Book review by Hilary Temple.
(Published by Hamish Hamilton)
Cheerfulness Breaks In might seem an odd title for a novel dealing with the outbreak of WWII. Its origin can be found in any dictionary of quotations: in Boswell’s Life of Johnson Oliver Edwards says ‘I have tried too in my time to be a philosopher; but, I don’t know how, cheerfulness was always breaking in’. All-out warfare threatened the morale of those left at home as well as those at the Front. Writers such as Thirkell helped to maintain this morale, the delicate balance between awareness of the horror and the need to cope with everyday life being especially well conveyed in this, her sixth Barsetshire novel, which is even subtitled ‘A Barsetshire War Survey’. Although her primary aim was to put food on the table following the breakdown of two marriages, by this stage she knew what her readers liked, which throughout her work, either in her own persona or that of her novelist Mrs Morland, she describes as a ‘nice book’ which has often been obtained from ‘the libery’. But Elizabeth Bowen said of Thirkell (in a review in Tatler of Miss Bunting in 1945) that any social historian of the period not referring to her work would not be doing their job.
The narrative immediately plunges into a July 1939 wedding. It does not matter if we have not read previous titles in which many of the characters were introduced (notably Summer Half). The bride, ‘exquisite nitwit’ Rose Birkett, brought up in the boarding-school at Southbridge where her father is headmaster, has been notorious for getting engaged and then unengaged almost at random. Her parents ‘began to fear that she would live with them for ever’, which strikes a fresh chord today. Fortunately a determined naval officer decides to take the lovely Rose on, and away to ‘the South American capital of Las Palombas’ – thus neatly removing her from the narrative except for the occasional illiterate letter she writes home. He also removes her ocarina. Throughout the wedding preparations and reception there are frequent remarks about ‘if it came to a scrap’, ‘if anything did happen’, ‘if there did happen to be a war, not that there will’ which lends a dark undertone to the proceedings. The schoolmasters’ predicament is neatly encapsulated, the authorial voice summing it up as: ‘When you have done your best for your pupils, you hope to have fitted them in some measure for the conduct of life, but you always envisaged a life that is to go on, not a life that is very possibly to take its place in a living rampart and so be given up. You sicken at the thought of the waste, yet you cannot call it waste… There seems to be no end to the warring loyalties in your mind, except the certainty that the end is appointed.’ To personalise this she shows senior schoolboys desperate to get into the war in case it ends too soon: this is an accurate picture of the period. Neither Thirkell nor her readers, of course, knew how far away the end was.
The chaos of the early days of the war is represented through various plot-devices. An East London school is evacuated to Southbridge School; various energetic young women proceed to wait for hundreds of wounded soldiers who do not materialise while older ones cook daily lunch for fifty evacuee children, the smell of which wafts across the page towards the reader in repellent fashion; refugees from Mixo-Lydia (a joke likely to appeal to musicians) are ungrateful at being billeted in comfort and haggle over the sale of their horrid embroideries; and a film company, also evacuated from London, provides two unpleasant characters, Mrs Warbury and her son. The former upsets the atmosphere of a wartime comforts sewing-party by suggesting that ‘if only all young men refused to fight and we gave back all our colonies to their rightful owners, the world would be a different place’, the latter writes an anti-war book and makes Rose’s sister fall in love with him. They also boast of having unlimited petrol, a cardinal sin in those days of strict rationing. (Thirkell’s antisemitism, common to most of her class at this era, is at its peak here: she originally used the name Warburg. Alfred A. Knopf, Thirkell’s distinguished New York publisher, not unnaturally objected to slurs upon Jewish people and the change of name placated him. He adored Thirkell’s sharp observation and wit, and personally wrote blurbs for her books as well as having her to stay.) Mrs Warbury is a selfish, pretentious snob, appearing in silver fox furs at a children’s Christmas party. Her son Fritz ‘who really has very little to do with this story except to show how easy it is for anyone to fall in love with a totally unworthy object’ complains at how the children stink, announcing that it is a rotten war and he is off to America, like everyone of any sense.
A milder snobbery is displayed by the Southbridge masters, who look down on their London evacuees; but Thirkell takes pains to convey how disoriented the headmaster of the Hosiers’ Boys School and his wife feel and how thoroughly good they are. She overplays Mr Bissell’s working-class origins and attracted criticism at the time but Mrs Bissell is more thoughtfully portrayed. She gets on well with the lesbian couple who are their neighbours; ferocious drinkers and party-givers, they rather frighten her husband, especially when one of them asks for details of vice in his school as she is writing a novel called Temptation at St. Anthony’s. We are later told that this is chosen as book of the month by the Anti-Sex Immorality Society in the US and receives ‘a slashing review’ in an intellectual daily which sends its sales up by thousands.
All this is at some distance from the conventional rural romance that we might have expected, but there is a clear thread of love-interest, provided through two well-developed characters who appear in a number of the Barsetshire novels. Lydia Keith has previously been encountered as a schoolgirl (‘everyone hoped that she had stopped growing’) and bludgeons her way through life, tearing her dresses, loudly prefacing most of her remarks with ‘I say’ and expressing robust views on Horace, Shakespeare and Browning, all of whom she adores. Noel Merton, a London barrister some years her senior, seems an unlikely partner but we see him gradually become captive of Lydia’s bow and spear. Thirkell handles this intelligently and sensitively in the war context by marrying them and immediately sending Noel abroad. In the closing scene Lydia receives a telegram. Her brother-in-law offers to open it. ‘“No, thank you,” said Lydia. “I think I ought to open my own telegrams. And whatever it was I’d love Noel just the same.”’