I think I must have read this Angela Thirkell novel first when I was 13, stuck in bed with mumps, and very bored. It entranced me. The tiresome adult children converging on the beleaguered and saintly mother; the glow of perfection cast over the rightful landowning classes; the crashing irruption of the Adams family into smoothly running Harefield where everyone knows their place and they so obviously don’t fit; the comic inventiveness of Mrs Updike’s self-inflicted domestic accidents. The Headmistress (1944) was a primer for hierarchical class relationships— hitherto only met in Jane Austen— and showed me what to expect when I encountered the English upper classes in their natural habitat later in life. It’s remained a reliable favourite from the Thirkell canon: not as funny as The Brandons and Summer Half, and not as piercingly perceptive in social history as Love Among the Ruins or Northbridge Rectory, but absolutely wonderful for its portrait of Miss Sparling, the headmistress who negotiates relationships with her pupils, her devoted secretary Miss Holly, her landlords the dispossessed but kindly Beltons, their gauche and entitled children, the vicar Mr Oriel who is worried about inadvertently stealing one of her grandfather’s books, and the local Oxford don Mr Carton, who is determined to fathom the relationship between Miss Sparling and the mysterious last commentary on Fluvius Minucius.
Rereading the novel this time round, for the Thirkell Reading Week from the Undervalued British Women Writers 1930-1960 group on Facebook, I was struck by Thirkell’s nuancing of character. Mrs Updike may be an absolute idiot in the home, but she keeps secrets, and is loved by her children. Miss Holly in The Headmistress is a perfect deputy, clearly destined for a school of her own, and with enough character to blossom into a leading role as a maths coach in the later Miss Bunting. Heather Adams is a strikingly accurate depiction of lumpen adolescence (playing Audrey in As You Like It with no acting skill needed whatsoever), and we are grateful that she will grow out of it. Mr Adams has a minor part in The Headmistress, but will elbow the awkward Heather aside in later novels when Thirkell discovers what a spectacularly good character he will be for exploring how the English upper classes will have to open up and admit men of money and character into their ranks, even allowing them to marry their daughters. Mr Adams’ rise from a clumsy, chippy factory-owner to conservative MP and county-by-adoption, over several novels, is one of the major strands of narrative in Thirkell’s Barsetshire that makes her novels spectacularly good social history, written as it was taking place. Her observational powers were acute.
The Headmistress is a war novel, though the discomforts of war seem hardly to affect any of the characters. They eat enough and very well too; they can travel when and where they want; and the oppression of war regulations and committees is removed as if by magic when the plot demands it. Butchers press packets of tasty scraps off the ration into favoured characters’ hands; Mrs Updike discovered a long-forgotten buried suitcase of tins in the garden. The adult children get 24- and 48-hour leave without any difficulty, and there is always a local man to give them a lift. The Thirkell world is organised to suit the county characters’ convenience, while making sure we all see how hard they work, how good they are at doing their duty, and how much they sacrifice by working pretty much like the rest of us do. Barsetshire is a strange, alien world now, in politics and social nuance, and is all the more to be treasured.
Kate has written about Angela Thirkell at length in her book Novels Against Social Change. Conservative Popular Fiction 1920-1960 (Palgrave 2015)