Saturday, February 27, 2021

Reading Angela Thirkell

 A comment over on one of Jo Walton's reading lists reminded me of Angela Thirkell, who I used to read in those ancient days before the kid was born, and before we could buy books online, when all I had was what was available in the local library. 

Though at that time I was living in Pocatello, Idaho, and had access to both the excellent small public library there and the library at the Idaho State University, this was still not very many books. I forget how I stumbled across Thirkell, but I do remember that the first book I read by her was The Brandons

Between the university library and the public library, there were only six or seven Thirkell novels. I read them all, and haunted used bookstores for more when we drove down to Salt Lake City or over to Boise for a day out. To no avail -- Thirkell was at that point long out of print.

Now it seems, however, that she is being re-issued, a volume at a time, by Virago Press; and I have used up my B&N gift cards buying some. (Also our public library has three of them -- I read those first.)

Thirkell, goddaughter to J.M. Barrie and cousin of Rudyard Kipling, wrote a series of novels between 1933 and 1961 set in Anthony Trollope's Barsetshire. These are the interconnected stories of upper-class, aristocratic families who live in this fictional county. 

These might be seen as romance novels -- the key engine in every novel is at least one man and one woman (often two or three sets) who bumble around but eventually realize they love each other. Marriage follows. But really the romance is a side issue. Thirkell's true interest is the soap-opera-ish lives of her upper-class characters.

They're satirical throughout, sometimes viciously so, and give, I think, a fine picture of the worldview of the English aristocracy of the period, which to understate things can be problematic.

For instance, Thirkell despises refugees. Many of these books were written during the run-up to and the period of World War II, when England was taking in refugees from the conflict in Europe. Thirkell peoples her novels with ill-behaved, ill-mannered minor characters from invented countries, and has her upper-class heroes make a number of comments about "those" refugees coming here to take jobs from good Englishmen, while those same Englishmen have been sent to fight the war these refugees escaped.  

(Jews? What Jews? Reading Thirkell you would assume that Jews do not exist. She never mentions them, and Hitler is a villain only in that he is killing upper-class English men.)

Women also, especially in the books written after the war, are villains for taking jobs that should belong to men. The decent women feel ashamed of this, of course, though I notice they take the jobs anyway. "Bad" women, which is to say uppity women not from the right families, just take these jobs as though they have a right to them.

This includes academics. Thirkell despises women who are academics. She has several male professors and tutors as main characters, and since she writes in third person omniscient (occasionally third person authorial), we are privy to the contempt these men have for their female students and colleagues. This contempt, we are meant to understand, is not only understandable, but perfectly correct.

In August Folly, we are given one of Thirkell's most scathing characterizations, a world-famous economist who also happens to be a woman. (That she is more famous and makes more money than her husband, who is a scholar as well, but of Norse folklore, is seen as a failing on her part.) This silly creature, Mrs. Tebben, thinks she can be as rational and logical as a man, but all her attempts lead to misery and discomfort for her family -- she can't manage her cook; she forces her poor husband to work in a tiny, icy room; and she is incapable of standing up to her extremely rude son. 

Furthermore, she doesn't know the tacit rules of behavior that allow one to belong to the "right" people. In Miss Bunting, for instance, which is set in the last years of the war, Mrs. Tebben very rudely brings her own food to a tea party (and it's disgusting food, of course, since her education and her pretense at being intelligent and rational have ruined her for her proper role, housekeeping).

Luckily, however, she has a daughter, Margaret. Margaret's father is briefly saddened that they could not afford to send Margaret to a university (they did send their son), but everyone, including Margaret, sees that as the natural order of things. Margaret, because she sublimates her ambitions in a proper womanly fashion (trying to help her brother), is the salvation of the family. She has spent her energies learning to cook and manage a household, the way a good woman should. She marries a rich man's son and, we are to presume, lives happily every after.

The women characters we're supposed to approve of and applaud are those who are intelligent but subservient -- those who are too busy being wives and daughters, helping to run estates and their husband's households, to bother with going to a university. 

Problematic also is Thirkell's concept of both the working class and of those people who became wealthy after the war through such vulgar means as manufacturing and trade. 

The working class who know their place Thirkell just mocks, and fairly gently. They are comic relief, having illegitimate children and talking in dialect. Those who step out of their place -- i.e. workers who dare to start a union, or working class children who attend an Oxbridge University -- are mocked bitterly. 

Sam Adams and his daughter Heather are examples of the latter. Sam Adams is a manufacturer, a foundry owner. He is from the working class, and becomes enormously wealthy. His wealth allows him, in post-WWII England, to encroach on the circle that should properly belong only to the upper-class: Thirkell's "county" people. Everyone despises him for daring to come to tea parties and jumble sales where he is not wanted, and for giving or trying to give expensive gifts to churches and for birthday presents. 

