Victoria's Report on the Angela Thirkell Society Meeting

I spent a wonderful weekend with fans of British author Angela Thirkell (1890-1961) at the University of Wisconsin, Madision, August 13-15, 2010.  See more about her books here.

Our conference began with a visit to the Rare Books Collection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Library. Curator of Special Collections Robin Rider and her staff assembled a fascinating array of volumes which we eagerly explored.

Since Mrs. Thirkell was the granddaughter of Edward Burne-Jones of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, we saw books related to his work, including many editions published by the Kelmscott Press, founded by William Morris. The volume at left is one of a limited edition of Chaucer, illustrated by Burne-Jones.  Many other Kelmscott books were on display as well as volumes written by women travel writers of the early 20th C. (of which Mrs. Thirkell was one) and a volume of bird plates from Australia, where she lived between 1919-1929.

After dinner Dan and Jerri Chase presented an illustrated talk about all the vehicles used in AT’s Barsetshire novels, from donkey carts and horse-crawn carriages to a RollsRoyce Silver Ghost.  Dan provided the technical data (his hobby is working with old cars) and Jerri read excerpts from the novels, in which cars are occasionally — well, shall we say — misused by certain rascally young men.

At the conclusion of the evening, Kathleen Fish, organizer of the event and treasurer of the society, invited me to read a bedtime story from a collection of children’s tales written by Angela Thirkell about 1935.  I was delighted to be a participant in the festivities.  I should also point out that President of the AT Society in North America, Barbara Houlton, had welcomed us all to Madison, even in the middle of a wild rainstorm and severe thunderstorm alert, positively the worst of midwestern weather. Luckily conditions steadily improved until the loveliest of sunny summer days bid us goodbye on Sunday.

Seven excellent speakers presented talks on Saturday, investigating the many dimensions of AT’s life and work.  At right, Sara Bowen speaks on AT and Jane Austen.
 If I tried to summarize the talks briefly, I could certainly not do justice to the excellent content and variety, so I will skip ahead to the Costume Dinner and Saturday night, in which each participant dressed as a character from one of the AT novels.
  It was hilarious as we all tried to guess each other’s identity.  I apologize for missing some of the participants and catching others in unflattering poses; you may email your disapproval! Left, Jerri Chase and Dan, who really was not asleep.
Edith and Norman Fearn of Buckinghamshire in the UK, joined Dan as below-stairs characters in the Upstairs/Downstairs theme of the program.
Tom Childrey of Coral Springs, FL, charmed (?) us as the overbearing housekeeper Mrs. Stoker.

l-r, Kathleen Fish, Sara Bowen, and Susie Fish as Laura Morland, Miss Austen, and again, Mrs. Morland (note the two sweet pea corsages).

Diane Smook of New York wore her mother’s authentic WWII&nb
sp;Red Cross uniform.

L-r, Sunny Gwaltney as Lady Cora, Kathleen Fish, Sara Bowen 

Barbara Spieker of Plymouth, WI, scowls as the irascible Aunt Sissie Brandon.

l-r, Victoria Hinshaw as the lady novelist Mrs. Rivers and Dr. Penelope Fritzer of Florida Atlantic University as the lady in the awful green hat! Sorry I have forgotten the character’s name.

l-r, Penny Aldred of London as Mrs. Rivers, special guest Simon McInnes (grandson of Mrs. Thirkell) of Ottawa, Canada, and Alasdair Neil of London, as the butler.

After breakfast on Sunday morning, we held a business meeting and a closing quiz with many, many prizes.  All in all, everyone had a great time.

For those of you missed by my camera, you will probably consider yourself quite luckly to have escaped!! 

The North American branch of the Angela Thirkell Society will gather again in 2012, probably in New Haven, CN,  at Yale University, where Mrs. Thirkell’s papers and first editions are collected at the Beinecke Library.  I look forward to the day!

The Angela Thirkell Society Meets in Madison, WI

Victoria here, off to Madison, Wisconsin, in a few days for the meeting of the North American organization of the Angela Thirkell Society. At right, a drawing of Ms. Thirkell (1890 – 1961) by John Singer Sargent, 1918.

The Conference (August 13-15, 2010) will center on the theme
 “Upstairs/Downstairs.” Included will be a collection of cars of Thirkell’s period (1930’s-50’s), speakers on Thirkell’s novels, and a gala costume banquet. For more information, click here.

