High Rising by Anglea Thirkell is my second book of 2013. You may be wondering what my first book was. Well, it was Rifling Through my Drawers by Clarissa Dickson Wright... a very enjoyable wander through a year in the life of the famous cook and author. It seems she's hardly at home as she does so many public appearances and attends so many county shows. You hear people say sometimes that they think it would nice to be famous. From this book I gathered that being famous is Very Hard Work Indeed and it would not be for me. But a very good book, and I'm pleased to have her autobiography, Spilling the Beans on my current library pile.
Anyway, I digress. I've been hearing about Angela Thirkell's books for years. Someone suggested them to me years ago (I think it might have been hagsrus) but I never did get around to them. Then a couple of people on Facebook started pimping the first book, which has been republished by Virago, to me and I ended up ordering it from Amazon in part... I have to admit this... because of this gorgeous cover:
Laura Morland is a widow and mother to four boys. Three are grown-up and have flown the nest, the youngest, Tony, is eleven or twelve and at a public school. When she was widowed Laura realised she had to find a way to earn enough to send her boys out into the world and keep Tony at school, so she took up writing lurid crime novels connected with the fashion industry. Her books have done well and continue to do so. In fact, she's an extremely popular author and makes enough not only to keep Tony at school but to own a flat in London and a cottage in the village of High Rising. (Having trouble remembering where it is, possibly Berkshire?)
It's Christmas and Laura and Tony are heading to the cottage for the school holidays. It's a place where they feel comfortable, know all their neighbours, and Laura's sectretary, Anne Todd, also lives there with her aging and ailing mother. The first thing Laura discovers, via village gossip, is that a close friend, George Knox, author of history books, has taken on a new secretary, one Miss Grey. No one seems to care for her very much and George's daughter, Sybil, is especially reticent as she lives with them and is apparently subject to violent mood changes. Village talk has it that the secretary also has designs on matrimony with George. People, including Laura, are worried as George is very talkative but also rather oblivious and it's felt that he could find himself married without even realising it. How are his friends going to solve this problem without causing a major upset?
What a delightful read this was. I gather it was written in 1933 and that certainly is very apparent. The dialogue is rather Brief Encounterish, with people ennunciating properly, certainly no sloppy speech or slang. It makes a very nice change! While reading I was put in mind of two series of books, one was Daisy Dalrymple by Carola Dunn, mainly I think because of the dialogue, as Daisy speaks just like the people in High Rsing. The other was books by Miss Read. The reason for that was the village atmosphere - one of well-healed folk living in nice houses, visiting each other frequently, being nosy about other people's affairs but also wanting to be friendly and to ease the burdens of their neighbours.
One other thing struck me forcibly and that was the way in which people didn't mince words when talking to others in this book. If visitors came and you tired of them you turfed them out and they went meekly. If you thought someone was behaving badly, being silly, or was boring you to tears, you told them so. I wondered if this was the manner of the day? If people were far more straightforward about their opinions and needs than we are today? We do a lot of dancing round the maypole when it comes to not hurting people's feelings or trying to be politically correct. They didn't bother back then it seems...
The story itself I thought was extremely enjoyable. The problem of the secretary and what to do about her was huge fun. There was a nice twist at the end which I didn't see coming. But I also found myself very involved in the lives of all of Laura's friends, the romantic aspects... (how nice that this was not just about the young being romantically involved but also the middle aged - another Miss Read parallel)... their day to day lives, problems, illnesses and peculiarities.
Lots of humour in this too. Mainly it was based on the natural oddness of people - it's beautifully observed - but also characters such as Stoker, Laura's housekeeper, bring a lot of humour, George Knox who never stops wittering on, and Tony, Laura's son who's obsessed with railways. I also found the addition of Laura's night-time reading material highly amusing. The titles seemed to get more and lurid as the book went on: Death in the Potting Shed, The Hulk of the Hidden Blood, The Bucket of Blood, The Omnibus Book of Blood, Torture and Disease and so on. Hilarious.
I have to say that this is a beautiful edition of this book. The cover, to my mind, is stunning. I haven't ordered the next book, Wild Strawberries, yet, but doubtless I will do as that also is gorgeous. The book after that is, I believe, Demon in the House and is about Tony. It's hasn't been republished, the library doesn't have it and it's not all that cheap on Amazon, so whether I'll be getting that one I'm not sure. I rather suspect young Tony could become a bit wearing in a book of his own. I'll think on that.
All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable read and I'll certainly be looking for more books by Angela Thirkell.