Starting From Anywhere

‘If you came this way,
taking any route, starting from anywhere
at any time or any season
It would always be the same
you would have to put off
sense and notion’ — T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

 

Oh, to have traveled with Helen Bevington to Little Gidding.

Likely you have heard of T.S. Eliot. And perhaps, from there, you might have heard of Little Gidding and Nicholas Ferrar. It is less likely, though, that you have heard of Helen Bevington. If not, I hope (if that is, you enjoy witty, articulate literary essays) you will track down her book and discover this delightful author.

The book Beautiful, Lofty People is now a treasure in my personal library but I found it, quite by accident, while browsing through an old bookstore. I had no idea who the author was, if she could write or had any credentials that frankly don’t matter… but from the first few lines I read I was charmed. And, as it turned out, she did have credentials. A host of them. Professor Emeritus in English at Duke University. Respected poet and author. Published in journals such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly. That should be sufficient to establish credentials, but really can’t begin to explain the light-hearted subtlety, or her evident love for people ‘warts and all’ that I enjoy in her essays. That quality of style only comes from outlook and integrity, not education.

As a premise for this particular book, she takes her cue from Yeats in his poem “Beautiful Lofty Things”, and writes of her own search:

‘The idea of the men and women one loves for their own sake caught in a lofty moment, intense with life.’ — Helen Bevington

She became known, in the words of one critic, for taking “artful notices of life’s comedies.”

As mentioned, Bevington was a poet, as well, although she did not take her own poetry seriously. In this book, she often follows up her essay with a poem that wittily sums up the essence of her notions on the subject.

‘I had a perfect confidence, still unshaken, in books. If you read enough you would reach the point of no return. You would cross over and arrive on the safe side. There you would drink the strong waters and become addicted, perhaps demented – but a Reader.’ — Helen Bevington

With Jane Austen-like deftness and wit, Bevington can find a treasure of mirth in the subtlest of themes. From her affectionate irritation with Cassandra Austen—that unrepentant burner of letters— to the whimsical notion of comparing Fanny Burney’s shoes with those of Dorothy Wordsworth, to Lord Byron’s battle with pudginess, to Aunt Mary Emerson’s delightful life preparing for death, her honesty at being ‘caught out’ by E.E. Cummings at a party in New York; these essays are a fascinating compendium and represent a very different angle on literary life.

From the Little Gidding UK website

Reading her essay ‘The Way to Little Gidding’ transported me to another time. Who wouldn’t want to have joined her on this amusing quest to find a gem of geography immortalized in T.S. Eliot’s poem?

‘We rode on in the rain into Huntingdonshire, passing again through the little village of Godmanchester I had visited on this same bus only last week. I didn’t yet know how to pronounce Godmanchester whether the accent was on man or God. But I reflected I had now traveled in England to Chester, to Manchester, and to Godmanchester, which should bring me to the end of the prefixes unless there was a Goodgodmanchester somewhere as well.’

And on she goes, with her quietly humorous and humane commentary sprinkled throughout. On this journey to Little Gidding, she is amused to find that no one in this rural community seems to have heard of it, or has a notion of how to get her there. It is delightfully strung out, this journey, full of wrong turns and rutted roads, and when we finally arrive, we are ready for that pint she is longing for in a pub spotted a few miles back.

‘The man from Sawtry, relieved as I was to find the place and complete the quest, stepped inside and couldn’t believe his eyes. Dumbfounded he swore he would bring the wife next time to have a look. I returned to Cambridge that afternoon by Bus No. 151.’

The Way to Little Gidding’ is a metaphor for something much more profound and it is testimony to Bevington’s mastery of prose that this depth of tone is not lost in the witty travel journal style of the essay. Her desire is more than to pursue a trophy for her memory book. She ends the essay with a touching postscript that suggests the emotional journey–the underpinnings–of her need to visit this little spot is to feel for herself what might inspire a great poem, and to walk in the footsteps of worthy people. Clearly, she was there to kneel–for it is she who inserts this telling quote from Eliot’s poem:

‘You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.’



 

Additional notes:

For the full poem of T.S. Eliot’s Little Gidding, here.

Helen Bevington’s work was valued in her lifetime. As another sort of legacy she has left behind, her eldest son David Bevington is among the preeminent Shakespeare scholars in the world.

Helen Bevington: more bio here and yes, even wiki.

Thief of Time

‘The worst part about stealing time is that it is so hard to give back.’

Thief of Time — short story by Margery Sharp


As a reader and writer, I tend to be more preoccupied with timeless than timely. This is well illustrated by contrasting the reading habits of my husband and myself: he reads the Times, (now via his daily news app), I read articles in the 1911 Britannica for classic ‘news’.

LostChapelPicnicWhen Margery Sharp wrote her brilliant short story Thief of Time, she little knew just how many thieves of time would be available in our modern age. To be timely, to be up-to-date, to be #widn (What I’m Doing Now) or to be hashtag anything, can all be harmless diversions, or a modern thief of time. We give our time freely to these diversions, it must be admitted, but in Sharp’s little gem of a story, the meticulous Mr. Rickaby had fifteen precious minutes stolen from him right out from under his nose.