Many of Thirkell’s  novels are set in the fictional English county of Barsetshire and some continue the stories of characters introduced in the novels of Anthony Trollope.  Another author to whom she is often compared is Jane Austen, though Thirkell expanded the “two or three families in a country village” to a larger region and many families of various levels of society, including the servants.

Angela Margaret Mackail was born on January 30, 1890 in Kensington Square, London. Quoting from the website, “Her grandfather was Sir Edward Burne-Jones the pre-Raphaelite painter and partner in the design firm of Morris and Company for whom he designed many stained glass windows… Her grandmother was Georgiana Macdonald, whose … family which included among others, Stanley Baldwin, the Prime Minister, and Rudyard Kipling. Angela’s brother, Denis Mackail, was also a prolific and successful novelist.”
Angela Thirkell married twice and had sons with both husbands.  She moved to Australia with second husband George Thirkell (1890-c. 1940), but returned to England without him in 1929.
If you aren’t familiar with the 30+ novels of Angela Thirkell, you have a treat in store.  Many have been reprinted recently and ordering information is available on the website.  Or try your local library.  Mine has a wonderful set of well-worn, well-loved books that circulate frequently. The website also has a dictionary of characters and locations in Thirkell’s novels and a list of brief summaries. For even more information, try the website of the British Thirkell Society.

Above, a portrait of Thirkell in later life.

Angela Thirkell wrote gentle comedies of manners. Her characters are deftly drawn and manage to invlve themselves in many humorous situations that call for witty repartee — or perhaps for purposeful misunderstandings.

The 30’s-set books often reflect on the changes in post-WWI Britain. the 40’s books continue the quiet life of Barsetshire during the war along with the trials and tribulations of living in the difficult economy plus many local romances.  After WWII, the novels are often concerned with the trials and tribulations of living under the new Labour-ruled government, which is not a favorite of the local gentry. One of the new features of the neighborhood is a government agency called by most The Department of Red Tape and Sealing Wax. 

Here are two typical examples of Angela Thirkell’s style of humor, both taken from Love Among the Ruins, published in 1948, and set in Barsetshire of of the same period.

“…she went off to one of those sham organizations that are called by their initials, only no one knows what the initials stand for.”
    “It was the P.E.U.G.I.,” said Mrs. Birkett. “Pan-European Union for General Interference…”

Speaking of Scotland…”Though this description of what was evidently heaven was of a very sketchy nature, such was Mr. Belton’s enthusiasm and so pleasing his confidence in his hearers that they all felt deeply nostalgic for Scotland, which most of them had never visited.”

To conclude, here a few excerpts from an essay in the New York Times of January 4, 2008, entitled “Life, Love and the Pleasures of Literature in Barsetshire”  by Verlyn Klinkenborg.

“When I first came upon Thirkell, nearly 30 years ago, she seemed like a diverting minor writer. Minor now seems too slight a word to me for
the purveyor of such major pleasures. … Thirkell has often been called nostalgic because she is describing a kind of life — English county life — that was vanishing even as her books were appearing. Yet there is nothing nostalgic or sentimental in her tone… You read her, laughing, and want to do your best to protect her characters from any reality but their own.”

I concur.

Author Hester Davenport to Speak at Burney Society Conference

Hester Davenport, author of The Prince’s Mistress: A Life of Perdita, Mary Robinson and Faithful  Handmaid: Fanny Burney at the Court of King George III, (Sutton Publishing) will be speaking at a conference entitled “Women under Napoleon 1802–12” that has been jointly organised by  The Burney Society and the Université-Paris Diderot, to celebrate the life of Frances Burney in Paris, and to promote Anglo-French relations and the study of women’s writing on revolution and empire. The conference will take place 10–11 June 2010 at the Institut Charles V, rue Charles V, Paris.
Hester’s talk English Women and the Revolution, will include dramatised readings by Hester and Karin Fernald. Other seminars include Napoleon through British and French Caricatures (1799–1815), Germaine de Staël’s 1812 Dilemma by Flora Fraser,  Pauline Bonaparte: Procuress for her Brother the Emperor Napoleon?, Florence Filippi on French actresses and Napoleon and Madame d’Arblay’s ’French Notebooks’ by Peter Sabor of McGill University.
For more details, a list of hotels and to make a reservation, contact David Tregear (Burney Society secretary): 36 Henty Gardens, Chichester PO19 3DL Email:

Bowood and the Lansdowne Family

By Vicky Hinshaw

Bowood House, c. 1890

In May of 2009, my husband and I spent two weeks in England, another trip to feed my near-fanatical interest in all things historical and British. Our first stop after arriving was in Wiltshire, where we stayed at the lovely Stanton Manor Country Hotel.

