Northbridge Rectory (1941) by Angela Thirkell

Book review by Hilary Temple

At this stage in Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire saga we are in the second year of WWII. To emphasise this, the ten-bedroomed Rectory of the title is being lived in not only by the recently-arrived Rector and his wife, Gregory and Verena Villars, but by half a dozen of the Barsetshire Regiment’s officers.

We are told that ‘In every war, however unpleasant, there are a certain number of people who with a shriek of joy take possession of a world made for them.’ Mrs Villars is far from being one of their number, being ‘quite o’ercrowed by a number of women who had during what is mistakenly called The Last War driven ambulances, run canteens, been heads of offices, of teams of land girls, of munition welfare, and had been pining in retirement on small incomes ever since.’ As a result ‘evacuee children were billeted, clothed and communally fed; visiting parents were provided with canteens; a cottage hospital was staffed and stocked; National Savings were collected; householders were bullied into Digging for Victory in unsuitable soil; other householders were forced to keep chickens which laid with reluctance and sickened and died with fervour of unknown diseases.’ And we are only on page 4. It is clear that the daily realities of war in a small English village are going to form a major part of the scenario; and that Thirkell’s sardonic tendencies will have plenty of scope.

Although from the novel’s title we might expect the Rector’s wife to be a leading figure, she is rather subdued, required by her doctor to rest every afternoon and frequently being told how tired she looks from people in the village, which she finds very trying.  However, eccentric characters abound.  The most striking are both women. Miss Pemberton is known to be scholarly but appears as ‘apparently an elderly man with a powerful and slightly unpleasant face, dressed in brown sacking with short grey hair and an amber necklace.’ Her manner is equally rebarbative, starting by not inviting her visitors, Mrs Villars and one of the officers, Lieutenant Holden, to sit down and continuing to eat her tea. ‘Mrs. Villars threw herself into the breach and inquired if Miss Pemberton’s monograph on the altar-pieces of Giacopone Giacopini, detto Il Giacopinaccio, was getting on. “There are only two of them, and they haven’t been seen since 1474,” said Miss Pemberton, her face of a depraved elderly cardinal suddenly lighting to a rather fine eagerness.’ Although ‘Italy is difficult now’ she has been able to establish that Giacopone – who should, one feels, have existed in real life – was the illegitimate offspring of one of Lord Pomfret’s ancestors. But she has a softer side, donating her store of apples to the communal kitchen as well as giving Mrs Villars half-a-crown for the Girl Guides which she can’t really afford.

The Rectory folk have more trouble with the wife of Major Spender; he is billeted with them and his plans to meet his wife in London are frustrated by an air-raid, whereupon she has to be invited to stay for the weekend. “I simply didn’t know what to do, I mean Ockley’s Hotel where I always go and all the staff are devoted to me and the manager almost a personal friend if you know what I mean who has known us all for years was blown up practically under my eyes. Luckily, I had parked the old suitcase at Waterloo – and my dear, what a mess there, I mean simply seething – and when I got to Ockley’s it simply wasn’t there. Not to be seen, believe me … So I got a taxi and sped to Waterloo where my suitcase was quite all right, no thanks to little Adolf with three alerts, three, my dear, between lunch and tea, and here I am. Of course Bobbie, like a dear old chump had to go to the wrong platform, but my porter, a perfect gentleman believe it or not said there was an officer on no.3 platform, so we went to look and now all’s well that ends well and I am really too grateful.”  During this speech Mrs Villars had ample time to repent her hospitality.’ Mrs Spender then re-tells the story to Mr Villars and regales the company at dinner with ‘terrifically economical dishes’ to cook in wartime. At the end of the evening ‘Good nights expressive of the highest esteem and a wish for long and restful sleep’ are showered upon the couple from all sides. Significantly we do not learn Mrs Spender’s forename.

