Friday 10 June 2011

Penguin no. 843: Summer Half
by Angela Thirkell

Why the excellent and intelligent Birketts had produced an elder daughter who was a perfect sparrow-wit was a question freely discussed by the school, but no one had found an answer. Mrs Birkett felt a little rebellious against Fate. She had thought of a pretty and useful daughter who would help her to entertain parents and visitors, perhaps play the cello, or write a book, collect materials for Mr Birkett's projected History of Southbridge School, and marry at about twenty-five a successful professional man in London. Fate had not gone wholeheartedly into the matter.

I only noticed the author's foreword after I had finished reading the book, but I thought it captured exactly how I felt about the story. These are her words: "It seems to me extremely improbable that any such school, masters, or boys could ever have existed." I would probably go further and say it seems improbable that any set of real life problems could ever be resolved quite so successfully. This is the kind of book suitable for a Sunday afternoon when you want nothing other to relax, and when you don't want to read critically or think too deeply about any issue, or experience any angst or tension. It is a book to be read passively, for there is never any doubt that the resolution will be a happy one for all the characters, and the one delivered is just impossibly perfect, and at least for this reader frustratingly so. The destination is clear; the story is simply about how the characters find their way there.

Colin Keith plans to become a barrister, and it is very clear that he should become one. The literature fascinates him, the drudgery suits him, and he has a wealthy father willing to support him until he is established. Yet perversely he decides to abandon his studies and take a position as a schoolmaster at the nearby Southbridge school, despite having little enthusiasm for the work and an aversion to the company of boys which he never overcomes. The potentially serious consequences of such an aberrant decision are all neatly sidestepped before the end of the first chapter when a new acquaintance offers to take him into chambers, but conveniently not until autumn, and Southbridge's headmaster recognises that the true vocation of his new appointee is the law . Colin Keith will be a master for the summer term only, no one will be adversely affected by his short term change of career, and the story now has the interesting background of public school life.

The story seems to overflow with circumstances, characters and consequences which are just as neat and contrived as this, and so it was only possible to enjoy it by treating it as a kind of fairy tale, a view of how nice the world could be if people were generally affable and selfless and things always turned out for the best, rather than as any approximation to reality. The fact that the author recognised this herself makes it much easier to enter into the fantasy and enjoy the world she has created. And perhaps the most interesting part is not the story anyway, but the way she captures the small details of middle class life.

The characters are all delightful in a narrow kind of way, interesting but not completely developed, generally defined by a handful of attributes, and with no sense of having a real existence independent of the story. They just seem too perfectly crafted for the roles they have to play, and to fit the story being told . So there is Colin's sister Kate who enjoys nothing more than organising, except perhaps re-attaching buttons and mending clothing. No character was ever created more clearly to fill the role of housemaster's wife, and of course the housemaster in the story lacks one. And there is the headmaster's daughter Rose, beautiful but dim-witted and self obsessed, unable to cope when attention is focused anywhere but on herself, and with a history of becoming unthinkingly engaged whenever she is asked, despite becoming quickly bored each time. She provides a contrast with Colin's clumsy other sister Lydia  with her vitality, enthusiasm and thirst for knowledge, so that it is clear who the truly attractive one is. Colin's short term and unexpected appointment as a Junior Master changes all their lives.

It seems that Angela Thirkell wrote a series of novels all set in the fictitious county of Barsetshire, and it is possible to trace the life stories of several of these characters by reading through the books. She has created lovely characters and I imagine you could get quite attached to them all. But the story itself seemed a little too contrived and unchallenging. Perhaps I started with the wrong one.



  1. David in Leeds30 July 2012 at 21:12

    I came across a rather bedraggled copy of this book a couple of years ago in York. Agree with you that it's lightweight and makes no claims to be anything else - but I found it had a certain charm.

  2. Try, "A Demon in the House" It is a truly charming and delightful book about a little monster of a boy who leads his long suffering mother a merry
    I think Angela Thirkell is a highly overlooked author perhaps because she was forced to churn out a new book every 6 months or so for about 20 some what like Agatha Christie, she did become disenchanted with her various characters and in the later book, it really shows.

  3. I've read almost all the Barsetshire books; they are a peculiar interest of my family. The county of course was taken from Trollope as are some of the family names. The books are witty and intelligent, and I feel as if I almost know these people after reading a couple dozen of these books (maybe there are more).

    Her accounts of wartime life in the country are both funny and poignant, and she tracks changes in the class system as the war ends and manufacturers take over for the formerly rich aristocracy and gentry. My family often identifies characters we encounter in "real life" by the names of Thirkell characters, so well does she encapsulate certain types. I think she's an overlooked genius of a very narrow kind.



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