The World of Angela Thirkell

angela thirkellIt’s curious the way that some of the most amusing and comforting writers develop their voice out of personal tragedy. Any reader might be forgiven for thinking that Angela Thirkell led the same sort of easy, untroubled life of the gentry – with visits from the vicar, summer fêtes up at the village’s manor house and children mostly packed off to boarding schools – that the protagonists of her novels enjoy. Her early connections were unusually good: one of her grandfathers was Edward Burne-Jones and she could count among her cousins Rudyard Kipling and Stanley Baldwin. But by the time she began to write, she was no stranger to hard circumstances. Her first marriage was to a singer, James Campbell McInnes, who turned out to be a violent drunk. She had two sons with him, and a daughter who did not survive, before divorcing him in 1917 in a blaze of undesirable publicity. She married again, this time an Australian engineer and army officer, the splendidly named George Lancelot Allnut Thirkell. They went to live in Melbourne, where she had a third son, but the lower middle class life style she had to adopt was not at all congenial to Angela. Claiming it was nothing more than a holiday, she packed up the sons that would come with her and sailed again for England, never to return. And never to marry again: ‘It is very peaceful with no husbands,’ she was quoted as declaring.

Forced to generate some income of her own, she turned to writing, and published her first novel at the age of 43. She soon found she could publish a novel a year and had almost forty to her name before she died.

Last summer I read Wild Strawberries, and just this morning I finished High Rising, the first two reissues by Virago. They belong in the same stable as Dodie Smith, and E. F. Benson, as the gentlest form of social satire. She has been compared to Barbara Pym, but Pym had a great deal more to say, of a sharply insightful nature, about loneliness. Angela Thirkell is just there to guide her characters through the mildest storms in village tea cups, before the inevitable and charming happy ending, easily effected when marriage proposals fall so readily from the lips of her male protagonists. In High Rising, single mother and author of ‘good bad books’, Laura Morland (Thirkell in semi-disguise) is drawn into a web of complications surrounding the new secretary of her dear friend, George Knox. The secretary, Una Grey, is a scheming sort with an unbalanced temper and a tendency to send poison pen notes, who is longing to marry some unsuspecting meal ticket. Laura and her saintly friend, Anne Todd, step in to prevent George from a typical Thirkellian fate of marrying in a deep state of inattention – a sort of unconscious coupling that must set up a precedent for Gwyneth Paltrow’s latest conscious uncoupling, perhaps.

None of this plot particularly matters. Angela Thirkell sets out to amuse, with Laura’s state of mind legible in the state of her hair – one particularly taxing morning leaves her looking ‘like Medusa on a heavy washing-day’ and her relationship to her small son Tony, a mix of adoration and irritation, offering wonderful scenes at his boarding school, notably a boxing match where ‘shrimp-like figures’ approach each other with ‘downward clawing motions’ from arms that looked ‘about as strong as boiled macaroni’ before the gong sounds and they ‘fled back to their corners, where they tasted real glory, lolling majestically, arms outspread on the ropes and feet dangling well off the ground.’ In fact, the less that happens, the better Angela Thirkell is at describing it. The essence of her world is a kind of Edwardian nursery, where silliness occurs because of short tempers and wounded pride, but there is always someone sensible on hand to restore order. As in the case of George Knox’s lonely approach to his house ‘which occasionally caused one of Mr Knok’s maids to have hysterics and give notice. But being local girls, their mothers usually made them take it back.’

high rising

Servants are intriguing in Thirkell’s novels. While their masters and betters restrain themselves at all times to the most tepid expression of emotions, the mildest of manners and the most distantly tender of relations (or as Hermione Lee phrases it: ‘these light, witty, easygoing books turn out to be horrifying studies in English repression’) the servants are there to tell it like it really is, with strong language, violent emotions and cherished paranoia. They may argue and shout, act compulsively and capriciously, but their emotional stamina lasts well beyond that of their employers. The most disturbing parts of Thirkell’s books are the out-of-date attitudes towards foreigners and the lower-classes, but if her main protagonists patronise their servants, it’s nothing in comparison to the contemptuous patronage they are forced to suffer in return.

