If you’re in need of some cosy period escapism at the moment (and who isn’t?), you could do a lot worse than delve into Angela Thirkell’s High Rising, first published in 1933. It isn’t life-changing literature but, like the self-proclaimed ‘second-rate’ novels penned by its heroine Laura, it has a distinct charm of its own. We meet Laura Morland as she is taking her young son Tony home from school for the Christmas holidays, to their cottage in the country village of High Rising. What follows is a mixture of social drama – of the gentlest and most genteel kind, as a series of potential romantic attachments ebb and flow among the middle-class villagers – and mild mystery. Why has such trouble been caused by the arrival of Miss Una Grey, the new secretary hired by Laura’s friend and fellow writer George Knox? Does she really have ambitions to marry him? And, if so, how can Laura protect his shy daughter Sibyl from the claws of this Incubus (as Miss Grey is christened)? Charming and mild, this feels like a Sunday-evening BBC period drama in prose and, although you never have any doubts that everything’s going to end up neatly resolved, there’s some fun to be had seeing how it develops along the way.
The characters in High Rising are pleasantly relatable: they aren’t the bright young things of other social dramas set in this period – think Evelyn Waugh or (a little later) Nancy Mitford. On the contrary, these are solid middle-class people – middle-class in the way of the 1930s, of course, which means that they have a bolt-hole in a London mansion flat as well as a country cottage, but they nevertheless do need to work. Our dramatis personae includes authors, a publisher, a doctor, and the sympathetic Miss Todd, obviously of good birth but fallen on hard times as she tends her dying mother while trying to earn a bit of pin-money by working as Laura’s secretary. These are solid professional people, but all have their own quirks and eccentricities. The point of the book isn’t really the plot – the chiffon-thin story about Miss Grey – but to watch this handful of characters cheerfully interacting, and to watch themselves stumbling (or being steered) onto the right paths.
Thirkell seems to be enjoying herself immensely, perhaps because having an author as her protagonist means she can add elements of her own experience. Laura briskly dismisses her successful novels – mysteries all connected with the high-fashion workshop of the resourceful Madame Koska – as ‘hack’ work: they bring in enough money to live on, but are not ‘literature’. One gets the feeling that Thirkell might well have done the same with this kind of effervescent, cheerful novel. In fact, Laura seems to borrow from Thirkell in other ways, as a competent, capable woman left without a husband’s income and having to make ends meet in a modest yet satisfying way. The comparison isn’t direct. Thirkell had divorced her first husband and abandoned the second in Australia, arguably a more dramatic assertion of singledom than Laura, who is widowed but finds herself somehow failing to be very good at it:
I never think of myself as a widow. I’m just myself. Have you noticed how real widows go all crumpled up after their husbands die? They seem to shrink and cave in. But I don’t crumple a bit. I suppose I haven’t the real widow spirit. Besides, it is so comfortable to live alone – except just now and then, when one feels a superfluous woman and would like to have someone to go to parties with.
I was reminded, at some moments, of Marjorie Hillis’s classic guide for the single woman in the 1930s, Live Alone and Like It – you sense that Laura would rather savour some of Hillis’s advice about self-pampering, although it’d be rather difficult with her impossible train-obsessed son Tony running about. (Thirkell writes very well about boisterous, messy, over-excited little boys and the blended affection and exasperation they cause their mothers.) Tony is a wonderful character, somewhat peripheral to main events but often used as a way to deflect or distract conversation in moments of great need; the rest of the key cast are equally vivid, though constructed on the basis of only one or two characteristics. One feels, perhaps, that Adrian Coates spends rather more time sojourning in country villages and falling in love than you’d expect of a leading London publisher, but this isn’t meant to be the real world. And perhaps Sibyl is rather too sweet and silly for her own good. But Anne Todd is a complex, well-written character with a surprising amount of depth for a story like this, and George Knox is a triumph: a boisterous, blundering, loquacious, grandstanding writer who has a tendency to start out on monologues at parties and clearly needs a firm hand on the reins. Thirkell clearly relishes his digressions, such as this declamation on the role of uncles in British history:
Some day I shall write a book about the Great Uncles of history. Great Uncles, I mean, of course, not great-uncles. They appear to me to have been the curse of England. From the days of Arthur – whose nephew Mordred, by the way, had no high opinion of his uncle … to the days of Victoria, uncles have always been in the ascendant. I go no further on account of my intense loyalty. I challenge you to name more than two English kings who did not suffer the intolerable tyranny of uncles.
This is not a book for those who want a tightly-controlled plot steaming towards the finish with purpose and dynamism. Rather, it’s the kind of novel to read with a cup of tea on a wintry day by the fire or with lemonade on a lazy summer afternoon when the sun has leached all the strength from your limbs and you just want pure diversion. You certainly do find out about Miss Grey’s machinations and intentions, but this bubbly, delightful book is more interested in the way that the other characters move and slot together in a constellation of potential attachments – the literary equivalent of gossiping with your neighbour about the doings of the rest of the village. Only a certain section of the village, mind – the working classes are here represented by figures such as the glowering yet soft-hearted Stoker, or members of ‘Mr Knox’s Annie’s’ extended family – our protagonists are firmly of the professional class and, refreshingly, largely middle-aged by the reckoning of the time. It fits into the same category of comfort-reading as some of the British Library’s Crime Classics series, Elizabeth von Arnim, Barbara Pym (of course), or the Persephone series (Monica Dickens’s Mariana came to mind in particular).
I have two other books by Thirkell on my Kindle (Summer Half and Before Lunch), so I’m looking forward to reading those at some point, for another dose of gentle 1930s charm. To my excitement, Virago have released a veritable bouquet of her novels (all set in fictional Barsetshire), so I’ll probably end up buying more. Perhaps one of the first purchases should be Christmas at High Rising, a collection of short stories also featuring Laura Morland and her friends, which might be fun to read.