Thirkell despises him as well. He doesn't know his place, and he doesn't understand the rules of "correct" society. He dares, for instance, in Miss Bunting, to offer a local vicar help with the church accounts. In The Brandons, Miss Morris does this same thing for the local vicar in that book, and everyone is fine with it. But when Sam Adams makes this offer, it is a high social crime which sends our upper-class characters into paroxysms of horror and outrage. 

(Similarly, Thirkell, starting in Cheerfulness Breaks In, introduces a pair of impoverished women, in the form of Miss Hampton and Miss Brent, who don't follow the rules for "proper" women. These two are meant to be read as Lesbians, but as the novels progress it becomes clear that we are to approve of these women and find them admirable. Why? Because they're "county," as Thirkell puts it elsewhere: they are upper-class and from the "right" families, even if they do dress funny and are now impoverished. If the wrong people do it, it's gauche; if "our" people do it, it's charming.)

Equally, when Sam Adams offers donations to the local churches, as he does in almost every book, this is seen as a breach of propriety. What if he wants us to dedicate a window to his wife, one vicar thinks, in horror and disgust -- I guess because Adams' wife was working class? Or maybe Sam Adams will try to influence the sort of window, and pick something tacky? It's never really made clear why these acts are so appalling. I guess if I were "county" I would just know.

Thirkell is even more vicious when it comes to Heather Adams, Sam's adolescent and then adult daughter (she grows up through the books). There are endless comments about how "large" this girl is ("She must weight 12 stone," one character comments) and how sweaty and how ugly and how badly dressed and how ill-mannered and so on. She commits one faux pas after the next, bringing, for instance, an expensive gift to a well-born friend's party (something that is admirable when another character does it, two pages earlier, this one upper-class) and not knowing what to say to her "county" schoolmates.

Heather eventually redeems herself, though: she realizes her true place and steps back into it, marrying a guy from the working class as she should, albeit one who went to Cambridge, who works at her father's foundry. Heather herself is a prodigy in math, and goes to Cambridge too, but don't worry, she doesn't try to become an academic: she also goes to work for her father, though only until she has children, when she becomes a proper supportive wife.

And all the upper-class people in these novels, with true noblesse oblige, work endlessly and tirelessly to take care of the working class in their community. Not only are they job providers (unlike Sam Adams, I guess), they perform charitable works for the hapless louts on their estates, who cannot possibly survive on their own.

And what is the reaction of those ungrateful whiners? They vote in a Labour Government, nationalize the trains and power companies and health providers which had been returning a steady 5% for all the wealthy land owners, and tax everything to death. Also, they dare to object to capitalism! And form unions! And want their kids to have orange juice!

As in Faulkner, whose Snopes take over from the benevolent and superior landed gentry of his fictional county, Thirkell, in the later novels, has Sam Adams and his ilk "taking over" England. And as with Faulkner, this is seen as a tragedy. In Faulkner, miscegenation and black people as well as "white trash" getting out of their place cause this downfall; in Thirkell, it is the corruption of the government and the losses of WWII. 

Taxation, she believes, as well as the nationalization of industries, strip the power from the hands of those who wield it properly. The right sort of people can no longer afford to have eight or nine kids each, while the lower classes have huge families (all the children illegitimate) at the expense of the taxpayers. So the upper classes are no longer being created, and those children that are born have no siblings or only one sibling. What will happen when they are sent to boarding schools, with no experience of the communal life? Alors!

Further, the state schools (run by progressives) fail to install a proper attitude in working class children. They are taught math and science and modern literature instead of religion and Latin and Greek, and what is the result? (School certificates! Thirkell expostulates. Ten-year-old genuises at math who don't know what a creche is)!

They think Jack is as good as his master, that's what. And England as it ought to be is lost. 

These are fascinating books to read if you are interested in that England which, indeed, is dead now. The soap-opera plots are engaging, and the whiplash effect of reading about a likeable, engaging character who suddenly says something disgusting never really gets old. 

Also, there is something safe about these books. It may be England in the 1930s, or England in the Blitz, or England in the grim post-War years; but the worst that is going to happen is that someone will do badly in his exams, or be rude to someone else at tea.

And they're very readable, charming and funny in the places where they aren't appalling. Thirkell is especially good with children -- I'd read them for Tony Moreland alone.

But they do show us, clearly, how the world has changed; and indeed just what the world that conservatives want us to live in actually looked like. 

Ironically, of course, if most conservatives landed in Thirkell's world, they wouldn't be the characters Thirkell lauds. They'd be the ones she despises and mocks. They're the louts who took over the world she loves.

Which is its own kind of humor, I suppose.


Dame Eleanor Hull said...

I agree with nearly everything here! I love reading Thirkell and yet in many ways she is so completely appalling.

Technically, most of her characters are gentry, hereditary land-owners but not aristocracy. The Duke of Omnium and his children are aristocracy. Lords vary. The sons of dukes have the title Lord and they are definitely aristocracy. Some hereditary titles might be considered lower aristocracy. The kind of Lord you get for service, as for example the "Law Lord" (which I think Noel Merton eventually gets to, after the knighthood, but I may be thinking of someone in Trollope), definitely not aristocracy, and I think Noel is only gentry in right of his wife, Lydia. Hereditary knights are gentry. A knighthood for service is just an honor given a commoner.

