What Did It Mean? (1954) by Angela Thirkell

Book review by Hilary Temple.

The twenty-third title in the Barsetshire series, this novel requires Thirkell to start with some recapitulation. The first sentence contains a reference to Queen Elizabeth II who by this date has been on the throne for two years, enabling the author to describe the effects of the coronation in June 1953.  The second sentence occupies eleven lines. For habituees this is easy stuff, though a newcomer might find it hard going at first. Having (re)introduced Lydia and Noel Merton, the useful Mr Wickham their land agent and five other couples, we then cut to the chase: ‘The whole of England was now in an orgy of Coronation Committees. Temporary differences were forgotten in the common cause. The Women’s Institutes and the Townswomen’s Guilds became as sisters, though always reserving the right of a sister to dislike a sister wholeheartedly.’

The Mertons – Lydia being one of Thirkell’s favourite characters – are soon invited to dinner with the Earl and Countess of Pomfret and thus form the spine of the plot. As is usual with Thirkell’s novels, plot is often subordinate to character-portrayal. Lord Pomfret’s heir is Ludovic, a gangling and insecure teenage schoolboy of an entirely different type from his brother and sister who are confident and high-spirited, not to say arrogant. His parents are worried about the responsibilities he faces in the future and it is the coronation celebrations that provide a turning-point in his development.

Moving from one Coronation Committee to another we encounter many more characters recognisable from previous titles. In the process Thirkell amusingly contrasts those who find committee meetings ‘as good a deed as drink and would willingly have had one every day, or if possible more’ and those like Lydia who want to take their share of responsibility but to keep the business short and targeted.  Activities range from a high street tea party for the Kiddies, ‘at which dreadful word Lydia did not blench outwardly’, to displays of needlework and a Coronation Pageant showing the little town of Northbridge from the days of King Arthur (with characters dressed in hearthrugs), through the coming of the Normans, the Wars of the Roses, Good Queen Bess and lastly Northbridge in the War. There are comments about how strange it sounds to refer to Elizabeth Tudor as Elizabeth the First. The Pageant will of course have to take place on the day after the coronation since most people, except those who despise the medium, will be watching the ceremony on the Telly.

The tone of the entertainment is raised by the participation of professional actors in the shape of Jessica Dean and Aubrey Clover, a couple who present their own Noel Coward-type comedies at the Cockspur Theatre in London. Aubrey’s short sketch Two-Step for Three requires a young man who will fall in love with Jessica but after a heart-wrenching duet will be outsmarted by the mature roué.  Lydia makes it possible for Ludovic to play the part.

All the entertainments are a great success, with Thirkell having fun over props such as a false hump for Richard III which gets mislaid by being hung on the wrong peg; and even more over the various personality clashes at rehearsals and behind the scenes. The Bishop of Barchester, whom all correct-thinking folk despise at least as much as the Telly, soberly describes the ‘Mystery Play’ to be held in the crypt. It is however a modern play, written by Dhoidreagh O’Seianmhe whose real name was Bert Hobson. The Bishop goes into much detail about the characters, ‘Mrs.O’Gonnoreagh the Bad One, Pegeen the Prostitute, Mickeen the Murderer, Father Aloysius the Good One, and a mysterious stranger with a club-foot called Himself from Below.’ Lady Pomfret, to whom he is speaking, can only feel grateful that she has to trek to London for a long Coronation Day and its aftermath and thus will be unable to be present. Here Thirkell’s satire, which would give a modern editor conniptions, is very much of its day.

Americans do not escape the satire, though it is more affectionate, Thirkell having being greatly impressed by her visits to the US as well as being in American best-seller lists. There is a feeling among the well-established characters that ‘there’s not another country in the world that can put on a show like this.’ Interestingly, in the recent 70th anniversary celebrations, a similar view has been expressed by many that a royal family adds a unique dimension. In this passage Thirkell uses reported speech (as she frequently does) to add to the comic effect: ‘Mr. Woolcot van Dryven said he must, however unwillingly, agree. Though his feelings for any President of the United States, he said, must necessarily be those of the deepest veneration, representing as the President did the sovereign will of millions of citizens, yet, he said, if that President belonged to a faction, for a party he would not call it, which all right-thinking  – he did not mean the opposite of left-thinking but what it would perhaps be more correct to call all truly civic-minded citizens – could but look upon with scorn and abhorrence as prostituters – and he must beg the ladies present to forgive the use of the word when events justified it – of the State, why then, he said, any hundred per cent American must contemn such a man.’

