• U.S.

Books: Perfect Thirkell

3 minute read

THREE SCORE AND TEN (312 pp.)—Angela Thirkell & C. A. Lejeune—Knopf ($4.50).

The notion that a novel should offer pleasant, diverting entertainment is unfashionable these days (as is, for that matter, the notion that entertainment should be pleasant or diverting). No young writer who hoped to find a publisher would begin his novel, as the late Angela Thirkell did her latest book, with “It was one of those delightful English summer days so well described by Lord Tennyson.” But for readers who had enough sense to come in out of the reality, it was not a bad sort of beginning. One knew where one stood, which was as far as possible from the mainstream of current literature.

The Aged Lords. Novelist Thirkell was one of the last surviving writers to play lawn tennyson. From 1932 on, she wrote a book a year, and to the great satisfaction of her readers, each year it was the same book. The end papers usually showed a map of Barsetshire (Novelist Trollope’s invented county), pointing out the locations of the great houses and offering, if one cared to know, an exact route from the village of Little Misfit to the town of Winter Overcotes. The title might be Enter Sir Robert, The Duke’s Daughter or even Love Among the Ruins, but the contents never varied. There was always just enough plot to hold together a succession of chats in which the aged Lord Stoke, who cultivates a deafness of convenience, Mrs. Morland, the giddy novelist, and various gentle-born friends agree that the bishopess (always absent) is a pill. Gradually, as the Barsetshire books piled up, nearly everyone of note in the county appeared, married and begat (hardly anyone died), and Storyteller Thirkell confessed that for the life of her she could not keep track of all the children.

The only issue (or Issue, as she would have written it) in Thirkell books is the regrettable march of progress; now and then someone will remark that Things are Not as They Once Were, and the rest of the guests at tea will agree that This is Bad. But progress mostly marches backward; a theme of several Barsetshire books is the evolution of the crude factory owner, Sam Adams, into a mellow squire by marrying one of the lesser county girls and becoming Acceptable.

Last Cake. When Angela Thirkell died last year at 71, readers accustomed to spending at least part of each year in Barsetshire felt summer-homeless. But the novelist had left five chapters of a new book, and Writer C. A. Lejeune, former film critic for the London Observer, undertook to pick up the almost invisible plot thread. Fittingly enough, she ended the book with a huge 70th birthday party for Mrs. Morland, the dithery novelist who, readers justifiably suspected, more than slightly resembled Author Thirkell. After the last bit of cake has been eaten, there comes a final passage whose treacle might have been spooned by the master herself: “‘Darling Lavinia,’ said Lord Mellings, ‘Are you sure you really want to marry me?’ To which foolish question he neither expected nor received anything but a silent answer. And so they lingered in Golden Valley for a short, precious time, while from faraway Barchester came the chime of bells, and the setting sun struck a last glint of light from the most beautiful cathedral spire in England.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com