This delightful short story is in an out-of-print collection called The Lost Chapel Picnic and Other Stories. It comes in either a green or [tasteless] hot pink cover, and deserves a reprint. Originally, the story was released in 1952, in Collier’s magazine, a publication that printed several of Sharp’s short stories. (note: many of Margery Sharp’s full length novels are now available in e-book format from Open Road Media.)

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Margery Sharp is one of those classic British writers who maintained a crisp, clear writing style down to the end of her career. I am so impressed by her wit and brevity, even if I haven’t always loved every novel she ever wrote. Each one has its merits–they all have stunning prose and refreshingly original story lines. You can read more about Margery Sharp at the website I author here.

In Thief of Time, Margery Sharp builds an unusual chain of events from a harmless childish prank. In 1911, a ten year old girl in a quiet Dorset village in England steals fifteen minutes from a retired mathematics professor. Her conscience beats her unmercifully, and thus her attempt to undo the evil deed–to give back the fifteen minutes–results in astonishing and delightful consequences.

Caroline‘I did not as a child give much thought to such major abstractions as life, death and eternity. I hadn’t the leisure: I had four brothers and a baby sister, a half-share in a pony, two Sealyhams and a fluctuating number of Belgian hares. In my tenth year, however…circumstances forced me for some weeks to grapple with the phenomenon of time.

‘These circumstances were of my own making, and the result of a crime: I had stolen fifteen minutes belonging to our esteemed friend and neighbor, Mr. Rickaby. 

‘Even today , forty years later, I am still astounded by the far-reaching consequences of my attempts to give them back.’

If you can find a copy of this book in your travels, every story in it is a gem. In the meantime, if you would like to see a Bibliography of Margery Sharp’s other works–including other short stories, which are little masterpieces in miniature, click here.

 

Crossriggs

‘Her thoughts were very far away, for she had the happy power of forgetting the outer world altogether when she read anything that interested her.’ —Crossriggs, 1908


A good novelist knows how to begin an absorbing chain of events, and signal to the reader, in effect ‘settle in, I’m going to tell you a story‘. In a Victorian era novel, a beloved formula might commence with a sleepy village. The villagers and their dwellings are sketched out–they are ‘much of a piece’, as they say–but you just know the wonderful fodder for a good narrative is beginning to build.

Next might be mentioned—a brief mention, lest the reader make too much of it—the sad affair of a good-for-nothing relation who is connected to the Big House; a relation who has had the sensibleness to take himself off to parts unknown before the story begins where he can then die offstage without troubling the reader. The good news is, he leaves behind a handsome young heir, who then moves back to the sleepy village and intrigues everyone with his slightly foreign manners. And then… well, let the authors tell us:

‘Then and there happenings began.’

Crossriggs, written in 1908, is a novel I knew I would enjoy after reading just the opening lines. A story doesn’t have to be great literature for us to get lost in it, or care about the characters and what happens to them.

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I like to break up my reading periods with a walk outdoors, if weather permits. In the fresh outdoor air the scenes and conversations continue to play in my mind, though with a feeling of being slightly offstage. My walk the other day (and accompaniment to this book) took me along mossy, overgrown paths and the recent scars of a fierce windstorm that toppled quite a few beloved old trees around town. It was a storm that—for our typically mild Pacific NW weather—seemed very ill-suited to an April day.

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Freshly fallen tree, giving me a chance for close-ups of lichen and blooms

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But for all that, it did make the rugged Scottish landscape of Crossriggs seem not too far from my own, and I came home to become easily immersed in the world cleverly crafted by the Findlater sisters. (Thanks to the excellent reviews of a few book bloggers, previously Liz and Ali, and most recently, Jane, I was moved to finally get down to reading a book I’ve had in my library and on my TBR pile for quite some time.)

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If you’re in the mood for a good period piece, with well-drawn characters, and one that is not too mawkish, sentimental or wordy (like some Victorian literature can be) you should give this one a try.

The Findlater sisters had a vigorous intellect, a lively curiosity, and a shrewd sense of humor. They also had an aunt who, as a biography informs us, was ‘well remembered in Edinburgh society as “a fascinating creature who sang Gaelic songs and wrote verses.”

The aunt sounds delightful. I would be curious to know if her presence made its way into any of the Findlater characters.

For the story of Crossriggs, this sisterly writing duo pairs two fictional sisters, Alex and Mary. The two sisters are of very different dispositions, which provides some interest (with the winning gold star of personality going to Alex, of course, because it is mainly her story), and they live with an eccentric, kindly old father. He provides some entertainment, being a Victorian age vegan, a pacifist with dreams of living off the land, and never far from his well-thumbed copy of the Iliad. Homer, while glorifying war and bloody deeds of valor, made it all so poetic.

‘Old Hopeful was reading aloud to them all. The arrival of a family of five was nothing to him , and an hour or two had sufficed to restore him to his full flow of benevolent optimism.

“Delighted to see you, Robert!” he exclaimed. “We were just having an hour of Homer before the boys went to bed. Tales of windy Troy! Brave days—brave days! These youngsters are to be envied, hearing them for the first time.”

