Monthly Archives: October 2016

High Rising by Angela Thirkell

I can’t quite recall where I first heard of Angela Thirkell’s cosy novels set in Anthony Trollope’s fictional county of Barsetshire, but it was somewhere on the blogosphere. Even though they sounded a little fluffier than my usual fare, comparisons with Barbara Pym piqued my interest, so I bought a couple to try. (Well, they were going cheap in one of the local charity shops.)

After a false start earlier in the summer, High Rising – the first in Thirkell’s sequence of social comedies – proved to be an absolute delight. Yes, the world she creates here is unashamedly comfy and twee, but it’s also very charming and entertaining. I turned to High Rising for a bit of escapism at the end of a long week, and it fitted the bill perfectly.

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The novel revolves around the life of Laura Morland, an independent and capable middle-class widow, who divides her time between her main residence in High Rising and her flat in London. As the book opens, Laura is collecting her youngest son, Tony, from school for the Christmas holidays which they plan to spend in their country home. While Tony is a much-loved child, his capacity to exasperate his mother is seemingly endless as he gabbles away non-stop on the finer details of his train set, which carriages he should acquire next, and so on and so forth. In fact, a substantial portion of the novel’s charm comes from Tony’s incessant chatter with the other characters around him, more of whom in a little while. Here’s Laura as she reflects on her irrepressible young son.

She fondly hoped that after a term or two at school he would find his own level, and be clouted over the head by his unappreciative contemporaries. But not at all. He returned from school rather more self-centred than before, talking even more, and, if possible, less interestingly. Why the other boys hadn’t killed him, his doting mother couldn’t conceive. There seemed to be some peculiar power in youngest sons which made them more resilient to all outside disapproval. When he was checked in his flow of speech, he merely took breath, waited for an opening and began again. Laura could only hope that this tenacity of purpose would serve him in after life. It would either do that, or alienate all his friends completely. (p. 22)

Alongside her role as the mother of four boys, Laura has carved out a decent living for herself as a moderately successful writer of middlebrow page-turners, a skill she developed to support her family following the death of her husband some years earlier.

The story gets going in earnest when we are introduced to Laura’s dear friend and fellow writer, George Knox. George, a widower himself, lives with his twenty-year-old daughter, Sybil, in the nearby settlement of Low Rising. Life in the Risings is relatively gentle and settled, but all this changes with the arrival of George’s new live-in secretary, the rather attractive and confident Miss Grey. Thirkell is a delightful observer of social situations, an ability which I hope comes across in this next passage. In this scene, Laura is meeting Miss Grey (the newcomer) for the first time.

‘You must excuse me,’ said the newcomer. ‘I believe you are Mrs Morland. Miss Knox told me you were coming today. Mr Knox is very busy, but he is coming down, just for tea.’

‘Certainly I’ll excuse you,’ said Laura, ‘though I haven’t the faintest idea what for. You are Miss Grey, of course.’

‘Has Miss Knox been telling you about me?’ asked Miss Grey.

‘Oh, yes, and Dr Ford, and my devoted maid, Stoker. We gossip very quickly here, Miss Grey, and I’ve been looking forward to meeting you.’

She held out her hand, without getting up. Miss Grey hesitated, then touched it without enthusiasm and moved away to the tea-table.

I’m ashamed of myself, thought Laura, for nearly being rude at sight. But I won’t be patronised by a chit in George’s house. And why should she ask if Sybil has been talking about her? Why should she think that anyone wants to talk about her? Impertinence. (p. 46)

It soon becomes apparent that Miss Grey is a bit of a schemer. She has firm designs on George Knox, virtually sidelining his rather sensitive daughter, Sybil, in the family home as she goes about her business. No-one else is allowed to get too close to George, especially Laura whom Miss Grey considers a potential rival for George’s affections. Laura, on the other hand, has no particular desire to marry George; nevertheless, she is very fond of him, so much so that she keeps a close eye on developments at Low Rising as the weeks and months slip by.

