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.

ThirkellCheerfulnessBreaksIn

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.

‘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.’

1801-a-knotted-garden-q90-800x600

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.’

********************

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