It’s a particular and distinct world that Angela Thirkell writes about, one in which small boys want nothing more than to accompany their elders on a hunt, one where kindly doctors don’t charge fees to their favourite patients, where people are generally good and kind and helpful to one another and things work out just fine, thanks to the benevolent intervention of fate. And for the most part, Thirkell’s humour is exceptionally tender, born of loving amusement. It’s a strange, lost world, but a gentle one.

We have to feel for her, then, that one of her sons, Colin McInnes, was a bohemian bisexual who grew up to write books about everything his mother could not bear: ‘urban squalor, racial issues, bisexuality, drugs, anarchy and decadence. He found her novels ‘totally revolting’, a ‘sterile, life-denying vision of our land’.* Unsurprisingly the two of them hated one another, and she cut him out of her will (though she never said anything unpleasant about his books). When we read a Thirkell novel, we get to blindside the uncomfortable, challenging elements of life – that’s the entire point of reading them, to take time out of reality. You do wonder what it must have been like for Thirkell to live there in her imagination all the time.

* Hermione Lee wrote a very entertaining and perceptive essay entitled ‘Good Show: The Life and Works of Angela Thirkell’, which appears in her book Body Parts: Essays on Life Writing. The quote comes from this essay.


Jamaica Inn

jamaica innJamaica Inn was the novel Daphne du Maurier wrote before she produced her masterpiece, Rebecca. She had been married a few years and was trying to adapt herself to life as an army wife, a situation with far less money than she was used to, and far less independence and solitude. She had recently come to the conclusion that she was only happy ‘in the middle of Dartmoor in a hail storm within an hour of sundown of a late November afternoon.’ Yet she found herself cooped up in army quarters, surrounded by other army wives and their children in whose business she was expected to show an interest. For the first time she experienced the dreariness of poverty around her, and could not understand how other wives coped with their domestic burdens.

There was one wretched woman,’ she wrote to a friend, ‘whose husband was only a private and she had nine children under nine! They live in a room half the size of yours… and three of them wouldn’t walk and had a skin disease and they were all propped up on chairs around the room while the poor woman cooked the rather unsavory stew for midday dinner.’

She found such circumstances deeply disturbing but her temperament led her to shrink from them. She wanted to do better; she was deeply in love with her new husband, and it was a marriage of passion, love at first sight, she had admitted, which had shocked her to the core of what she had always considered to be her unromantic soul. ‘It was,’ she wrote, ‘going to be a bit of a job at first to change all my old ideas and to have a shot at living “unselfishly” for the first time in my life.’ She was impressed by her husband’s ideals and his integrity, his sense of duty. Still, she often found herself escaping from the barracks and roaming Bodmin Moor, where a new novel began to take shape.

Jamaica Inn has elements of what would become classic du Maurier – a powerful sense of place, a strong spirit of adventure, a determined heroine who would struggle and suffer but not be beaten. Her heroine is Mary Yellan, who is obliged by a promise to her dying mother to go live with an aunt she barely knows in the middle of the inhospitable moors. It is precisely the kind of windswept November dusk Daphne loved that Mary is travelling through when the novel opens. The coachman is reluctant to set her down at Jamaica Inn, which has so bad a reputation he will not speak about it. Mary arrives to find her uncle, the landlord, is a drunken bully and a criminal who has reduced her aunt to a quivering wreck. All too soon, Mary learns that the Inn is the gathering place for a network of smugglers, rough, ugly reckless men who will stop at nothing to follow their trade. She decides that her uncle will not break her, and that she will somehow get her aunt away from him.

Daphne du Maurier’s eye-opening experiences with the honorably poor were transformed in her writer’s imagination. She has a particularly lurid collection of thieves, pedlars and vagabonds clustering around Jamaica Inn, and the inn itself is a wonderful piece of squalor and degradation. But rather than the tedious reality of reduced circumstances, her poor folk step a few rungs further down the ladder and take on the altogether more vivid and fictionally alluring mantle of crime. Jamaica Inn, and all it stands for, is portrayed as brilliantly, aggressively terrible.

Mary’s purpose is troubled, however, when she meets Jem Merlyn, the landlord’s younger brother. Jem is upfront about his profession – horse thief – but he has charm and sobriety that brother Joss lacks. Despite herself, Mary finds she has fallen in love with him. Daphne du Maurier knew what it was to fall in love unexpectedly, and to be attracted to a certain kind of alpha male, whose clear and steady convictions exert a potent desirability. Mary’s plans to bring the landlord to justice herself, and to maintain her stout-hearted independence are repeatedly undercut by Jem’s better insight into the situation at the inn, and her sheer lust for him. Writing in the early years of her marriage, tightly bound to her husband, but feeling for that very reason that her wings had been clipped, we might assume that du Maurier knew whereof she spoke.

