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.

50 thoughts on “High Rising by Angela Thirkell

  1. Tredynas Days

    I’m on holiday this week so in need of something light to unwind – but have so much backlog I don’t think I’ll seek this one out. Sounds fun, though. Nice cover, too. Strange she uses Trollope’s county.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It was fun. I would be interested to see how you find this author compared to Barbara Pym should you ever decide to give her a try. I don’t know why she decided to use Barsetshire as the setting, but maybe someone else will be able to shed some light on the reasons behind this. She must have been a Trollope fan, I guess. The VMC covers can be a be a bit hit or miss these days, but this one is very apt – it fits the book perfectly!

      Reply
  2. heavenali

    I have read three or four Thirkell so far and High Rising is my favourite. I have had two or three others tbr for ages and I can’t explain why I’m not drawn back to them oftener. The literary equivalent to comfort food is exactly what they are.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m not sure I’d want to read Thirkell on a regular basis, but as an occasional pick-me-up every now and again she seems tremendous fun. We all need something comforting and light-hearted in our lives every now and again.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Haha! I can well imagine that, Karen. Funnily enough, I tried reading this book over the summer, but the time wasn’t right and I bounced right off it. At one stage I was all set to send it back to one of the charity shops, but something told me to give it another try. Luckily my timing was better when I picked it up again, and it proved to be the perfect antidote to an exhausting couple of weeks – just the thing to lighten my mood after the intensity and bleakness of Jean Rhys! :)

      Reply
      1. kaggsysbookishramblings

        I can well believe that I might have responded differently at another time in my life. But I tend to think now that there won’t be enough time to read all the books I want to anyway, so I tend not to persevere if they aren’t working for me at the time! :)

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          That’s a fair philosophy to adopt, especially when there are more than enough books on the TBR heap (we all suffer from that problem, I suspect.) Nevertheless, I do find it difficult to abandon books completely, and sometimes I can just sense that my timing is a bit off. In these instances, I usually put the book back on the shelf for another time. If I’m not getting anywhere on the third attempt, then it’s time to call it a day. I do admire your approach though – maybe I need to be a little more ruthless with these false starts now that I’m in my fifties…

          Reply
  3. Poppy Peacock

    Hmm…. got this one on the shelves. Will make a note of it for when I need some escapism, although I’m guessing Tony’s part and his incessant chatter could make it a real marmite read depending on my mood.😉

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, yes. It all depends on how you take to young Tony. Oddly enough though, I found him one of the funniest and most endearing characters in the book. Thirkell has the incessant chatter of a young boy down pat, so much so that you can just picture Tony gabbling away about train sets and carriages to anyone who so much as looks at him.

      Reply
      1. buriedinprint

        Ah, then you will probably really enjoy the book which is all-things-Tony. (Book two, or three?) Mostly I appreciated Laura’s irritated fondness for him, whereas Tony himself irked me. (Of course, he’s supposed to, right?) I actually really enjoyed this one myself, especially the bits about writing/publishing and the efforts to keep the families in order I’ll be interested to see how you enjoy the later volumes, if you read on. :)

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Ah, I hadn’t realised there was one focusing on Tony. I will have to investigate – thanks for that! Yeah, he’s definitely meant to be very irritating – a very convincing character, all told.

          Like you, I enjoyed the bits about writing and getting the books published. They demonstrated a certain amount of tenacity and independence in Laura’s character, and it can’t have been easy for her to raise a family after her husband’s death. I think this was published in 1933, so it must have been quite hard for an unassuming middle-class woman to carve out a career as a writer in those days.

          Reply
  4. Brian Joseph

    I have heard good things about these books.

    As you know I am a fan of Trollope and I loved the Barsetshire Chronicles.

    It is so interesting that these books are set in the same place. They do sound somewhat lighter then Trollope’s books.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Even though I’ve yet to read any of Trollope’s Barsetshire books, I’m sure they’re much richer and more weighty in tone than Thirkell’s social comedies. This was a most enjoyable book that suited my mood at the time. Not something I’d want to read every day, but great fun as a palate cleanser.

      Reply
  5. Sarah

    I can’t remember which Angela Thirkell novel I read, but it was the perfect pyjama day read – cosy, funny and satisfying. Sometimes you need some quality fluffiness to lighten the bleakness, so I’ve got a couple in the wings in my literary medicine cupboard!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The perfect pyjama-day read. Yes, that’s a great way of describing this author’s work – I couldn’t have put it better myself! It reminded me a little of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, another great pick-me-up novel for those dark days ahead. We all need a little brightness in our lives every now and again.

      Reply
  6. Rebecca Foster

    Thirkell has been on my radar for quite a while now but I still haven’t managed to pick up one of her books. I think I’ll start with this one when I need a cosy read; around Christmas is always a good time.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Christmas would be the perfect time to read this book as it’s set over the holiday period. I really hope you enjoy Thirkell whenever you get around to giving her a try. She’s a good option to keep in mind for those times when you’re in need of something light and comforting.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Ah, I’ll be interested to hear what you think if you decide to go for it. Just looked it up, sounds very promising – in a similar vein to High Rising judging by the blurb.

