Monday, February 27, 2017

We Need to Talk about Angela Thirkell

Angela Thirkell (1890-1961) is one of the darlings of the cozy lit crowd.  A large body of her books, written between 1933 and 1961, are known as the Barchester Chronicles, as they are set in the same fictional region as Anthony Trollope's Barsetshire series and concern the general faffing about of the British upper middle class.

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 FollyCoronation 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 HouseCounty 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)

I recently finished O These Men, These Men! (1935) and it was a disappointment.  At the outset of the story, Caroline Danvers, aged 26, becomes estranged from James Danvers, her abusive, alcoholic husband. The rest of the novel concerns sorting out the romantic lives of Caroline and several other characters. Here are the reasons this book disappointed me and why I'm rethinking Angela Thirkell:

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.


  1. I am glad I did not read the book you are examining here, it sounds unpleasant. I read 3 of her books and found them all diverting entertainment and aim to read a few more. I read High Rising, Wild Strawberries, and August Folly. You raise good points about when to stop reading an author; an ongoing question for me.

  2. I stop reading when I just can't with an author anymore. Example: Tom Wolfe. I absolutely adore some of his work, but after the complete disappoint of "A Man in Full", I gave him up.
    For less contemporary work, I have some old southern short story collections that have some cringe-worthy moments, but realize, they capture an attitude that I might not agree with, but was held by at least someone. To move forward, we need to know our history, no matter how uncomfortable it is. I just don't always dwell on it though.

  3. dear Patience - I found a stash of Angela Thirkells (amassed my my elderly aunt, probably when they were published) about 10 years ago and read many, if not most. I completely agree - there is a very snobbish side to her, plus the brusque/verging on cold-hearted aspect that is typical of English people of her period (I'm English myself so have experienced it in many other books and occasionally in people of that generation too). plus the anti-semitism. It makes reading her books feel a bit stomach-churning - on one hand, they're soothing in the way that watching an old film of that time is - but then you come across endless jarring elements that eventually overwhelm you and you just can't bear it any longer. I'm afraid it's several yrs since I read one now, so I can't accurately remember whether those unpleasantnesses recede as the series proceeds, but I don't think so. It's surprising, too, as she was the granddaughter of the PreRaphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones, who had an unconventional household in many ways, and wasn't from a posh background, so when I read her books, I found her rather haughty approach somewhat unexpected. I do love her book "Three Houses" though - it's her reminiscences of visiting her grandparents' houses in London and Sussex and is really atmospheric and fun to read if you're interested in artists of that time. and because it's factual, it doesn't have much/any of the tiresomeness of her novels.

    1. Thanks! I didn't know that about her history. "Jarring" is exactly the right word, because the books are otherwise so gently amusing.