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High Rising by Angela Thirkell [book review]


High Rising, Angela Thirkell’s debut novel in her Barsetshire series, was born out of adversity.

Having left her husband in Australia on the pretext of taking a holiday in England, she resorted to writing chiefly through the need for money.  She went on to write a further 28 novels all set in the fictional county created initially by Anthony Trollope.

This is the only Thirkell I will ever read. I wasn’t sure even before opening it that it would be my cup of tea but I’d heard her compared favourably to Barbara Pym to whom I have taken a shine this year. Pym’s writing is however a lot more sharp and insightful than Thirkell’s and it’s that edginess I was missing here. Reading High Rising was an experience about 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.

High Rising rests on the reactions of a female author Laura Morland and her chums in a rural village when a dear friend George Knox (an author of historical biographies) acquires a new secretary.

Morland and co decide the secretary Una Grey, or as they nickname her “The Incubus”, is a schemer who is out to get her claws into George using devious means such as poison pen notes. They set out to rescue their friend from sleepwalking into an inappropriate marriage. In parallel, there are some other budding romances that need to be nurtured and brought to a happy conclusion.

It’s all related in a light, amused tone by a narrator who exudes warmth and tenderness towards the main characters and their little foibles. Most of the time I found the gentle humour cloying though I did enjoy a few laugh aloud moments with the characterisation of Morland’s son Tony. This young boy is a force of super energy, totally absorbed in his own world and his obsession with motor railways.

‘I could get a Great Western model engine for seventeen shillings, but there is a much better LMS one for twenty-five shillings. Which do you think? ‘

‘I should think the Great Western, if it only costs seventeen shillings and the other is twenty-five’

‘Yes, but Mother you dont see. The Great Western would only pull a coal truck and one coach but the LMS would pull three coaches quite easily.’

‘Well what about the LMS one then?’

‘Yes but Mother then I’d have an LMS engine and Great Western coaches. Didn’t yiu know my coaches were all Great Western?’

‘Well Mother considering I was telling yiu all about them I thought you would know. mother which would you say?’

‘Look Tony’ said his mother,mystifying a desire to kill him, ‘there’s Mr Reid’s shop. we shall be home in a minute.’

‘But which do you think Mother? A Great Western to go with the coaches or do you think the LMS?’

And so on.  You get the picture….

His incessant chatting is only one reason why his mother’s patience is tested to the limit:

She had sent him to school at an earlier age than his brothers, partly so that he should not be an only child under petticoat government, partly, as she remarked, to break his spirit.  She fondly hoped that after a term or two at school he would find his own level, and be clouted over the head by his unappreciative contemporaries.  But not at all.  He returned from school rather more self-centred than before, talking even more, and, if possible, less interestingly.  Why the other boys hadn’t killed him, his doting mother couldn’t conceive.

I’m glad she didn’t break that spirit because as irritating as he is, he at least feels more like a real personality than anyone else in the novel. The rest didn’t engage my attention at all, even his mother with her frequent disastrous moments involving hairpins and the typewriter ribbon and her frustrations with people whose grasp of grammar is fragile, didn’t  raise much of a titter.

I know there are plenty of people who love this kind of novel, and are great fans of Thirkell. They obviously have far greater appreciation of gentle humour than I possess. I’m off in search of something more edgy; a salted caramel brownie rather than a meringue I think.


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

20 thoughts on “High Rising by Angela Thirkell [book review]

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  • Virginia Jones

    Over many years I’ve read (and reread some of Angela Thirkell’s books but this past winter, and with all 29 of the Barsetshire books in hand I decided to read them from the very beginning sequentially. I am about to start JUTLAND COTTAGE which means I’ve got 8 books to finish. Although the books can vary in quality, the books exude charm and humor as well as telling a good story. Yes, the first book or two in the series are not the best and you have to read on a bit to start to get on course. Although each book has a similar plot line the characters vary and while some get left behind in later books, many carry through reappearing from time to time. There is humor and great descriptions of locations, houses, rooms, people, church yards, schools, and the country; there is engaging dialog filled and some very witty asides or “divagations.” There are great animals (the ponies, the bulls, etc.) and lots of country lore although I suspect that some of it was from Mrs. Thirkell’s imagination rather than fact. The stories ebb and flow but there is a thread through each of a way of life now forever gone and perhaps that is for the better. Who knows? I have enjoyed each and every book and will be very sorry to come to the end of the series but I have spaced the reading out so I could almost start over and maybe I will in several years. I am an American which may color my enjoyment, and I’m pushing 75 which means that while many of the stories predate me I can relate to them, particularly those set in the late 40’s or early 50’s.. Each title can have some sad stuff in it but in general, each story has a happy ending (and what more could one want?). Yes, they may be a bit cream puffy but there is considerable wit and edginess if you pay attention. And language is used as language should be, with care and thought.

    I have reached a saturation point on most modern fiction — why would I want to read about misery and tragedy or psychotic/neurotic people? These stories may sanitize the country side and the characters can be a bit snobbish but on balance I would take this over Barbara Pym any day! I haven’t found much pleasure in reading either Penelope Fitzgerald or Muriel Spark.

    Anyone wanting a good read should find a book by O Douglas (Anna Buchan — sister of John) who wrote beautifully. Or Susan Pleydell. Search out Grey Ladies Press.

    • Good for you that you have found an author whose work you enjoy so much that you are thinking of re-reading them. Always a good indicator I think.

  • Jerri Chase

    Thirkell develops and changes. High Rising and Wild Strawberries, her early works, are rather light. The books set during WWII have a lot more social commentary about issues that seem important today, especially considering that when they were written the war was still ongoing and no one knew how it would end. My personal favorites from the pre-war books are Pomfret Towers and Summer Half.

  • I recently read this book and I actually liked it, though not loved it. I have heard Angela Thirkell’s best work isn’t High Rising and that Wild Strawberries is a better read. I want to read that too before I form an opinion

  • I tried Thirkell once and found her a bit too sugary for my tastes too.

  • I am having fun with Alexander McCall Smith (as a break from heavier stuff) and completely agree with your sweets analogy. I just used “meringue” myself in Monday’s upcoming review.

  • Not as sharp as Barbara Pym or Muriel Spark or Penelope Fitzgerald – or are those the wrong comparisons to make?

  • Oh dear. Funnily enough, I bought this novel along with another Thirkell for £1 in one of the local charity shops a couple of months ago. (Now I know why it was going cheap!) I’ll give it a whirl at some point, but at least I know what to expect – light and fluffy as opposed to sharp and witty.

    • Mine was a charity book purchase too though double the price you paid. It’s going back into the charity shop circulation today. Sharp and witty it is certainly not.

  • If I am honest I want to love Angela Thirkell but can’t quite. I have read three or four and have liked them though found them lighter than I would like. I did enjoy the son in this one I thought he was funny. I have a couple of other Thirkell novels which I have been sitting on for ages and in fact may not read.

    • I had a strong idea they you would have read her Ali. If yiu weren’t wowed either I feel better….

  • I tried this one and gave up – I just couldn’t take it at all, and interestingly enough found the wetness of Laura Morland and the irritating nature of her son unbearable!

    • Wet is the perfect description of Laura. She’d irritate the hell out of me.


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