August Folly (1936) by Angela Thirkell

Book review by Hilary Temple. As the Penguin blurb to August Folly said (1949): ‘The village of Worsted is one of those English rural communities where life is as full of interest as it is devoid of sensation.’ Sensation in this instance must mean sensationalism, as feelings run high and in some cases irrationally. The wealth of personalities and the humour on every page are what keep us reading since the plot is very slight. Even the village name is part of a pervading joke in which sheep feature: the river is the Woolram, the village of Skeynes is nearby; local stately homes are Staple Park and (allowing for a bilingual approach) Beliers Priory; the London train arrives at Winter Overcotes and goes on to Shearings. And there is a positively loving description of the railway arrangements in the opening pages, probably stemming from Thirkell’s having brought up three sons:
‘Alighting from the London train on the high level, you go down a dank flight of steps to the low level. Heavy luggage and merchandise are transferred from the high to the low level by being hurled or rolled down the steps. From time to time a package breaks loose, goes too far and trundles over the edge of the platform, but there is usually a porter about to climb down and collect it [note the ‘usually’!] When your train comes backwards into the station, often assisted for the first few yards by a large grey horse and its friends and hangers-on, you may take your seat in a carriage which has never known the hand of change since it left the railway shops in 1887.’
The rich comedy of an early scene between boring, arrogant young Richard, who has just graduated from Oxford with a poor degree, and his disappointed but mild father cannot, alas, be quoted in full here. Suffice it to say that Richard spills a box of paper-clips under the desk and gladly dives to pick them up, so Mr Tebben has to address his son’s legs. This he finds a lot easier than the usual sulky face-to-face conversation and he manages to convey that others have survived worse outcomes. ‘“Well, well. Thought the harder, Heart the bolder, Mood the more as our Might lessens.” On hearing this not very cheerful quotation from The Battle of Maldon, Richard knew that he was entirely forgiven.’ The beauty of this is that we do not have to know anything about the fragment of Old English poetry referenced here to enjoy the joke.
A favourite Thirkell theme of the adoration of an older woman by a young man dominates much of the book. Richard is a sitting duck because his own mother, though highly intelligent, is always asking inquisitive questions, constantly economises through the use of disgusting little snacks of old food and is a chaotic housekeeper. Rachel Dean, a beautiful, rich, placid woman unfazed by having nine children, could hardly be more of a contrast. Her elegantly coiled dark hair is complemented by her expensive taste in clothes, which may be long white velvet or floating green draperies. Luckily for Richard he finds out that she wants to borrow a pony for her youngest daughter Jessica and offers their donkey as substitute. The donkey is much disliked by Mr Tebben and his son for its obstinacy and for not being a car; the regulars at the Woolpack see great similarities between the ears of the donkey and those of Richard, but mercifully he is oblivious of this. Mrs Dean wants to send someone to fetch and return the animal but Richard insists: ‘“I did rottenly in Greats and I don’t know what I’m going to do now, so it doesn’t much matter if I read or not. Please let me come.” His flushed, earnest face and urgent ears pleaded so strongly for him that Mrs Dean relented and said that so long as his parents didn’t mind, she would like him to come. He must often bring his sister, and often stay to lunch.’
She is too kind – and indolent – to nip this adoration in the bud: those who have read Thirkell’s The Brandons will see a parallel between her and Mrs Brandon. especially when Richard rescues little Jessica from a bull. The joke here is that the incident is borrowed from Trollope’s The Small House at Allington where the likeable but poor Johnny Eames is rewarded for saving Lord de Guest from a mad bull. Thirkell deliberately makes her version as downbeat as possible: the bull is vaguely bewildered and relies on his cowman to rescue him, though everyone except Richard blows the story up into a matter of life and death. Those who have read Thirkell’s The Brandons may note a parallel between Mrs Dean and Mrs Brandon. It takes an overheard conversation to give Richard the clue that his abject devotion is boring. He thus has to stop writing love poetry and find another activity. Happily he is rewarded in a similar way to Trollope’s hero.
Meanwhile the main action of the story is the rehearsing of Euripides’ Hippolytus, run, not to say railroaded, by Rachel’s sister-in-law, the local squiress. Although this activity sounds highly unlikely, Thirkell had come across real-life examples of Greek theatre at country houses, including that at West Hoathly in West Sussex; except that the actors there performed in the original Greek! Mrs Palmer’s cast is drawn from all classes locally, including people who can barely memorise one line or who dutifully follow others in reciting rather than speaking in chorus. She has no problem with this: the real challenges are in managing the intromissions of the Rector, who is a Greek scholar suffering from deliberate deafness, and the impatience of her husband. As a result, the actual rehearsal time is often very short.
‘“Splendid,” said Mrs Palmer, when they had got through their opening speech. “Splendid. Now, once more the last three lines, and then a pause. There must be a feeling of doom upon us before I speak the Leader’s verses, “But see, the Queen’s grey nurse at the door.” The chorus repeated the last three lines and waited obediently for the feeling of doom. Mrs Palmer stretched out her arm towards Mrs Tebben in tense silence.
“Well, Louise, finished?” said Mr Palmer, coming onto the platform from the back entrance and turning up the lights. “That’s good, that’s good. I’ve been looking at that basin in the men’s dressing-room and it’s still leaking.”’
However, the chief interest for us as spectators is in the attraction between Richard’s sister Margaret, who has recently returned from being an au pair in Germany and France, and Mrs Dean’s eldest son Laurence who has met her while on a business trip. They are cast in the leading parts, but their relationship hits a rock as the result of Laurence’s crassness and Margaret’s reluctance to take the role of Phaedra at all. Will it end in tears?
‘Laurence, having put a pining lover’s portion of bacon, sausages, fried eggs, tomatoes, and mushrooms on his plate, sat down at the table. “Coffee, please,” he said.’ Later, meeting at church (which is compulsory in village life) he hopes to explain himself, but ‘Margaret came out, her head very high, walked straight past him, and went home to do as much crying as could be done before lunch without rousing attention.’
We have to survive the Day of Misfortunes, including the bull episode, before we find out their fate.
The title of August Folly suggests an escape into a special world of summer and fantasy. A great deal of the narrative is on this level, but there are some more reflective passages dealing with the difficulty of behaving well to people who love one but are irritating; the problems of ‘having jealousy’ as one character puts it; and issues of handling failure, disappointment and despair which are part of growing up. It is significant that Penguin chose six of Thirkell’s 1930s titles to reprint after WWII. As with P. G. Wodehouse their audience knew the product: an entertaining narrative, the certainty of a happy ending, a mix of appealing and (a few) appalling characters some of whom reappear in later novels, and a substantial helping of sly humour. Also there is that essential Thirkell ingredient: a Nanny.

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