I discovered Angela Thirkell by accident, when browsing the library shelves. The mention of Barchester hooked me and I checked out Wild Strawberries, which had the earliest publication date among the library collection. I enjoyed it but in my review, I mentioned that there was a certain snobbish nastiness in the book that turned me off.
When I discover an author, I like to read their entire oeuvre in order of publication, and so I've been slowly and more or less chronologically working my way through Angela Thirkell's books. Below is a copy of the Angela Thirkell section of my book list. The titles in colored fonts are those that I've read. (Blue means I liked the book, maroon means I didn't.)
All of Angela Thirkell: Three Houses (memoir); Ankle Deep; High Rising; Wild Strawberries; Trooper to the Southern Cross; The Demon in the House; O These Men, These Men!; The Grateful Sparrow (children’s); The Fortunes of Harriette; August Folly; Coronation Summer; Summer Half; Pomfret Towers; The Brandons; Before Lunch; Cheerfulness Breaks In; Northbridge Rectory; Marling Hall; Growing Up; The Headmistress; Miss Bunting; Peace Breaks Out; Private Enterprise; Love Among the Ruins; Old Bank House; County Chronicle; The Duke’s Daughter; Happy Returns; Jutland Cottage; What did it Mean?; Enter Sir Robert; Never Too Late; A Double Affair; Close Quarters; Love at all Ages; Three Score and Ten; Mrs. Morland & Son (stories)
One: Shittiness to women. We are made to understand that James Danvers is so awful and abusive that he somehow causes Caroline to have a miscarriage. His family shelters her after he runs off with another woman and treats her with outward kindness, while also quietly blaming her for being abused. Poor James has had to "put up with a lot." If only Caroline had been more firm, none of this would have happened! Conversely, Caroline's extreme passivity in response to her abuser is admired by some, as if that is the only correct response from a wife.
Two: Fascism. The two younger Danvers brothers, Wilfred and George are obsessed with opposite political ideologies. George loves all things Russian, whereas Wilfred is an open admirer of Hitler. Their squabbles about politics are supposed to be the comedy of this novel. What? You mean one brother is a communist and the other is a nazi? Hilarious! I know I shouldn't judge people of the thirties with the eyes of the 2010s, (and in fiction, no less) and maybe I'm just jumpy about Trump, but casual mention of meetings with Blackshirts really turned me off. Also, at one point, apropos of nothing, Wilfred announces, "Einstein is a dirty jew." Surely, surely, even back then people knew better? And this is not to say that Thirkell herself was a nazi (although the comment about Einstein makes one wonder). The reader is not encouraged to approve of Wilfred's philosophy, but to see it as an amusing youthful foible.
Three: Shittiness to servants. A comic mini plot concerns Rose, the parlourmaid of one of the characters. Rose is described as grumpy - one of those tyrannical servants with a heart of gold - but is otherwise faithful and perfectly competent at her job. Indeed, she goes above and beyond her duty in looking after the alcoholic James when he stays as a guest with this character. The problem is that her employer would like to sell his house, but doesn't know how to get rid of Rose. This little dilemma is solved when Rose's feelings are hurt by an impossibly petty incident and she gives her notice on the spot. She's then further humiliated by another guest in the house. How marvelous! Rid of the old bag and it's her own fault for being low-class!
Classism and nastiness have been in evidence in all of the Angela Thirkell novels I've read so far. It's not funny and I'm not impressed. Comic nastiness aimed at privileged people can be funny. (I'm thinking of Jane Austen's brilliant parody of the snobbish, overbearing, self-important in her Mrs. Elton character.) Comic nastiness aimed at people who have no power to defend themselves is just shitty.
Am I giving up on Angela Thirkell? Not yet. I'd like to read a few more of her books and see if she matures as a writer or gains any perspective. Perhaps if some of you have read her later works, you could let me know in the comments. I know that racism and anti-semitism are rife in older works of literature, and sometimes, (such as with Anthony Trollope) there is so much of value in the novel as a whole, that you put up with it. And of course, there is no point in boycotting a dead novelist. I wonder where the line is between turning a blind eye because of the time period the book was written in and saying, "Enough. I won't read any more of this author?"
*I hate making disclaimers, but I hope everyone realizes that I'm not talking about censorship. I would never suggest that a book should be removed from library shelves because it contains anti-semitic or other offensive language. We should all be able to judge for ourselves what offends us in literature and should have the freedom to chose to read these works or not. It's entirely personal.