          Reply
  7. Naomi

    Thirkell has been making the rounds lately – her books sound like a lot of fun. I’ve got my eyes open for her, but I don’t think her books are as abundant over here. I love the covers!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re right, she has been doing the rounds recently. In fact I’d never even heard of her until these novels started to get some coverage across the blogosphere. It’s a shame her books aren’t that easy to get hold of over there as she’s worth a look. The covers are great. I’m not always a fan of the VMC artwork, but in this case it’s very nicely done. Plus it’s a great fit for the story which always helps!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Lovely. Christmas would be the perfect time for this one as it’s set over the holiday period. There’s a slim book of short stories called Christmas at High Rising, so I might try to read it over the Xmas break. Hopefully I’ll be in the right mood for another dose of Thirkell by then. :)

      Reply
  8. Elena

    I have never tried any cosy or comfort reading, though I suspect I should since going from a crime fiction PhD to crime fiction reading in bed feels too monotonous. Having said this, what I love about crime fiction is that it is genre literature, meaning that it has an audience and is basically popular literature. And there is nothing wrong with that!!!

    I will check this out, see if It-which-shall-not-be-named has prime delivery in Spain for it, and spend the weekend reading it. Thanks for the suggestion, Jacqui!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Nothing wrong with that at all. I’m very partial to a good crime novel myself, especially if it’s a classic/vintage mystery, something along the lines of Raymond Chandler or Ross Macdonald. On that front, have you read In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes? I finally picked it up last month and was blown away by it. Even the members of my book group who don’t usually read crime novels were impressed. Her style is terrific.

      As for High Rising, it certainly did the trick for me as a change of pace. I read it as a pick-me-up after the Jean Rhys reading week, and it worked a treat. Fingers crossed you will enjoy it too. :)

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          In a Lonely Place is her best-known work. It was made in a film with Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, but the director/screenwriters made some significant changes to the story. Both versions are excellent although very different from one another.

          Reply
  9. 1streading

    Every time I see High Rising my mind reads High Rise – which I suspect is the antithesis of this! I somehow don’t think this is for me, though I appreciate the need to read something that is the equivalent of comfort food every so often.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha, yes – this is about as different from Ballard as you could possibly get! I doubt whether this is for you either, Grant. But I do think you should try Barbara Pym at some point – she is such a treat. :)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s great. She’s lighter than Pym, but there are some definite similarities between the two. It’s a useful novel to have in reserve for when you’re in the mood for something comforting and cosy. I hope you enjoy it.

      The Dorothy B. Hughes is terrific, easily one of my top three reads this year. So atmospheric and compelling…

      Reply
  10. camilledefleurville

    I got interested in AT because they were Barset books and I was coming from a fit of Trollope Barset. AT’s are seemingly lightweight when you first pick up her novels and they read like comfort food, sorry, books. When you go deeper, you find a lot about the mores of the times from the 1930s to 1960. You see the class structure crumbling, the roles between women and men changing, the impact of WWII, lots of details embedded in the fluent narrative that does not seem particularly interesting at first sight.
    I hate comfort read like DE Stevenson’s, which lacks tartness. I am not devoted to AT to the point of being a fanatic of her books. But you are right, she shares something with Barbara Pym. She is educated, knows her classics, is mostly ironic even towards her own characters. She knows that she is writing “good bad books” and does not pretend to more. She was related to Pre-Raphaelite painters, grew up in a cultured milieu, had to win money and turned to social romance. She is much better than most comfort writers (Margery Sharp for instance) because of her irony and bitterness – this is where she looks like Pym (to whom she is “inferior”). The War books are the best. Then, in the 1950s, she tends to repeat herself, to write disjointedly, and to be boringly conservative.
    I do think she must be read with an eye to social sciences and sociology – British society of the times.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Many thanks for such a fascinating and enlightening comment about Thirkell! I think I could see some of the social observation/commentary you mention in the sections on Laura’s endeavours as a writer. It was impressive to see her carving out a modest career for herself with those middle-brow page turners, and I think it gave her a level of independence that must have been difficult for a woman in her position to achieve back then. Plus I liked the fact that she never took herself too seriously.

      I haven’t read Margery Sharp (or DE Stevenson), but I’ve been very taken with Barbara Pym this year – she has such a wonderful flair for finding the dry comedy in a variety of social situations. Thanks also for the info on Demon in the House in your other comment. That’s great – I shall seek it out. Do you have any favourites from Thirkell’s war era? They definitely sound like the ones to go for ahead of her later books.

      Reply
  11. camilledefleurville

    Cheerfulness Breaks In
    Northbridge Rectory
    Marling Hall
    Growing Up
    The Headmistress
    Miss Bunting
    Peace Breaks Out

    Here are the War novels. Northbridge Rectory is very good. Marling Hall as well. And The Headmistress.

