As most of the neighbourhood was Cathedral property, and the firm of Keith and Keith had for many years done much of their legal business, Mr Keith had been able to put gentle spokes in the way of building development, and even bully the Barsetshire County Council into building quite presentable houses for the working classes well away from the delightful village street, of which no fewer than fourteen different views, including the church, the brick and stone houses of the gentry and the remaining plaster and thatch houses of the cottagers can be got at any picture postcard shop in Barsetshire.
Well, that’s the working classes put in their place, then. Behind the clergy, gentry & presentable cottagers. Angela Thirkell’s breathtaking snobbery is well-illustrated in this quote from Cheerfulness Breaks In. This is the first of her novels I’ve read but I already know that it’s the reason why I will never love her novels as I love the novels of Barbara Pym or Elizabeth Von Arnim (though they may be just as snobbish). Her writing is also maliciously witty & sometimes laugh out loud funny & she’s so good at dissecting the levels of village society. I feel I’ll learn a lot about the English class system by reading Thirkell so I’ll continue to read her books because she captures a moment in time that I love to read about – the 1930s & 1940s in England.
Cheerfulness Breaks In was published in 1940 & explores the effects of the beginning of the War on the Barsetshire families that Thirkell wrote about for over 30 years. The story begins with the marriage of Rose Birkett. Rose has been engaged many times & has cut a swathe through the masters at her father’s school, Southbridge. She’s a very silly, self-absorbed girl & her parents despair of ever getting her off their hands so they are relieved & grateful when Lieutenant John Fairweather comes along, marries Rose & takes her off to South America.
Southbridge is preparing to accommodate a London school, the Hosiers’ Boys Foundation School, which is being evacuated. The Principal of this London school, Mr Bissell (admirer of the Soviet Union & very disapproving of ‘Capittleists’), comes down to sort out the arrangements & much care is needed to avoid any dudgeon being taken. Mr Bissell & his wife rent Maria Cottage in the village & become friends with the writers, Miss Hampton & Miss Bent, who share Adelina Cottage in the same row. Both ladies spend an extraordinary amount of time drinking in the Red Lion & Miss Hampton writes racy novels that are routinely banned by the Book of the Month Club.
Rose’s sister Geraldine, along with her friends Delia & Octavia, are with the Red Cross & are looking forward to nursing the most terribly wounded soldiers they can get their hands on. So far they’ve had nothing more interesting than German measles & stubbed toes. Geraldine is in love with Fritz Warbury, a film director & all-round cad. He’s definitely a coward & maybe even a spy. His mother is pushing & vulgar & the Birkett & Keith ladies spend a lot of time trying to avoid her invitations while suspecting mother & son of being spies or worse.
Lydia Keith would love to be nursing but is tied to home, looking after her invalid mother, helping her father on his estate & involving herself in village war work such as her regular shifts at the local Canteen that provides meals to the many evacuee children billeted in the area. The novel gives a fascinating look at these early months of the War with the dubious delights of smelly evacuee children trading swear words with the village children & returning from weekend visits to their parents with lice.
My favourite character is the novelist, Laura Morland. Mrs Morland comes to stay with the Birketts while her house is loaned to London friends. She writes popular novels that have enabled her to put her four sons through school after she was widowed. She cheerfully admits that her books are pretty much interchangeable & her conversation has a disconcerting habit of going off at tangents. She is friendly with Miss Hampton even though neither has read the other’s books. I loved her explanation of why she sometimes likes the books & not the author or vice versa. As Miss Hampton says, “You and I needn’t read each other’s books. We write for Our Public, not for our friends. Mercenaries, you and I. Must say though we work for our pay.”
As always in a Thirkell novel, there are at least a couple of engagements. The most touching story is that of Lydia Grant & Noel Merton, an older solicitor who has joined up & is doing something secretive in an office somewhere. Their relationship is a classic one of lost opportunities, diffidence & overheard snatches of conversation leading to misunderstandings. Lydia & Noel’s marriage leads to the poignant cliffhanger ending of the novel & I desperately want to read Northbridge Rectory, the next book in the series, so I can find out what happens.