Book Review by George S: Love Among the Ruins is a depiction of upper-class and upper-middle class families in rural England a couple of years after the second world war (or as Angela Thirkell puts it, ‘the War to end War for the Second Time.’) Thirkell sympathetically shows us English people:
‘who had taken six years of war with uncomplaining courage and were now being starved, regimented and generally ground down by their present rulers, besides the deep hidden shame of feeling that England’s name had been lowered in the eyes of all lesser breeds.’
Thirkell’s families are the ones who think of themselves as ‘the county’, a somewhat exclusive set, feeling the brunt of postwar legislation, being rationed and taxed and regulated in ways that are making their previous way of life increasingly impossible. Their large houses are sold to become government offices or schools, or they just occupy one wing of the house, for reasons of economy. The Labour government is always resentfully referred to as an impersonal and persecuting ‘They’. One character grieves for ‘every family that was being violently divorced from the fields and woods their forebears had cultivated and planted and cared for.’ Their fear is that they will eventually have to leave their fields ‘to alien hands or to impersonal bureaucrat-ridden state control’. The younger people indulge their grievances less; they sense that things are changing, and are adapting to new conditions. The young women, especially, do not just wait around in the hope of getting married, but look for careers, and education in technical skills.
Even an older woman like Mrs Belton realises that the world is no longer arranged the way that she is used to. She decides she would love any wife her sons chose ‘even if she were an outsider, by which Mrs Belton meant, with no snobbishness but simply as part of her upbringing and her creed, someone whose family had not been established in Barsetshire for at least three generations.’
The lower classes are comic servants, farm hands who ruminate that things would have been different if Mr Churchill had been elected instead of Mr Attlee, and families like the Polletts:
The Polletts’ quite lavish way of having babies, who were all beautiful, healthy, very dirty and not quite all there: in fact exactly the kind of children that a community still largely agricultural needs and ought to have.
It’s hard to work out how far Thirkell really holds the social opinions she expresses, and how far she is just teasing an imaginary lefty reader. I think she wants us to be unsure.
Angela Thirkell does not for a moment think that social change will come from the working classes, but she does show the social progress of the Deans, a middle class family who have money, being accepted into the county, and marrying into it. Adams, an industrialist Labour MP (who vote like a Conservative) and a social outsider, consolidates his power and influence, and his personal qualities earn him friends.
The novel is set in 1947, during the first really warm summer since Dunkirk.
But as any winter occurring while They were in power was bound to be bad, the sensible people went on enjoying the warmth and tried to take short views.
Some twenty-first readers will find the book’s politics annoying, but there’s no doubt that they are sincerely felt. The ‘county’ characters who had populated Thirkell’s thirties comedies are losing their way of life. I don’t think the author is presenting this way of life as uniquely valuable, but it is their life, the one that that they know and care about, and with its loss, something real is disappearing. The tone his something of Chekhov to it. One part that I enjoyed is when a group of characters discuss their youth and ‘latin Grammars under which they had suffered’. They discover that they share a pleasure in remembering the little mnemonic rhymes at the end of Kennedy’s Latin Primer:
Dies in the singular
Common we define,
But its plural cases are
This is not great poetry. These people do not read much in the way of great poetry. But it is part of their youth, remembered years later, with nostalgia.
Sociologically, the book is really interesting. As a novel, it’s something of a disaster. There are threads of love stories, but no compelling plot. Characters appear, behave and disappear, to be replaced by others, who do the same. Every chapter brings in a pile of new characters. Thirkell seems to be using this book to tie up the loose ends of plot from her twenty-odd earlier Barsetshire books, so that well over a hundred characters pop in, do something characteristic, then pop away again. Doubtless her regular readers, who had followed the characters over a decade or more, would have coped with this, and even appreciated the fact that each new chapter reintroduced old friends. But it is not recommended as an introduction to Thirkell.
The book has set piece occasions – a wedding, a reunion and so on. These bring people together, so they interact a bit, and then part, but hardly anything happens that is decisive. Even the joint meeting of the Conservative Association, and the Barsetshire pig-breeders, a situation made for satire if ever one was, just turns out to be a pleasant occasion, though enlivened by the fleeting appearance of a well-known political figure, joyfully compared for bulk and solidity with the prize pigs in the show:
ONE, recognizable even by the meanest reader of the daily press, foursquare as a White Porkminster, commanding as a Cropbacked Cruncher, but unlike these intelligent quadrupeds smoking a large cigar. A shout which reminded all the clergymen present of a Cup Final rent the air. The foursquare figure lifted its hat, waved its cigar in recognition towards its friends and the car disappeared round the bend.
Thirkell’s prose is always sharp-witted and lively, and her insights into people’s motivations are often very shrewd, but it was a mistake for me to read this book out of sequence. I’ve enjoyed some of her earlier novels, so several of the character names meant something to me, but many did not, and I was often left wondering who people were. The website of the Angela Thirkell Society of America helped a bit, since it has mini-biographies of all her characters, and a list of the books in which they appear. I’m sure there were a lot of jokes and references that I missed.
I’m glad I read this, for its picture of postwar England, but I’m going to be more careful in future when choosing Thirkells to read.
Nice review, George, thanks. You might want to fix some of the typos? You’re right that AT was using this novel to collect together her cast of thousands whom she had created since the early 1930s. By this time, her Barsetshire was a work in progress and also a saga of England through her Conservative lens, much as Trollope’s original Barsetshire novels were episodes in the life of the county rather than plotted novels with tidy themes. AT fans take huge pleasure in following one or more characters through the novels over time, and are alert to character deviations as well as AT’s forgetfulness about the names and numbers of children. This novel is one of her late good ones; after about 1952 they become far more perfunctory, repetitious and ranty, losing their charm. Jutland Cottage is probably the last of the good ones.
I agree with Kate that Jutland Cottage (1953) is the last of the really good ones, though I enjoy re-reading all of them. You’re certainly right that one wouldn’t recommend starting with this novel, George. Thirkell does a good job on recapping past events to account for the people, but if you hardly know any of them it may blunt the pace of events. However she shows very powerfully the disillusionment and worry of young women (in particular) about what role they can play in a changing world where marriage may not be possible. And gives us a touching portrait of the elderly confused Lady Emily as well as the funniest scene of the proposal of marriage to Susan by Freddy, its intensity mixed with the pursuit of an escaped piglet. In fact, despite the sociological doom-and-gloom there are many funny bits in addition to her usual (mainly unreferenced) quotations.
London born and bred as she was, Thirkell writes as if she had been brought up in one of the mansions whose decay she reports so vividly; whereas her experience of them was confined to visits, sometimes over-prolonged, to houses such as Stanway. A parallel to Jessica’s acting skill?