The Stupefying Ways of Bees: Reading August Folly

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“It was going to be a real sweltering day, a day for laziness and books, and noble, melancholy thoughts. He took his books into the garden, and read there steadily till lunch-time, when he walked over to the Woolpack and ate bread and cheese and drank beer. After lunch he worked again in the garden for some time. The sun was benignantly hot, the newly mown grass smelt sweet, bees were humming in a stupefying way, Gunnar was purring beside him, and Richard could hardly keep awake. He fetched a few cushions from the drawing room and lay down on the grass for a short refreshing nap…’

Today our garden tour takes us to an island. The book we are bringing along takes us to a literary island, of sorts—the ‘cloud cuckoo land’ of the Barsetshire stories. This fictional island still exudes a bemused air of charming unchangeableness, that rarely disappointed even during the days of British wartime and rationing.

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What better book than August Folly, by Angela Thirkell, could accompany these August days, this haze of heat and the sound of bees ‘humming in a stupefying way’…?

It was Jane at Fleur In Her World, a delightful blog for readers, who reminded me that I want to get back to my Angela Thirkell collection of novels and rediscover the delights of Barsetshire. Actually, it was back in June that I wanted to start again with her seminal work, Wild Strawberries. Well, of course in June I was all caught up with reading Louise, and before I could open my eyes to July possibilities, it was August.

‘So many books, so little time’ is actually a good problem. The solution is always the same, and pleasurable. Read more.

August Folly is one of my favorites of the Barsetshire series, and it can be read quite satisfyingly as a stand-alone novel if you have no intention of pursuing the rest of the Barsetshire goings-ons. It is where we first meet the Tebben and Dean families, who crop up in the later books.

August Folly, as with most of Thirkell’s novels, has already been exhaustively reviewed and discussed. Before the days of the internet, and quite popular in the 1950’s, there were ‘Thirkell Circles’. Now, via the web, there are some marvelous discussions of Thirkell’s work. The best resource is the official Angela Thirkell website.

Specific to August Folly, I have included links to excellent, well-written reviews below.

I love this blurb from my old copy: (Knopf Borzoi edition, fourth printing, 1947)

“Long after [the reader] has finished the book he will chuckle over its richly comic situations and the author’s kindly but sardonic asides on the peculiarities of human nature.”

This, in a neat summation, is the key to Angela Thirkell’s charm as a writer. It is also suggestive of why Thirkell was compared so often to Jane Austen. As August Folly, in particular, contains a few outright, admiring references to Jane Austen, we can assume that Angela Thirkell did not mind the comparison.

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A folly, of sorts–an artistic giant chicken at the fabulous Cistus Gardens Nursery on Sauvie’s Island

The two hundred year anniversary of Austen’s Mansfield Park is being celebrated around the blogosphere so therefore I have Jane Austen, Mansfield Park and its various characters more fresh in mind. Particularly here, at Sarah Emsley’s blog, there have been some fascinating insights given by some worthy authors.

While Thirkell makes many Austen allusions in this novel, when it comes to Mrs. Tebben, Thirkell leaves no doubt for the reader. She clearly points the arrow and connects the dots.

Poor Mrs. Tebben is the only character, by the author’s own admission in the narrative, modeled after a specific Austen character. The comparison is made by her daughter, Margaret. And while it’s not a good one, it’s a link that hints at the true dysfunction behind the Tebben household.

“Your respected Mamma,” said Laurence to Margaret, who was just finishing her omelette, “is telling my Aunt Palmer exactly where she gets off at about the veils for the chorus.”

“Just warm the rum, will you,” said Margaret, pushing a saucepan towards him. “Yes, mother is a little like Mrs. Norris sometimes.”

Ugh. Mrs. Norris, of Mansfield Park, is of Jane Austen’s most hated characters. (She is discussed in depth here.)

“I am of some use I hope in preventing waste and making the most of things.” [Mrs. Norris, Mansfield Park]

Add an Oxford degree to this description, along with a bit of intellectual obtuseness, and you have a fair sketch of Mrs. Tebben’s character.

While most readers would not put Mrs. Tebben in nearly the same category of manipulative hatefulness that they would Mrs. Norris, this comment did highlight why Mrs. Tebben is not popular. She is landlocked in her small, often petty world of grasping economies and inept domesticity. Her mothering skills leave her children more exasperated than fond. She has respectable intellect but is short on common sense and comfort.

Yet her sweet daughter Margaret, being Margaret, softens the comparison by saying,

a little like Mrs. Norris sometimes.”

As to the other Austen comparisons, they are implied, rather than stated.

Rachel Dean, for example, is languid, lovely, and adored. She blows dreamy kisses from her lounging chair, and is something of a miracle, for she has had nine children, and still looks stunning draped in a clingy white silk gown. Her many children—‘the impossibly glamorous Deans’— become fodder for the gristmill of future romances in Barsetshire. If elements of her description remind you of Lady Bertram, sans pug, it is likely Thirkell had that in mind.

There are the amateur theatricals, the subject of so much comment in Austen’s Mansfield Park.

In August Folly (the name of the novel obviously being a multi-meaning play on words), the busy enterprises of Mrs. Palmer in this regard—so aptly described as ‘indefatigable’—are quite entertaining. She is determined to put on a Greek tragedy by Euripides; a lumbering Behemoth of a scheme that is alternately exhausting and hilarious as the plans and disagreements proceed.

Mrs. Palmer—as the figurehead at the top of the social ladder in the county, as well as the wealthiest resident— has installed herself as something of a ‘summer activities commando/troop leader’, and everyone is expected to tow her line and know their cues. Doris Phipps, housemaid with a rash, with a tendency to dissolve into giggles or hysterics, sounds particularly promising in her Aphrodite role. (not)

It goes without saying that no housemaid would have been invited to perform at the Mansfield Park theatricals. And, for the Greek play in August Folly, this is a community-wide event. Even the ancient, deaf rector of the parish—a respected Greek scholar— is an enthusiastic supporter.