Jamaica Inn is essentially a rip-roaring, old-fashioned sort of tale that stands the test of time because of the evocatively wrought atmosphere and Mary’s spirited defence of herself and her aunt. But for all her boyish determination, Mary is trapped by her gender. No one will allow her to live alone or make her own choices. She is simply not as strong as a man. Love is a cage of its own making. At regular intervals across the narrative, Mary bemoans her misfortune in being born female, and nothing in the story gives her reason to change her mind; even falling in love, supposedly the one adventure open to women in her era, is a different kind of prison. Daphne du Maurier was writing in the 1930s, when women were restrained and held back every which way, and could never have dreamed of the life their granddaughters would lead. Du Maurier was more far-sighted than most, having been born half-boy as she liked to think. But precisely because her own spirit hankered for more than she was allowed, she could be bitter about the constraints she had to accept.

Marriage was about to make one almost intolerable demand on her. Tommy, her husband, was soon to be transferred to Egypt and Daphne would go with him. For someone who loved rainy moors in November, Egypt was a hellish exile. Daphne’s sense of place, already strong in her writing, would reach its apogee in Rebecca, as she longed for the Cornwall of her youth. And her artistic vision would have matured too. Rather than write about someone who has everything she wants and loses it for love, as Mary Yellan ultimately does, she wrote about a woman who has nothing, and whose gains in marriage are invaluable and all too precious. Then she puts them at terrible risk from being haunted, and maybe destroyed, by the past. Jamaica Inn was a very useful – and readable – stepping stone on Daphne du Maurier’s creative pathway.

This is my desperately late contribution to the Slaves of Golconda read of Jamaica Inn. Better late than never, right guys?




Murakami: Imagination Overload

kafka-on-the-shoreReading your first Haruki Murakami novel is a bit like trying lobster for the first time. It’s got quite a culinary reputation: you know it’s a sophisticated dish, that it satisfies a refined palate, but fear it might be an acquired taste. You may be on the verge of an amazing experience, but you might also suffer a nasty allergic reaction. Well my first Murakami novel was Kafka on the Shore and I seem to have emerged from the odyssey undamaged. I found it mystical, engaging, clever and innovative, but I also thought it pulled its metaphysical punches.

Two strands of narrative intertwine. In one plot, Kafka Tamura, a fifteen-year-old runaway, is escaping the influence of a father who he fears will damage him psychologically if he stays. Kafka’s mother and sister left when he was only four years old. His memories of them are potent if hazy, for he knows something essential left his life with them. His father has placed him under a strange prophesy, one that claims he will kill his father and sleep with both his mother and his sister, and like Oedipus before him, Kafka is running away from the curse at the same time as he is running towards it.

In the other part of the narrative, X-File type documents detail a strange occurrence that took place in 1944, when a group of school children, mushrooming in the woods, glimpsed something in the sky that might have been a UFO before all falling into a comatose sleep. The children recovered without significant effects, apart from one child, subject that day to a violent attack by his teacher, who took months to come round and who was mentally impaired when he did. In the up-to-date world of the story, that small child is now the elderly Nakata, a humble harmless soul who understands very little and can’t read, but who can talk to cats. In fact, finding lost cats is what constitutes an occupation for him, and it’s on the trail of a lost cat that he is lured into the den of the evil Johnnie Walker. Walker traps and kills cats in order to eat their hearts and use their souls to make special flutes (still with me in the back row?). He taunts and abuses Nakata with his cat murdering until Nakata stabs him to death in a blind fury.

It’s at this point that Kafka wakes up covered in someone else’s blood after a blackout. A few days later, he reads in the papers that his own father has been stabbed to death in an enigmatic crime. Could he have unwittingly fulfilled part of his father’s prophecy? Is the evil Johnnie Walker the same person as the sculptor Koichi Tamura? Well, the horror of what he has done propels old Nakata off on a journey of his own, following unconsciously in the footsteps of Kafka, with only the kindness of strangers to help him and his own exotic abilities to make fish and leeches rain from the sky. Clearly the two destines of these men – one old and poor, the other young and homeless, both with nothing but uncanny intuition to guide them – are set to strike sparks off each other, but to what end?

