Book Review by Hilary Temple.
Written in 1938, this represents the calm before the storm in Barsetshire (and elsewhere in the world). It is a good example of Thirkell’s masterly inactivity: very little happens and she describes it in beautiful detail and with humour. The opening scene at breakfast in the pleasant country house of Stories is Thirkell’s typical portrayal of a middle-aged woman whom we may already have met in Before Lunch and High Rising whose muddled thought-processes delight or irritate their families, friends and us. Mrs Brandon is a comfortably-off widow with a son, Francis, aged 23, whose occupation is only vaguely indicated, and a daughter, Delia (four years younger) who does nothing in particular but with force. Mr Brandon had been dull, but ‘death with kindly care removed him through the agency of pneumonia’. Now his spinster aunt, sole survivor of her generation in the Brandon family, is summoning her few relatives to Brandon Abbey. Francis and Delia, scarred by previous visits when they managed to get into trouble by emptying the lily-pond so that all the goldfish died, or running over one of the peacocks, are vociferous about not going and not wanting to inherit Miss Brandon’s legacy, especially ‘Nightmare Abbey’.
Vague and fluffy though she is, Mrs Brandon is determined that they shall do their duty by their relative – a sad and lonely old woman, living in the past and dependent upon a few servants – and meet her new companion, a Miss Morris. Ladylike (a clergyman’s daughter) and poor, she has a strong character and accepts her life of constant attendance upon a querulous employer with fortitude, immediately gaining the respect of the Brandons. Summoned to the same meeting is a young Oxford graduate, Hilary Grant, who turns out to be the younger Brandons’ cousin. The shy only son of a domineering mother who lives most of the year in Italy, he immediately adores Mrs Brandon and as he is studying with Mr Miller, the local vicar who also adores her, they will seize every chance to visit Mrs Brandon in order to read their latest piece of work. But the interruptions are so frequent that poor Mr Miller has six tries and does not get beyond his opening sentence. Both are sublimely unaware that she is not taking the slightest notice of them but mentally reviewing her wardrobe.
The visit passes off without disaster: Aunt Sissie presents her niece-in-law with a diamond ring and Mrs Brandon manoeuvres a day off for Miss Morris, whose thin shoulders and worn face show how exhausting her work is, to picnic with the family. Miss Morris, alas, becomes another worshipper at Mrs Brandon’s shrine, even though Francis correctly identifies his mother’s kindness as largely stemming from indolence – and is unknowingly echoed by Miss Brandon who says she is a featherbed.
The picnic provokes a brief but devastating scene from which Mrs Brandon learns that Mr Miller studied with Miss Morris’s father but fell out with him over doctrinal issues and was sent away. Mr Morris who ‘seemed to have combined in himself all the less agreeable qualities of the fanatic, the priest and the parent … worked his wife to death and [had] done his best to kill his daughter’. He was also improvident, leaving Miss Morris to scrape a living as a companion to old ladies. When Mr Miller, hoping to repair the breach, subsequently gives her his side of the story Mrs Brandon ‘did not tell him that Miss Morris prayed for him to be forgiven, feeling that this was a liberty which even a clergyman might resent’.
Mrs Brandon, if not exactly a featherbed, certainly seems featherbedded by her devoted servants Rose, her maid; Nurse (who has stayed with the family to dressmake, do the ironing, boss the family and quarrel with Rose); and Curwen the chauffeur who winces at each little jolt if told to take a route he doesn’t like. If you asked her she would probably say that managing them was far from easy and she might be right. But they do provide some excellent comedy.
A second command comes, by telephone call from Miss Morris, for Mrs Brandon, Francis and Hilary to visit Aunt Sissie who is very unwell and has also summoned Noel Merton (whom we already know to be a barrister) to give her financial advice. With her own sense of priorities Mrs Brandon takes the opportunity to give Miss Morris an apricot-coloured slip that she has never liked and reluctantly they brave the massive staircase and the ‘life-size and highly varnished black wooden statues of gorillas, wearing hats and holding out trays for visiting cards, which images had been the terror of Francis and Delia’s childhood… Francis knew, with the deadly certainty of childhood, that they came over the Downs to Stories every Friday night, when Nurse was out, and got under his bed.’
