Coronation Summer (1937) by Angela Thirkell

Book review by Hilary Temple.

In this summer of celebrating the 70th anniversary of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II it is interesting to read a celebration, quite untypical of her other work, by Angela Thirkell of the crowning of Queen Victoria but ingeniously published in the year of the coronation of King George VI. The Oxford University Press had previously published Thirkell’s Three Houses, an autobiographical work, but Coronation Summer, though written in the style of an autobiography, is fiction. It is, however, well researched – as her later historical work, The Fortunes of Harriette, was to be.  And it contains a couple of dozen reproductions as illustrations, such as a ‘Prospectus of the Royal Zoological Gardens in Surrey’ and ‘Laying the Wooden Pavement in Oxford Street.’  Notable is ‘Sir David Wilkie’s Noble Picture’ exhibited in the Royal Academy, which was ‘of our Young Queen holding her first Council’: the publishers had to seek royal approval to use this. The whole is a clever mixture of topics from the mundane to the outright fictitious, for instance ‘The Paddington Station’ and ‘Emily Disgracing Me.’

The first chapter is dated 1840 and establishes the setting with young mother Fanny Darnley at home in Kent receiving a visit from her friend Emily who is engaged to be married to Fanny’s brother. Surreptitiously unwrapping a parcel of books ordered by Mr Darnley – ‘This is indeed not hypocrisy on my part, but I find that the wheels of life often run far more smoothly if well greased, and Mr. Darnley, though the best of husbands, does not always control his temper over trifles’ – they find a copy of The Ingoldsby Legends, possibly by the very Thomas Ingoldsby whom they know and with whose family they spent much time during their own visit to London for the coronation two years previously. Thus the second chapter takes us back to Victoria’s coronation year.

An odd but attractive feature one immediately notices is the use of a headliner on each of the recto pages as well as ordinary chapter headings. Examples include ‘Young Mr. Disraeli’, ‘A Subject for Boz’ and ‘Emily and the Letter N’.  A visit to Fanny’s brother at Eton College gives rise to a detailed description of some of the ceremonies attaching to that institution and there are several references to the novelty of the railway, one of which causes a junior boy to say ‘“I’ll be an engine-driver when I leave school”, a sly reference to Thirkell’s own son Lance who was a passionate lover of railways real and model. Another reference is made to ‘a warehouse in the Poultry kept by Mr. R. Kipling where they had something very cheap in stockings.’  This is certainly not the Rudyard Kipling who was Thirkell’s second cousin and who found her writing, even of Three Houses, annoying. 

Narrator Fanny is equally mischievous. She decides to write an account of Coronation year with the help of letters she had written to her mother.

‘When I think of all the letters I wrote during that period I wonder that I was not ruined in steel nibs. But then anyone who was anyone could get their letters franked. … It is true that there is the new Penny Postage, but there is something low about a thing that every farmer’s daughter can afford.’

Fanny’s father has rented an apartment over a shop for six weeks, but Emily, whose father will do anything to avoid the trip, asks a family friend, a Mr Henry Darnley, to accompany her to the apartment with his housekeeper Mrs Botherby riding in the dickey with Mr Darnley’s man. Fanny’s father who will have to accompany her owing to the illness of her mother dourly remarks that she will be needing some fine new gowns, which causes her to respond with loud sobs.

‘“There, there, my girl,” said my father, giving me one of those hearty kisses which are so destructive of filial affection,’ but he does at least give her a twenty-pound note. On their arrival her father notes the smooth ride along Oxford Street which has been produced by its being paved with wood as in the illustration,‘which, being a novelty since his younger days, seemed to fill him with rage.’

The bulk of the narrative then focuses on the activities the young people engage in while in London, including the Cosmorama in Regent Street and viewing the material for the Queen’s coronation robes.  The Zoological Gardens is one of their early venues with Fanny’s brother Ned and Mr Darnley to escort them.

‘“I do long,” said Emily, ‘to see the female gorilla. She must be a doat of an animal. And I would dearly love to see the kangaroo swallow their young.”

At this Ned again rudely burst into a loud guffaw, while Mr. Darnley, pained as I could see by Emily’s shocking use of the word female, endeavoured to cover the confusion which she did not feel by relating to me a charming anecdote about a black spaniel, who had strayed by chance into the lion’s cage.’

As well as going to a circulating library (Fanny’s father is expected to pay the account ‘and in any case he throws all bills into the fire’) Fanny receives a parcel of books from a Mr Vavasour who has presented them via his mother, with tickets for a pair of ladies’ seats for the Coronation. Mr Vavasour’s last book was Clarinda Dashbourne, or The Female Orphan’s Revenge, so clearly the word female is not excessively shocking. The girls read his new novel, which of course is in three volumes: so Emily starts with volume 3 and ‘has the unfair advantage of knowing what happened at the end before I did.’