Much of the action in High Rising revolves around Laura’s attempts to temper Miss Grey’s hold over the Knox household. Given that the Risings is one of those close-knit communities where everyone knows everyone else’s business, several of Laura’s friends and colleagues also play their part in winkling out Miss Grey, aka ‘The Incubus.’ First, there is Anne Todd, Laura’s resourceful yet vulnerable secretary, a woman who will have to face up to an uncertain future once her frail mother passes away. Then we have Laura’s publisher, the rather charming Adrian Coates, smitten as he is with George’s lovely daughter, Sybil. And finally, there is Amy Birkett, the headmaster’s wife who happens to know something about Miss Grey that might just turn out to be of some significance to the story. There are a few other players too, most notably Laura’s gossipy housekeeper, Stoker, and Dr Ford, the local doctor who has his sights set on Anne Todd, if only she would yield to him. It all makes for a very entertaining mix.

High Rising is a delightfully engaging read, the bookish equivalent of comfort food, something light and frivolous to enjoy every now and again – not the sort of book I would read every day, but rather delicious as an occasional treat. While Thirkell’s brand of humour isn’t quite as sharp or as dry as Barbara Pym’s, there’s still plenty to enjoy here. Much of the dialogue is hilarious in a somewhat farcical sense – intentionally so, I think. (There are a few pointed racial slurs which reflect the attitudes of the day, but unfortunately this seems to be par for the course in many novels from the 1930s.) Equally, some of the situations and set-pieces are most amusing in a theatrical way.

As a central character, Laura is very easy to like. In spite of her trials and tribulations with young Tony, Laura is an intelligent, sympathetic and compassionate woman trying to do the best for her close friends and family. She knows her books aren’t terribly literary, but then again she’s not aiming for that sector. Her readers are the everyday women of Britain, just like Laura and her friends.

I’ll finish with a passage from one of the novel’s early scenes where Laura is reflecting on her first meeting with the publisher, Adrian Coates, back in the days when she was just starting out as a writer. I wondered if Thirkell was thinking of herself (or some of her contemporaries) when she wrote these lines. Either way, I am looking forward to reading more of her in the future.

‘If you are really writing a book I would very much like to see it when it is ready,’ he said.

‘You mightn’t like it,’ said Laura, in her deep voice. ‘It’s not highbrow. I’ve just got to work, that’s all. You see my husband was nothing but an expense to me when he was alive, and naturally he is no help to me now he’s dead, though, of course, less expensive, so I thought if I could write some rather good bad books, it would help with the boys’ education.’

‘Good bad books?’

‘Yes. Not very good books, you know, but good of a second-rate kind. That’s all I could do,’ she said gravely.

So in time her first story went to Adrian, who recognising in it a touch of good badness almost amounting to genius, gave her a contract for two more. (p. 30)

Several other bloggers have reviewed High Rising – here are links to a couple of positive reviews by Ali and Jane. BookerTalk’s post is also well worth reading, particularly as she offers an alternative perspective on the novel.

High Rising is published by Virago Modern Classics.

Providence by Anita Brookner

Anita Brooker is another of those writers I’ve been meaning to read or revisit for a while. I liked her Booker Prize-winning novel, Hotel du Lac, when I read it some thirty years ago, but I didn’t love it. That said, my tastes in literature have changed quite substantially since the days of my early twenties when I was young and carefree and too foolish to know any better. Now that I’ve come to appreciate the work of writers such as Elizabeth Taylor, Penelope Fitzgerald and Barbara Pym, I thought it would be a good time to try Brookner again, all the more so given her passing in March of this year. (Julian Barnes wrote a beautiful piece about her for The Guardian, which you can read here.) Anyway, to cut a long intro short, I really loved Providence (Brookner’s second novel, first published in 1982), so much so that I’d like a few more of her early books over the next year or two.

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I suspect there is a reasonable degree of Brookner herself in Kitty Maule, the central character in this short but subtle novel of life’s hopes, expectations and various misfortunes. Kitty, an intelligent, sensitive and presentable young woman in her thirties, lives on her own in a flat near Chelsea. By her own admission, Kitty is somewhat difficult to place, her father having died shortly before she was born, and her mother some three years ago. Fortunately for Kitty, she is not entirely alone in the world. Her French grandmother, the dressmaker Maman Louise, and her grandfather, Vadim, have lived in London ever since they moved to the city shortly after their marriage several decades earlier.

