Falling Leaves in High Rising!

Falling leaves… A cover – and some pages!

I’d never heard of Angela Thirkell until I read a post by Claire at The Captive Reader, who is a great enthusiast and has written about her on several occasions. Since Claire seems to enjoy many of my own favourite novels, I find I usually like her recommendations. So when I spotted a vintage Penguin edition of High Rising (number 339) at the top of a sack full of books destined for recycling, I just had to rescue it – but I would have to say I have never, ever read a book in such poor condition. Few of the pages were still attached to the spine, but I carefully gathered up the loose leaves and counted them to check they were all present. They were, but the book is way beyond the stage where glue and Sellotape might effect some kind of repair. Sadly, I fear, honorable burial (or, in this case recycling) really is the only option.

Now charity and second-hand sellers often speak about ‘pre-loved’ goods, and when I see a book in pristine condition I always doubt it’s been read, let alone loved – but this book has obviously been read, and read, and read. It’s so well thumbed, worn, and brown with age that it’s barely a book any longer, but you can tell it’s been much loved, and I’m proud to be its last reader. The downside to all this is that I loved ‘High Rising’ so much I will have to buy another copy which isn’t falling to pieces.

It’s set in the imaginary county of Barsetshire (as created by Anthony Trollope), and the main protagonist is widowed Laura Morland, popular author of what she describes as ‘good bad books’. Left in dire financial straits when her husband dies, she makes a living the only way she knows – by writing. Her mysteries all take place the wholesale and retail dress business, although her own sense of fashion is less than perfect, revolving as it does around ‘hurried bargains in the sales’, and her hastily pinned-up hair is always falling down.

Her success gives her financial security and she can afford ‘a small flat in London, and a reasonable little house in the country, and a middle-class car’. The only thing that makes Laura occasionally admire herself a little is that she has a secretary, a part-time secretary, but a secretary nevertheless. Success as a writer also gives her independence, and she has no intention of becoming romantically involved with anyone. She enjoys her lifestyle, and appreciates her good fortune. “She was quite contented, and never took herself seriously, though she took a lot of trouble over her books,” writes Thirkell.

Much of the humour in the book comes from her relationship with Tony, the youngest of her four sons, and the only one who is still at school (the others have left home). She loves him dearly, but at the same time is irritated by his exuberance, his constant chatter, his untidiness, his inability to stay clean and tidy – and his obsession with trains!

Laura’s circle of friends includes her secretary Anne Todd, who has spent years caring for her difficult mother who suffers from a heart condition and what is probably dementia. Then there is Dr Ford, whose admiration for Anne knows no bounds. But Anne harbours a secret passion for George Knox, who writes serious historical books and is being kept away from his friends by his ultra-efficient new secretary, mad Miss Grey, aka the Incubus, who has set her sights on marrying the boss…

Meanwhile Laura is convinced that her publisher Adrian and George’s shy daughter Sibyl are made for each other, but by bringing them together she paves the way for scary Miss Grey to move in on George. Finally, it’s left to Anne to dream up a scheme to repel the invader, with help from Laura’s friend Amy who, as the wife of Tony’s headmaster, has had experience of dealing with a mad secretary.

The novel was published in 1933, and Thirkell’s portrayal of village life, with its minute social distinctions, is very funny and beautifully nuanced, and I love her writing, and the literary allusions. But it’s the characters who stay in your mind, because they are so keenly observed. It’s a light-hearted, beautifully written thoroughly enjoyable read, and I heaved a sigh of satisfaction when I finished, and started trawling the net looking for more of her work. 

12 thoughts on “Falling Leaves in High Rising!

  1. I am so glad you enjoyed this! It is the only one of the pre-war books I haven't read yet but I have my copy standing by and am planning to read it before the year is out. I am sorry that your copy fell apart (though I find that often happens with Penguins, which is why I don't like them) but isn't it lucky that Virago is reprinting High Rising and Wild Strawberries this month – you'll be able to get a brand new copy with all its pages firmly intact!


  2. I too enjoy Claire's blog and her taste in books, but though she and several others I also like are always going on about Angel Thirkell, I've never read her, and never quite felt impelled enough to actually order one. I expect, like you, I will stumble on one in a charity shop and be instantly hooked. Thanks!


  3. Claire, I am going to buy it, and say it's an early Christmas present to myself! I have a weakness for Penguins – I think it's because I grew up with them. My parents had them, and as a child I had shelves full of Puffins before I started buying 'grown up' Penguins.


  4. I'm so glad you loved this book; it's the Thirkell I re-read most often. Her post-war books are marred by her hatred of the new Labour government, which she makes no secret of. Her very last books are even more plotless and rambling, and full of inconsistencies. Nevertheless, she's one of my favourite authors and I have all her books. Summer Half is a good one.


  5. Oh dear, I shall view her quite differently knowing she was anti-Labour! Sometimes I wonder if it's better to know nothing about an author, as it can be very hard to judge a book on its merits, and not be influenced by other information. Thanks for the recommendation – I'll look out for that one.


  6. AT is someone I should love. But I don't. I find her work confusing somehow. BUT there is one that I think is a fantastic book, and it features Mrs. M and Tony. It is called The Demon in the House.
    High Rising was the first AT book I read, and I loved it. Then I read TDitH and really loved it. This is what I wrote twelve years ago:

    “This book features Tony, the 4th son of Laura Morland who was introduced in High Rising. He is now thirteen, and this is his last year when he is the oldest in school. At the end of the book he goes off to the “upper form”, where he will be the youngest and essentially starting all over again. The book is an expression of the deep love between the single (widowed- happily) mother and her last child at home. The wonder to me is that almost 70 years ago, she was worrying in the same way I do. When he goes off alone on his bike to a family picnic, she decides to have him go first while she follows in the car, rather than having him follow her. That way, if he crashes she will come upon him instead of worrying when he doesn't show up. This is just the sort of nutty thing I would do. The characters in this book are wonderfully drawn, and the reader feels a real affinity and love for them.”

    I can't recommend it highly enough.


  7. Oh Nan, thank you so much for sharing. The Demon in the House sounds delightful, and yes, I can relate to Laura's fears, and it so difficult knowing when to let go and give your children the independence they want, and when to take a stand and say no because you feel they need protecting. My daughters are 25 and 23, and even now I'm no sure I achieved the right balance, and even now they have homes of their own I worry and want to keep them safe!


  8. I'm also a Thirkell fan. It's a shame her books have become so hard to find. I'm very happy to see the new editions coming out, especialyl of this one, which is a favorite – and I hope they will draw more people into her Barsetshire.


  9. This is the only one of Thirkell's books I have read. Thanks for reminding me that I want to read more about Laura Morland and her adventures. I too especially loved that Mrs. M's hair was always falling down. Re-pinning is such a feminine gesture and captures her somewhat harried personality to a T.

    I would dearly love to find any vintage Penguin. I only have one and it was bought on a trip to London. Not many floating around here in the South.


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