(published by Hamish Hamilton)
Book review by Hilary Temple.
Jane Austen notoriously ‘didn’t mention the war’ in her novels according to some critics – though anyone reading Mansfield Park or Persuasion with any attention finds the international perspective is a given. Thirkell, writing similarly about ‘3 or 4 families in a country village’, uses WWII overtly as a backcloth for her Barsetshire novels. They appeared like clockwork, relating to the year then current: she was always bewailing her publisher’s insistence on strict deadlines, but this regularity adds extra poignancy to our reading of the war novels. In Miss Bunting, published in 1945 and written during 1944, contemporary readers knew no more than the characters how or exactly when the war would end.
The plot is a relatively simple one and confined to the village of Hallbury, near Barchester, whose Old Town inhabitants don’t mix with the New Town, containing as it does ‘houses which included every style of building from half-timbered and pebble-dash to Mixo-Totalitarian with semicircular ends and windows that rushed round corners’. The chief actor in the Old Town is Jane Gresham whose naval Commander husband has been missing in action for four years. She finds it her duty to look after her father, elderly Admiral Palliser, and eight year-old son Frank rather than her preferred option of war-work. Even so she is expected to join in voluntary work for the war effort, in this case the testing task of making camouflage netting, which is vividly described. The tedium of this life (no doubt recognised with annoyed amusement by contemporary readers) in which necessities such as food and cleaning materials are only erratically obtainable is mirrored in that of her friend Robin Dale. Returning minus his right foot from the Anzio landing he shrinks from public life but fortunately has the chance to run a small school from home for Frank and six or seven other small boys. His widower father, the Rector, is old enough to be his grandfather and, like Jane, Robin feels he is marking time.
Outsiders are clearly needed and Thirkell introduces two teenage girls, each an only child, though there the resemblance ends. Heather Adams is the lumpish daughter of wealthy, assertive ‘ironmaster’ Samuel Adams; we met her in Marling Hall as a bad-tempered schoolgirl. Despite the riches and her scholarship to Cambridge, she is ‘common’, while Anne Fielding is refined. Her delicate health is not helped by living in the damp atmosphere of Barchester, hence she is spending the summer at her parents’ little Old Town stone house. But it is the people they bring with them who galvanise the action. Anne has as a companion the ex-governess Miss Bunting of the book’s title, who manages with aplomb not only her charge but a bolshie Mixo-Lydian refugee cook/housekeeper. Unimpressed by Anne’s level of education (she had somehow never acquired the habit of reading, so this is not just a 21st century phenomenon) she starts her on a course of literature: ‘Never had Miss Bunting… had a pupil who had tasted honey-dew with such vehemence, or drunk the milk of Paradise with such deep breaths and loud gulps’. Anne also studies Latin and thus meets Robin.
Heather has a similar companion in their B&B in the New Town, Miss Holly from the Hosiers’ Girls’ School (which appears in The Headmistress) whom Anne remembers as being ‘rather like a plum-pudding – only very quick’, in contrast to Miss Bunting who is small and withered. The girls meet by chance and to Lady Fielding’s annoyance strike up a friendship, in which each identifies the other as somehow needing protection. This in turn develops into socialising with Jane and Robin. Heather’s father is drawn into the network and becomes attracted to Jane while appreciating the difficulty of her position. Thirkell has hitherto portrayed Sam Adams only as a vulgarian who is insensitive to finer shades: in relation to Jane she shows the corresponding up-side of his character as a powerful man with plenty of know-how and contacts. His earlier slightly repellent physicality mutates into a safe and comforting pair of arms. Jane’s feelings are somewhat confused as, despite the class barrier, ‘[t]here was something about Mr. Adams that made it impossible to dislike him, and he was a person upon whom, she felt certain, she could rely on for anything that he promised.’ He has also signalled his increasing social acceptability by switching from attending the non-conformist chapel to the Church of England.
This turbulent atmosphere is perceived by Heather, who had originally adored Jane, and renders her angry and jealous, though not for long. As Jane’s future clears, so does Robin’s with the offer of a salaried teaching post. The underlying tensions of the Rector’s growing senility and Miss Bunting’s growing weariness are also resolved, one through practical channels and the other through the dream-life of the governess in which she defeats Hitler. The end of the long cold windy summer marks a return to normal working life and with it the adumbration of possible future relationships for the two girls, both of whom have unobtrusively grown up quite a lot.
The straightforward narrative is laced with the kind of events that loom large in a limited circle, such as a dinner-party in which Anne and Robin act as waiters and washers-up (a Thirkell favourite: her older sons did this in Australia); the removal of ‘mixed filth’ from a drain; Anne’s birthday; the Archaeological Society’s meeting; and a Bring and Buy sale involving a ‘sweet goat’ and a hideous Aunt Sally whose purpose nobody understands. Even more is it laced with humour. The most obvious centres on Frank Gresham, whose attention-seeking, know-it-all attitude and patronage of his friend Tom, together with his clear intention to talk till Doomsday on every conceivable occasion, are shudderingly reminiscent of Mrs Morland’s son Tony in other novels. As Jane and Robin are having a rare emotional conversation about their respective losses: ‘“Mother,” said Frank, appearing suddenly at his mother’s elbow, and as if this were a very reasonable request, “have you any chalk?”’
Intensity and lack of any sense of humour can create its own comedy, as in the character of Gradka, the volatile Central European refugee. She is learning English by correspondence course and asking ‘questions of an intelligent stupidity’ about such works as the Ingoldsby Legends and the Bab Ballads. She informs Lady Fielding’s guests that her countrymen ‘“will march into Slavo-Lydia and kill oll the men and seduce oll the women. And oll the children shall work for us and live on the food of pigs and cows.” …Lord Stoke …asked what kind of cows they had in her parts.’While Sam Adams recounts to Jane what news he has of her husband she fixes her gaze on ‘a spider who was sitting in his autumn net, waiting for the tradesmen to call… The spider, sitting comfortably in his study, smoking and reading the Daily Arachnoid, felt his back-door thread quiver… He had ascertained that it was the butcher, and was going cautiously to the back door to meet him. … [He] tied the butcher up in a neat parcel, put him in the larder and returned to the study’.The Rector is equally fixated upon the Book of Haggai, on which we are told he has written a great deal. This is an excellent joke, easily missed if you don’t know that the book consists of two chapters.
Apart from her observational skills, Thirkell’s humour relies upon her ear for language. At the prospect of employment Robin tries to remember what he had found difficult ‘so that he might the better understand the chief difficulties of his pupils: which was well meant.’ For Thirkell, ‘meaning well’ is practically an outright condemnation of the person, as is the use of ‘hieing me homewards’, ‘quite a scream’ and ‘how sweet’ in the language of Nurse Chiffinch. These codes are not explained, it is simply assumed that the reader has the same value-system – or is bright enough to want to have it. She continues to show her genius for including literary references without signalling them, for instance describing Mr Adams as ‘looking rather like Mr Punch when in vacant or in pensive mood’; having Heather introduced to The Loves of the Triangles (an erotic poem about geometry which you could Google); and, of both of them, ‘The aboriginal Hogglestock was deep in them; they conceived a slightly suspicious attitude to unknown people, ready to heave half-bricks’. Thirkell gauges the taste of her readers to a nicety. A summer tale, with plenty of young people going about the place, no real disasters, the prospect of some happy endings – and with the undertow of dread and uncertainty just perceptible enough to make the reader glad for the good things.