time this book was published in 1933, many people had figured out that class- and race-based prejudices were wrong.

But there are books in which these unpleasantnesses intrude upon the reader constantly, and books in which she can block them out. If High Rising proves to be one of the latter (as it did for me), it’s possible to appreciate the consistently great dialogue, a reminder that the magical England of these books is populated by supremely witty people. It’s possible to see that characters can be acutely and brutally observed but (provided they are of the right background) treated with affection for their weaknesses. Laura’s affection for her intolerable child, Adrian’s suggestibility, Sibyl’s lack of personality, George’s insistence on talking over everyone in the room; there are moments when Thirkell almost channels Austen. There’s much here that will not stand up to scrutiny and much that ought to make a reader uncomfortable, but at its best High Rising is a fine piece of comic writing.

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2 Responses to “Angela Thirkell, High Rising

  1. I really enjoyed this book when I read it, and now I wonder if I just completely miss the undercurrents you mention above. It surprises me as I seem to catch them in other books, but maybe I wasn’t as sensitive to it a few years ago as I am now.

    This review motivated me to check out more Thirkell – luckily, she is available at my library! I put a hold on Wild Strawberries.

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