An unwelcome end to the war? ‘Peace Breaks Out’ by Angela Thirkell (1946)

Review by Clare G:

This book sits in the midst of a series of interlinked stories set in the fictional Barsetshire – a locale self-consciously borrowed by Thirkell from Anthony Trollope. The complex family and social relationships between the characters can prove challenging to follow and most of the cast are presented as mildly amusing caricatures, rather than figures to engage the reader’s emotions or sympathies. Possibly because of the book’s existence within a series, characters rush into the story without sufficient introduction, sometimes becoming a mere sequence of names. The places they inhabit are more fully realised than the people themselves. The settings are in fact vivid and memorable, even when they play little role in the overall story: for example, the home of an artist – who is no more than a satirical supporting character – gets a long, detailed description. Buildings in the book affect and reflect their residents and the strongest impression left by the book is of a world of houses: a landscape of family history imprinted on the buildings and their grounds. The geography is less specific: this is southern England, farming country with a cathedral city, and not too far from London, but – despite the Barsetshire tag – Peace Break Out is not a regional novel.

Thirkell exploits a certain version of Englishness – comfortable, but complaining, polite, middle-class. Class provides much of the humour in the book, though some of it is too complacent to be enjoyable. Best, are the asides about the bishop, who is castigated by several of the characters for his social, as much as his theological failings. The details of the catering arrangements at the palace encapsulate his deficiencies, and his penny-pinching is treated as demeaning to his standing in the community. It is somehow characteristic of Thirkell as a novelist that this shadowy bishop makes a definite impression through being talked about, even though he plays no part as an active character in the novel. The cleverness of her social tapestry is more impressive than Thirkell’s ability to flesh out her main cast, most of whom are much of a muchness, very similar in their backgrounds and world-view. There are servants and workers in Barsetshire, but they don’t have much part to play. There is some astonishment that one of the maids should be called Diana. Then it is revealed that her name is actually Deanna. The world sits back on its axis.

The prose is often self-indulgent and overwritten, and Thirkell has a tendency to take the reader through events step by step, rather than shaping a narrative through selection and cutting between scenes. The result can be wearying and the characters themselves do little to inspire affection or grab one’s attention. The best of the cast are the older female eccentrics, and there are some enjoyable snipes at the social world of the cathedral close. Some of the younger characters are explicitly defined as shallow and fickle (including in their romantic inclinations), and none of them demonstrates any emotional depth – which makes it difficult to care about what happens to them. It is interesting that two of the male characters have suffered war injuries (only here does the damage of war really make its presence felt), and they treat their disabilities with a remarkable lightness of tone, almost as if the ownership of an artificial foot were a humorous quirk.

The book’s main failing is the absence of a plot. Thirkell merely invites us to go through a series of social encounters, at the end of which – in a somewhat arbitrary fashion – the six young people form into three couples. All this is played out against a self-conscious background of the end of the war – self-conscious, because there is little impression of a convincing setting and of characters acting in an historical context. Instead, people refer a lot to the war and its end, generally in rather unexpected ways, as if they resent the advent of peace, talking about aspects of the war experience in a flippant manner which never quite captures the good-natured sarcasm and self-mockery of many films of the period.

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