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.”