Kitty works as a college tutor in literature, her key area of focus being literature in the Romantic Tradition. For some time she has been harbouring hopes of a budding romance with one of her colleagues, the rather passive and thoughtless Maurice Bishop, one of the key players in her department. Maurice, however, seems rather reluctant to commit. While he is happy to drop round to Kitty’s flat for the occasional dinner of an evening, Maurice demonstrates very little in the way of warmth or affection for her. In many ways, I thought him a rather selfish man in spite of a broken relationship in his past. It turns out that Maurice is still rather emotionally attached to Lucy, the childhood sweetheart whom he had hoped to marry. Alas, Lucy’s faith and calling in life intervened and so the marriage wasn’t to be. At least that’s what Maurice tells Kitty one evening when they are together in her flat. Kitty, for her part, cannot help but wish for something more in her life. She is tired of being admired for her sensible nature and professional expertise. In short, she wants to feel loved and cherished.

But I want more, she thought, blowing her nose resolutely. I do not want to be trustworthy, and safe, and discreet. I do not want to be the one who understands and sympathizes and soothes. I do not want to be reliable, I do not want to do wonders with Professor Redmile’s group, I do not even care what happens to Larter. I do not want to be good at pleasing everybody. I do not even want to be such a good cook, she thought, turning the tap with full force on to a bowl rusted with the stains of her fresh tomato soup. I want to be totally unreasonable, totally unfair, very demanding, and very beautiful. I want to be part of a real family. I want my father to be there and to shoot things. I do not want my grandmother to tell me what to wear. I want to wear jeans and old sweaters belonging to my brother whom of course I do not have. I do not want to spend my life in this rotten little flat. I want wedding present. I want to be half of a recognized couple. I want a future away from this place. I want Maurice. (pp. 59-60)

As the novel unfolds, we gain an insight into the other aspects of Kitty’s life: the occasional visits to her grandparents complete with Maman Louise’s devotion to making dresses and various outfits for her to wear; Kitty’s tutorials on Constant’s novel Adolphe, a text which I feel sure would add another layer to the nature of her relationship with Maurice; and perhaps most significantly, Kitty’s interactions with her two closest friends – her rather annoying but kindly neighbour, Caroline, and her academic colleague and fellow spinster, Pauline. Deep down in her heart of hearts, Kitty knows that she may well end up like Pauline, a lonely woman cut adrift from so many pleasures in life while she cares for her blind mother. On a visit to Pauline’s cottage, Kitty gets a glimpse of what her own life might come to if things don’t change for the better very soon. (This is a long quote, but it is worth reading in full.)

Kitty felt a pang of pain for her. She comes here every night, even in the darkest winter, she said to herself. There is no one for her to talk to. She has to make arrangements for people to come in and see to her mother during the day. And when her mother dies, what will she do? Probably go on living in the same place, even lonelier. And she knows all this. She is too clever not to know. She is what is called a liberated woman, thought Kitty. The kind envied by captive housewives. She felt an urgent need to put her own life into some sort order, to ensure that she did not turn out like Caroline or like Pauline, the one so stupid, the other so intelligent, and both so bereft. She saw her two friends, who would have nothing to say to each other if they should ever meet, as casualties of the same conflict, as losers in the war in which Providence was deemed to play so large a part, and to determine the outcome, for some, not for others. (pp. 80-81)

In her yearning for Maurice, Kitty’s pursuit takes her on a somewhat fruitless trip to France, a period of waiting alone in a guest house while the love of her life takes in the cathedrals of the country. At home in London, she is persuaded to consult a clairvoyant in the hope of discovering some positive news about her potential future and related matters of the heart.

Even though I’m still quite new to Brookner, I strongly suspect that Providence is highly representative of much of her work. It’s a quiet, beautifully observed novel about the disappointments in life, both large and small, the crumbling of those hopes and dreams that many of us hold dear. I felt a great death of empathy and sympathy for Kitty as her somewhat inevitable story played out across the pages of this book. In some ways, it reminded me of Elizabeth Taylor’s A Game of Hide and Seek in its precision and insight into the inner life of a woman whose life remains unfulfilled. The central characterisation is excellent, Kitty in particular. Moreover, there is much warmth and compassion in Brookner’s portrayal of the grandparents, Louise and Vadim. There’s a lovely scene in which Kitty takes the elderly couple out for the afternoon, a trip that warms their hearts.

