This is a comic novel about a group of families in Barsetshire – the imaginary county that Angela Thirkell took over from Anthony Trollope. Much of it happens during an eventful weekend party at Pomfret Towers, home of Lord Pomfret, whose rudeness is a constant source of embarrassment to others and delight for the reader. Alice Barton (daughter of a successful architect and a novelist) is terrified of going there, and indeed is terrified of life in general. In the event, her visit is rather a success, as she makes friends and gains in confidence. Unfortunately, she also falls in love with a quite appalling man, Julian Rivers, a self-proclaimed artist.
Angela Thirkell casts a sardonic eye over all her characters, and there is some rather affectionate fun made of the nice but brainless hunting set. In contrast, her portraits of Julian, the artist, and Mrs Rivers, his novelist mother, are quite lethal. Both are monsters of selfishness. Julian is liable to start painting his appalling surrealist pictures anywhere in the house, getting paint all over the antiques.
The novelist mother is the character into whom Thirkell really digs her satirical claws. She is a woman of immense self-importance and, like her son, a monstrously large sense of entitlement. She wants to marry off her daughter to the heir of Pomfret, and embarrasses everyone by pushing them together. The daughter, who is nice, resents this hugely. Mrs Rivers is appallingly bossy, as when she insists that all the guests should play games on the first evening – and forces them into it despite nobody else being enthusiastic. Happily, the results crumble into chaos – for which she blames the other guests, of course.
Angela Thirkell uses Mrs Rivers to skewer a particular type of middlebrow novel, where an elegant heroine travels to an exotic location, almost has an affair with a glamorous man:
[Mrs Rivers] devoted an hour and a half to peaceful literary composition. The scene between her heroine and the titled Corsican savant was going well. The air for miles around Angkor Wat was thick with renunciation. Mrs Rivers saw herself clearly in the moonlight outside the great ruins. Slim and alluring she stood in her riding kit. No one would have taken her for forty-eight. Her intelligence, her mocking wit, her disillusionment with life, all these availed her nought against the overpowering passion of a late-flowering love. The marquis, his long sensitive hands and his fine sensitive face twitching with the control he had to exert, stood beside her. To hide his emotions, he described in detail the ruins that were before them, but the words faltered on his lips and froze to a magic silence.
It would be at this point that at least twenty thousand middle-aged women of no particular charm or interest (for of such were Mrs Rivers’s large public), seeing themselves as helen travers (for such was the heroine’s name), would turn the wireless a bit louder, take another cake or chocolate, and read eagerly on, hoping that Lady Travers’s virtue (for her husband, though cold, was a baronet) would be tempted to the uttermost, yet confident that Mrs Rivers would never allow her white purity to be besmirched.
I think that’s a brilliant depiction of one kind of book, but in showing how a book like that has an appeal to readers, maybe Angela Thirkell is diverting attention away from the way that her own novel appeals to a certain, rather different type of reader. She invites us to share her witty condescension to her characters, from a viewpoint that is just a bit philistine. She has a lot of fun rubbishing Julian’s pretentious modernist painting, but the artist she sets against him for comparison is timid little Alice, whose delicate watercolours apparently show genuine talent. Readers are being invited to join a certain complacency – don’t worry about art that challenges the status quo. It’s just ridiculous, so enjoy art that is nicely decorative.
I’ve noticed how in middlebrow novels a lady novelist is often a figure of fun. Is this to reassure readers – you’re reading a novel, but it’s not a trashy one. You and I can laugh at the trashy ones. Maybe it’s to reassure the novelist too, that even though she is writing a light comedy, with, underneath everything, a conventional romance and marriage plot that gets everyone finally paired up with the right people, it is different from the kind of romantic novel written by people like Mrs Rivers.
Which is a diversion from the main point, which is that this is a very funny book. This is my first Thirkell, and I enjoyed it immensely, and shall read more.