I have a love/hate relationship with Angela Thirkell and her novels. Her classism is almost intolerable at times, but now that I’m well into her Barsetshire series, I’ve become interested in the characters and storylines that continue from book to book. Although this series was well established before the outbreak of World War Two, Thirkell used it in the post war years to express her frustration with the new government that came to power after WWII. (See my post from 2013 about the book Austerity Britain, under related posts below.) On the one hand, I find Thirkell’s classism, sexism, and general patrician attitude to be difficult to take. On the other, I have read a bit about the massive social changes combined with food and fuel shortages and terrible weather in England after World War II and I can understand that life must have been frightening and extremely stressful. I’m sure I would have complained too, but I hope I wouldn’t have clung to the belief that there must be a class of people whose sole purpose is to serve their “betters.”
According to Thirkell’s fiction, any attempt at fair labor practice is an invitation to shirking. And why is there a need for a national health service when the aristocracy have always cared for their people? So she peoples her novels with quietly suffering gentlefolk – now reduced to doing their own shopping and housework with perhaps one maid to help – and assorted nannies, maids, and gardeners who assert stoutly that nothing gives them more pleasure than to toil for the rich. The nannies in particular are appalling, with their belief that the children of their employers are superior to the children of their own class.
That said, I keep reading because Thirkell’s books have many amusing truths about social interactions and the awkwardness therein. She also validates certain uncomfortable feelings – such as loving your children very much and yet also wishing they’d leave you alone once in a while. Anyway, on to the books! The Old Bank House is about Mr. Adams, the one working class person that Thirkell has allowed to rise and mingle with the gentry. Mr. Adams owns the “works” at Hogglestock and is enormously rich. He first appears in an earlier novel, The Headmistress, where his lumpen daughter Heather attends a school housed in the estate of one of the local gentry and in this way, the Adams family is thrown together with the “county.” Mr. Adams persistently refers to himself in the third person and won’t shut up about “mother,” his long-dead wife. He gets himself elected to parliament on the labour ticket, but then endears himself to the gentry by voting like a conservative. The aristocratic Mrs. Belton takes him under her wing, and in The Old Bank House, he moves away from Hogglestock and buys the house named in the title, in a small village. In other words, Mr. Adams has Arrived. There’s a secondary plot in which Thirkell finally marries off one of her confirmed bachelors, who first appeared many books earlier in the series, and also finds a mate for one of her long-unmarried female characters.
County Chronicle picks up right where The Old Bank House leaves off. We see Mr. Adams get MARRIED! Then his story is pushed to the back burner and the plot focuses on the domestic troubles in the Brandon household, and some new characters are introduced: Isabel Dale, secretary, and Lady Cora and Lord Silverbridge, the children of the Duke of Omnium. And yes, if you’re familiar with Trollope’s Barsetshire and Palliser series, these are intended to be direct descendants of the families from his books. This novel functions more to tie up loose ends from various previous novels in the series, and yet there are more loose ends to address. Will Oliver Marling ever get married? Will Mr. Adams start speaking like the upper class? Will Lucy Marling ever have a baby? The next book, The Duke’s Daughter is waiting on my nightstand.