Enter Sir Robert by Angela Thirkell

Enter Sir Robert cover

Where do I go when things like the weather and never ending house stuff are getting me down? To Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire of course! Her books never fail to cheer me up.

Whilst I was reading Enter Sir Robert I couldn’t help thinking that nothing much was happening really, there were no deaths, marriages or even romances going on but that didn’t detract from the entertainment.

The whole book is more or less about the Graham family. Agnes, Lady Graham is becoming more like her deceased mother (Lady Emily Leslie) every day, her children are all adults now – or nearly adults as the youngest, Edith, has finished school but is at a bit of a loose end.

Sir Robert Graham is about to retire, as his wife keeps reminding people all through the book, she sounded very like me at times actually as I have Jack’s retiral at the forefront of my mind so often.

However Sir Robert is never there, he’s always working elsewhere, mainly in London I think, and he doesn’t actually ‘enter’ until the very end of the book.

Otherwise the Hallidays feature quite a lot as the local bank has been renting an old house from them for years, as a bank branch and home for the bank manager. Things are changing though as a new housing estate has been built and they are going to relocate the bank there, so what will become of the Old Manor House now.

Lots of people have tea and look around houses that they’ve wanted to inspect the attics of for yonks, and Mrs Morland, that successful novelist (surely Angela Thirkell herself) plays quite a large part in this book.

If you visit Thirkell’s Barsetshire frequently, as I do, then reading one of her books is just like sitting down for a cosy chat and laugh with an old friend. When she wanders off at a tangent and has a bit of a moan about life in general, it always seems to be something which I absolutely agree with her about. It’s one of the reasons her books have been so popular over all these years, her observations on life and people are just perfect. If she had been alive now she could have had a good career as an observational stand-up comedienne.

Thirkell didn’t have a high opinion of herself as a writer though and as Mrs Morland she mentions that her readers wanted her to write a book each year – and didn’t seem to mind at all that she was really just writing the same book each year. Well, I see what she means, especially as for the first time ever I’ve read two of them in the correct order and one straight after the other, but it’s the slight repetition which gives them their cosiness, you’re safe in Barsetshire, and sometimes that’s just what you need.

The Proper Place by O. Douglas

I’m on a bit of an O. Douglas binge at the moment. The title The Proper Place is a reference to a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale in which a whistle is blown and everyone is magically whisked to their proper place in society, I must admit I don’t know that one at all.

Anyway, when I read the blurb on the dust cover fly-leaf of this old book I just had to read it because it’s about a family of women who have to move from their beloved home in the Scottish borders as they can’t afford to live in their large house now that all the men in the family are dead. Their friends want them to take a smaller house in the same neighbourhood but they think that a clean break would be best and decide to look for a house in an entirely different part of Scotland.

Mrs Rutherford, her daughter Nicole and niece Barbara end up living in an old stone harbour house with crowsfeet gables in Fife of all places, which is on the east coast of course and where I happen to live. The localities were all familiar to me although most of the place names had been changed they were still recognisable, so I spent my time saying to myself the red rocks must be the ones at Wemyss – and such like.

Nicole, the daughter is the type of person who speaks to everyone and makes friends wherever she goes (Evee!). Her cousin Barbara is more stand-offish and a bit snobbish, but Nicole is determined to settle into village life and sets about visiting the locals who are an odd set of people, including a retired couple who had lived most of their lives in India.

Towards the end the action does move back to the Peebles area, so beloved by all the Buchan/Douglas family. There’s romance of course, eventually and as O. Douglas herself said, her books are as sweet as home-made toffee, but they’re always mixed with sadness somehow, which makes these comfort books of hers more true to life really, especially when you remember that they would have been read by women who had lost sons and husbands in wars and children to what are now trivial childhood illnesses. The book was first published in 1926.

I’ve read quite a few of her books now and I’m sure that there is a wee bit of repetition now and again in them, it’s something which J.M. Barrie did too in his books, were they being thrifty Scots?!

If you know Fife at all, and the borders for that matter then it does add more to the experience I think, it is nice to recognise places and even buildings mentioned in books. I was trying to think which harbour house she had used as the house in the book and I had decided that only Dysart fitted the description, sure enough she does mention in her book Unforgettable,Unforgotten (I’ll write about that in the near future) that she used the Dysart Harbour Master’s house for the setting. The photo below is one which I took of the harbour with the back of the house in the background, it is now a musueum and bistro.