The Hope household is poor, but they are genteel. The fires, in this cottage, die out early on frigid evenings for want of fuel, but a candle stays lit while tired eyes and restless minds read eagerly into the wee hours.

I became utterly immersed in my visit to the village of Crossriggs, and enjoyed being transported back in time; even as the porridge was inevitably scorched, the pudding became watery, the long evening walks across the green became bitter cold, the candles sputtered out, and Old Hopeful fell asleep once again with his worn copy of Homer.

The Findlaters had an eye for detail, and of course, a woman’s knack for conveying the homely bits of information that make a story come to life.

How well I remember it all!” they wrote… and, with that, introduce us to the main characters and tone of the village that was Crossriggs.

We meet the crusty Admiral Cassilis, his handsome nephew Van, and an unusual creature of animal vitality named Dolly Orranmore who wears the wrong shade of green but still manages to look fiercely attractive while she strides about with a whip and a pack of dogs. We also meet the inscrutable Robert Maitland, and Maitland’s aunt, the venerable Miss Elizabeth Verity Maitland with her ramrod back. It is she of whom the authors wrote nostalgically…’we shall never look upon her like again.

‘It was a sight to see her walk down the street of Crossriggs, with head erect, her unflinching green eye looking here and there, observant of the life around. The village trembled before her…’

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The quaint village of Crossriggs might take a page from an Austen novel or even bring in a whiff from the Cranford tea tables. Although there are far too many men in Crossriggs to be Gaskell’s Cranford, Alexandra Hope would have fit in very well with a female dominated society. She runs their small, impoverished household with efficiency and spirit, has high ideals, a restless intellect, and never lacks for opinion. She can be ruthlessly critical of people she doesn’t like, but generous to those she does. I can’t say I always liked Alex; her criticisms of other people were often harsh and repetitive, her high-mindedness could be a bit much at times, but she also came crashing down into periods of self-doubt and outright depression. In short, she is painted in real life tones, and just like any of us, she had her strengths and weaknesses. Alex surprised me—she was a refreshingly honest character for this era of novel.

There is a love interest throughout the book, with more than one face. The truth from her own heart Alex can barely think of, and there is no internal dialogue on that subject until later in the book.  The reader is not fooled, but is never quite sure how things are going to work out. (Those clever authors had me jumping through a couple of hoops, bless their hearts…)

The dusk was falling, and the air was very still…. How many times, Alex thought, she had walked down that avenue in all weathers! She knew it now under every possible aspect, from the frosts of winter to the green delight of spring and the sleepy warmth of summer—here she was round again to another winter! How quickly the last year had gone; would every year of life glide past at this astonishing pace now! She remembered when the years were long, when a child’s joy in April was un-shadowed by the thought that spring would be over in a few weeks, when a childs’s wonder at winter was untouched by any hope of spring…. ‘Perhaps the child’s is the true way of living—it makes a sort of eternity while it lasts.’

Through it all, the disappointments, the grieving, and the small triumphs, Alex kept a firm hand on her integrity, and an immovable stance on her high moral ground.

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‘O cold north wind from the sea, did you ever then blow through the tree-tops without the twang of a musical note in your sound…Was the winter sunshine not suffused with some magic even on the fallow fields, or when it fell across the broad, irregular street? Did ot the first snowdrops that struggled up to the light from under that iron sod sigh out indescribable promise in their faint suggestive breath? Even the enveloping veils of mist, the grey distance, the low hills that stood beyond the village seemed a fitting background for the lively scene of human life that was enacted there.’

As a side note, I noticed with interest the dedication of the book to Kate Douglas Wiggin and her sister, Nora Archibald Smith.

Kate Douglas Wiggin,  is the author of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. If you were born anytime between 1910 and oh, say… the 1960’s… and you were named Rebecca, you might remember this book with impatience, or perhaps affection. Either way, I have no doubt this book was often invoked in your life and conversations. All of my growing up years I could never be introduced to an older person without ‘Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm’ coming immediately into the dialogue, along with a cheeky, albeit kindly, smile. (I have since forgiven, and even own a copy plus the sequel now.)

Sisters who write...

I would like to read more Findlater stories, in due time. What I am particularly interested in are the collaboration stories they did with Kate Douglas Wiggin and Allan McAulay (aka Charlotte Stewart). The Affair At the Inn, one of these, is available as a free e-book. Apparently each author would take turns writing a chapter and advancing the story line. Sounds like a fun exercise–perhaps not good for the novel as an art form, but as a time capsule of the past? Intriguing.

 


Notes: Crossriggs was reprinted by Virago in paperback; I believe all the rest of the Findlater output is out of print, but that is changing as of this year. The copyright protection on Jane’s works (not Mary’s) is ending this year. So any works written solely by Jane Findlater are now in the public domain. The exciting news is that the National Library of Scotland will be making digitalized versions available online. Read here for more.