There are some brief but memorable appearances of a Mr. Moxon, the incurably optimistic curate whom no one likes. He is terribly impressed with himself, and peppers his self-approbations with effusive descriptions like ‘ripping’. Here is another example of Thirkell’s brilliant turns of phrase, telling, but simple:

‘Lunch at the Dower House fell alive into the hands of Mr. Moxon.’

Mr. Moxon has Mr. Collins written all over him.

In another Pride and Prejudice tie-in, there is the prideful response (initial rejection followed by effusive acceptance) of Margaret Tebben to the proposal of marriage from the ‘catch’ of the neighborhood—wealthy and handsome Laurence Dean.

“Of course she didn’t really love Laurence, in fact she hated him, and would like to see him and tell him so.”

Margaret is my favorite character in the book, although I see her as more of a Jane than a Lizzie. The elder Tebben, Margaret’s father Gilbert, could bear a resemblance to Mr. Bennett; kindly but obtuse, scholarly, buried in his study and hoping to keep it that way. (see below for a description of Angela Thirkell’s father; obviously he provided much of the model for Mr. Tebben.)

But I believe the food references in August Folly are entirely Thirkell’s own! Surely, in their authentic rendering, they must spring from the inspiration of actual experience.

I knew full well, in re-reading this novel, that I would be returning to the repugnant dinner table at the Tebben house. August Folly has the distinction of being the only novel where I actually became nauseated while reading it. As a ‘foodie’, I would call the experience traumatizing, as a writer I am in awe of Thirkell’s ability with descriptions. I have always prided myself on having a strong stomach, but the Tebben’s cook, Mrs. Phipps, almost did me in.

The Tebben family resides at Lamb’s Piece, and though not well off, are considered part of the gentry of the country. Their formidable cook, Mrs. Phipps, (mother to the above mentioned giggling Doris) dishes up meals of culinary deplorability and expects no back talk.

‘Mrs. Phipps, a born cook only in the sense that she had brought up a large family chiefly on tinned foods. She had a natural gift for making meat appear gray….’

Mrs. Phipps’s salads from the garden consists of undressed tough lettuce leaves served lying in a pool of gritty water. Honestly, Mrs. Phipps almost put me off of salads for life.

“When I eat green stuff,” said Mr. Tebben, chewing away at a well-grown lettuce, “I understand why cows have four stomachs.”

Everything served at the Tebben dinner or tea table is tasteless, tough, tepid, flaccid, limp, lifeless, overstewed, underdone, quivering, slightly revived, and generally revolting.

It is not completely Mrs. Phipps’s fault. Mrs. Tebben (aka Mrs. Norris) prides herself on her domestic economies, which means scrimping on everything, and where comfort is equated with dispensable luxury. She pretends to be serving the needs of her family, when really it is her own obsessive need to save a penny that dominates her thinking.

But Mrs. Phipps’ meals did give rise to some of my favorite quotes from the book:

“Are there any pickles?” asked Mr. Tebben, though without hope.’

I don’t know why that is so funny. It just is. In the pathos sense of funny. Poor long suffering Mr. Tebbens, wistfully wishing for something at his table that might be crunchy, tasty and delicious. But no, there are never any pickles.

Or this musing from Richard Tebben:

‘As the parents were away he could do what he liked all morning and needn’t stay in for Mrs. Phipps’s horrid lunch, whose composition he could, from his memory of last night’s dinner, accurately guess.’

I do love August Folly. It is delightfully funny and engaging. Professional reviewers always describe it as ‘light entertainment’, ‘frothy’, and so on. All true.

But it is a gold mine of hilarious human interaction, cultural curiosities, and humor both intelligent and twee. Just prepare yourself—after reading it, you are going to want to take a reactionary dive into a big dish of your favorite comfort food.

How about raspberry lemon cupcakes with plenty of extra big helpings of luscious lemon cream?

Raspberry lemon cupcakes with lemon cream; something that Mrs. Phipps was constitutionally incapable of making.

Raspberry lemon cupcakes with lemon cream; something that Mrs. Phipps was constitutionally incapable of making.

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Additional notes:

Editions….Anna Zinkeisen illustrated the cover for the first British edition. It is very rare, and I want one.

The incredible wealth of literary allusions in Angela Thirkell’s books have fascinated readers for decades. Thirkell’s father, J.W. Mackail was an Oxford Professor of Poetry, Virgil scholar and translator of Virgil’s works into English, authority on the Icelandic Sagas (surely the model for Mr. Tebben) prominent socialist, friend and biographer of William Morris, and married to the only daughter of Edward Burne-Jones. Those are just the high points.

One can only imagine the fascinating dinner table conversations that must have flowed around young Angela’s ears. (and yes, I do wonder what sort of food was served, and were they tyrannized by an atrocious cook that they couldn’t afford to replace?!) For a wonderful resource that explains many of these literary allusions specific to August Folly, read here.

Links to reviews of August Folly:

http://thecaptivereader.com/2012/02/17/august-folly-angela-thirkell/

http://shinynewbooks.co.uk/reprints02/august-folly-summer-half-and-the-brandons-by-angela-thirkell/

http://theliterarysisters.wordpress.com/2014/05/01/summer-half-and-august-folly-by-angela-thirkell/

https://www.littlebrown.co.uk/books/detail.page?isbn=9781844089680

http://www.librarything.com/topic/163123

Curious Word: My reading of August Folly yielded another Curious word: Scrobbling.

“Aunt Palmer is really the outer limit,” [Laurence] said, “scrobbling your cook and then coming for dinner.”

 

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