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.

Pause: Fade In Train Noises

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‘Having timed her by her only possible train, he locked the door about mid-day, and crossed the hollow field to the verge of the upland by the Brown House, where he stood and looked over the vast prospect northwards, and over the nearer landscape in which Alfredston stood. Two miles behind it a jet of white steam was travelling from the left to the right of the picture.’ 
Jude the Obscure

My brave ‘little iPhone that could’ was poised and ready. The scene that unfolded below me was like something out of a dream and I wanted to capture it. In the valley, a steam locomotive chuffs and puffs into view; churning streamers of billowing white. The still waterway beneath the land bridge, darkened by dusk, silvered by frost, reflects the curling steam and plays it back as airy clouds. A flock of geese, startled by the roar of the approaching train, erupt in a scatter of pepper-like patterns against the horizon, then subside again on the water.

Where are we? When are we? Are we really in a Thomas Hardy novel?

Is this 1869 London, in a scene that would become part of Henrietta Creswell’s Victorian memoir Winchmore Hill, Memories of a Lost Village…?

Or perhaps, chugging up the steep hill in NightMail, we have found ourselves in the year of 1936; watching the plucky 6115 Scots Guardsman steam locomotive make its way to Glasgow…

Have we lost ourselves in a radio play of 1945, dreaming on a train like young William did…and waking up to find Anthony Trollope staring at him?

Are we on the Orient Express with Hercule Poirot, heading into a large snowdrift with murder afoot…?

None of the above. We are in the present; the delightful present. This is Portland, and we are watching the old Southern Pacific 4449 steam across the Oaks Bottom wetland.

trainlettering

In this city, we are privileged to have a working society devoted to bringing back the thrill of steam engine trains. Portland boasts a premium selection of ‘rolling stock’ as it is called (differing from static display, which is a fully retired locomotive).

The Oregon Rail Heritage Facility oversees the preservation of three city-owned steam locomotives:

Southern Pacific 4449 (SP 4449),

Spokane, Portland & Seattle 700 (SP&S 700), and

Oregon Railroad & Navigation 197 (OR&N 197).

These three beauties also give Portland ‘the distinction of being the only city in the United States to own operating mainline steam locomotives.’

Vintage steam locomotives instantly transport you to another time. Their appeal continues to affect a broad range of enthusiasts, from toddlers to hipsters to grizzled old softies. The sound of a steam whistle gives a thrill in my heart that is somewhat akin to listening to a Rachmaninov piano concerto performed live. It’s what we like to call A Moment.

As a little girl, I was generally supposed to like dolls. I certainly received enough. My interest in dolls was extremely limited, however. For one thing, they were made of plastic and never altered their stare.

I had four brothers and, as fate would have it, none of them were interested in trains. But oh how I wanted a train set. The substantial metal kind. I loved the black engines and I loved the red cabooses. And pretty much everything that fit between. I wanted it to run into every room of the house on a track that was built over our heads. This dream was never realized for a number of reasons—likely expense was one, but the fact that it would be difficult to dust was a deal breaker.

trainbolts

The whistle of a steam engine is unlike anything else. It is terrifying at close range, evocative and moody when heard from a distance. At night the sound carries farther, and you no longer listen as though from a distance, you hear an echo that seems to resound from within your own DNA. Somehow, like my sweet tooth, my petite frame, my nerdy wordsmithing tendencies, I also inherited this crazy love for trains.

these wheels are taller than me

these wheels are taller than me

Since the steam engine came to birth in Britain, and it is so intimately connected with some of our favorite English literature, we tend to pair it with other aspects of English culture that are iconic. (Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, besides taking place in Europe, and starring a Belgian detective, still manages to be very British in tone!).

The allure of Angela Thirkell’s villages of Barsetshire, for example, are chiefly powered by the chuffing, perky trains which regularly decanted new romantic prospects at the station and into each book—enough to guarantee a bit of a romantic kerfuffle and at least two weddings by the end of the story.