Dysart Harbour Master's House

The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett

This is Persephone Book no 29 and as I recall I bought it from a charity bookshop in St Andrews more than a year ago but I read recently on a blog (which one?) that it was a great read so I got down to reading it at last.

Frances Hodgson Burnett is of course well known to us through her books The Little Princess and The Secret Garden but this is the first of her books for adults which I’ve read and I really did enjoy it.

Emily Fox-Seton has the knack of finding good in everyone, her character is so sweet and good that she should really be a bit of a sickener but amazingly she isn’t. She’s not a fool or a prig but has great common sense and is stoical about her situation. She is a 34 year old woman of good breeding but without money and she has to earn her living by being a bit of a dogsbody for ladies who will pay her to help them, securing good cooks for them or tracking down bargains at sales, anything which will enable her to keep life and soul together.

At 34 she’s deemed to be not only on the shelf but positively dusty and she seems never to have any hopes in that direction for herself, but as this book is a bit of a fairy tale for adults, and given the title of the book it’s obvious that things are going to take that turn for her. Like all good fairy tales though, there is a dark period of danger around the middle of the book. Will it all fall apart for Emily? Well what do you think!

If you want to read this book you can download it from Project Gutenberg it’s under the name of Emily Fox-Seton there.

There are lots of Frances Hodgson Burnett books to choose from, have a look here.

Priorsford by O. Douglas (Anna Buchan)

Priorsford is a sequel to Penny Plain which you can read about here. It was published ten years after Penny Plain and the story has moved on just about the same amount of time. Jean now has three children and is living in England at her husband’s estate. It’s years since she has been to visit the folks back in Priorsford (Peebles) in Scotland so when her husband has to go away for the winter with a friend who is very ill, she takes the chance to move her family back to where she grew up so that she can catch up with all her old friends and neighbours. Mrs. Duff Whalley thinks the worst, of course, as that type always does.

I think I enjoyed this one more than Penny Plain which was a wee bit too preachy in parts for my liking. This is an enjoyable comfort read but there are plenty of mentions of the hard times which so many people were experiencing in the 1930s. The problems were all so similar to what’s going on today and I briefly thought to myself that we’ve always had periods of unemployment and poverty – and then I remembered what it was that got us out of the 1930s depression – war! They’re going to have to come up with a better solution this time around!

This excerpt is towards the end of the book when Jock is complaining about his office job:

‘It’s a good opening,’ Betty reminded him. ‘Just think how many there are who would be thankful for it.’

‘Oh, I know,’ Jock agreed. ‘There are dozens of men who were with me at Oxford, most of them better scholars, all of them quicker in the uptake, and they simply can’t get a bally thing to do. And people rave about the youth of our country having lost the spirit of adventure, and asking why they don’t go to the Colonies and carve out careers for themselves. But these men have little or no capital, and the Colonies don’t want them.’

As you can see, Priorsford is more than a comfort book, it delves into the problems of the day, but the inhabitants of Priorsford are much the same as before so they’re all recognisable ‘types’. Jean as a wife and mother is rivalling the mother in Little House on the Prairie books for being mild mannered and almost saintly, the way she puts up with her husband and family!

I’m looking forward to going to Priorsford (Peebles) soonish and I want to go to where the Laverlaw meets the Tweed, local legend has it that Merlin is buried there! Have you heard about that Evee, and did you ever discover the location of The Riggs?

Peace Breaks Out by Angela Thirkell

This book was first published in 1946 and as you would expect from the title it’s 1945 and the war in Europe is just about to come to an end. You would think that it would be a time of celebrations and relief but in truth the people are all a bit unnerved by this new situation as they’ve become used to war and all pulling together and having one common enemy. Everyone is worried about the future and how things are going to change.

I really enjoyed this one though and all the young people are getting nicely paired off with each other. Even David Leslie, the charismatic but ‘bone-selfish’ favourite of Miss Bunting is being ‘managed’ by one of his many old flames. It’s mainly light-hearted and humorous but it has the odd passage in it which I’m sure had a lot of readers of that time shouting ‘hear hear’ when they read them. Like:

