Angela Thirkell is resurrected here from the Really Like this Book podcast scripts, for her wonderful, joyous, comic novel Summer Half (1937), in which the headmaster’s daughter gets engaged to the junior classics master, and causes mayhem by being horrible to him for the rest of the term. Other engagements also happen, because no Angela Thirkell novel is complete without at least one, but the real joy of this novel is that it brings summer back, whenever you read it.
From the 1930s and throughout the Second World War Angela Thirkell was a best-seller, and she went on to publish a novel every year for about fifteen more years. This isn’t always a mark of quality or excitement, but it certainly tells you about her self-discipline, and what her readers wanted. She wrote about the same thing for thirty years: the small-town and country lives of a group of upper-class characters and their servants, tenants and neighbours. She was a great comic novelist in the sharp-toothed pastoral tradition of Jane Austen, yet her novels are marinaded in Victorian literature, and she quite clearly loathes the bad manners and slovenly standards of the present day. Most fascinating of all, she uses the fictional landscape invented by the Victorian novelist Antony Trollope, re-setting his Barsetshire in the twentieth century. She uses his character names, his topographical features, his family histories, and the events of his novels to construct a brilliant parallel universe in which to enact her saga. Her purpose was to satirise modern county life with an affectionate eye, and to be very unpleasant about character types and modern institutions she could not abide.
In Summer Half, she is writing about Southbridge and Northbridge, two small country towns in the south of Barsetshire. Northbridge is where the Keith family live, in Northbridge Manor. Colin Keith, the youngest son, wants to read for the Bar rather desperately, but he has also gone for an interview as a schoolmaster at Southbridge School, because he nobly thinks that his aged father ought not to be supporting him any longer. Mr Keith (a very well-off solicitor) is mildly exasperated at his son’s divergence from the one right path and true of the law, because he’s brought a nice barrister, Noel Merton, home for supper who is to take Colin into his Chambers in the autumn. Colin splutters, goes bright red, and accepts joyfully, knowing also that he will earn enough from his one term of schoolmastering to buy a little car.
Enter Lydia Keith, an overgrown schoolgirl of domineering character and a complete lack of self-consciousness. Her awkward age drowns all rational dinner-party conversation in a monologue about That Beast Pettinger (her headmistress), cocker spaniels, Robert Browning, Hamlet and Latin poetry. This is only stopped when her mother sends her to bed. Noel is meanwhile looked after impeccably by Lydia’s sister Kate, who is lovely but boring, having only housekeeping thoughts in her head.
Back in Southbridge, Mr Birkett, the headmaster of Southbridge School is realising with grim misery that the unwanted engagement of his eldest and uncontrollably stupid daughter Rose to the junior Classics master, a red-haired Communist called Philip Winter, is going to make the summer half (which you and I would call the summer term), well-nigh unbearable. Philip is inflammable because he is so miserable in his betrothed state, so the other masters creep round him saying as little as possible, because when they do they will always be wrong. The head of Philip’s house is called Everard Carter, and he is in love with Kate Keith, while accepting that of course Merton the sophisticated London interloper must have fair play if Kate is indeed in love with him.
The schoolboys are the real stars of this book. They are knowing, delightful, horribly learned, show-offs, and maliciously devious. Lydia gets on with them famously, and when they come to stay at her house for May half-term, they help her clear out the pond by dumping mounds of evil-smelling pondweed and mud onto the lawn.
Other rule-breakers are more subtle. Eric Swan deliberately looks at Philip through their spectacles, which makes him lose his temper. Tony Morland has already been introduced to Barsetshire as the son of the novelist Mrs Morland, in a collection of short stories called The Demon in the House. He is a smart-alec, manipulative, witty, devious, frighteningly knowledgeable about the Russian ballet and classical music, but only, we suspect so that he can crush his schoolmasters with his superior knowledge. At the same time, he is endearingly young. Shortly after an earnest and learned discussion with his schoolmasters, he and Swan re-enact an epic struggle from Bulldog Drummond on the second-floor landing, and are discovered struggling in a death-grip, just like any other small boys. Thank goodness they’re human.
My favourite of the Southbridge boys is Hacker, a shy Classics whiz in spectacles. He is liked and respected by his friends, for whom he does the odd bit of classical homework, and he has a pet chameleon. One night, a little tired from several straight hours of Latin hexameters, Hacker decides to have an illegal bath, but he also wants to keep the chameleon warm under the bedside light. He shrouds the lightbulb in a silk handkerchief to reduce the betraying light, and goes off to the bath with his volume of Sophocles for a little light reading. After some time he emerges from Ancient Greece to smell burning, and leaps from the bath, treading on his spectacles. He rushes to his room in a towel to rescue the chameleon, who is quite all right, though the handkerchief is rather charred. Carter captures him and is about to send all the excited boys back to bed who are hoping for a complete conflagration of the school, when Tony announces that the stairs from the bathroom have turned into a waterfall, and that the kitchen ceiling below is collapsing.
Meanwhile, Rose is flirting with any man that comes her way, and repelling them all since she is appallingly self-centred and immature. She also drives Philip to distraction, but he refuses to ditch her, which is of course the correct behaviour for a gentleman. Her father would so much rather that Rose broke the engagement, as her temper tantrums and Philip’s misery are wrecking the peace of his home and the work of the sixth form. Rescue comes in the form of the two hearty Fairweather brothers, who shriek and bellow with Rose for as long as she likes, and drive her to the cinema and out and about at the slightest hint, but have no interest in allowing her to be rude to anyone. She sulks, because no-one is paying any attention to her, and when Philip does try to make her feel better, she screams at him, and throws his engagement ring at his feet. Never has an engagement been broken off with so much relief for all.
This is a gloriously funny novel. The humour comes from the outrageous characters, and the social rules they break. Barsetshire is a smoothly-running English county where everyone knows their place and the class and social rules are immovable. Because the rules are solid, they can be leaned against, and bent, for increasing amounts of comic effect. The immortal Lydia is not at all a meek and ladylike quietly-spoken schoolgirl of gentle accomplishments. She is a hearty and clumsy autocrat who has not learned tact, modulation of the voice, the rules about knees together in skirts, or how to converse at dinner when guests are present. When she discovers Browning’s poetry, she comes downstairs wailing in floods of tears because it is so magnificent. She is a ferocious and outspoken hostess, and a silent and scornful enemy. At the climax of the novel, the Southbridge School sports and tea for parents and boys, she stalks the grounds like Nemesis. The summer atmosphere is somehow enhanced by her eccentric, domineering presence, since she is enjoying the food and sunshine just like everyone else.
Such are the joys of the summer in this really endearing Barsetshire novel. I highly recommend it for convalescence, because I last reread it while recovering from a gruelling hospital procedure, and I scarcely remembered I was ill until I’d finished the book. (I’ve written more about Summer Half, and all Thirkell’s novels, in my book, Novelists Against Social Change: do ask your library to buy it.)