The Headmistress (1944) by Angela Thirkell

Book Review by Hilary Temple
Anyone who has read Thirkell’s early Barsetshire novels will probably remember with what horrified enthusiasm she throws herself into the portrayal of schoolboys. In Summer Half we have Tony Morland and his Southbridge School friends whose conversation is a distillation of Thirkell’s own three sons’ egotism, manipulativeness and essential lovability. In Cheerfulness Breaks In we witness the outbreak of war and the evacuation of the Hosiers’ Boys’ Foundation School to share the Southbridge premises.
In The Headmistress we switch to boarding-school girls, evacuated from London like their male counterparts. The eponymous headmistress is Miss Sparling, who seems curiously older than her 45 years and helps to preserve her position by wearing very staid dresses, ‘so imperceptibly wrong’. Miss Sparling’s relief at being liberated from sharing a house with her opposite number at the Barchester High School is palpable: ‘It was not that she was starved, or beaten, or given an iron bed with a thin mattress, or made to sit below the salt, but there was something about Miss Pettinger that made her whole life acutely uncomfortable.’ The school’s City Company decides to rent Harefield Park, described in typical Thirkell fashion in the opening sentences of the book.

The owners are the Belton family, ‘pleasant undistinguished people who burst into comparative affluence with a nabob under the Honourable East India Company and have been gently declining ever since.’ By the time the story starts their overdraft is alarming and without the opportunity of renting the place out they’d have faced the prospect of selling. They downsize into a house in the village (though admittedly it is owned by Mr Belton) as the leaseholder doesn’t want to use it. Their sense of having been ‘beaten by their own estate’, of possibly never seeing their family return to live in it, is sensitively portrayed. We immediately meet their children (Freddy a naval Commander, Elsa in a hush-hush job and Charles who is doing something very secret with an anti-anti-anti-tank unit) who all manage to get a couple of days’ leave by cadging lifts. As a family they are realistic and apart from one major lapse by daughter Elsa they adapt to the new circumstances. The younger generation mix with ‘all kinds’ (ie classes) of colleagues, while Mrs Belton cannot help but feel that all this mixing is a bad thing. In this respect she is probably the authorial voice.

Another tiresomeness is managing with fuel and food restrictions in the fifth year of a totalitarian war. “Fish is zoned, you know,” says Mr Belton, but nobody seems to know quite what this means. And ‘the baker was allowed to bake but might not deliver more than twice a week’, so school staff often have to go and fetch the bread.
Despite their sensitivities the Beltons form a good relationship with Madeleine Sparling, starting at dinner with the vicar who knew her late grandfather. In conversation after the guests’ departure Mr Oriel finds he still has one of his precious books, borrowed in 1902. His friend the Oxford don Mr Carton seizes upon this, promising to return it to Miss Sparling.

The Beltons’ tenant, Captain Hornby RN, turns out to have been accommodating about releasing the house to them because he has previously met Elsa and learnt of their plight. He is very well off which causes Elsa to think “If I were a proper heroine …I’d make Christopher fall in love with me.” Managing to wangle simultaneous leave the pair inspect the contents of the attic inherited by Captain Hornby, causing Elsa to express her distress at the loss of her home. As they lean on the parapet which overlooks it, she finds ‘Captain Hornby’s elbow, even separated from her by a shirt and a heavy blue coat (his) and a woollen pullover and cardigan (hers), had about it something which separated it from the elbows of other men, exquisite, apart.’

They then show a party of girls from the school over the Garden House, a folly in the grounds which is gently rotting away. By this stage several of the girls are known to us as individuals, notably the sulky, overweight Heather Adams who has the dual handicap of boils and a father who is a local industrialist. Heather distinguishes herself by disposing of a dead rat in the Garden House amid the exclamations of her peers. She impresses Mr Belton: ‘“Father gets rats in his store-sheds and I like seeing the men get them out with their terriers,”’ from which he realises that Mr Adams is the fellow-magistrate whose vulgar dress sense he despises. Her lumpishness causes Mr Oriel to cast her as Audrey in a reading of As You Like It. These factors, together with her having fallen in love with Commander Belton, make her a main driver of the action, especially when she suffers an accident that was her own fault, and (in future novels) enable her and her father to advance in Barsetshire society with the Beltons’ help.

But the central figure is still the headmistress who has developed a strong affection for Mr Oriel and is gradually becoming less of an object of dislike to Mr Carton. Lubricated by an excellent sherry he admits to having her grandfather’s book in his possession and refers in glowing terms to an article in the Journal of Fourth Century Latin Studies – a title which sounds all too possible. Miss Sparling acknowledges her own authorship. Familiar with her grandfather’s scholarship, she completed the research for the article, only failing to obtain a manuscript from Sweden because of the war. Mr Carton says, ‘“You ought to be writing my book, not I”’ and they part with ‘a slightly warmer handshake than usual.’

Finally – though not without a sideswipe at Sweden for its neutrality in the war which is again undoubtedly the author’s view – Mr Carton induces an acquaintance in Uppsala to produce a photostat copy of the manuscript. He also invites her to look through the proofs of his book, which bears a dedication ‘in elegant Latin to her grandfather.’ He adds that the dedicatee should have been ‘“Magdalenae doctissimae dilectissimae”’, which is rather reminiscent of Peter Wimsey’s proposal to Harriet Vane in Gaudy Night (1935).

The scene concludes: ‘“I have for you a very deep affection, but it need never trouble you.”’ She cannot think what to say: ‘“I don’t even know your name, so I can’t use it.”’
‘“It is Sidney. Yes – after Sydney Carton. My parents were strong admirers of Dickens. …But my parents didn’t even spell it properly… Sidney with an ‘i’ is what I am; not but that both forms of the name are equally repugnant.”’ Without actually proposing, he tells her that the couple who look after him ‘“would have no objection.”’ ‘Miss Sparling said that was perhaps the most flattering thing that had ever happened to her; even better than being made an honorary Hosier.’
‘“I think,” said Mr Carton, taking both her hands in his, “that we might call it an understanding, Madeleine. Would that suit you?”’

Throughout this novel, written before it was clear how WWII would end, there is the same mix of sincere feeling and the author’s sly observation and wit. With a broader canvas than its predecessor, Growing Up, it both reflects the irretrievable changes wrought by the war and offers its readers comfort. In this respect if no other it has proved its value in our own 2020 crisis.

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