A very horrid rumour of more peace was floating about in Barchester and indeed about all England for a few days before Anne’s visit, filling everyone with deep misgivings about trains and more especially about the grocer and bread. Public opinion was divided, some saying They would certainly have peace on a Tuesday so that one could get the rations done on Monday, others saying that they knew for certain that the King had asked for peace to happen on Friday, so that everyone could have a long weekend. Yet others, and these a very large class including all the housewives of England who had been working for sixteen or seventeen hours a day ever since the war began, looking after children and aged relatives, standing in queues, walking a mile to the bus and taking an hour to get to the nearest town only to find that the whelk oil or chuckerberry juice or whatever it was they were told their children must have wasn’t in and it was two hours before the bus went back and anyway they had been given the wrong certificate, slaving at W.V.S. in their meagre spare time, suffering evacuees, taking in lodgers because their husband was getting only army pay now, cooking for everyone, firewatching, being wardens, being mostly too tired to eat, seeing Italian and German prisoners of war riding happily about the country in motor lorries while they pounded along on bicycles against wind and rain or lugged heavy baskets on foot, seeing mountains of coal and coke at the prisoner of war camps while they were down to two hot baths a week and very little soap for the washing and the laundry only coming irregularly every three weeks, seeing Mixo-Lydian and other refugees throwing whole loaves into the pig bin and getting the best cuts at the butcher’s, keeping their children nicely dressed while they got shabbier themselves every day, too driven to consider their looks, unable to have their houses properly repaired, having to be servile to tradesmen and in many cases to tip them in money or kind, seeing one egg in eight weeks with luck, in a state of permanent tiredness varied by waves of complete exhaustion, yet never letting down anyone dependent on them; this great, valiant, unrecognised class, the stay of domestic England, all knew that THEY would burst peace on them whenever it was most inconvenient and went about their shopping listlessly, waiting for the tiger to spring.

Whew – that’s what I call a rant, and it’s just as well that the people then didn’t know that things were going to get even worse, and rationing was going to carry on right into the 1950s because Britain was having to send food to Europe, when they didn’t even have enough for their own population. Then of course there was the debt of more than one variety which was owed to the U.S. The monetary one was only paid off a couple of years ago!

Anyway, if you ever see an Angela Thirkell book, and you enjoy books which are set in the 1930s and 40s, do yourself a favour and snap it up.

Jalna by Mazo de la Roche

Jalna cover

I don’t know what it was that got me thinking about this author and her Jalna series recently, as I mentioned before they were in the public library which I used to work in but even then (1970s) they were regarded as ‘old hat’. I have to admit that I’m a bit snooty when it comes to some books, well quite a lot of books actually, and I think I looked down my nose at poor old Mazo de la Roche because there were so many of the books, it looked like they’d just been churned out.

Anyway, I haven’t seen anyone else mentioning this author so I thought I would give her a go as part of the C P R Book Group. It was first published in 1927 and Jalna is the first in the Whiteoak series, it was an instant best seller. The American magazine Atlantic Monthly awarded Mazo $10,000 for Jalna, a huge amount of money in 1927. The first of any sort of series must be the awkward one because it’s necessary for the writer to do a lot of scene setting and and basically info dumping so there’s always going to be a certain amount of clunkiness in that process, but I still found Jalna to be an interesting and entertaining read.

It’s set in Canada where Adeline and Captain Philip Whiteoak have moved to after their marriage in Bombay where Philip had been in the British Army. At the beginning of the book Adeline is 99, her husband is long dead as are the mothers of her grandchildren and they are all living together along with Adeline’s two surviving sons on the family estate which is called Jalna. Gran Adeline is a domineering but amusing character. Her pet parrot, which of course perches on her shoulder, also swears fluently in Hindi, which I wish I knew!

It’s a lot to keep straight to begin with, there are so many male characters but as with all good family sagas there’s a family tree at the beginning. My heart did sink a wee bit at first because chapter 1 is all about the 8 year old Wakefield Whiteoak who is supposed to be a loveable rogue I think. In reality I would never have tired of giving him a good skelp – how un-PC of me! But the story soon moves on to all the other family members and their lives.

Well I found myself caught up by all the various characters and I’m happy that I managed to buy the second book in the series the other day. I got the first one from my local library.

It isn’t what you would call high brow literature, more of a comfort read really and that’s exactly the job that this series did, especially during the time of World War II when real families were scattered all over the world by the conflict. There are 16 books in the series and I think I’ll work my way through them all eventually.

This is a book which I read as part of the C P R Book Group Ceilidh and although I enjoyed it I’m giving it a tentative HEE-YOOCH (remember this is just a bit of fun, nobody else has to hee-yooch or black spot!) which would probably translate to about 4 out of 5.