Summer Half by Angela Thirkell

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‘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.

 

Bleak House is Not a Bleak Novel

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“LONDON. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.”

Thus starts the novel of epic proportions named ‘Bleak House’.

The opening paragraph of Bleak House grabbed my attention from the very onset of reading the book. It is truly memorable.

G. K. Chesterton wrote of the introduction of Bleak House that

‘Dickens’s openings are almost always good; but the opening of Bleak House is good in a quite new and striking sense’.

Notice how fragmented the sentences are.

The opening is in fact a one word sentence. The fragmented dialogue, in my opinion, give a sense of frenetic activity. Combined with the present tense that it is written in, there is a sense of unrest, tension and suspense- one feels anything could happen at any time.

And the dull, smokey, dusty, foggy picture of London thus presented, serves almost as a metaphor for the state of Victorian society – in dire need of social reform.

It is the perfect way to introduce the reader to the frustration the author feels regarding the cumbersome judicial system which is one of the themes at the heart of this great novel.

‘Bleak House’ is the story of a legal case called ‘Jarndyce and Jarndyce’ which has gone down in the annals of history, for being one of the most long-standing legal battles in British judicial history. Several people’s financial fates are entangled in the trappings of the legal battle. Of them, we are introduced to Mr. John Jarndyce, owner of Bleak House and his wards, Richard and Ada. There are other beneficiaries but despite the different age, social backgrounds and diversity of the persons involved, they all share one thing in common: the feeling that their lives are in a permanent state of unrest. There is a lack of settlement and finality. There is a hope that an outcome will soon be reached in the case and an expectation that life will vastly improve when that occurs. But in the meantime life is exceedingly hard to bear. There is bitterness and resentment.

When middle aged John Jarndyce, offers his wards Richard and Ada a home under his own roof, he extends the same gesture to young Esther Summerson, a young orphaned girl, who knows nothing about her parents, her past or the reason that she should be so favoured by Mr John Jarndyce. Esther’s personal history is a mystery but it is known to her, that the circumstances of her birth are tinged with shame. Esther is brought to Bleak House as Ada’s companion and is soon entrusted with the housekeeping duties of Bleak House. She has a sweet, kind temperament and it is through her eyes that we are told part of the story.

Bleak House is considered by many to be Dickens’ masterpiece. For one, the narrative technique is extraordinary. In Bleak House we observe Dickens using two different types of narrative.

The first is the omniscient narrator who is impersonally telling the story in the third person. The second is the first person narrative via the character of Esther.

Whilst reading the story I immediately felt I was drawn intimately into the story in the ‘Esther chapters’. The tone of the young girl is fresh and innocent although meek and considerably self-deprecating. This contrasts sharply with the satirical rather jaded tone of the omniscient narrator.

In providing this vivid contrast in narrative and the tense in which the story is told (present tense for the omniscient narrator, past tense for Esther) we are alternately pulled in and out of the narrative.

The use of the omniscient narrator broadens the scope of the novel, however. There are certain situations that Esther cannot be part of although we do see the narratives intersecting in certain parts of the novel.

There is another story running in parallel to the ongoings at Bleak House and introduced to the reader by the omniscient narrator. This is the story of Lady Dedlock, an aristocratic, middle aged lady and wife of Sir. Leicester Dedlock, Baronet. We learn that she is sad, exceedingly bored with life, excessively privileged but she has a secret to hide and that secret is known to the family lawyer, Mr Tulkinghorn.

There are other remarkable characters: the ‘childlike’ Mr Skimpole, the mercenary Mr. Smallweed, down on his luck George Rouncewell, conniving Mr Tulkinghorn, annoying Mr Guppy , charitable but short-sighted Mrs Jellyby and more. What amazed me was how Dickens was able to bring all the loose threads of these seemingly unrelated narratives and weave a cohesive tapestry of a cogent story.

It is impossible to do a book of Bleak Houses’s stature true justice through a book review. Nevertheless, I will strive to list some of the reasons why this book mattered so much to me.

1. Spontaneous combustion 💥(need I say more?).

2. A detailed historical glimpse of Victorian London.

“Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if the day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.”

3. A social commentary on the poor and their pitiful state.

“I thought it very touching to see these two women, coarse and shabby and beaten, so united; to see what they could be to one another; to see how they felt for one another, how the heart of each to each was softened by the hard trials of their lives. I think the best side of such people is almost hidden from us. What the poor are to the poor is little known, excepting to themselves and God.”

4. A seething description of the havoc that legal proceedings can have on the life of common man.

“The lawyers have twisted it into such a state of bedevilment that the original merits of the case have long disappeared from the face of the earth. It’s about a will and the trusts under a will — or it was once. It’s about nothing but costs now. We are always appearing, and disappearing, and swearing, and interrogating, and filing, and cross-filing, and arguing, and sealing, and motioning, and referring, and reporting, and revolving about the Lord Chancellor and all his satellites, and equitably waltzing ourselves off to dusty death, about costs. That’s the great question. All the rest, by some extraordinary means, has melted away.”