Here is a list of their other works:

Book Titles:
1895. Sons & Sonnets – Mary Findlater
1896. The Green Graves of Balgowrie – Jane Findlater
1897. Over the Hills – Mary Findlater
1897. A Daughter of Strife -Jane Findlater
1899. Betty Musgrave – Mary Findlater
1899. Rachel – Jane Findlater
1901. A Narrow Way – Mary Findlater
1901. Tales that are Told – Mary and Jane Findlater
1902. The Story of a Mother – Jane Findlater
1903. The Rose of Joy – Mary Findlater
1904. Stones from a Glass House – Jane Findlater
1904. The Affair at the Inn – Findlater Sisters with Kate Douglas Wiggins and Allan McAulay (Charlotte Stewart) [note: available as a free e-book]
1905. All that Happened in a Week – Jane Findlater
1906. The Ladder to the Stars – Jane Findlater
1907. A Blind Bird’s Nest – Mary Findlater
1908. Crossriggs – Mary and Jane Findlater
1911. Penny Moneypenny- Mary and Jane Findlater
1911. Robinetta – Findlater Sisters with Kate Douglas Wiggins and Allan McAulay (Charlotte Stewart)
1916. Seen and Heard Before and After
1914 -Mary and Jane Findlater
1916. Content With Flies – Mary and Jane Findlater
1912. Seven Scots Stories – Jane Findlater
1914. Tents of a Night – Mary Findlater
1921. A Green Grass Widow and other Stories – Jane Findlater
1923. Beneath the Visiting Moon – Mary and Jane Findlater


 

A Duo of View

 

A John Piper painting of ruins

A John Piper painting, known for his moody depiction of post WWII ruins

Thomas Carlyle
From his Essay on Robert Burns

‘The poet, we cannot but think, can never have far to seek for a subject: the elements of his art are in him, and around him on every hand; for him the Ideal world is not remote from the Actual, but under it and within it nay, he is a poet, precisely because he can discern it there. Wherever there is a sky above him, and a world around him, the poet is in his place; for here too is man’s existence, with its infinite longings and small acquirings; its ever-thwarted, ever-renewed endeavours; its unspeakable aspirations, its fears and hopes that wander through Eternity: and all the mystery of brightness and of gloom that it was ever made of, in any age or climate, since man first began to live.’

With Thomas Carlyle’s words in mind, there are two poets that have been alive in my mind in recent days. Robert Browning, and A.E. Housman….two of their beautiful poems are presented here.

Truly, ‘the poet is in his place, for here too is man’s existence.’

These two poems share many threads of thought; this is but one example:

Housman: ‘Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I’

Browning: ‘When the king look’d, where she looks now’

Both use a dichotomy—from powerful Roman soldier to humble yeoman farmer, from lofty king to love-struck maiden—each share, at that moment, the same space. Each looks out to a similar view. Each poem emphasizes the frailty and transience of humanity, with all their strivings and conflicts, their stern strongholds that are now in fragments. But in the end, the poet asks, what remains?

There are two depictions of ruins: my own photos, from a burnt out former pear packing plant, and the phenomenal art of British artist John Piper. Piper was commissioned as an official war artist between 1940-1944.

All Saints Chapel, Bath 1942 John Piper 1903-1992 Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee 1946 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N05719

Bath, 1942, painting by John Piper

Love among the Ruins
By Robert Browning (1812–1889)

WHERE the quiet-colour’d end of evening smiles
Miles and miles
On the solitary pastures where our sheep
Half-asleep
Tinkle homeward thro’ the twilight, stray or stop 
As they crop—
Was the site once of a city great and gay,
(So they say)
Of our country’s very capital, its prince
Ages since 
Held his court in, gathered councils, wielding far
Peace or war.

Now—the country does not even boast a tree,
As you see,
To distinguish slopes of verdure, certain rills 
From the hills
Intersect and give a name to, (else they run
Into one)
Where the domed and daring palace shot its spires
Up like fires 
O’er the hundred-gated circuit of a wall
Bounding all,
Made of marble, men might march on nor be prest,
Twelve abreast.

And such plenty and perfection, see, of grass 
Never was!
Such a carpet as, this summer-time, o’erspreads
And embeds
Every vestige of the city, guess’d alone,
Stock or stone— 
Where a multitude of men breathed joy and woe
Long ago;
Lust of glory prick’d their hearts up, dread of shame
Struck them tame;
And that glory and that shame alike, the gold 
Bought and sold.

Now,—the single little turret that remains
On the plains,
By the caper overrooted, by the gourd
Overscored, 
While the patching houseleek’s head of blossom winks
Through the chinks—
Marks the basement whence a tower in ancient time
Sprang sublime,
And a burning ring, all round, the chariots traced 
As they raced,
And the monarch and his minions and his dames
View’d the games.

And I know, while thus the quiet-coloured eve
Smiles to leave 
To their folding, all our many-tinkling fleece
In such peace,
And the slopes and rills in undistinguished grey
Melt away—
That a girl with eager eyes and yellow hair 
Waits me there
In the turret whence the charioteers caught soul
For the goal,
When the king look’d, where she looks now, breathless, dumb
Till I come. 

But he looked upon the city, every side,
Far and wide,
All the mountains topp’d with temples, all the glades’
Colonnades,
All the causeys, bridges, aqueducts,—and then, 
All the men!
When I do come, she will speak not, she will stand,
Either hand
On my shoulder, give her eyes the first embrace
Of my face, 
Ere we rush, ere we extinguish sight and speech
Each on each.