I loved this book and would recommend it as a suitable point of entry (or re-entry) into Brookner’s work. I’m hoping it will turn out to be a gateway novel for me.

Providence is published by Penguin Books. My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

A Girl in Winter by Philip Larkin

Best known for his poetry, Philip Larkin wrote two loosely connected novels during his lifetime. The second of these, A Girl in Winter, concerns itself with the confusing mix of emotions which characterise a critical period in a young girl’s life: her coming of age. It also captures the deep sense of loneliness and isolation that marks its central character, a woman named Katherine Lind.

First published in 1947, A Girl in Winter represents my contribution to Karen and Simon’s 1947 Club which is running next week (my post is a little early as I’ll be offline during the event itself). It’s a quiet, contemplative novel, one that explores the difficulties we face in understanding and interpreting the behaviour of others, especially when we are young and inexperienced and eager to be loved. I hope to find a place for it in my end-of-year highlights.

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Girl is composed of three sections, the first and third of which take place on the same Saturday in winter – the setting is an English town in the midst of WW2. (The second part takes the form of an extended flashback which I’ll return to a little later.)

The novel focuses on Katherine Lind, a twenty-two-year-old girl who is working as a temporary assistant in the town’s library. As the story unfolds, we start to form a picture of this somewhat fragile figure. While she is sensitive and intelligent, Katherine finds herself working in a role which is beneath her capabilities, a position only made worse by the small-minded bullying of her boss, the obnoxious Mr Anstey. It soon becomes clear that Katherine – a European by birth – has come to England having been displaced by the war, and as such she is permanently conscious of her status as an outsider.

She had been appointed temporary assistant, which marked her off from the permanent staff: she was neither a junior a year or so out of school who was learning the profession, nor a senior preparing to take the intermediate or final examination. It meant that she could safely be called upon to do anything, from sorting old dust-laden stock in a storeroom to standing on a table in the Reading Room to fit a new bulb in one of the lights, while old men stared aqueously at her legs. Behind all this she sensed the influence of Mr. Anstey. There was a curious professional furtiveness about him, as if he were a guardian of traditional secrets; he seemed unwilling to let her pick up any more about the work than was unavoidable. Therefore any odd job that was really nobody’s duty fell to her, for Miss Feather, who was a pale ghost of his wishes, had caught the habit from him. It annoyed her, not because she gave two pins for library practice, but because it stressed what was already sufficiently marked: that she was foreign and had no proper status there. (p. 25)

While Larkin never explicitly states Katherine’s nationality, there are several hints to suggest she is German, possibly a refugee of Jewish descent. From an early stage in the novel, it is also clear that she is desperately lonely. Katherine has made no friends since her arrival in England some two years earlier, preferring instead to avoid any social contact with others in favour of a solitary existence. There is a sense that she is living day by day, suppressing every reference to her former life while also disconnecting herself from any possible thoughts of what the future may bring. As Katherine’s story reveals itself, there is a strong suggestion that her family may have suffered at the hand of the Nazis. Once again this is never explicitly confirmed, only implied by the portrait Larkin creates. What we do know is that Katherine has experienced significant trauma in her life.

Returning to the first section of the novel, two things happen which serve to challenge the relative stasis of Katherine’s existence. The first and most significant of these events is the re-establishment of contact between Katherine and the Fennels, an English family whom she visited for a holiday some six years earlier. When Katherine learns of an imminent visit from her former pen pal and teenage crush, Robin Fennel, she is torn between the excitement of seeing him again and the uncertainty of where such a meeting might lead. The second is precipitated by an incident at the library which culminates in Katherine being tasked with the job of escorting home a petulant young colleague (Miss Green) who is suffering from severe toothache. At first sight, this particular development may seem of little significance, but it is during this journey to her colleague’s home that Katherine comes to a realisation. All of a sudden, it dawns on her that she is responsible for Miss Green; Katherine’s emotions have been suppressed for so long that she has almost forgotten what it feels like to care for another human being. In a sudden rush of sympathy, her emotions are reawakened.

