Happy Returns by Angela Thirkell

Angela Thirkell’s books could be subtitled Hatches, Matches and Dispatches in Barsetshire I suppose, but they’re always very enjoyable and funny comfort reads for me. I was so lucky to stumble across Happy Returns on a recent visit to the St Andrews bookshop because I wasn’t even looking for her books as I had looked not long before and there had been nothing at all. It just shows you that the inhabitants of the bookshelves are changing all the time.

Happy Returns was published in 1952 and it’s a real bit of social history as at the time it was written the health of King George VI was a worry to people, but it was time for a General Election and so the King had to be propped up in bed to sign the necessary documents. The Labour government has been squeezing the wealthier members of Britain’s population and of course all the ‘better’ families of Barchester are dead against that and all for a Conservative win with Churchill at the helm again. The Liberals come in for a lot of derision – so no change there then!

On the surface Thirkell’s books are easy comfort reads but she always mentions things which were of importance to people, like the fact that after 5 or 6 years of war many of the men who had seemed absolutely normal at the end of it, had been jolted unexpectedly as nobody came home as they had been before and they were all damaged by it in some way mentally if not physically.

As usual there’s plenty of mutual home visiting going on, and lots of parties and dinners are attended. Lady Cora is about to give birth, the Luftons are trying to get over the loss of Lord Lufton but his widow is having a hard time adjusting to being on her own. Their wealthy Scottish tenant Mr Macfadyen (Amalgamated Vedge) is accepted by Barchester society as a good sort. Mr Wickham still manages to get booze and seems never to be without a bottle of something.

Various marriages are forthcoming, one seemingly rocky marriage is saved, but the thing which is exercising the Jorams is the fact that His Grace the Bishop and the Bishopess, as they style that much hated harridan, keep postponing their cruise, which means that the Jorams keep having to postpone their party as they are determined to have it while the ecclesiastical bigwigs are away so that they don’t have to invite them. Honestly, it is funny, especially as the good people of Barsetshire are just about praying for the demise of that detested couple.

What I’m trying to remember is – do the bishop and his wife ever actually appear as characters or are they just referred to from time to time? I’m wondering if they are like Mrs Mainwaring in Dad’s Army and ‘Her Indoors’ in Minder – often spoken of but never seen.

I was swithering about whether to count Thirkell as Scottish, to me she is but to most folk she would be seen as English. Her father was Scottish and she obviously spent a lot of time in Scotland and was brilliant at writing in Scottish dialects, her maiden name was Mackail, her brother was Denis Mackail and her godfather was J.M. Barrie.

I’ll plump for being cautious and not count this one towards the Read Scotland 2014 Challenge as I’ll easily read more than 20 Scottish books this year anyway.

Midsummer Night in the Workhouse by Diana Athill

This is a book I borrowed from the library, purely because it’s a Persephone really although I vaguely recognised the name of Diana Athill. It turned out to be a collection of twelve short stories, the third one of which, called The Return won her first prize of £500 in an Observer competition in 1958, an awful lot of money in those days.

The stories are about relationships between men and women and although they were written 50 odd years ago it’s striking how the women are just like women nowadays except they sometimes wear long evening gloves. Their attitudes to the men in their lives seemed very modern, to me anyway the stories didn’t seem dated but I suppose that might say more about me than the stories.

They’re mainly written from the woman’s point of view and are at times funny and always observant about ‘types’. It’s so easy for each generation to think that they are the ones to have really discovered sex but these stories prove that it was all going on even before the 1960s, which is always put forth as the time when everything changed in society and morals went to hell in a handcart.

Anyway the book was an enjoyable read which has made me want to seek out Athill’s memoirs. She was born in 1917 and after graduating from Oxford she became a literary editor and helped Andre Deutsch set up his publishing company. She worked closely with lots of authors: Jean Rhys, John Updike, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Brian Moore and Simone de Beauvoir, to mention a few, not a bad bunch!