At a concert at the Hanover Rooms ‘we heard a Sinfonia by Mendelssohn Bartholdy, an air from Mozart’s Flauto Magico sung by Signor Ivanoff, and several other pieces of merit, during which I had great difficulty in resisting a kind of drowsiness. Emily professed to have enjoyed every note: I say professed.

Although most of the allusions are clearly spelt out to a readership that would not be familiar with London of the 1830s a typical Thirkell incident is the meeting with a little eccentric lady carrying ‘a bag as big as a coalsack’ and seeking justice in the Court of Chancery. ‘Emily and I agreed that Miss R would make an admirable subject for our dear Boz’; and of course this is Miss Flite from Bleak House, which was not to be published until 1852, making it a good joke to those in the know.

There is also plenty of material about the politics of the day, presented as conversation between the male characters and often regarded as boring by the girls:

‘Mr, Vavasour now remarked that he had been much shocked by an article in the Quarterly Magazine which he understood to be by Mr. Croker, a Tory writer, in which, on pretence of reviewing a book about the Peninsular War, he took occasion to traduce Marshal Soult, who was to be Ambassador from France at the coming festivities.’ There is no embarrassment at the coronation procession, we are relieved to learn, as ‘the cheers that rent the welkin as the French Ambassador’s coach came in sight were positively deafening, and every rank appeared to vie in doing honour to our whilom enemy.’

On coronation morning ‘Emily and I were awoken by the noise of cannon at four o’clock. To our consternation it was raining!  Our first thought was for ourselves and our dresses, our second for the poor Queen.’ They walk to the Athenaeum past a number of other gentlemen’s clubs, all elaborately decorated, and the stand containing their places is sheltered by a canopy, though fortunately ‘the sun struggled forth, to take his share in honouring our young Queen.’  The Ingoldsbys later report that Westminster Abbey contained many rich draperies, the monuments were boarded over to protect them and the orchestra were ‘dressed in some kind of uniform richly trimmed with gold. Sir George Smart, their leader, seemed to have lent his name to the appearance of his helpers.’ Tom comments that ‘the oboes and bassoons were united in a sturdy English determination to play out of tune’ and that ‘Sir George Smart cannot conduct and play the organ simultaneously, except as a means of earning double fees.’

Mr Darnley arrives from his own celebrations at the Reform Club which had ‘two thousand persons there, and six hundred ladies’ and offers to seek out Fanny’s brother and father, who have gone out drinking, if they have not returned by morning. The friends return by carriage along the route of the royal procession, observing Crockford’s façade with VICTORIA REGINA in letters of fire six feet high and the Athenaeum’s ‘large bulging British Crown all in gas.’ Fanny and Emily spend a sleepless night during which Ned returns safe but drunk. At 9 o’clock Mr Darnley comes to inform Fanny that he had found Mr Harcourt in despair having played very heavily and lost, so booked him a room at the Hummums in Covent Garden with his own man in attendance. Thirkell does not comment even indirectly that this was a 24-hour hostel which was used by Pip in Great Expectations (1860)!  Shortly Fanny’s father appears and admits ‘“Damned scoundrels saw I was a country pigeon and they plucked me clean.”’

Later in the day after a meeting of Mr Harcourt, Mr Darnley, Ned and Tom Ingoldsby the latter pair report to Fanny that Mr Darnley will buy the Harcourt estate anonymously and allow Mr Harcourt to rent it. He is also to present a church living to Tom so that he can provide security for Emily on their marriage. Fanny’s mother having been swept out of the way by sudden illness and death, it only needs a misunderstanding between Fanny and Darnley to be cleared up for their marriage to take place a month later.

We return to 1840 as a postscript, the page heading being ‘Emily has no delicacy.’

‘My little Victoria was born on the anniversary of her namesake’s coronation… Emily says she cannot conceive why I spend so much time in the nursery.

“It is quite proper, my love,’ said I, when she had made this remark more often than I could bear, ‘that you should not yet know the joys of motherhood. Wait till you and Ned have been married for a year.”

“A year!” cried Emily. “Lassy me, I hope I shan’t wait as long as that.”

I sometimes wonder how I ever came to make a friend of Emily.’

Altogether the book is ‘something out of the common’ as Fanny might say, requiring as it did a substantial amount of background reading. Thirkell was by this stage launching into what became the Barsetshire series of novels as a straightforward income-generator but never lost the wit shown in this work.

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