In one year they sent a million fighters forth
South and North,
And they built their gods a brazen pillar high 
As the sky,
Yet reserved a thousand chariots in full force—
Gold, of course.
Oh, heart! oh, blood that freezes, blood that burns!
Earth’s returns 
For whole centuries of folly, noise and sin!
Shut them in,
With their triumphs and their glories and the rest.
Love is best!

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A. E. Housman (1859–1936). A Shropshire Lad. 1896.
On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble

On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble
His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
And thick on Severn snow the leaves.

’Twould blow like this through holt and hanger 
When Uricon the city stood:
’Tis the old wind in the old anger,
But then it threshed another wood.

Then, ’twas before my time, the Roman
At yonder heaving hill would stare: 
The blood that warms an English yeoman,
The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.

There, like the wind through woods in riot,
Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet: 
Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.

The gale, it plies the saplings double,
It blows so hard, ’twill soon be gone:
To-day the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon. 

For an excellent discussion and analysis of Housman’s poem, check out David’s Hokku blog here.

Discover

Cheerfulness Among the Ruins

On the scale of annoyances, a word like ‘irksome’ falls fairly low in intensity. For example, the shrill yapping of your neighbor’s Pomeranian is irksome. But if your Rottweiler goes after the Pomeranian and mauls it, the situation has just escalated to well beyond irksome. Sadly, we will not need our dictionaries to describe what next occurs.

In the world of fiction, if you want to get lost in a book where nothing really really bad happens, and fluffy lap dogs live forever in a fantasy village preserved in something like a snow dome, you couldn’t do better than the world of Barsetshire. (created by Anthony Trollope, but enchantingly enlarged upon by Angela Thirkell.)

image of Angela Thirkell via wiki

Yet, unfortunately for some readers, it might seem appropriate that Angela Thirkell conveniently has the ‘irk’ built right into her name.

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Angela Thirkell Cheerfulness Break In

It is true, she can be a self-indulgent writer, and take the reader on many lengthy pointless divigations of trivialities, she can take a tiresomely plaintive tone, (particularly in her later novels) and some of her sentences are fantastically long.

Though at times plowing through these exasperating moments, I still enjoy her novels on the whole, and even look forward to re-reading them. I also enjoy her long sentences, and view some of the more well-crafted ones as a work of art.

So what is the secret to her success? Why does she remain popular even to readers of today, with our short attention spans, ‘get to the point’ mentality, and our dismissal of happy endings? Why have even publishers like Virago have reprinted some of her cosy, domestic, feminine fiction in recent months?

Well, you won’t find a definitive answer here. (but here you will) I can only give you one reader’s opinion—that would be me—when I say that there is a certain ebullient charm in Thirkell’s writing style that is like a cork that keeps bobbing to the surface. Just when you think you are about to be weighed down by too many characters, too many side trips into past histories, too many lukewarm romances culminating in too many marriages….then you hit ‘a spot’, an aha moment in the narrative that delights beyond comprehension.

That’s when you realize that Angela Thirkell is writing from a depth and erudition that makes her completely unique. I prefer not to compare her with other writers, be it Jane Austen or Barbara Pym. Angela Thirkell is simply in a class by herself.  As a bonus, she can be hilariously funny.

my little stash of Thirkells

These Barsetshire stories are beloved for a reason; they are deeply layered, and there are gems studded throughout that truly speak to a culture, a time period, a set of values, that is worth dipping into for study, and/or escape entertainment.

(For brevity I am neatly side-stepping here decades of Thirkell Circle clubs, online discussion groups, reams of scholarly papers written on this subject, all related to everything from the simple enjoyment of her novels as fantasy to an unraveling of the scholarly sub-text embedded within; but a wonderful resource to learn more about the world of Barsetshire is angelathirkell.org)

Thirkell knew the audience she was writing for, and she knew it was a commercially successful ‘line’ of products she had introduced. She was a savvy woman, and understood what was expected of ‘a lady novelist’. True—tired and cranky at times, opinionated beyond all doubt, but it is well to remember she was a single parent who worked for a living. She felt a responsibility to provide for her sons, and she kept to deadlines through some pretty severe conditions. She lived through a period of British history that was anything but light and charming, yet she was able to rise above that and create, on the whole, light, charming stories that showed a positive view of a community that came together for good.

That is, I believe, one of the secrets to the charm of the Barsetshire series. Thirkell created an ensemble cast; returning characters that people were eager to read about, and see where their lives would take them. The secret to a successful ensemble cast—in movies, literature, musicals—is that the sum is greater than the parts. The snug community of Barsetshire, abuzz with tea parties and knitting circles, with snappy little red roadsters and lumbering donkey carts navigating the village lanes, came together when it really counted. Whatever class, snobbery, or educational levels that existed as a reality of the times, there is a collective spirit of warmth she created that invites one in.

If you love literary, cultural, poetic allusions–and love tracking them down–there are enough peppered throughout Thirkell’s output to keep you well fed for years. You could almost form the groundwork of a classics education if you just followed every thread of allusion stranded through her narratives.

