Angela Thirkell wrote novels set in Anthony Trollope’s fictional Barsetshire, but set ~100 years on, i.e. in her own time, and populated with descendants of Trollope’s characters. The obvious question is “why?”.
It is set just as WW2 is about to end. After six years of war, people are anxious about the upheaval and uncertainty peace will bring, exacerbated by their awareness that social norms are already beginning to change, so that they are no longer quite confident as to how to behave or address each other – interesting concepts that are repeated, but never really explored. It may capture the period and a particular set of people very well, but it is a very tedious read.
The book (I hesitate to say “story”) revolves around 19 year old Anne Fielding, who is being introduced to society, and finds it a little confusing as to who is related to whom – as did I.
The characters are like adult versions of those in Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, but without the adventure. There is some witty and even quite bitchy banter, but overall NOTHING happens, and in a dull way. It is disjointed, plodding and stilted (“quite the nicest mother one could have” – eugh). There are large chunks where people discuss, at length, who will travel in which car, what the train schedule is or exactly who will play tennis with whom. The minor aristocrats and upper middle class characters also have an odd obsession with viewing each other’s homes, especially the servants’ quarters and their private rooms.
Thirkell also follows Trollope’s annoying habit of giving peripheral characters utterly ludicrous names: e.g. Mr Manhole; Mr Cornstalk who lives in Barley Street; Lord Tadpole, and a village called Little Misfit.
There were a few good snippets buried in the tedium: “the country man’s eternal job of looking at other people working”; Miss S “refused to visit the dentist owing to some religious confusion about graven images”; someone who “takes a perverse pleasure in refusing comfort”; a conversation that was “highly profitable” because it was “was based on complete ignorance or fine crusted prejudice”; “Mrs B was more or less acquainted with everyone in a vague county way” and the importance of being an “old” family, but being in the village since Waterloo was relatively recent.
However, there are also some glaring irritations: “People weren’t usually like what you thought they were like” (commentary, not direct speech of a character); Rose saying “meagre” half a dozen times in a couple of pages, but never thereafter; some missing commas; randomly mentioning irrelevant characters just because they have a Trollopian surname, and “it’s me and George”.
I think this book will only appeal to those who can personally identify with it (my mother loves Thirkell, and I now understand why), or perhaps to historians wanting a slightly different angle on the period via a contemporary fiction.