|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.