And speaking of sparkling threads stranded through a work… Since I think in terms of analogy, my attempt to sum up the charm of Barsetshire makes me think of a scarf.

Some women buy a scarf because they like the color, because it is pretty, it feels good on, and it keeps their neck warm. Done.

Other women buy a scarf because it is interesting and comes with a ‘story’. It may be an odd color of puce that is in direct conflict with their skin tone, but that is of small consideration, and they wear it, regardless, because it is a unique and fabulous piece. The wool comes from adorable llamas that graze on a rare kind of grass in the Peruvian Andes, and then, after hard-working little women who sing folk songs while they work spin the wool, it is dyed with a concoction of tea leaves that can only grow at certain elevations. The tea leaves need proper fermentating for several months in order to achieve that odd puce color that makes you look slightly yellow when you wear it. (don’t ask me how I know this…)

That is sort of a Barsetshire magic. Thirkell’s own story is an interesting one, and explains the strangely dimensional aspect to her charming world, the sense that you are looking at something generations beyond what she might have effortlessly chronicled as inconsequential. No time for a biography here, (shall I invoke wiki?) but Thirkell’s childhood history is extensive in its atmosphere of poetry, classics, scholarship, and art. Knowing what sort of conversation must have flowed around her breakfast table, as she grew up, explains a great deal about how rich Angela Thirkell’s interior world must have been.

Just one example: her beloved grandfather was Edward Burne-Jones; a famous artist who created a shimmering, romantic world of his own.

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Love Among the Ruins…. a beautiful poem by Robert Browning

Also a famous painting by Burne Jones, and later to be the title of one of Angela Thirkell’s novels.

Happily, Thirkell’s novels have had many reprints. I would direct you to Kate McDonald’s blog for more information, including some compelling reasons to add this author to your stash on the groaning TBR pile, and here to the Virago website, as well.

The Ladies of Lyndon: Margaret Kennedy

‘Copy Lyndon?’ … My dear girl, I couldn’t! It can’t be copied, that’s just it. One man didn’t make it; it’s been the work of generations!…. Pity it should go…’

“Why do you talk of it going? Nobody wants to burn it down.”

“A house dies with its family. Lyndon has come to an end.”’

My own idea of a modern book cover

My own idea of a modern book cover, created with Canva app, from a Rossetti drawing

The fiction of Margaret Kennedy suggests a fall/winter kind of mood for me, so tonight, with the wind sculpting crispy piles of leaves into undulating drifts, (hold off rain, please, just one more night!) a warm fire going and a glass of amber scotch in hand, I finished up The Ladies of Lyndon.margaretkennedyvignettephoto

Generally, I enjoy a good ‘English country house novel’. The Ladies of Lyndon is that, but this engrossing story is really much more than the appealing romance of setting. Perhaps what is suggestive to me of fall/winter reading is that the world Kennedy creates reminds one of a heavily embroidered tapestry to burrow into. There are warm depths and lavish layers and unexpected sheen and a richness of texture; a faintly exotic perfume has been woven in with the silken strands, no detail is too slight, no stitch is wasted.

Other reviewers have commented on the warmth and richness of Kennedy’s style; her lovely heroines remind us of a Rossetti painting, some of her scenes created as ‘extravagantly grand’ as a Watteau composition.

‘A house dies with its family… Lyndon has come to an end.’

We can’t stop thinking about that passage. Besides the fact that The Ladies of Lyndon is an engrossing novel of plot and excellent characterizations, and can be enjoyed on that level alone, there is something Margaret Kennedy was trying to say with this, her first novel. She does seem to have moral underpinnings to her stories that I have read so far. Yet there are no judgements passed with heavy hand, ladling on the gravy of philosophy, as it were; her characters are not drawn in clear black and white tones, good and evil; her eye for folly is keen, still she is sympathetic to all, and renders her conflicts with beautiful subtlety.

Even her buffoons can engage your sympathies, in a curious way. (Sir Thomas Bragge is quite a lavish creation!)

But Margaret Kennedy does explore probing questions, through the dialogue and difficulties of her characters. The period she grew up in, and the period she writes from, was one fraught with change; politically, morally, socially, economically.

The scene set, in this case, is a gracious country house and its wealthy inhabitants. The time period is the close of the sleepy, decadent Edwardian age, just before the first World War. If this makes you think of Downton Abbey, it’s a good comparison; both in time period, and the ‘remains of the day’ aspects of life for the privileged classes in England.

At the apex of these kinds of stories, there is always the big house, the country house; for life under the roof of the English country house was considered a microcosm of all England.

‘There’s nothing in England so English as a house like Lyndon.’  — (Hubert)

Margaret Kennedy, with a mix of irony and pride, lovingly describes this piece of England she created.

via wiki commons; an example of Capability Brown in landscape design

via wiki commons; an example of “Capability Brown” in landscape design

“Lyndon, architectural and complacent, gleamed whitely against the somber green of ilex and cedar. Its classical facade stretched in ample wings to East and West. The grounds, originally laid out by the famous “Capability Brown” and improved upon by successive generations of landscape gardeners, were admirably in keeping with the dwelling house they guarded. They maintained its note of assured artificiality: they belonged to an age which had not read Wordsworth and which took for granted that nature could be improved upon. The measured, decorative mind of man was everywhere apparent.’

