1950. Knopf. Hardcover. 311 pages.
From: the public library
Recommended by: Well, the author in general was recommended by Claire of The Captive Reader.
In a nutshell:
This is the nineteenth Barsetshire novel written by Angela Thirkell. It is set in 1948 for the most part. There are a great many characters who swoop in and out of the pages, but my favorite story thread was this one: Isabel Dale, a woman in her late twenties, starts working as a kind of secretary for the Marling family, to earn a little money and get out of her mother’s household. While staying with the Marlings, Isabel makes new friends and reconnects with old acquaintances, some of whom knew her fiance, who died in World War II.
This is the first book that I have ever read by Angela Thirkell. My curiosity was stoked when I kept seeing her books pop up on Claire’s blog, The Captive Reader. This was the only Thirkell book on the shelves at my library branch and it falls pretty late in the Barsetshire chronology.
It was clear from the get-go that almost all of the characters encountered would have a backstory that I would know little about. Fortunately, Thirkell does a good job of sketching in enough background that I got what the characters were about and what they were like without having read any previous novels.
I will admit, however, as character after character ‘checked in’ to the narrative, I did start getting overwhelmed (which Claire warned me might happen). But then the narrative sort of settled down from the mad succession of new-to-me characters and I was all right. I actually in some ways enjoyed the multitude of characters because it gave the novel verisimilitude. If I look at my life, there are many ‘characters’ that pop in and out that would not fit into a neat plotline. So I liked that the novel was bustling with people. It certainly made County Chronicle fit its title.
The vast cast of characters was not my only challenge in reading County Chronicle. As Thirkell was writing about her own time and country, she of course didn’t provide the sort of helpful explanations that a modern (and American) reader would need. For instance, I was hopelessly lost when it came to the array of (Anglican?) clergy that flitted about the story, with all of their titles and roles with which I was unfamiliar.
In addition, the characters refer frequently to the government as “Them” and decry what “They” are doing but I lacked the context to fully understand their grumbling. I looked this up early in my reading and thus I read that Angela Thirkell was highly critical of the Labour Party who gained majority in the government in 1945. As I read further in County Chronicles, the characters became more specific in what they disliked, which seemed mainly to be increased regulations, taxes (especially on inheritance), and the set-up of free hospitals. The characters also seemed unhappy about the increase of immigrants into England. I hope I will be forgiven for subsequently equating these vocal characters with Tea Partiers in my head; blame it on the current nonstop media coverage of the Republican primary candidates.
And that brings me to the one thing that truly annoyed me about Thirkell’s writing (which otherwise was splendid and I promise to write on that in a moment). I don’t mind characters having political opinions, but it was pretty obvious that these anti-Labour sentiments were borne out of the author’s own bitterness and that was unpleasant. Furthermore, she makes her characters fall into eerie lockstep agreement on politics, with little nuance in viewpoint. The only exception was a woman who appears near the end of the book, who was a self-proclaimed socialist, and she was only put there as an object of ridicule. I found the whole political aspect of the book to become tiresome.
Now that that is said and done, let me get to the good stuff, for there is good stuff. The best stuff, actually, is Thirkell’s dialogue. You can really ‘hear’ the characters in conversation and the conversation flows naturally, complete with the little stumblings and nonsequiturs that appear in real dialogue. I loved Isabel Dale as a character right off, because of the way she said things. This is part of Isabel’s first conversation with Mrs. Marling, her ‘interview’ for the job and Mrs. Marling is the first speaker:
“I have a good deal of county work and so has my husband. I must tell you at once that he is always rather deaf and becomes stone deaf if he doesn’t like people. Do you feel that you could fit happily into our busy life, beginning by getting Lucy’s wedding presents into some sort of order?”
“I think I could,” said Miss Dale. “If you would like to try me I suggest a month on trial on both sides so that I could see about the presents and get the hang of things and you could see if I give satisfaction. I am twenty-nine, though I don’t look it because I’m fair, and am not engaged or likely to be so. He was killed in Italy. Lady Pomfret will give me a character and I can shout at deaf people quite quietly. John’s father was rather deaf and I used to talk a lot with him. He died of a broken heart I think in the end. I didn’t, so here I am.”
I just love how matter-of-fact Isabel is, and though she does still hurt from her loss and her strained relationship with her mother, she is an appealing encapsulation of “Keep Calm and Carry On.”
Thirkell also excels at her observations of human nature. Her good-natured skewering of selfish Oliver Marling is probably the best showcase, but it also shows itself in her descriptions of children playing, a group of friends and neighbors having an impromptu party in a row cottage, a goodbye party for a beloved clergyman and his wife. I also liked how the novel was shot through with the remembrance of the war that had so recently ended. One of my favorite, though heartbreaking, scenes, was when a normally upbeat character is thrown into melancholy after singing an old song called Home Fires from World War I. Someone has just told her about an engagement, and she, a single woman, is happy for the couple but cries to think of what could have been for her and the ones she lost.
“And when we did Home Fires this afternoon I thought of all my friends. They are all dead. If only I had married Froggy. He didn’t ask me, but I could have made him ask easily. Now one just goes on till one dies. And then I daresay one goes on again.”
So really, I was quite glad that I read County Chronicle. Do I think it was the best place to start with Thirkell? No, because I think it would be better to read it with at least some prior acquaintance with the county families. Also, I think Thirkell’s bitterness about the politics would be easier to take if one already had an established reading relationship with her writing. But if County Chronicle hadn’t been on the shelf at the library, it probably would have been a while before I read a book by Thirkell. Now that I know that I like her writing style, I will take the ‘effort’ to request earlier books of hers from the county library system and/or through interlibrary loan. Although, a big part of me is also motivated to go back to the very, very beginning and read Anthony Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire books first, since the fictional county is his creation and Thirkell’s characters are descendants of his characters. We’ll see.
Excerpts from others’ reviews:
Geranium Cat’s Bookshelf – “Unlike some, I am not greatly troubled by her politics, or her very non-PC comments about the lower classes and foreigners: I don’t agree with them now and I wouldn’t have agreed with them then, but I find far more to amuse than detract in her writing. For newcomers, though, early books are definitely best.”
Semicolon – “Actually, the main complaint I have about the book is that there are so many characters, and they’re hard to keep sorted. Nevertheless, Ms. Thirkell has a gift for vivid description and interesting situations. And it’s all very clerical and gentle and pleasantly English.” [My note: This appears to have been Semicolon’s first Thirkell book as well]