In August Folly, written in 1936, Thirkell describes your approach by train into the sleepy village of Worsted:

‘When your train comes backwards into the station, often assisted for the last few yards by a large grey horse and its friends and hangers-on, you may take your seat in a carriage which has never known the hand of change since it left the railway shops in 1887….As your train pulls out on the single line which joins Winter Overcotes to Shearings, a small junction fifteen miles away, you are back in the late Victorian era. Engines and carriages are a striking relic of our earlier railways, and under their skimpy coats of paint may be read the names of long defunct systems…The line meanders, in the way that makes an old railway so much more romantic than a new motor highway, among meadows, between hills, over level crossings.’ 

(More about August Folly)

Thus we see that the idea of steam trains being romantic and nostalgic is certainly not new. Barsetshire, this fictional county lovingly endowed with warm and woolly names like Winter Overcotes, Shearings, Woolram, Lambton, Worsted, Fleece and Skeynes, was not invented by Angela Thirkell. She just made it her own, and famous in its own right.

The honor of Barsetshire’s creation goes to Anthony Trollope, who, as it is known, did much of his novel writing while riding, in what? A train, of course.

Writer Elizabeth Bowen not only loved trains; admitting ‘an enthusiastic naiveté’—she also championed the work of Anthony Trollope in a time when his novels had fallen out of popularity as too stuffy, too Victorian.

Elizabeth Bowen via wiki

She chose to use an old steam train as the setting for her 1945 radio play Anthony Trollope: A New Judgement. The directions for styling the opening scene to the play are as follows:

‘Pause: fade in train noises…rather accentuated, as of train taking up-gradient. Gradually fade in, on top of these noises and in their rhythm, voice saying ‘A picture book, a picture book, a picture book’….the words should gain slowly, more with each time of speaking, over train noises.’

The idea of putting singsong words to the rhythm of the train is as old as the trains, themselves. In a memoir published in 1912, Winchmore Hill: Memories of a Lost Village, Henrietta Creswell writes of fifty years earlier when the railroad first came to her sleepy village that is now a London suburb. She describes the first steam engines that began to arrive on the newly laid track, and how each one the villagers came to know as ‘a personality’, a separate voice…

Fox informed the world there was ‘such a hurry, such a hurry.” Hunslet, a tank engine, was particularly clear in her enunciation, informing all the world of her huffy temper, though I never heard she was ill to deal with as a worker—“I’m in a huff, I’m in a huff!” she puffed on her way along the line. Progress, who laboured at the Wood Green end, proclaimed continually the name of the chief engineer—‘Mr. Claringbull, Mr. Claringbull,’ she shouted with a strong accent on the last syllable. Ferret seldom left the Enfield portion of roadmaking, perhaps because everything was ‘such a heavy load, such a heavy load’.”…

Obviously, the personification of steam locomotives can be traced back to the early days of the railways–in this case, 1870, when the newly minted tracks, and the newly birthed engines were just beginning to become a familiar feature of the countryside. Just a few years before Elizabeth Bowen wrote her radio play in 1945, the temptation to personalize a locomotive was still well in place.

mahogany interior on the train

Down the mahogany corridors of a sleeper car

In 1936 a film documentary, entitled Nightmail, was commissioned that paired poetry and music to the sounds of a train. The busy London, Midland and Scottish Railway was powered by the beloved engine Royal Scot 6115 Scots Guardsman. The poem begins slowly, imitating the clickety-clack of wheels on the rail, then picks up speed until at the end the narrator is reciting at a breathless pace.

Does this sound like a fun, ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’-esque sort of venture? Not at all. It was a serious endeavor, and is now considered a classic. The poetry for the piece was written by none other than W.H. Auden, the music was scored by Benjamin Britten, and the film was directed by the brilliant Brazilian filmmaker Alberto Cavalcanti. An amazing trifecta of talent commissioned to honor a steam engine…You can see the video here.

