Have you ever had that feeling of massive excitement when you start a book by an author you’ve never heard of, find out her book is brilliant and then find out she’s written tons of other books you’ve never read – enough books to keep you going for literally months? Well, that happened to me a few days ago, when I spent pretty much all Easter weekend avidly reading my first ever Angela Thirkell.
This is how it came about. I hadn’t been feeling too good and was laid up feeling exhausted and pretty sorry for myself. My husband was going to our local bookshop (Salts Mill in Saltaire, which, incidentally, is my fabourite bookshop ever), and he brought me back a book chosen fairly at random, which he thought I might like. It was Wild Strawberries, by Angela Thirkell, and I more than liked it. I loved it!
Wild Strawberries was first published in the 1930s. Last year Virago started republishing some of Thirkell’s books, and hooray for them! This book is a lovely, gentle, funny read with what I think is absolutely typical English humour.
The story takes place in the thirties in an upper-class English home called Rushwater House, and centres round the Leslie family, headed by Lady Emily and Mr Leslie.
The book has a cast of characters I loved within moments: the three adult Leslie children (sensible, thoughful widower John; his charming and irresponsible brother David; and Agnes, the affectionate and dizzy mother of two small children); a seventeen-year old grandson Martin, whose father died in the war; Mary (Agnes’ niece), and all the servants: Gudgeon the butler, Conk (Conque) the French nanny, and Ivy the maid.
The main story concerns whether Mary will fall for selfish, charming David or his lovely, sensible brother John, but there are lots of other totally random things going on, too, for example the French family who come to rent the local vicarage, and who provide lively incidences of English/French attempts at entente cordiale.
Here are some of the incidents which made me love this book so much (but please note there is a small amount of spoilage):
1. David invites Mary to a restaurant for lunch, a special treat just for her because the chef flies in wild strawberries directly from Switzerland. Mary is massively excited by this romantic gesture, but when she gets there, she finds David has carelessly invited another woman, Miss Stevenson. She is gutted. The two women keep up a valiant rivalry, and at the end Mary says:
‘I suppose we are going to our cinema, David. We could drop Miss Stevenson.’ That at least should rankle.
‘Will you mind frightfully if we don’t?’ said David. ‘I want to see a man about my novel, and I know I’ll find him in the Café Royal till half-past three.’
The blood of many generations of soldiers ran in Mary’s veins. Inclining graciously towards Joan she said: ‘Could I take you anywhere? I have the car.’
Nor was Joan wanting in the stoicism of the Red Indian who makes no sound while his sinews are torn from him. She accepted with becoming gratitude.
2. Mary goes to visit lovely John at his office, to deliver a letter to him. Whilst there she bursts into tears over David’s thoughtlessness at lunch. Then she worries about disturbing John at work, and offers to ‘rush down into the car. I could quite well finish crying in there,’ but John is brilliant and comes to the rescue with tea and biscuits. I won’t spoil any more of this whole scene, but it’s both tender and funny at the same time.
3. I absolutely love all the domestic details, for example the description of the rocking-horse which has been in the family for generations:
Part of a doll’s tea-set and two nursery teaspoons were known to be in Dobbin’s stomach and no power on earth had ever been able to get them out. Mr Leslie had once made an ominous utterance about having a piece sawn out of Dobbin underneath, but Agnes had cried so bitterly that he had given up on his plan. Scarcely had David outgrown the horse, when Martin was old enough to be held upon it for a short ride. It was later David’s avuncular pride to rock his nephew upon it, a treat which always began for Martin with tremulous anticipation, continued in hysterical shrieks of joy, and usually ended in tears.
There is instance after instance of witty talk, for example the time David and Martin go to the local train station to meet Mary. A great crowd of hikers from London gets off the train. David and Martin link arms and pretend to ice-skate through the crowd. A few gave the Fascist salute, to which David politely made reply, ‘Good morrow, good my lieges,’ while Martin more simply responded, ‘Ave.’
Of course I have to say, as often is the case with books written at this time, that some of the attitudes wouldn’t be acceptable to us at all in the 21st century. But I think this really is a minor point and understandable from the point of view of society at the time. (Just think of the Earl of Grantham and his completely anti-Irish views in Downton Abbey. That sort of attitude was part of that time, and the fact my family are Irish didn’t make me switch off the television in disgust.)
It’s great that Virago have started republishing these books. The gentle humour, attention to domestic detail and the quiet way this book touches on family experiences such as grief and loss, have all defnitely stood the test of time. I loved it.
In the meantime, I’ve just been back to Salt’s Mill today to buy the other Thirkell novel published by Virago last year: High Rising. I’m saving it for the next time I need a witty, gentle read to really cheer me up!
Have you ever read anything by Angela Thirkell? Are there any authors you’ve ever come across by accident, who you’ve grown to love? If so, please let me know in the comments – I always love to talk about books :)