Tuesday 26 June 2018

Northbridge Rectory by Angela Thirkell

Northbridge Rectory was my very first Thirkell. But it certainly won't be my last.
Lucky me! I still have 28 books in Thirkell's Barsetshire series ahead of me to enjoy at my leisure. I've added her to my Author Challenge list so I can keep track of my progress. In fact, I enjoyed my time at Northbridge Rectory so much I have spent the bulk of today trawling the blogosphere for other devotees so we can rave and gush together!

I think I first spotted Angela Thirkell on Heaven Ali's blog many years ago. I fell in love with the new Virago covers, so much so that when I spotted Northbridge Rectory on the shelves of a lovely little Indie bookshop, I knew I had to have it.

Last week, as the winter days drew in, I was in need of something gentle and comforting. I suspected that Thirkell would fulfil this need nicely. From the start I found her to be just like a warm English Breakfast tea served in a floral bone china cup - delicate yet robust, obvious and subtle in the same mouthful with the bitterness covered up by a generous spoonful of sweetness.

Written in 1941, we see Thirkell and her characters making do and muddling through the war years the best they can, in what we now know to be the middle of the WWII. However, neither Thirkell or her characters knew this. They had no idea how much longer they would have to soldier on or how much more making do they would have to do. This sense of uncertainty, stoicism and nostalgia for the pre-war days imbues everything that happened in Northbridge Rectory. From the constant discussions around food supplies (or the lack thereof) to the billeting of soldiers and evacuees from London and the hilarious saga around the 'roof-spotters' watching for paratroopers atop the local church.

The descriptions of war-time England were certainly one of the stand-out features of Northbridge Rectory. Thirkell related, almost by accident, the hardships and dreariness, the speculation and gossip, the stiff upper lip and social decorum at all costs that was so typical of so many of the English at this time. The fact that Thirkell was writing her war story as it happened makes it all the more poignant to the modern reader as well as being a remarkable snapshot in time now long gone. I'd be curious to know if Thirkell realised that her books might become a kind of historical record of England pre, during and post WWII? Yes, there is a lot of author fantasy and wish-fulfilment at work here, but a certain kind of truth and bitter reality shines through the sweetness as well.

I thoroughly enjoyed the gentle English humour and charming nostalgia that this book evoked. The lovely relationship between the Rector and his wife, Mrs Villars, shone with gentle understanding and tenderness. The kindhearted noisy nieces (one named and one unnamed throughout the entire novel) with their love interests and common vocabulary made me smile at every encounter. The dear old ladies in Glycerine Cottage with their terrible French and chere amie's living a quiet life of love with nobody blinking an eye. Mr Holden and his weird devotion to Mrs Villars health, the co-dependent relationship between the studious Mr Downing and tough-as-cookies Miss Pemberton, Ex-navy man Father Fewling happily manning the air raid shelter and keeping everything in tip top shape. Kitchen maid Edie carrying on behind the scenes with Corporal Jackson in constant fear of Mrs Chapman finding out. I really loved them all by the end, even the truly ghastly Mrs Spender with her 'believe it or not's, 'I'm funny that way' and 'if you know what I mean's. Mrs Spender is one of those gloriously awful characters that you love to hate, rather like Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice or Miss Bates in Emma (or even Emma in Emma!)

Hermione Lee in her essay ‘Good Show: The Life and Works of Angela Thirkell’ in Body Parts: Essays on Life Writing, says ‘these light, witty, easygoing books turn out to be horrifying studies in English repression’. For me, that was the lovely surprise. That these lovely, light, fluffy looking books in fact hid an underbelly of dark social observation and clever characterisations.

I also enjoyed all the literary references, word play and class consciousness that Thirkell oozed onto every page - although after reading through the 'relusions' for Northbridge Rectory at the Angela Thirkell Society I quickly realised that I had only got about half of Thirkell's literary and cultural allusions.

During my search of the blogosphere, I discovered that Claire @The Captive Reader classified NR as one of her least favourite Thirkell's, which has now bumped up my expectations for the other 28 books to ridiculous heights!

Hayley @Desperate Reader  described NR as a book where 'not very much happens, but it doesn't happen in a very enjoyable way.' She also mentioned the rewards and pleasures of rereading Thirkell - I can't wait!

However Booker Talk was not so much a fan. She found that High Rising was 'as substantial as eating an enormous meringue; it looks impressive but once you get your teeth into it, it dissolves into a sugary tasting nothingness.'
Given that High Rising was Thirkell's first book, written in 1933, to escape a disastrous marriage and socially backward Australia, perhaps we shouldn't expect too much at the start. There was a sugary sweetness to Northbridge Rectory too, but I unearthed so much Jane Austen-like satire and social commentary lurking under the surface, that I found myself becoming more and more thrilled with each chapter.

I feel that this book response has gotten clunkier as I've gone along, when all I really wanted to say was how much a adored this deceptively simple war story. It won't be for everyone, but it suited me just fine!

Book 7 of #20booksofsummer (winter)
Sydney 17℃ but felt like 12℃ (brrrr)
Northern Ireland 24℃ (how lovely!)


  1. Northbridge Rectory is probably my favorite Thirkell, for all the reasons you describe (and despite her really awful snobbery!), but I'm also very fond of Lydia and her whacking great odes of Horace. I love love the Barsetshire novels, but I have to admit it's some time since I read through the stack on my shelf. I do feel it necessary to warn you that I find they aren't as good after about 1946; Peace Breaks Out is about as far as I go. After a while they get to feature too much catching-up and not enough fresh material. There are lots and lots to enjoy though!

    1. Thanks for the heads up about the austerity years, given that Virago hasn't republished that far through the series yet, it might be hard to find them anyway.

      Thirkell's snobbery is so blatant that it actually becomes part of the fun!

      Glad to have found another Thirkell fan :-)

    2. Yes, it does!

      My copies are all elderly pocket paperbacks from Carroll & Graf, who probably don't exist any more. I'm glad Virago is republishing them.

  2. I am so glad you enjoyed your first Thirkell! I love her and reread her books regularly. I want to read them all in order but I don't own them all. I might need to do something about that. Some are better than others but that is true of almost any author. Thirkell creates such a complete world. I feel like I could go there on a visit and know the people and the countryside.

  3. Yay Thirkell! I love her, too, although I don't have this one yet (it's on my wishlist). I've reviewed a few of hers, I was trying to read them in order but there are so many and my friend sent me a few in a box of books so I'm setting for reading what I have in their chronological order rather than seeking out everything in between.

    1. That's my theory for now too Liz. I have about 5 of them lurking on my TBR pile, mostly all set during the war years, like this one.


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