Over the years I have become embarrassed about calling myself Dame Eleanor Hull (after a 15th-c translator) when there are British scholars who have the title Dame due to their service to scholarship. I wish I'd thought of Jeanne de Montbaston when I was casting about for a blog-name; someone else got there, eventually.

nicoleandmaggie said...

I think I need a break from obvious racism and classism after my latest bout with Christie, who at least gets better over the decades (or her publishers do!).

I did find the Wikipedia page on Thirkell amusing in this context though-- either obliviousness or self-hatred! Whatever it was that drove Phyllis Schlafly, I guess. (Maybe just the desire for money and an enjoyment of hoodwinking the general public?)

delagar said...

Thanks, Dame Eleanor -- I'm still confused, but I'm less confused now. :D

delagar said...

A question after thinking a bit: When Sam Adams buys land, does he become landed gentry? Or is he still working class?

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

I'm glad you're not offended. :-) The question about Sam Adams is a good one, and gets very well to the heart of problems with British class definitions. He's basically still working class, just rich working class, until several things happen: most importantly, Mrs Belton takes him and his daughter in hand, and communicates how they should behave to fit in with the County. The Beltons see the good qualities in Mr Adams, and refine him considerably w/r/t clothing, speech, appropriate gifts, etc., and make it clear that as a land-owner, he needs to take on some of the responsibilities of the land-owning classes, such as serving actively on county committees (= local government), not just giving money. Thing Two, eventually he marries Lucy Marling, who is very definitely County though in some ways rather graceless (so nobody minds that she marries him, because she's not quite a Proper Woman, as you've outlined the type). Thing Three, he and Lucy have a daughter, who will be securely gentry thanks to her mother's blood and her father's money (except that she'll no doubt be a rebellious 60's teen in Mary Quant clothes, but AT couldn't foresee that).

It's all very medieval, with the multi-generational class churn. One thing these books, and others like them, do is to explain to readers some of these class distinctions that people are supposed to just "know" if they're "the right kind": IOW, they actually have a democratizing function. You wear tweeds and brown shoes in the country, and save black and navy for the city, that kind of thing. British gentry society is high-context, in anthropological terms, but Thirkell (and Sharp, Christie, Wentworth) provide some of that context so outsiders can at least "read" a member of it, even if there are further subtleties they'll never grasp.

delagar said...

Thank you! This is very useful. The part about why they get annoyed when Sam Adams gives money to their charitable causes was especially troubling to me, and this explains it well.

"British gentry society is high-context, in anthropological terms" -- Yes!

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

If you enjoy Thirkell's books, I recommend those of O. Douglas (Anna Buchan), who does something similar for Scottish settings, but with more sympathy to the nouveaux riches who made their money in Glasgow and now need to figure out what to do with it.

The notion of "noblesse oblige" really is crucial to all these books and their outlook. It is not enough to make your money, pay your workers & your taxes, give money to causes, & sit back on your estates living the high life: that's one of the reasons the gentry object to Sam Adams when he first appears. He seems to think he can buy his way into something that can't be bought, that (in the ideal conservative ideology) must be served. The true County people expect to be more involved with the country people; if the cottages don't have enough coal for heating, then the landowner had better be suffering through the same cold in his big drafty house. It seems very paternalistic, but it does mean that the wealthy are not supposed to turn away from suffering that they could do something about. Again, very medieval. The Welfare State was just coming in, and Thirkell & her readers weren't used to it. They were used to a system that (ideally) took care of the poor through charitable, church-based, personal actions. I'd definitely trace this to the Middle Ages, with points like Richard II's personal guard of archers calling him "Dickon," and even to the death of St Edmund the Martyr, who in one version seems to give himself over to the Vikings because he can't bear to live beyond the English warriors who died trying to defend him. Lords & their followers are very closely bound, in ways that make no sense to Americans who never had this kind of class structure.

Trollope himself is very helpful background to all this. Dr Thorne is very proud of being from an old family, so proud that he considers himself the equal of any titled landowner, but he never ever speaks of this pride to anyone he's not related to by blood! The Bunces are another old family who appear in Trollope, but they don't manage to move up in the world at all. The Poldark series (modern historicals, by Winston Graham), are set another 60-90 years before most of Trollope, between the American Revolution and Waterloo, and we see another version of the land-working land-owner in Ross Poldark and his cousin Francis. They go down in their own mines and, when times are bad, work in their own fields, and Ross wants to turn down a knighthood because his pride is that Poldarks have always been there, no need for titles. George Warleggan, the blacksmith's grandson-turned-banker, is far too genteel to pick up a sickle or a miner's pick.

Sorry, I'm totally hogging your comments section. But between my scholarship & my fun reading, this is hitting ALL my buttons! Thank you for the chance to talk about some of my favorite topics.

delagar said...

No, thank you! This is my jam!

I'm looking for O. Douglas to read next.