This ‘assured artificiality’ provides the perfect setting, like a velvet jewel box, for the lovely Agatha, the newly installed Lady Clewer. Her beauty is described in terms that make you think of the afore-mentioned Rossetti painting, as, ‘a siren’….

… ‘lovely, indolent, and exotic; [she had] achieved that air of expensive fragility which is beauty’s most precious setting.’

The family name attached to Lyndon is Clewer, and at one point, there are three concurrent Lady(s) Clewer. Quite cleverly, for her purposes, Kennedy has drawn them from three different strata of English life.

via wiki commons, Dante Gabriel-Rossetti

via wiki commons, Dante Gabriel-Rossetti

The eldest Lady Clewer, the widowed Marian, is from the manufacturing class; a.k.a. trade, middle class, wealthy. She is brisk, efficient, and takes a practical view of what is involved in the managing of a great house. She has her flaws, but is not unlikeable.

Agatha, young Lady Clewer, as mentioned, has been groomed for nothing else but to grace such a home as Lyndon. She has a kind, sympathetic nature, and wants to see herself serving some greater purpose in life. In spite of this, she has no concept of work, or, for that matter, has the least idea of how to manage a large house. There is always someone to do things for her.

For all her ample, serene beauty, she is ‘fragile’; a word continually used to describe her. She is unable to produce a living heir to continue the Clewer traditions. (This increasing sterility of the privileged class is a familiar one in literary works from this period.) She marries John Clewer for what she thinks is love, but upon consideration, and after a few disappointing years, she realizes she loves her cousin Gilbert even more, and should have married him. She agonizes, through much of the book, over her failed marriage, over what to do, and what is ‘right’. We soon tire of Agatha; she becomes dreary, self-serving, and predictable in the choices she makes.

Her comments, toward the close of the book, are revealing of the overall thrust of the book:

“Dolly, I think you are much too feudal. You want to put the clock back. You want to revive a state of things which is past and gone for ever. What did I do for Lyndon when I had it? I enjoyed it very much; it suited me to live in it, but I did nothing for it and in the end I disgraced it. I know I belong by race to the ‘Bless the Squire and His Relations’ galley, but it’s out of date, all that sort of thing. I never made the smallest attempt to uphold it. It’s [Marian], with all her modern activities, and her dairies, and her laundries, and village institues, who is ready to shoulder responsibility. I know she domineers, but think how she works! Think of all the dull hard work she’s done since she came to Lyndon! She’s what is called middle class, but she’s ready to take on all the unpaid public work, she and her like. Lyndon’s hers. I belong to a class which is of no account now.”

“They do say that these people, what made their money in trade, are getting into all the old houses nowadays,” agreed Dolly.

The last Lady Clewer—Dolly— is the dark horse; enter the new, up and coming working class. Dolly was a maid whose family had served at Lyndon for decades. She marries James, the ‘slightly queer in the head’ brother of John Clewer. It turns out, in the course of things, that James isn’t really mentally deficient, he’s a gifted artist…..which conveniently explains his bursts of brutality, his extreme anti-social behavior, his sardonic unconcern for hurting people he doesn’t respect, and his unexpected acts of kindness toward those he does. (If you have read any of Kennedy’s other books, like The Constant Nymph, you know she gives a unique and yes, exasperatingly exalted status to artists. They live outside the common bounds of societal rules and graces in order to create art that all common people avert their eyes from, because they don’t understand its significance. See The Moon and Sixpence for a similar treatment of this subject.)

But we’re talking about the Ladies here, so back to Dolly. She becomes the next Lady Clewer, which the reader saw coming. Dolly is eminently likeable—she is self-assured, unselfish, and has a kind of practical wisdom and moral grounding that will ensure the survival of her and ‘her kind’. As she immediately begins producing healthy, robust Clewer children—something Agatha has been unable to do— it is clear that types like Dolly are seen as stabilizing the future of the privileged class with an infusion of new life, new thinking, work ethic, morals, and permanence.

‘”Well, I don’t know, Agatha…. It seems a pity…Sort of like this. The way we go on now, people act silly and then find out new ways so as not so suffer for it. They don’t study not to be silly. That isn’t going to make the world any better, not in the long run.” — Dolly

The rest of the women of this novel, all of them related to each other by birth or marriage, are all powerful characters in themselves. Kennedy does not create wimpy sketches of character. They all feel real, authentic, with lives of their own. John Clewer is an exception to this; but he is clearly meant to be ‘a type’. The wealthy squire, who soon ‘thickens in the neck’ and becomes more ruddy by the day; this is a kind of personality that Kennedy apparently feels is already well-known through literature. He needs no ‘fleshing-out’, he is already well-fleshed. So, beyond a few descriptions, such as his prize cattle, his desire for a beautiful, compliant wife, and his one explanation of himself, we are left to surmise about John Clewer.