‘This is the Night Mail crossing the border
Bringing the cheque and the postal order

Letters for the rich, letters for the poor
The shop at the corner and the girl next door

Pulling up Beattock, a steady climb —

The gradient’s against her, but she’s on time

Past cotton-grass and moorland boulder
Shoveling white steam over her shoulder

Snorting noisily as she passes

Silent miles of wind-bent grasses

Birds turn their heads as she approaches

Stare from the bushes at her black-faced coaches

Sheep-dogs cannot turn her course;

They slumber on with paws across

In the farm she passes no one wakes
But a jug in the bedroom gently shakes…’ W.H. Auden

Before I leave the subject of Britain and trains I just have to mention my new dream, slightly more ambitious than my little girl dream of room to room (undusted) train travel. I would love to go to Hampshire, England and ride the Watercress Line….Who wouldn’t want to ride a train called the Watercress Line?? It’s an old steam train that now regularly runs a twenty or so mile route in the beautiful Hampshire countryside. One of the stops is near Chawton, Jane Austen’s home territory. The Watercress Line––though officially named Mid-Hants Railway––is named for the fact that in former days the train was used to take watercress from local farms into London markets, presumably for all those English teas with neatly trimmed cucumber and watercress sandwiches. How Oscar Wilde. (How I suddenly feel like Algernon and want to ‘scoff the lot’ before Lady Bracknell arrives.) Says the website enthusiastically:

‘There is nothing quite like the sound, smell and power of a steam locomotive in full cry!’

I quite agree. But this gets us to the other side—the historical aspect of trains. The charms of a vintage train have not always been so. It has not always been considered charming, it has not always been vintage. At its inception, it was ‘new technology’. It was everything that was new, disruptive, dirty, destructive, and scary loud. Not to mention immorally fast.

‘Quaint’ and ‘adorable’ are adjectives that would not have been employed in any discussion of railroads in Cranford, the fictional village created by Elizabeth Gaskell in 1851. These venerable ladies of Cranford—themselves quaint and adorable—were decidedly against the encroaching railways.

The Cranford ladies; not too happy with the railway…

In part two of ‘Pause: Fade In Train Noises’, we’ll visit Cranford, see how the ladies are getting on, make a few other literary stops, and go chuffing our way through a bit of English fictional countryside.

I hope you’ll join me!

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.”

 

‘Gossamer Abundant’

gossamer and iron

“Slow thro’ the air                                         

The gossamer-floats; 

or stretch’d from blade to blade

The wavy net-work whitens all the fields.”   Gilbert White

On this day of March 22 in 1773, Gilbert White noted the following in his diary: –

 ‘Gossamer floats about.’

It will have been noted by now that the esteemed diarist did not often give way to flights of fancy, although he occasionally waxed rhapsodical in poetry to his greatest love—the natural world. To him the ‘new-mown hay’, the moment when ‘love-sick turtles breathe their amorous pain’, and the movements of the ‘swift in rapid giddy ring’, were the stuff of poetry most sublime.

Selborne, Gilbert White's home

Selborne, Gilbert White’s home

Two years later, on this day of March 22 in 1775, Gilbert White, in one of his more prosaic moments, would merely jot down:

‘Snake appears: toad comes forth.  Frogs spawn.  Horse-ants come forth.’

To him, this plain-stated, unvarnished truth, was the essence of beauty.

spring crocus

Still, there was, for White, the ethereality of gossamer, ’the wavy net-work’, the dreamy delicate spider webs, the white cottony wisps floating from the willows. It was often noted in his diary, year after year:

’gossamer streams’
gossamer abundant’
gossamer floats’
‘vast quantities of gossamer’
‘much gossamer flying’
‘the air is full of gossamer’

and finally,

‘Much gossamer. Bat.’

On Oct. 15, 1788, overcome, he wrote a poem about gossamer:

“slow thro’ the air

The gossamer-floats; or stretch’d from blade to blade

The wavy net-work whitens all the fields.”

Dear Gilbert. We love him so.

Earlier than Gilbert White, Shakespeare also wrote of ‘gossamer’. It is a word that has intrigued lexicographers ever since.

‘the gossamer that idles
in the wanton summer air.’

Footnotes to the text read:

[Dyce.”\ In Hannibal and Scipio, 1637, by Nabbes:
‘Fine as Arachne’s web, or gossamer [‘gosshemert.’ Nares], 
 Whose curls, when garnished by their dressing, shew 
 Like that spun vapour when ’tis pearl’d with dew?*

English Expositor, 1616: gossomor: ‘Things that flye like cobwebs in the ayre’…


Even in a footnote it is entrancing… ‘like that spun vapor when ’tis pearl’d with dew…’

Too evocative to just leave there.