Various solutions are found to the larger problems that arise apart from the festivities. The Earl and Countess accept an offer for the purchase of most of the land and buildings of Pomfret Towers, that white elephant of a stately home, from the proprietor of Amalgamated Vedge who is a trusty character of working-class origins. This solves their financial difficulties at a stroke. The dour scholar Miss Pemberton whom we have met in previous books, notably Northbridge Rectory, is revealed to be too unwell to attend the pageant, although taking a robust part in the rehearsals. The neighbours plot together to support her with such success that she summons her lodger and fellow-scholar Mr Downing to her room. She is ‘propped up with pillows and looking even more like one of the less agreeable Roman Emperors than usual…

“I wished to see you, Harold… to tell you that I have made a decision. You had better marry Mrs Turner as soon as is reasonable… That is all. I am tired and shall go to sleep.”’

Mr Downing is thus relieved of the responsibility of caring for his hostess and his quality of life will be greatly improved by marriage to the warm and friendly Mrs Turner.

But we still do not know the significance of the book’s title. The disgraceful Old Nandy ‘who still affected the Newgate frill of an older generation, his wicked face seamed with the dirt and wrinkles of a long disgraceful life’ has at the start of the narrative recited a poem:

‘Two score year and add thirteen,

Then a crowning will be seen,

Crowning of a Queen so good,

Mountain, steed, frost, fire and flood.’

The knowledgeable Mr Wickham has told his friends of it and describes it as ‘pure folk-muck.’  At the end of the book he returns to it, having begun to work out the allusions, starting with 1953 and the coronation. Mount Everest has been climbed by Sherpa Tensing and Edmund Hillary and the weather has produced its customary ‘midwinter fury’ for the summer together with bad flooding, notably in East Anglia. ‘Steed’ he can relate to the Queen’s horse winning the Derby.

‘“So there is only fire,” said Noel, whose interest in old Nandy’s prophecy was rapidly evaporating. “There is bound to be a fire somewhere.”

Mr. Wickham, who had been about to help himself to a third glass of sherry, put it down and looked at the Mertons.

“Good Lord! to think I never thought of it,” he said, to which Noel’s reasonable comment was that he would like to know what the it was.

“Well, you never know,” said Mr. Wickham, looking round cautiously in case any malign deities, requiring propitiation, were hovering in the neighbourhood. “But – suppose the fire meant the Ashes,” and at these words they looked at each other in silence with a wild surmise.’

This final phrase is of course a quotation: it is Keats writing about stout Cortez and is a typical feature of Thirkell’s writing. She usually slips in references such as these without any particular comment and rarely an attribution. Spotting and tracking down the sources of such items is more than a hobby to aficionados of Angela Thirkell and merit their own section on the Society’s website (www.angelathirkellsociety.co.uk).

Thirkell’s approach to the coronation exactly mirrors the general feeling in the country at the 70th anniversary celebrations of 2022. She would not herself have questioned the necessity of having a royal family as is increasingly occurring nowadays. But Dr Ford’s comment that ‘No self-respecting Trades Unionist would work the hours Her Majesty does’, even though that workload has naturally diminished in recent years, has in effect been publicly endorsed by a large percentage of the population, even including those for whom the idea of a monarchy is abhorrent.

One thought on “What Did It Mean? (1954) by Angela Thirkell

  1. I think I remember hearing that the “ashes” in 1953 is a reference to England wining the test cricket cup by that name from Australia in 1953 after many years of loosing to them. I have always inferred that the game/set of games was played and won by England before the book went to publication but after the apparent ending date of the novel by internal chronology.

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