Till then she had seen only her ugliness, her petulance, her young pretentions. Now this faded to unimportance and she grasped for the first time that she really needed care, that she was frail and in a remote way beautiful. It was so long since she had felt this about anyone that it came with unexpected force: its urgency made her own affairs, concerned with what might or might not happen, bloodless and fanciful. This was what she had not had for ages, a person dependent on her: (pp. 34-35)

In the third section of the novel, we continue to follow Katherine on this Saturday in winter to discover whether or not she finally reconnects with Robin Fennel. I don’t want to say anything else about this as it might spoil the story. Instead, I’ll consider part two of the book which goes back to the summer Katherine spent with the Fennels at their home in Oxfordshire some six years earlier, a beautifully-written section full of days spent playing tennis, taking trips to the local villages and the odd spot of punting on the river. Taken in its entirety, it helps to flesh out Katherine’s character while also casting light on her relationship with the country which is now her adopted home.

Winding back to the summer in question, sixteen-year-old Katherine comes to England in two minds. On the one hand, she feels apprehensive at the thought of spending three weeks in a strange land with people she barely knows; on the other, she is somewhat intrigued by the prospect of meeting her pen pal for the first time. Once Katherine arrives at the Fennels, Robin is very attentive and polite, treating his guest like royalty, someone he is trying to impress as opposed to a friend and potential playmate. Rather frustratingly for Katherine, Robin’s older sister, Jane – a rather irritable and moody girl, at least at first – seems intent on accompanying the pair everywhere, almost as though she has been tasked with the role of chaperone for the duration of the trip. Katherine, for her part, is dying to get Robin on her own, when she hopes his real personality will finally start to emerge.

He treated her as he might a boy of his own age whom he wanted to impress. Her assent was asked for everything they did: he never left her alone without making sure she had something nominally to amuse her. And this began to exasperate her. She was used to striking a quick response from people, to jumping from track to track of intimacy until either she tired of it or they reached a stable relationship. With him she simply could not get going. And this annoyed her, because he was attractive. If he had—well, if he had only laughed and paid her openly-insincere compliments, which was the lightest kind of flirtation she knew, that would have satisfied her. It would have shown he was human… (p. 127)

During the course of this section, Larkin shows us the difficulties Katherine experiences in reading and interpreting the behaviour of others, especially given the cultural differences and language barriers at play. At various points during the holiday, Katherine is mystified as to why Robin has invited her to stay. Nevertheless, after much uncertainty, the reason for the invitation finally becomes clear. This second part of the novel ends on a note of confusion for Katherine, something that explains much of her restlessness at the prospect of seeing Robin again after so many years.

I really loved A Girl in Winter. Technically speaking, it’s not perfect; the middle section is arguably too long, and there is a sense of the whole novel falling just slightly short of the sum of all the individual parts. Nevertheless, I was captivated by this nuanced portrait of Katherine, a character study that reminded me a little of Elizabeth Taylor’s A Game of Hide and Seek.

As one might expect, Larkin’s prose is glorious, equally impressive in its portrayal of the nostalgic atmosphere of a bucolic English summer and its evocation of the bitterness of an unforgiving winter. Larkin is particularly strong when it comes to capturing life in an English town during wartime, an environment where people find themselves in rather diminished circumstances. In this respect, Girl calls to mind Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude, another 1947 novel which I absolutely adored. I’ll finish with a passage which conveys something of this atmosphere.

It was easier to forget about it in the city, however. For one thing it was Saturday afternoon, and by one o’clock most people were free to go home. They could turn their backs on the window, and the slabs of garden, and read the newspaper by the fire till teatime. Or if they had no real home, they could pay to sit in the large cinemas, where it seemed warmer because it was dark. The cafeterias filled up early, and the shoppers lingered over their teas, dropping cigarette-ends into their empty cups, unwilling to face the journey back to where they lived. Everywhere people indoors were loth to move. Men stayed in their clubs, in billiard saloons, in public bars till closing time. Soldiers layer discontentedly in Y.M.C.A. rest rooms, writing letters or turning over magazines several weeks old. (p. 177)

A Girl in Winter is published by Faber and Faber.