‘Summer Half’ by Angela Thirkell was my second foray into the Thirkell novels set in the fictional, rural English province of Barsetshire (derivatised from Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire of the Barchester Chronicles series).
I feel that one must be prepared mentally before embarking upon a Thirkell novel. While she lacks the sharp wit of Barbara Pym, the superior plot of Stella Gibbons, the excellent writing of Nancy Mitford, there is a soft sleepy British humour in her novels that makes them irresistible to me. Therefore, I feel that one should not start reading the novel with a lofty sense of literary expectation.
The books have a weak plot but are filled with a cast of unmistakably middle-class British characters who belong to a bygone era. Some of them are perturbed with the state of political affairs in pre World War 2 Europe, but for the most part, they are engaged in playing tennis, reading literature and enjoying summer picnics.
There are a few characters who share the same names as Trollope’s Barsetshire characters. A favourite of mine-Old Bunce appears in the new avatar of a boatman in ‘Summer Half’- a fact that I derived particular pleasure from.
The characters in ‘Summer Half’ are people who have epicurean qualities and so the book is liberally scattered with references to meals that will make your mouth water.
The tea in Colin’s room looked perfectly delightful. There were mustard and cress sandwiches, cucumber sandwiches, jam sandwiches, bloater paste sandwiches, cakes with pink icing, chocolate cake. a coffee cake and two plates of biscuits. Colin, poking about in the village, had found a grocer who kept these joys of his early childhood, animal biscuits and alphabet biscuits and had bought a pound of each. There was also a huge bowl of strawberries, a large jug of cream and on the dressing-table beer and sherry for the late comers.
There were two specific points about the plot that drew me to this novel. The first was the school setting of the book (I adore school stories!). The second was the fact that it was set in the summer- and I felt like a month of light summer reading this month, after finishing Bleak House in June.
The story deals with the decision made by young and brilliant Colin Keith, a recent graduate of Oxford and destined for a career in law, to sacrifice his calling in life to take up a teaching job at the local Southbridge School, during the summer term. What he sees as a sacrifice, trying to earn a living instead of studying for the law, his parents see as a temporary summer diversion. Colin packs his bags and takes up a room in Southbridge School and is immediately charged with the difficult task of teaching the classics to the boys of the Mixed Fifth.
We are introduced to a bevy of school characters: the Headmaster Mr Birkett, his beautiful but shallow daughter Rose who is perpetually engaged, this time to another schoolteacher Mr Phillips, Mr Everard Carter- another schoolteacher and three boys from the Mixed Fifth- Tony Morland, Eric Swan and scholarly but absent minded ‘Hacker’.
Not only do we gain admittance to the goings-on at Southbridge School via Colin Keith, we also get to know of his middle-class, respected family: Mr Keith (lawyer), matriarch Mrs Keith (placid and ever welcoming of guests), elder brother and lawyer Robert Keith and his family. sweet-tempered sister Kate and younger schoolgirl sister Lydia-loudvoiced, opinionated and on more than one occasion described as an ‘Amazon’.
When a number of unmarried young men and women meet frequently during summer picnics, school Sport’s Days, house parties during long Bank Holidays, this is most certainly a recipe for romance and matchmaking.
Read if you will, about this perfect snapshot of bucolic provincial life. There will be plenty of talk of sunshine and tennis matches, of the midnight mishaps of errant schoolboys, of scrumptious food where ‘hasty lunches’ consist of ‘salmon mayonnaise, roast beef, potatoes, peas, French beans, salad, chocolate soufflé,charlotte russe, cream cheese, Bath Oliver biscuits and raspberries and cream. ‘Summer Half’, published in 1937 is that perfect escapist novel that I am sure every Britain would have wanted to get lost in, at a time when a nation was poised precariously on the brink of war.