The slenderness of the plot is barely noticeable amid the plethora of incident and character. Good mileage is obtained from the project to fire-watch from the top of the church tower, chiefly in a chapter entitled ‘Several on a Tower’, a typical Thirkellian reference.  This is organised by the Reverend “Tubby” Fewling who is priest-in-charge at St Sycorax: the joke that this is the name of Caliban’s mother, an evil witch, is not explained by Thirkell but, as her established readers know, enables those who spot the reference to share a sly wink with her.  Miss Crowder and Miss Hopgood who live together at Glycerine Cottage are among the volunteers. Convinced that they are spiritually French, they holiday each year at the Pension Ramsden in Menton and named their house after a white villa there, Les Glycines, planting a Virginia creeper to get the same effect.  This French sophistication is echoed by their label ‘pottofur’ for their favourite stew; also their tendency to refer to each other as ‘chère amie’, without, we notice, any suggestion of arrière-pensée. Climbing the tower is a great success for Miss Crowder who exclaims that she has never been so frappay by a landscape; whereas it makes Mrs Villars feel distinctly unwell and blows another trainee fire-watcher’s hat off.  Alas, after all their planning the approach of winter causes the project to die a natural death.

Love-interest is of course a required ingredient to give some shape here and there to the narrative. The apparently innocuous love of bird-spotting is portrayed by Thirkell almost as a vice in several of her novels and here involves Miss Pemberton’s shy and scholarly lodger Mr Downing, who is lured into tracking golden-crested mippets, broad-tailed gallows birds and pied gobble bellies with Betty, a niece of the kind and hospitable widow Mrs Turner. Betty and her sister (only known to us as Mrs Turner’s other niece), are however casually forming relationships with two of the younger officers and in businesslike fashion become engaged before the end of the novel. Their indulgent view of Mrs Turner’s warm affection for Mr Downing, nicknamed Pussy by them, enables them to be supportive when she manages to explain indirectly but clearly to him that he can’t replace her dead husband. Mr Downing returns from the warmth and frivolity of Mrs Turner’s house to the austerity of Miss Pemberton’s home and the concomitant comfort of having a scholarly brain to help him in his work on the Biographical Dictionary of Provence. Also her extreme poverty is mitigated when her ingenious recipes for war cookery become known to Mr Holden, a publisher in civilian life, and she becomes one of the couple of dozen of Thirkell’s characters who are published authors. Corporal Jackson, a real factotum when it comes to helping around the house, is throughout the novel addressing his attentions to both Mrs Villars’s cook and her housemaid Edie, even attending the Congregational Chapel with Mrs Chapman for four Sundays.  A crisis is reached when Mr Villars is asked to announce the banns between Corporal Jackson and Edie, telling his wife that the corporal is a good deal more frightened of him than of Mrs Chapman. ‘“I practically menaced him with bell, book and candle, and I rather gather he is coming to hear his banns read bringing half the regiment with him.”’ The Rector is greatly assisted by the arrival on leave of Mrs Chapman’s son who has become a mess waiter in the same regiment as his father which satisfactorily puts paid to the cook’s predation of Corporal Jackson. Mr Holden’s oppressive adoration of Mrs Villars meets with no success at all and he is despatched, much to her relief, to Sparrowhill Camp on promotion.

The enduring love which Thirkell frequently conveys vividly and amusingly is between mothers and sons. In earlier volumes these sons have been schoolboys, adorable and hateful by turns. Here, Wing-Commander John Villars has a week’s leave and his mother immediately lists the events that he can enjoy while home, including the hunt, beagling and various films, as well as there being two attractive granddaughters staying at the Deanery. ‘The Rector looked admiringly at his wife. Not every woman, he proudly thought, would realize that the whole point of leave is to get out of one’s home as much as possible.’  By the time the equipment-laden son has been back for half an hour, his mother ‘surveyed him with her abstracted smile. Here was complete happiness. Her sitting-room littered with kit, a saucer cracked, a chair-leg probably broken. Her extremely good-looking younger son would undoubtedly use the whole hot-water supply for his bath. He had already got two pounds and a latch-key simply by asking… All this she felt with loving dislike to be quite perfect.’ This acquires extra authenticity from reflecting the positive aspects of Thirkell’s own experience though her own was rather more chequered. The dominating effect of confident young men is not confined to their mothers. Norma at the telephone exchange is only too happy to book four tickets at the Odeon for John and to divert his calls. At least, reflects Mrs Villars, here is someone who will never notice if she is tired.

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