The already charged atmosphere becomes stormy when Hilary’s self-dramatising mother is brought by her friend Lady Norton (later known as the Dreadful Dowager) to interrupt the gathering. Miss Brandon literally refuses to see them by closing her eyes until they have to leave. She is then rude about Hilary’s mother and even though we (and the Brandons) share this view, Hilary surprises himself by speaking up for her. Mrs Brandon in her turn defends Hilary and is told ‘he doesn’t need a woman old enough to be his mother hanging round his neck’. Francis, furious but polite, escorts the two from the room and says they will not be coming again. A real thunderstorm breaks as Francis drives them home in his comically leaking car, Curwen having (wilfully?) misunderstood his instructions and returned to Stories.
When news comes of Miss Brandon’s death, Hilary shows his new maturity by accompanying Mrs Brandon to sort out the household. Miss Morris, in an exhausted sleep after night-watching, has been neglected by the servants. Fortunately Mrs Brandon is prepared, as sensible Delia had asked what would happen to her, and invites her to Stories until she can find another situation. This proves important, as the strain imposed for so long on Miss Morris causes a minor nervous breakdown and gives Delia the opportunity to tend her. The servants are convinced she is not long for this world, only Cook being spurred on in her preparation of beef tea for the invalid – which makes lunch seven minutes late.
The anxious Mr Miller pays a sympathy call too soon and Miss Morris rejects his approach, then has hysterics followed by a sleeping draught from the doctor, recalling happy youthful days as she nods off. The unaccustomed comfort of Stories is clearly having a softening effect.
The major social event in this novel – Barsetshire usually offers at least one – is the Village Fête, often pronounced ‘feet’, which allows a good many previous characters such as Mrs Morland, her son Tony and Lydia Keith to appear. The repentant Miss Morris recalls her vicarage experience and is able to help organise it as well as deal with a crisis. Meanwhile Hilary Grant’s adoration of Mrs Brandon mutates into a liking for Delia as she actually respects his writing. Miss Brandon leaves various legacies, including a mysterious one whose rationale will be sorted out in a future book and one to Miss Morris which will give her an income for life. The house, ‘a striking example of Scotch baronial, spouting pepper-pot turrets at every angle’ with its ‘fungoid growths’ from damp and its encroaching trees, is left to be a home for old people with army connections. Miss Brandon’s deathbed comment that her brother Fred would not have looked at Miss Morris, but that someone else might, turns out to be prescient; and the apparently inevitable banal conclusion is lifted by an unusual device for Thirkell, a conversation between the guardian angels of Mrs Brandon and Noel Merton. They oversee the two conducting one of their flirtatious conversations: Mr Merton’s angel is slightly concerned for his safety, but both human participants understand the rules of their game and it ends in laughter. ‘Mr Merton’s guardian angel, puzzled but on the whole satisfied, spread his wings and soon his path was vague in distant spheres.’
A single reference to Mussolini roughly locates the place of this novel in the twentieth century but otherwise the summer is timeless. The gooseberries ripen (and have to be used up, whether stewed or as gooseberry fool); flowers must be picked to decorate church or house; coffee is carried out to be drunk under the chestnut tree in the evening sun; Mrs Brandon placidly accepts home-truths from her children, only remarking now and then to her son, ‘You shouldn’t say things like that!’ The Brandons as a title seems as dull as the late Mr Brandon, though it might deliberately echo Thackeray’s The Newcomes (to which Thirkell wrote an introduction in 1954) or Trollope’s The Bertrams; and it hasn’t put Virago Press off reissuing it. Mrs Brandon’s repeated reproof to Francis could have made a better one, though.