Book Review by Hilary Temple
‘It seems to me highly improbable that any such school, masters, or boys could ever have existed.’ In writing this as a preliminary to Summer Half Thirkell had her tongue firmly in her cheek (a place it was quite used to occupying). Mother of three very bright sons, she had extensive experience of boys and their schools. Only accurate first-hand observation could, as it does here, pin down the nature of the annoyingness of boys, especially those with plenty of time to encourage each other. The fact that they have a veneer of public (ie private) school manner creates a more powerful, as well as amusing, effect than straightforward yobbishness. Thirkell is an unashamed conservative: even the title of the book is taken from the Etonian use of the word ‘half’ for ‘term’. All she has to do is add her own observational skills and wit.
The masters at Southbridge School are quite clear about their priority, which is to engage the youngsters’ attention; they then need to cover the routine work (which is taken for granted) and if possible inculcate some useful social education to the senior pupils: ‘like how to address a Dean, to call a D.B.E. Dame Mary Cook and not Dame Cook, what ordinary trespass is, how income tax is worked’. As a boarding establishment they have a lot of hours to fill! All this does not stop the opening chapter from focusing on the reluctance of Colin Keith, a candidate for a temporary teaching vacancy at Southbridge to take on the post:
‘Loathsome visions of novels on school life flitted before his eyes. He saw himself falling in love with the headmaster’s wife, nourishing unwholesome passions for fair-haired youths, … being despised because he hated cricket, certainly marrying the matron.’ He gets the job and thinks ‘it will be quite good fun if it weren’t for the boys.’ His family pay no attention to his news, thus convincing him that teaching is an impossible job for which he is ill-suited since he is incapable of making an impression on anybody.
This is not just a school story, of course. The deeply embarrassing engagement of ‘sparrow-wit’ Rose, the lazy illiterate daughter of the headmaster, to a humourless and increasingly curmudgeonly classics master who adores her, runs through the narrative and is freely commented upon by the senior boys, who observe that ‘Masters are incredibly dense about life.’ The suffering swain is also a Communist, which is regarded with amused tolerance by those who encounter him, even the boys viewing him as ‘quite a decent chap.’ The critical reader might at this point wonder why this Mr Winter is teaching in a private school in the first place especially as, having red hair, he naturally runs the risk of having his temper inflamed by his pupils. The answer is that he is not only a classics teacher but something of a scholar.
To counteract his mawkishness we have the splendidly energetic Lydia (Colin’s sister): a schoolgirl who, mercifully for her teachers, comes home every day. ‘Her hat was of blue felt with a grey hatband bearing the school symbol, a tree with three leaves and two pieces of fruit, though no one knew why. Everyone hoped that she had stopped growing.’ She despises her headmistress and gulps down all aspects of life, mostly via literature. At the theatre ‘Lydia took a deep breath as the curtain rose and held it in a very alarming way till the interval.’ In keeping with what we now know of her personality she then produces a fully worked-up view of Othello, and indeed Shakespeare, for the benefit of her companion, a London lawyer whom she has hijacked after he was compelled to stay the night with her family in Barsetshire. This unlikely story will run and run in later Thirkells.
But the schoolboys do have their place, whether in school or on their Whitsun holiday. There is one eccentric whose pet chameleon provides some slapstick entertainment, for instance in the form of fire and flood, but the most interesting are the would-be sophisticates such as Tony Morland (son of writer Mrs Morland) and Eric Swan, whose histories are also pursued in subsequent books. When they turn their minds to it, they can acquire all kinds of esoteric knowledge:
Swan remarks to his headmaster, ‘“That’s a good book you have on Van Gogh, sir …but there’s a new Viennese one that’s even better. You ought to get it.”
“It’s from the same publisher that did that lovely book of reproductions of details of pictures of Vittorio da Mantua,” said Morland.
“Too many “of’s”, Tony,” said Swan.’
Finding the two of them camping at half-term (and incidentally fluent in Romany vocabulary taken from George Borrow), Lydia’s barrister friend Noel asks what they are reading:
‘“The score of Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps, sir,” said Swan. “It’s immensely interesting, but I’m not sure if the use of the brass is legitimate. What do you think?”
Noel very bravely said that he didn’t know the score, and had only once heard the work, and knew nothing about it.
“Of course, I’m only the dilettante,” said Swan modestly. “Tony here is the real reader.”’
It is a positive relief that they aren’t entirely self-sufficient – and Lydia’s boring sister has brought all kinds of emergency supplies just in case:
‘“…we’d be very grateful if you could mend a sock. You see, we only brought one spare pair, and Tony burnt half of it when he was using it to take the frying pan off the fire, when we were doing sausages.”’
Are the boys indeed ‘the imperial legions of Rome, steadily marching over all obstacles to surround and capture a handful of terrified tribesmen, lurking in their dens, massacre the weakest, and carry off the rest to be palace slaves’ – or are the masters ‘the last stand of civilisation against a horde of barbarians’? From this novel it is difficult to know on which side Thirkell would come down. And, since she was writing a book each year, wait till a real war breaks out …