‘“I’m not an aristocrat who has left off being really useful. I spent most of today in a stuffy court-house fining people for riding their bicycles on the pavement, don’t you know. And what do I get for it? Somebody has to do it.” — John

(Poor John. The world is too complicated for him.)

There’s a fair number of marriages that happen, and you might think you were in Barsetshire for a day. But each union is thoroughly intriguing on its own, and each relationship between the pairs is much more complex than those in an Angela Thirkell novel.

Lois and Hubert are particularly engaging and believable as a couple. Lois is John Crewer’s step-sister, so she is one of the lesser ladies of Lyndon. Lois longs to escape Lyndon, and her knight errant is the self-consciously adorable Hubert.

‘[Hubert] was seized with a tremor of panic as his car turned off the high road, with its flanking hedges and telegraph poles, through lodge gates into Lyndon Park. It was the first time in his life that he had ever felt shy and he did not like it at all. He tried to key himself into the temper of bold and daring raider snatching a bride from a hostile stronghold. This descent upon Lyndon ought to have a sort of “Young Lochinvar” swoop in it. But the illusion was destroyed by his slow and spasmodic progress down the park. The swoop was barred by innumerable gates, for Sir John, who bred pedigree cattle, had divided the park into a series of fields…’

Lois and Hubert are well-matched in love and talk endlessly together—Kennedy’s novels are nothing if not rich in dialogue—and by the end of the novel these two are still talking. They are quite useful in conveying information important to the flow of the story, but by the end the (impatient) reader is ready to distill the intensity down into brief, simple narratives, minus dialogue and interruptions to dress for dinner, in order to trundle along more quickly to the inevitable conclusion.

Of the male characters, the most interesting is James Crewers, previously mentioned. He is another product of the same class Agatha is from, and just as helpless in many ways, but for different reasons. He needs Dolly to take care of him, keep his clothes clean and pressed, raise the children, decide what knick-knacks go on the mantel, and even choose where they’ll live. She knows nothing of art, but she just knows her husband is an artist and a gentleman and as such, must be given every possible space in life to create something that the world must need. The endearing thing about these two is that they are devoted to each other.

‘Agatha’s heart was as bleak as the skies outside and she wanted to escape from Dolly and James, and their insufferable security in each other.’

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Gilbert Blair, the ‘brilliant cousin’ of Agatha. He is not meant to be an attractive character; merely an enigma, a tantalizing shadow to Agatha of what might have been. The amusing thing about Gilbert—although he himself is rarely amused by anything and takes his seeming lofty views much too seriously—is that he is considered by everyone else a Socialist. He’s an ‘unruly element’. (That makes Kennedy’s choice of how to deal with Gilbert all the more piquant, and surprisingly current.) He despises the opulent way of life that Agatha and the Clewers live, but is often there enjoying their generous hospitality. He likes to be known as one who provides health care to the poor and needy, but makes no secret of how he despises the filthy ‘scum’. He is morose, and seems to only take pleasure in pointing out how everyone else is living their lives all wrong.

“You can’t do what you think wrong,” [Agatha] said doubtfully.
“Oh, yes I can,” he assured her.
“But it must be right,” she argued. “We were meant for each other. It was my marriage that was wrong.”
He agreed, but said that he would, he thought, condemn behaviour like theirs in anyone else. He reminded her, a little shamefacedly, that he had accepted John’s hospitality and was returning it by stealing his wife.’

Although this novel explores relationships a great deal—what works and what can go wrong, what leads to happiness and what does not—I think of this more as a country house novel in the overview. Perhaps not in the grand tradition of writers such as Henry James, or Aldous Huxley, or Elizabeth Bowen, or Evelyn Waugh, but it should at least be on the list.

In considering The Ladies of Lyndon in this light, it is worthy of note what Richard Gill wrote in his book Happy Rural Seat: The English Country House and the Literary Imagination:

richardgillbookcover‘…We may conclude that the gravitation of a number of Edwardian novelists toward the country house for their themes and symbolism was neither arbitrary nor coincidental. In a changing world, the country house offered to some, like Wells, and Galsworthy, the possibility of dramatizing the failures of a whole social order; for others, like Forster and Ford, it provided an emblem of what might be restored or at least a clue to what might be conserved.’

Margaret Kennedy’s The Ladies of Lyndon, though written in 1923, on the other side of the war, fits more closely in intent, I believe, to the latter category of Forster and Ford. In the strangely cobbled together Clewer family, and their varying fortunes and walks of life, she attempted to posit a future, not just for houses like Lyndon, but for England itself.

“I do love Lyndon. Living in this house makes me realize how much I love it. When I’m at Lyndon I have a feeling sometimes it doesn’t matter what follies we perpetrate because it will survive us. It was made by more sensible people than we are. And sensible people will live there again some day.” — Agatha

ladies-of-lyndon


For further reading on Margaret Kennedy, please see Jane’s blog where she has introduced Margaret Kennedy to a new audience; there are links to excellent reviews from her site. As well, the Kennedy novels I have reviewed so far on this site can be found by using the search box. Or:

Troy Chimneys
The Fool of the Family
The Feast