    If you are on FB, there is a “closed” group about Angela Thirkell. They just tend to overdo things and be too much fanatics for my taste but it is nothing compared to Dorothy Emily Stevenson or other idolized forgotten authors.

    Angela Thirkell belonged to the middle-middle class and that shows through her books. So things are jarring upon us nowadays but there were quite normal in HER days. You would find the same things in some Persephone Press reissues. Therefore there are many layers of reading: comfort read, light banter, light banter directed towards herself and her class, with hindsight social or sociological reading from us. She is not perfect. She repeats herself. She repeats her tricks. Her last books are rambling. But she is interesting in her mistakes because one can see the polished and the unpolished faces of the fabric.

    Barbara Pym is very different. She is a writer and someone who has found her place in the literary cannon. They say that A glass of Blessing and Excellent Women are her best novels. I like Jane and Prudence, Crampton Hodnet, Some Tame Gazelle, her Diary. Well, I like everything she has written!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, great – thank you. I’ve made a note of the ones you highlighted. I’m not on FB, but I have seen a few discussions about a couple of Thirkell’s novels on the blogosphere (this one and Pomfret Towers, I think)

      Moving on to Barbara Pym, I loved Excellent Women when I read it earlier this year, No Fond Return of Love too. Crampton Hodnet is in my TBR along with Jane and Prudence, so I have a couple of your favourites to look forward to. Thanks again for your insights and recommendations. I agree, Pym seems a more literary writer than Thirkell – she has an eye for drawing-room farce that is most appealing.

      Reply
      1. camilledefleurville

        Oh yes, Pym is much, much more a literary writer! Even her “failures” are good. And she knows how to write.
        Thirkell is interesting because she creates a world loosely based on Trollope’s characters and she goes from generation to generation among Barset, creates fictional places, etc. I was first interested in her books because they were drawing on Trollope (and I had been interested by Trollope because he was using Balzac’s device of recurring character and creating a world parallel to the real world – as did Zola afterwards). But Thirkell has her own sociological interest. There are some seminal literary critic books about this kind of writers that may be of interest to you. Just tell me and I shall send you a list. They are very easy to read.
        There are two societies that are dedicated to Angela Thirkell: one in the UK (the secretary is a good friend of mine and she is a blogger under the name “geranium cat”); the other is the Northern American branch; they were very active but they are ageing and tend to lull a bit. In fact, the Angela Thirkell reading public needs new blood and new perspectives. The fact that Virago is reissuing her might do good IF she is not labelled only as “comfort read”.
        There are Barbara Pym organisations with conferences and papers delivered. Everybody can download them. Very interesting again.
        If you wish more details or to go on this discussion, my email is
        camilledefleurville1@gmail.com

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Fascinating. I probably need to read a few more books by both of these authors, just to get a better feel for their themes, Thank you for mentioning the literary criticism though, I’ll definitely keep it in mind. As you say, it’s good that Virago is reissuing Thirkell – I’m sure this will bring her to the attention of a wider audience. :)

          Reply
  12. Jeff

    Looks slightly amusing, but not my thing – it reads rather like an episode of Midsomer Murders without the murders. Isn’t this the kind of book that British publishing has strived to get away from since the 1980s because the day-to-day lives of people in Hampstead became the norm? I wonder also if those efforts to find new lives and ways of life could one day make books like High Rising exotic?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      There is an element of the Midsomer milieu about this novel, the sort of close-knit middle-class community where everyone knows everyone else’s business. It reminded me a little of some of those British Library Crime Classics mysteries without the murder and obligatory amateur sleuth. And yes, I think these books are world away from the North London novels that started to emerge in the 1970s and ’80s. Also the ‘angry young men’ brigade from the 1950s and ’60s. Nevertheless, there is something very interesting about the whole drawing-room comedy genre (if one can call it that). I find the various observations of social situations highly entertaining!

      Reply
  13. Resh Susan @ The Book Satchel

    I read Thirkell for the first time few months ago and this was the book I chose. Yes, being set in the Barsetshire of Trollope is definitely intriguing. I found it to be a nice light read. I also felt bad for Tony. He sure was annoying. But no one seemed to want anything to do with him.

    I am glad you enjoyed the read

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m glad you enjoyed it too. Tony was a great character. I thought she captured a young boy’s personality traits just perfectly – all that incessant chatter about the finer points of train carriages was a hoot. I keep meaning to read Trollope, so the link with Thirkell might well prove to be the extra push I need.

      Reply
  14. Caroline

    It sounds charming and I’m so glad I’ve got it in my piles. I remember reading Karen’s review and that she wasn’t too keen. I’m curious to find out how I will like it. I suppose one needs to be in the right mood. Possibly sound Christmas after German Literature Month.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, fab. I’ll be fascinated to hear what you think of it too. Christmas would be idea as long as you’re in the mood for something fun and a little frivolous. I read this after the Jean Rhys reading week which had left me feeling a bit drained and in need of some light relief. Luckily for me, it tuned out to be a pretty good antidote.

      Oh, and I’m looking forward to GLM. I should have a couple of reviews to link in with the event. :)

      Reply
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