The writing of Virginia Woolf has been likened to gossamer strands of delicate imagery. Delicate, yes—shaded, subtle; yet the overall effect is a weave of surprisingly sinew-tough prose.

She wrote in The Common Reader: (1925)
‘nothing [proves] a writer’s greatness more than his capacity to consolidate his scene by the use of what, until he touched them, seemed wisps of cloud and threads of gossamer.’ 

In this further segment from The Common Reader ‘Notes on An Elizabethan Play’ (which could be subtitled ‘On Being Bored by the Elizabethans’):

‘Is it not that literature, if it is to keep us on the alert through five acts or thirty-two chapters, must somehow be based on Smith, have one toe touching Liverpool, take off into whatever heights it pleases from reality? We are not so purblind as to suppose that a man because his name is Smith and he lives at Liverpool is therefore “real”.

‘We know indeed that this reality is a chameleon quality, the fantastic becoming as we grow used to it often the closest to the truth, the sober the furthest from it…’

Well; except for the reference to the chameleon the reality she describes is a world away from Gilbert White’s reality, and his delight in a spring day March 19, 1787:

‘Women sow wheat.  Gossamer abounds.  Sowed a bed of Celeri under a hand-glass.’

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Back to Virginia, philosophically sowing wheat:

‘Our contention merely is that there is a station, somewhere in mid-air, whence Smith and Liverpool can be seen to the best advantage; that the great artist is the man who knows where to place himself above the shifting scenery; that while he never loses sight of Liverpool he never sees it in the wrong perspective. The Elizabethans bore us, then, because their Smiths are all changed to dukes, their Liverpools to fabulous islands and palaces in Genoa.

Instead of keeping a proper poise above life they soar miles into the empyrean, where nothing is visible for long hours at a time but clouds at their revelry, and a cloud landscape is not ultimately satisfactory to human eyes.’

[note: this reminds me of the amusing scene in Margery Sharp’s first novel, Rhododendron Pie, which I summarize at my Margery Sharp blog here: “We call them the inferno and Paradiso, and change the prospect to match our humour. One feels a little like God surveying the universe. Your room, I am afraid, commands the seamy side, but you will like the taxi-men and their many children.’”]

It would seem that in this word picture Woolf creates for us of soaring into the empyrean, and likening it to ‘a cloud landscape’, not ‘ultimately satisfactory to human eyes’, she was loosely merging the godlike empyrean realm of classical Greek literature, the ambient aether of Aristotle, (what I like to think of as a sort of collective lint trap of creative ideas floating out in subconscious space), and even Aristophanes’ mockery of the ‘perfect city in the clouds’ i.e. ‘cloud cuckoo land’.

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If this suddenly brings to your mind Angela Thirkell, then you are—oddly enough—on the same train of thought as I. It was precisely in such a ‘cloud cuckoo land’, (according to her own reckoning) a land of unreality, and airy nothings—where Thirkell placed her Barsetshire stories. As airy as they are, they have endured and been beloved to many for decades.

It is a ‘trick of strong imagination’, just as Shakespeare said:

And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination…A Midsummer Night’s Dream

William Beebe, the famous naturalist and marine biologist, took deep dives in his famous bathysphere in quite the opposite direction of empyrean space. Perhaps he had never read the Elizabethan playwrights and worried so intelligently over the ‘unintelligible convolutions’ as had Woolf, still he wrote:

‘Boredom is immoral. All a man has to do is see. All about us nature puts on the most thrilling adventure stories ever created, but we have to use our eyes. I was walking across our compound last month when a queen termite began building her miraculous city. I saw it because I was looking down. One night three giant fruit bats flew over the face of the moon. I saw them because I was looking up.’

I feel quite sure that he and Gilbert White would have been in perfect accord; on bats, termites, lovesick turtles, the internet, and ‘the timorous hare.’ Oh, and gossamer.

Looking up. Looking down.  (I saw it because…)

Today is March 22, 2014:

‘Much gossamer floats about.’

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Notes: There are lovely websites dedicated to the life and works of Gilbert White of Selborne here and here.