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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.

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