If one didn’t know of Angela Thirkell’s distinguished background as a granddaughter of Sir Edward Burne-Jones and daughter of a classicist, it would be tempting to describe her as a kind of country cousin of P.G. Wodehouse’s. An unaffected and intelligent one, whose humour is less sophisticated but bubbles over with just as much glee. The middle-class world she has created, where young men come from families that are comfortably wealthy rather than outrageously so, offers a counterpoint to the Mitford or Wodehouse worlds with their aristocratic characters who travel the world and mingle with more louche, bohemian ones.
There is no bohemia in ‘Summer Half. It tells of Colin Keith, a university graduate who is supposed to be training for the bar but decides to take a teaching job at Southbridge school instead. He’s spurred on by a sense that at his age, he should be earning his keep. He feels both heroic and dejected by his decision; how will he fare, faced with a classroom full of bright, sarcastic boys? The adventures that follow make for an excellent comic novel inhabited by teachers, pupils and Colin’s family members.
The environment is typical middle England, with a gentle suspicion of anyone who stands out too much. Two men are described as having ‘middle’ political opinions. Indeed, throughout the book, the characters who come out best are the commonsensical ones who hold no extremes of political or personal views. The atmosphere brings to mind the Twins at St Clare’s series by Enid Blyton, in which people are good sports, where vanity and affectation are relentlessly bulldozed over by timely doses of ridicule.
For instance Rose Birkett, the vain and feather-headed daughter of the headmaster, is far too pretty; such prettiness is suspicious and comes out a loser when compared to the unselfconscious sartorial disorder of Colin’s young sister Lydia. Thirkell opposes Rose, a delightful apparition in ‘pale pink organdie,’ to Lydia, who was sitting on the ground, her feet straight out in front of her, her face, neck, arms and legs bright red, and her hair tied back with an old tie of Swan’s that she had borrowed.
Less suspect than beautiful Rose is Kate, Colin’s other sister, a practical young woman. Thirkell pokes kindly at her obsession with sewing people’s buttons on for them, darning socks or and worrying about navy thread having been used instead of black.
In one funny passage, well-bred Kate tries to make polite conversation with Philip Winter, a communist teacher who is in a bad mood because he’s in love with flirtatious Rose. He replies with sour rejoinders about poor people ‘in the depressed areas’ and the evils of fascism, much to Kate’s bewilderment. A general conversation ensues; other people butt in, good old common sense wins out and Philip is made to look pretentious.
In such scenes, Thirkell’s exquisite observations skills are apparent. Out of a deceptively simple mix of people she creates conflict to great comic effect. The characters are multi-layered and yanked in different directions by their moods and internal worries, just as people are in real life. And Thirkell displays subtlety in the development of her characters; they evolve realistically, learn from each other and avoid becoming caricatures.
The setting of a school, its rituals and daily life, is entertaining and informative to a contemporary reader. Teachers and pupils alike show a deep passion for literature. Their lively discussions offer a respite from the intrigues and crossed lovers’ quid pro quos . As young Colin hesitates between his law studies and his school-teaching job, we get an insight into what the two different careers would mean, both socially and intellectually.
This portrait of parochial England in the 1930s is enlightening and charming. It is striking to be reminded of the impending war (the book was first published in 1937). When Rose comes back from an outing with two admirers, they describe the man in a black shirt they saw outside the cinema. Fairweather Junior says: It was a man selling little books. One of those blackshirt fellows, you know, like Puss in Boots in a polo jersey. I don’t know why, but it was awfully funny. Lord! It was funny!
The blackshirts are treated with derision. Lydia adds that no one knows who they are; they are ‘seedy’ whereas the communists, like Philip, are people you meet having tea at people’s houses:
I’ll tell you another funny thing about these blackshirts, said Lydia. No one knows who they are, or where they go. I mean, have you ever seen one, except standing on the pavement in waders, looking a bit seedy?
Such historical nuggets add to the interest of Summer Half. Virago is reprinting Thirkell’s books, with three coming out this May, for which readers will be thankful. The writer’s ability to create a fully formed world peopled with attaching characters should ensure her success lives on.