Book Review by Hilary Temple
Written in 1938 and unclouded by any rumours of war, this novel is surprisingly filmic compared with Thirkell’s previous and subsequent Barsetshire titles. In the opening chapter we watch an irritable middle-aged man looking out of his bedroom window. We are not told who he is until a horse-drawn farm cart appears with a name painted on it. The name is his: John Middleton. The pride this gives him is explained by the brief harking-back to his becoming an architect and acquiring the lease to his present house. Forgetting the annoyance caused by his ‘tepid coffee to which nauseating fragments of milky blanket still clung’ he goes downstairs to greet his wife who says he looks ‘very nice and peculiar’.
One of his obvious peculiarities is his oratorical style which causes him constantly to repeat his statements in different words. An apparently strong character because he expects to take centre stage, he is quite incapable of getting his spaniel to do as he tells her. And he is in fact childishly dependent upon those around him especially his wife Catherine, an enigmatic figure whose silences are in marked contrast to her husband’s sister Lilian who comes to holiday next door and whose vague and rambling talk conceals a lot of sense. The two women have not previously spent much time together: their friendship is ‘of a very gentlemanly kind. Each had an immense respect for the other, unexpressed; each deliberately refrained from looking closely into the life of the other.’ Each of them can see something the other can’t, specifically with regard to the relationship problems thrown up in the course of the story. These problems are mainly generated by Lilian’s two stepchildren who are not very much younger than she is and for whom she has felt responsible since their father died. Daphne is a hefty and determined person who forms a marked contrast to her elder brother Denis. The latter is in the throes of composing a ballet which take his mind off his poor health. This improves in the summery atmosphere of Skeynes, as does his self-knowledge. Despite various inconveniences he is able to compose as well as to meet colleagues in London. At last he has all the ingredients in place for a success, except for the small detail of a backer.
As the summer progresses various community activities, sometimes involving characters we have met in previous novels, occupy the attention of the locals, including the aristocracy. Lady Bond is a good portrait of an intolerant woman who is very efficient and manages to overcome her class prejudice through respect for her future daughter-in-law’s competence and good nature. She could not be more different from her female neighbours if she tried, which of course she would not want to do because she is very self-satisfied. Her husband, though going in terror of his butler, turns out to be a deus ex machina, and the other male characters are shown as having significant weaknesses just as John Middleton has; in fact the apparently palest of them, Denis Stonor, is really the strongest.
This is one of Thirkell’s most insightful narratives in which even the minor characters are not only nuanced but make a perceptible contribution to the plot’s development, from Lou the unpaid help whose mother bullies her so unmercifully to the Honourable Miss Juliana Starter whose obsession with obtaining a special make of diet bread doesn’t prevent her from observing and judging the people around her. Indeed she offers a material piece of advice that is as surprising to the reader as it is to the recipient.
It is one mark of an author’s skill that they can describe boring characters without boring us. Several people in Before Lunch would in real life be pretty low down on any thinking person’s guest-list:
“That is a Dememorizing Fixation,” said Betty Dean, who had not hitherto spoken, being, as she said, entirely opposed to people speaking unless they had something of value to say. “You ought to go to Prack at Cincinnati and be analysed…. I went to some of his lectures while I was over there. I couldn’t understand very much because he is a Mixo-Lydian refugee but his book is very good. You ought to read it.”’
She has the same power to dominate the average gathering as does John Middleton:
Mr Middleton discussed, if a monologue may be termed a discussion, the events of the afternoon. ‘He has never stopped since the beginning of dinner,’ said Mr Cameron to Mrs Stonor, surveying his senior partner with exasperated pride. ‘It is true that he has managed to include the Conquest of Peru, the Thermae of Diocletian, the philosophy of Confucius, the Repeal of the Corn Laws and the Counter-Reformation in his survey of this afternoon, but the principle is the same.”’
In this apparently effortless style, Thirkell succeeds in conveying the relentless battering of the dinner-guests without putting us through the ordeal.
Although the general tone is pastel, Thirkell still manages some unexpected humour from other topics than Kornog bread. Mrs Middleton knows the vulgar name for Pooker’s Piece (itself an allusion no doubt to Parker’s Piece in Cambridge which for Thirkell is The Other Place, not being Oxford) because ‘envious shepherds to whom she had talked gave that particular field a grosser name’, which is a reference to Gertrude’s description of Ophelia’s death in Hamlet. Thirkell leaves the possibilities to our imagination rather than spelling it out and her touch is light enough for us to pass over the reference if we are so inclined. However, the extended mock-classical passage in chapter 9 describing the meeting of Daphne with that equally self-assured young woman, Betty Dean, is impossible to ignore as Thirkell compares them to ‘two bulls of milk-white fleece’ who spot a likely heifer. In self-mockery she interrupts herself, after about thirty lines of text with: ‘To be short, taking young Mr Bond as the heifer, so did Daphne and Betty take a violent dislike to each other at sight, having determined to do so long before they met.’ It is indeed fortunate that the two will not wind up on the same continent.
The main strands of the plot work their way to a conclusion without any deaths or disasters, although in her quiet distress Lilian Stonor does go ‘so far as to walk deliberately on a couple of small snails, a thing she would in calmer moments have shrunk from’. But this is not a simple ‘happily ever after’ narrative. Silences and things not said are uppermost in the reader’s mind at the end. Even the comparatively crass Mr Middleton remarks:
“There is a cloud. Can you tell me?”
“It is just a small, secret grief,” said Mrs Middleton, faintly amused that she was capable of so accurately analysing her own feelings.
“Keep it then, my dear,” said her husband with all his kindness. “I wouldn’t interfere with your secret griefs. But let me know when I am needed.”’
The final chapter is packed with the tying up of ends of all kinds; and Mrs Middleton will not, of course, be able to tell anyone that ‘darkness and roaring of a thousand waters’, causing the ground to rock under her feet, will nearly overwhelm her. ‘Denis wondered to what point self-control could be borne, and what defence there was against the terrifying weight of silence.’ When she breaks the silence Catherine speaks ‘as if each word had to be brought with pain from some infinitely remote darkness.’
On the last page, Mr Middleton comments on the events as he has seen them, involving as they do the funding of the new ballet, sorting out misunderstandings and much rushing about to the post office: ‘“That so many things should have happened at once. And all before lunch.” … Mrs Middleton, ‘shutting her mind resolutely against the deeper pain, which she knew would pass with time’ replies: ‘“Yes. It is extraordinary how many things can happen before lunch.”’
And we are left to wonder with what degree of success more than one of the characters will cope with the future. We may have forgotten the epigraph, an unusual device for Thirkell, to this volume:
‘…Le temps adoucira les choses.
Et tous deux vous aurez des roses
Plus que vous n’en sauriez cueillir…’
[‘All things are mellowed by time, and both of you will have more roses than you know how to gather.’]