Confronting Universal Dullness: Angela Thirkell and Love At All Ages in Particular

DSCN0134“To the modern reader . . . [Angela Thirkell’s books] are increasingly of interest as an astonishingly accurate record of English country life from the mid-1930s, through the War, and in the years of austerity afterwards. She wrote at the rate of a book a year, portraying village and small town life exactly as the events of the day affected not just the county families but the doctors, lawyers and architects, agricultural and domestic workers with whom their lives were associated” (Angela Thirkell Society UK. Web. 29 November 2014).

DSCN2011 It is true that one of the points of interest of Thirkell’s books is the social record they provide. But there is more than that. Thirkell takes us back to Barsetshire, a fictional English county originally peopled by Anthony Trollope. It’s a world of English provincial life with its charms, its snobberies, and petty rivalries. It’s a world where the Anglican Church has yet to sell off its elegant Georgian Rectories and Vicarages, and where the shadow of Mrs. Proudie still elicits rancorous comment.

DSCN2025Love At All Ages was published in 1959 and reveals some of the changes wrought by the Second World War. The old county families are feeling the financial pinch, and The Towers not to be confused with Pomfret Towers is now open to the public. The novel begins with a group of people who know absolutely nothing about starting a branch of the Pony Club meeting to discuss starting a branch. By the end of the novel, there is still no branch of the Pony Club. But a baby has been born and appropriately christened; Lady Gwendolen has married Mr. Oriel the Vicar of Harefield, and barrister Sir Noel Merton and his wife are discussing the possibility of their daughter one day marrying Lord Mellings and the convenience of Lady Merton’s not having to have new cards printed should Sir Noel be made a Law Lord.

DSCN1128Otherwise, not much actually happens in the novel. There are tea parties, expeditions to The Towers, expeditions on the river, but nothing that would initially define the work as a novel of ideas. So why was Thirkell so popular in her time and why are all her books available through Amazon now? Is it just their charm? They are initially charming, even delightful. Thirkell captures the whole mood of English provincial life as one thinks one remembers it. In truth, of course, the milieu she describes—provincial rather than metropolitan, unicultural—has long passed, if it ever really existed. I suspect it did somewhat. So I imagine any contemporary popularity is partially explained by current readers’ nostalgia for a world they never knew or of which they have very faint recollections.

DSCN2013But Thirkell’s books have more than charm. They are funny and satirical. Though her satire is gentle, satire it is nevertheless. One has to read carefully. One of my favourite examples is her prod at gardeners who insist on using the Latin names for plants. Lady Gwendolen and Mr. Oriel are walking in his garden at Harefield. Lady Gwendolen wants to see “how the Fibrositis Vomitaria cutting he got from Mrs Mcfadyen. . .was doing” (131). Some of her other digs are perhaps not so subtle. Study of the map of Barsetshire that forms part of the endpapers and backpapers of the book reveals the location of the charming Barsetshire villages of Eiderdown, Winter Overcotes and Winter Underclose.

DSCN1135Thirkell makes the reader laugh. What I also found interesting about the novel is the instrusiveness of the narrator. I think perhaps only Fielding’s narrators are as intrusive and as entertaining as is Thirkell’s. The novel begins with the first person plural: “There are, it appears to us, though living in London as we do we really know very little about it, far more ponies in the world than there used to be” (3), and we are off. The narrator comments on the actions of her characters, for example, “The Dowager, very sensibly we think, said that she had no feelings about the carpet . . . .” (227). Phrases such as “we need hardly say,” and “we think she was right” (233) abound. As Lydia Merton considers the possibility of “a party for the young while the weather lasted,” the narrator interpolates, “Not that it ever does—if by weather we mean fine weather” (163).

DSCN2693The narrator comments freely upon the characters and their actions and apparently loves drawing comparisons with other works of literature, particularly Shakespeare and Dickens. And then there are the “divagations”—what a lovely word, not so common perhaps now as once it was—where the narrator addresses the reader directly at some length and rather breathlessly. Thirkell, in creating in her narrator a character whose thoughts run rather faster than her pen, who is perhaps a little disorganized, but who has much to say, is quite well read, and is intuitive, even insightful, reveals her own comic genius.

DSCN1193The narrator informs us “we ourselves (or ourself) know nothing of the making of a bishop, except from The Warden [sic] by the deceased Mr. Anthony Trollope, who combined hard work as a high official in the Post Office with hunting several days a week and writing at least fifty novels of varying degrees of merit, the best of which—and there many in that class—have given us pleasure ever since we could read and will go on giving us pleasure till we read no longer and the silver cord is loosed, the pitcher is broken at the fountain and the wheel broken at the cistern.

This is not the moment to divagate, but in parenthesis we may say that if the great Anarch lets the curtain fall and Universal Dullness buries all—which we sometimes feel it is doing its best to accomplish—we shall beg to salvage our books” (82).

DSCN2016I think most of us would agree with that

So, would I recommend Love At All Ages and Angela Thirkell? I suspect she may something of an acquired taste nowadays for some readers. However, if you have an appreciation for wit and for a compassionate but not uncritical observer of human frailty, then you may indeed become a fan. We may be over half a century from the world of Love at All Ages, but don’t we all dread being buried by “universal dullness”? Angela Thirkell is never dull.

Links of possible interest:

The pictures are, alas, not of Barsetshire, but of places you can visit in England, places that possibly give a sense of what Barsetshire might be like.

Wells Cathedral, West Sussex View from Standen House, Arundel Castle East Sussex, Canterbury Cathedral Cloister, West Sussex View, Canterbury Cathedral Gateway, Bateman’s (Rudyard Kipling’s House, East Sussex), Canterbury Cathedral at Night, Standen House, West Sussex.

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