Kafka finds himself a temporary home in a private library, acting as assistant to hermaphrodite haemophiliac Oshima (you don’t come across those every day). They both work for the enigmatic Miss Saki, a woman whose life has been stilled, Miss Haversham-like, by the pointless death of her fiancé. Kafka is quickly convinced that Miss Saki is his mother, particularly when her 15-year-old self starts appearing to him at night as a ghost. In the meantime, Nakata has found himself a companion in the form of a most endearing ponytail-sporting, Hawaiian shirt-wearing lorry driver, Hoshino, who has given him a lift in this truck and decided to stay on and help him in his quest, mostly out of curosity to see what Nakata will do next.

There’s a particularly engaging quality to Murakami’s prose that kept me reading despite the bizarre nature of the fictional events. I’m not normally very good with what’s not real, hence my tendency to dislike satire, farce and other exaggerated modes of narrative. But Murakami keeps one eye firmly on the metaphysical at all times. ‘Everything is metaphor’, becomes something of a catchphrase for the novel, as does the notion ‘in dreams begin responsibilities’. In this way, the real and unreal are tightly bound together, what happens clearly means much more than just ‘what happens’, and the reader is convinced that the separate quests of Kafka and Nakata must lead to climactic events dense with metaphysical meaning. Both men – like the cats Nakata saves from the clutches of Johnnie Walker – have lost their souls for reasons they do not understand, and are searching for that most alluring of human qualities – wholeness and integrity. At the same time, the narrative is rich with allusions and echoes, symbolism abounds, the story is packed with tempting little cul-de-sacs of meaning, that may or may not be the sort of red herring Nakata can make fall from the sky. This is what Murakami makes you do throughout the reading process – he invites you to I-spy your families of symbols, to mix and match the details of the two plotlines, to spot the clues in this most literary of treasure hunts.

But when it comes to saying what it all means, Murakami goes coy. The book made me think of controversial psychoanalyst Massud Khan, who declared that dreams don’t necessarily mean anything – the point is being able to dream them. For instance, noble savage, Nakata, has all the answers by never knowing what will happen until he he is in the moment. Murakami’s characters are rewarded by trusting to the unfolding of events; they may be overloaded with imaginative possibilities and full of suspicions but they move forward in a sort of protective ignorance, one that cannot be punctured. (Mr Litlove pointed out that this is a very common element in all male lone hero stories – James Bond, Indiana Jones, all throw themselves into a quest without thinking or feeling and get rewarded with special protection.) As the story progresses, more and more emphasis is placed on everything that is important being at the same time beyond words. Enigma rules.

And this seems to include emotions, too. This is very much a cerebral book, all head, very little heart. When Kafka ‘rapes’ his sister in a dream, the event steadfastly refuses to provoke any real emotion in him, and does its best not to arouse any in the reader. The two characters discuss the situation calmly, and whilst Kafka knows he has reached the part of himself he does not like, that he wishes to reject, there is no catharsis in this moment. Or if there is, it happens in an elsewhere in the narrative, beyond the words. (Kafka’s story disappointed me, I admit – I felt Kafka had a lot of the sort of sex a middle-aged novelist might well wish he’d experienced as an adolescent and not much else, in the end, but that’s just a personal point.)

These contradictions in the foundation of the novel were very intriguing, I felt. It’s a book about profound revelations that can only think them, conjuring them out of metaphors, and it’s a book rich in metaphysics that will not put words to the numinous and the ineffable – which is, after all, what metaphysics exists to articulate.  It is a continual metaphysical tease, and how much you like it will, I think, depend on how much you like being teased with possibilities that rarely come to anything. Myself, I think teasers have to make good on their innudendo at some point, to show me what they’re made of, as it were. But at the same time, I understand the lure of going on an adventure and staying safe at the same time, which is the advantage of journeys of the imagination. Nothing need ever be lost in the imaginative world of Murakami, for that is precisely the greatest power of the imagination – it’s ability to transform and recreate and proliferate without end. For imagination he is justly renouned, but if you want explanations, you might break out in hives.