As always, I had a long agenda for the trip, centering on visits to stately homes and the opportunity to learn about the families who lived in them. Number one on the list was Bowood, the country estate of the Petty-Fitzmaurice family, perhaps better known by the title of the head of the family, the Marquess of Lansdowne.

The area of the Bowood estate was part of the forest of Chippenham and belonged to the crown until the early 18th century when a house was begun on the ancient site of a hunting lodge. The first Earl of Shelburne purchased the unfinished property in 1754 and enlarged the house. His son, the 2nd earl and first Marquess of Lansdowne, hired famed Scottish architect Robert Adam (who had designed Lansdowne House in London) to further enhance the house and build an adjacent orangery and a menagerie (housing a leopard and an orangutan); Adam also built a mausoleum for the 1st earl in the extensive parklands surrounding the house.

After WWII, when Bowood was used by the Royal Air Force, the main house was left empty and decaying. In 1955, the 8th Marquess had it pulled down. The orangery and adjacent buildings were remodeled to house the family and its collections.

Bowood Today

The Adam Dining Room from the demolished big house is now the board room of Lloyd’s of London in their City headquarters.

Beginning in the 1760’s, Lancelot “Capability” Brown (who else?) designed the gardens, which include a lake, a classical temple and rolling fields. Two decades later, picturesque elements were added: a grotto, waterfalls, and a wilderness. In the 2,000 acre parklands, magnificent Rhododendrons bloom every spring. This impressive display, begun in the 19th century, includes many rare species. Wandering through the colorful scene, over the carpet of bright bluebells and beside blossoms of every shade was a most delightful way to spend a May afternoon in 2009 for my husband and I. As we strolled, we came to the sober Adam-designed mausoleum which now houses the remains of generations of family members.

Today Bowood has built a popular children’s adventure playground, full of birthday parties and eager celebrants on the day we passed. The rooms on exhibition at house (formerly the Orangery and associated buildings) include a magnificent library with fireplace and furniture from the old house and the laboratory where Joseph Priestly studied gasses and discovered oxygen in 1774.
The Library
The Sculpture Gallery

The art collection has many paintings associated with family members such as Admiral Lord Keith, great-grandfather of the 5th Marquess. Keith officially accepted the surrender of Napoleon Bonaparte on behalf of the British crown in 1815.

Admiral Lord Keith

Admiral Lord Keith’s daughter was Margaret Mercer Elphinstone, close confidant and correspondent of Princess Charlotte of Wales (daughter of the Prince Regent, later George IV). After the Princess died in 1817, Meg married the Comte de Flahault, who served as an Aide-de-camp to Napoleon. Though her distinguished father disapproved, the Comte was well liked and friendly with many Whigs such as Lord Holland and the Duke of Bedford, and the Admiral grew fond of him.

 General Comte de Flahalt

Margaret Mercer Elphinstone,
Baroness Keith, Comtesse de Flahault

Meg, an heiress both from her father and her late mother, was well known in regency-era society. She was a good friend of the poet Lord Byron and received from him the Albanian costume in which he was painted about 1813. Meg also was portrayed in the outfit which is on display at Bowood. Meg succeeded her father as Baroness Keith. She was known in England by the latter title and as Comtesse de Flahault in France. She and her husband divided their time among homes in Scotland, London and Paris. Emily de Flahault, daughter of the Comte and Meg, married the 4th Marquess of Lansdowne and is the mother of the fifth Marquess.

Byron in Albanian Dress, Artist: Thomas Phillips, c. 1813
Meg in Byron’s Albanian costume

Bowood is not only a fascinating piece of history; it is part of the evolving fate of the English Country House. In today’s difficult economy, such a property must pay its own way. Supporting a family and employees, upkeep and renovations, cascading expenses and taxes – are almost crippling in their combined effects. While many institutions provide assistance (usually in exchange for public access), adequate funding usually means all sorts of services and events that bring in paying customers. The house and garden are just what I love, but the vast majority of the customers when we were there were at the children’s Adventure Playground. Bowood has also opened a golf resort and fine restaurant nearby. A quick perusal of the website will tell the story clearly.