Today we publish two classic novels by Angela Thirkell – High Rising and Wild Strawberries – as Virago Modern Classics. Here Virago editor Rowan Cope explains what makes them so special and why they make perfect Christmas reading:
I must confess to a weakness: I am simply incapable of resisting a good old-fashioned comic novel. I came to this kind of fiction relatively late, having been raised in a boffinish sort of household where books, though good and plentiful, tended to belong to the more serious end of the spectrum. But then I was introduced by altruistic types of my acquaintance to the novels of Wodehouse, Benson, Delafield, Gibbons and Pym, and found myself swept along on a healing tide of wit, exuberance and sheer delight in the comic possibilities of the English language and character. These are the writers to whom I turn when I am feeling in need of amusement, comfort, solace or simple relaxation, and I know they won’t let me down.
Imagine my pleasure, then, in discovering recently another classic author, hitherto unknown to me, to add to my collection of delicious comic voices. Angela Thirkell was born in 1890 and began her writing career with journalism and short stories in the 1920s, mainly to make ends meet when she found herself in the position of single mother to young boys (like her heroine Laura Morland in High Rising). She brought out a handful of books in the early 1930s, and in 1933 hit upon the magic formula with High Rising, an English country-house comedy set in the fictional county of Barsetshire. The second book in the series, Wild Strawberries, was published the following year, and a couple of dozen more followed over the next two decades. She was prolific, very successful and hugely loved by her readers. As in the comic novels of her contemporaries such as Wodehouse, romantic entanglements, broken or ill-conceived engagements, one-upmanship and social high-jinks are the order of the day in her Barsetshire stories – but they are written with great warmth, affection and feminine insight, and these qualities shine through too.
High Rising’s Laura Morland, a lady novelist of renown, is a winning heroine, somewhere between Flora Poste of Cold Comfort Farm and Helen Cresswell’s Mrs Bagthorpe in her ability to sow harmony where there is discord, her exasperated tender adoration of her sons and her friends, and her constant habit of shedding hairpins at moments of stress. The novel opens at Christmas time, when Laura and her youngest son Tony travel to their cottage in the eponymous Barsetshire village and are reunited with their indomitable cook Stoker, eccentric local landowner George Knox, who lives in the big house at neighbouring Low Rising, Laura’s suave London publisher Adrian Coates, and many other delightful characters.
Wild Strawberries has a more straightforwardly romantic plot, being the story of a love triangle between beautiful but cash-strapped Mary Preston and her relatives David and John Leslie, scions of the Rushwater estate, located in some other lush corner of Thirkell’s Barsetshire. But the repartee, sharp observation and irresistible comedy are there still, particularly in the persons of the matriarch Lady Emily and her daughter Agnes, who manage the great house and Agnes’ vast brood of children in admirably chaotic fashion.
I read these two and a few other Barsetshire novels appropriately enough in the run-up to Christmas last year; December festivities were under way, there was tinsel in the air, but for me personally it was an unsettled time of being temporarily between addresses and somewhat at sixes and sevens. Angela Thirkell’s High Rising and Wild Strawberries offered the perfect antidote: they were wonderful, easy-going company – funny, charming, as comforting as coming in to a roaring log fire from the cold night outside – and I couldn’t think of anything nicer than to republish them for a new audience of Virago Modern Classics readers. I very much hope you enjoy them this Christmas.
Rowan Cope, Virago Commissioning Editor
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