5. The emphasis on relationships, particularly the love between children and parents.

6. Wicked satire.

7. Excellent characters that seem real enough and relevant, even today.

8. Beautiful descriptive writing.

“I found every breath of air, and every scent, and every flower and leaf and blade of grass and every passing cloud, and everything in nature, more beautiful and wonderful to me than I had ever found it yet. This was my first gain from my illness. How little I had lost, when the wide world was so full of delight for me.”

9. Superlative narrative structure and plot construction

10. Aspects of a murder mystery story that I think Agatha Christie would have approved of.

I spent an entire month reading the 1000 or more pages of Bleak House. It was time very well spent. Could the novel have done with some editing? Perhaps. But then again, it wouldn’t be the same. The ending of Bleak House is satisfying. All the loose ends of the plot are perfectly tied and Dickens, realistically doesn’t provide happiness to all the outcomes. Bleak House is not a bleak novel. It is a beautiful social commentary and the narrator, Esther Summerson is one of the sweetest people to grace the pages of Victorian fiction.

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Someone At A Distance by Dorothy Whipple

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‘Someone At a Distance’ by Dorothy Whipple is the story of a young French girl called Louise Lanier. Born of hard-working, simple parents who have worked happily all their lives as small booksellers in the small French town of Amigny, they have never climbed high in the social ladder, much to the chagrin of their aspiring daughter. Based on this lack of pedigree, Louise is jilted by her secret, longtime sweetheart: the son of the town squire who decides to marry a woman from a reputed family instead. Broken-hearted, but refusing to show it, Louise escapes to England to serve as a companion to a wealthy, old lady called Mrs. North.

Mrs. North lives near to her son Avery, a prosperous publisher and his family, consisting of his wife Ellen, daughter Anne and son Hugh.

Avery North and his family have the perfect life. He is a devoted father. He is admired and respected in his publishing firm. He and his wife Ellen have a trusting, committed relationship. And then all of a sudden cool, calculated and beautiful Louise steps into their lives…

Louise needs to preoccupy her mind and at first is unsure of how to engage herself. Finding nothing better to do, she takes charge of old Mrs. North’s dressing, paying attention to every little detail of adornment. Mrs. North is charmed with the attention that the young French girl pays her and grows to care and depend on her.

Mrs. North gifts the French girl a diamond ring upon her return to France. But even Louise is surprised when Mrs. North leaves a considerable amount of money to Louise in her will.

Louise returns to England to claim the bequest for herself. Unwillingly, Avery and Ellen North let her into their perfect home but Louise shows no signs of leaving. She is jealous of the Norths’ happiness, of the love they share in their small family and she is determined to ruin it.

When Ellen discovers the affair that is going on in the very same house that she lives in, she is shell shocked. It seems impossible to her that her devoted, loving husband could forsake all that he holds dear, to be with a callous, cruel young woman.

In her moment of strife she looks towards religion but can find no comfort.

“All those books, all those prayers and she had got nothing from them. When everything went well for her she had been able to pray, she couldn’t now. There was such urgency in her present situation that until the pressure was removed she couldn’t think about God. She hadn’t the patience to pray. It was a shock to her. Surely God was for these times?”

Avery does not return to her. Ellen regards his desertion as a sign of his love for Louise but nothing could be further from the truth. He despises Louise and takes to drink to drown his sorrows and to forget that he has lost everything that he holds dear.

He marries Louise out of his need to cling to someone and Louise holds onto him for financial gain.

Ultimately it is a situation where no-one is happy. Is there retribution for Louise? Are Avery and Ellen able to reconcile their differences? I will leave you to find out.

The book is a story about adultery. It is a story about a husband’s weakness, a wife’s short-sightedness and a young, ambitious girl’s yearning to rise up from her provincial upbringing and to destroy the happiness of others. But the book is more than the sum total of these individual parts and the title reveals this.

The title ‘Someone At a Distance’ is a curious one. It is only towards the latter part of the novel that the significance of the title emerges and one realizes it has been used with much thought.

The title deals with the idea that a person’s negative actions and thoughts can have a far-reaching consequence on the lives of people far removed from them. It is like a ripple effect. A strong undercurrent of ill-will may wreak havoc on the hitherto peaceful lives of people on distant shores. Such is the inter-connectedness of the world and its people.

This is a beautiful book. I read it in one breath. It was virtually unputdownable. Whipple’s storytelling is superlative. The psychological tension she develops in taut situations can be felt acutely. When Ellen grieves in the aftermath of her husband’s desertion, which has been dealt to her out of no wrong-doing of her own, we grieve along with her. We feel and comprehend her every emotion. We sympathize with her and we yearn for her strength and salvation. On the opposite side of the spectrum we despise Louise’s every movement and intention. And we hope and pray for some kind of justice. Whipple manipulates our emotional well-being, during the reading of the novel to good effect and delivers yet another stellar story.