The Landscape of Colette

Colette's FranceI have been a very bad blogger of reviews lately, choosing far too often to witter on about life (because it is shamefully easy to do) rather than make the small amount of effort it takes to write something coherent about a book. For this reason, I finished Colette’s France; her lives, her loves by Jane Gilmour several days before Christmas and am only just now getting around to assessing it.

This is a sumptuously beautiful book. A hardback with a floral border on all its pages, it is packed full of glorious photos of Colette and the places she lived, some from the time she lived in them, some from the present day when the author undertook her pilgrimage around the sites of Colette’s life. Really, it’s gorgeous, and the idea of illustrating the life of one of the twentieth century’s most gifted writers on nature and landscape is an excellent one. One of the great pleasures of Colette’s prose is her ability to conjure up places, sensations and vistas; she was a very visual and sensual writer who openly gorged herself on beauty. The way this book has been designed does great justice, I think, to that side of her work.

Author, Jane Gilmour, was a Colette scholar in her youth. But having finished her dissertation on Colette at the Sorbonne in Paris – in the late 60s, early 70s when the Left Bank was the pulsing hub of intellectualism – she left for Australia with her husband and a very different sort of life. The years passed and that first marriage ended. But gradually the idea returned to her to journey in the footsteps of Colette, and as she undertook a series of trips to France with a new partner, sharing her Francophile enthusiasms with him and revisiting the salient locations in Colette’s life, so the idea of a book became a reality.

I began to see Colette’s life emerging through the prism of the different places in which she had lived – the places of her heart – each representing a particular period in her life and particular relationships, each profoundly influencing her writing, and each so vividly evoked in the shapes, colours, perfumes and sounds of her prose.’

What follows is a memoir shaped by the houses of Colette’s life, which do seem naturally to mark out quite different eras. From the Burgundy of her childhood, steeped in vineyards and the crippling demands of respectability (demands which her family singularly failed to meet), Colette moved with first husband, Willy, to the centre of artistic Belle-Époque Paris. Whilst a great deal of her career would necessarily take place here, Colette was essentially a country woman who needed her rural retreats. Husbands and lovers were more than willing to provide them for her. Willy bought her a little house (not so little by today’s standards) in the Franche-Comté region east of Paris, a lushly forested area bordered by mountains. Missy, the lesbian lover she left him for, built her a seaside house in Brittany, which Colette refused to give back when they eventually split. Her next husband, the wealthy and aristocratic Henry de Jouvenel opened the doors of Castel-Novel to her, his family seat – complete with ivy-covered turrets and rows of ornate balconies – in the lush heat of the Limousin. Her third husband introduced her to the pleasures of Province, where she bought for herself La Treille Muscat, a pretty gorgeous villa in the shade of pine forests that overlook the Mediterranean. Old age and the second world war found her fixed in Paris, refusing to move away from the source of her work and finding comfort in the community of apartment dwellers in the Palais Royale.

The first thing that struck me was what a lucky woman Colette was to live is a series of amazing houses in lovely locations. The second was how many different lives Colette had managed to cram into her eighty-odd years. I confess I knew that about Colette already; what I hadn’t realised was how she changed the theatrical backdrop to her life with each reincarnation of herself, and how that must have helped her with the chameleon grace that she felt was so essential to female survival in the world. Colette was proud of her pragmatic peasant mentality, as she called it, and fascinated by the immediate. You might describe her as living in the moment, which undoubtedly facilitated her abilty to slip out from under the guilt she really ought to have felt about the way she treated people. Like most memoirs, this is a sympathetic portrait of Colette, but Jane Gilmour does admit in her conclusion that Colette surprises the avid reader of her work by turning out to be, at her worst, hard-headed, grasping and selfish. But stubbornly following her own star certainly gave Colette the best life she could have dreamed of, and by graft and determination, she certainly had plenty of rooms of her own to write in – while poor old Virginia Woolf pondered how difficult that was for a woman in polite and convention-bound England.

The biographical part of the book is a good, accurate and satisfying account of Colette’s complex and varied life. I have to admit that the prose is a bit pedestrian and the writer doesn’t always delve as deeply as I might have liked into the links between writing and life. The translations of Colette seem a tad stilted, too. But this is a book that sort of hovers around the coffee-table genre, and as such you get plenty of fascinating information to go with its gloriously decorative function. For an easy and enjoyable introduction to Colette’s life, and plenty of location-lust, you couldn’t do better.