Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Book Review: High Rising

High Rising by Angela Thirkell (1933)

I found this book such a delight that I was torn as to how to read it. The writing and characterizations were so enjoyable that I didn’t want to put the volume down and yet I wanted to set it down every once in a while just to delay the moment when I arrived at the last line of the last page. Now having finished it I am seized with the desire to wave it under someone’s nose and declaim (loudly) this is the way to write a really good comedy of manners!

High Rising is the second Angela Thirkell I have read and I read it immediately after reading Ankle Deep. Both books were published in 1933 (in the order in which I read them) and represent her first two novels although she had already written shorter fiction and published an autobiography. As a first time Thirkell reader it seemed reasonable to expect to see little change in writing style or tone between the two books and yet the differences were immense. I appreciated Ankle Deep but I thoroughly enjoyed High Rising. Although one might expect (for the reader who knew very little about Thirkell background) that High Rising would more prone to the dangers of the “authorial stand in” than Ankle Deep this seems not to be the case. The events that unfold over the course of the book are seen through the eyes of (and concerns of) Mrs. Morland. Laura Morland is a successful novelist who, the reader learns, specializes in murder mysteries that take place in the world of high fashion. Morland approaches her writing as a job and has no pretensions to being even a middle-brow writer. She took up writing in order to support her family of four sons after the death of her husband and clears sees it as a profession not a vocation.

Thirkell was clearly a woman of a particular class and education writing principally about other people of the same class, education and social mores. Morland’s attitudes about social place and education are not in advance of the social upheavals that a reader can see, armed with the prescience that comes from reading a book 80 years after it was published, looming in England’s future. Nor is Morland portrayed as one of those people who cling to “the old ways” as if they could, by doing so, will change away. Indeed it would be fair to say that for the most part Morland simply does not think about such things at all. 

Thirkell does not situate Morland as an unreliable narrator although she does use the contrivance of having characters misunderstand situations, events or other characters. The book is written in the third person subjective/limited form in which the reader finds hirself seeing the world through the eyes/experiences of some, but not all, of the characters. The reader comes to learn/ is trained to understand that Laura believing something to be true does not necessarily mean that it is indeed true. What is true is that Laura actually feels those things which the narrative voice tells the reader she feels. To some extent the divide between those whose inner thoughts are shared with readers and those who are presented only from the outside is determined by social standing. The reader is privy both to the physical facts of Mrs. Morland’s interactions with Miss Grey and Mrs. Morland’s perceptions and understandings of those interactions. However the reader is never given a direct glimpse into the mind of Miss Grey herself. Because the actual interactions are well described the reader can fairly easily step back and consider for hirself the justice or value of Mrs. Morland’s interpretations of and reactions to people and events.

The care with which Thirkell lays out what Joe Friday would refer to as “just the facts” wedded to an interesting cast of characters and a lightly constructed and well-paced plot result in a book that is a good example of what a comedy of manners should be. Thirkell avoids the overreliance on coincidences which often mars books of this type and her characters are, from their first appearance, both true enough to stereotype that the reader has no trouble accepting their actions and attitudes and individual enough that the reader does not confuse them with different characters in this or other books.

In short this is an engaging and well written book. Additionally, this is a book that can be read in different ways—therefore:

Beyond here there lie spoilers.

High Rising is, among other things, an examination of the different choices that face educated “genteel” women in England in the years between the two world wars. The choices are not many but they are significantly more wide-ranging than those which were open to women of a similar class roughly a century earlier. 

Amy Birkett is the wife of William Birkett, headmaster of Southbridge School. The reader sees little of her as a mother, quite a bit of her as a friend and a lot of her as person who organizes and administers the practical side of life at the boarding school just as her husband organizes and administers the academic life of the school. Mrs. Birkett does not have a career of her own but seems to share in large part that of her husband. She is not expected to retire to her parlour when important decisions are being made and one suspects that the school would suffer more from her absence than it would the absence of her husband.

Laura Morland was left, some number of years before High Rising opens, a widow with four sons. She turned to writing mysteries as way of making enough money to house and to educate them in the manner expected of members of her social class. She is not only successful as an author she is happy in her independence and liberty. It is made clear to the reader that Morland could have remarried (and indeed could still remarry) if that was her wish. She enjoys living a life answerable mainly to herself and yet she is not a social reformer or an advocate for changing the social structure of the England in which she lives. She is offended when those who she considers her social inferiors presume to act ‘above their station.’ The housekeeper who refers to Mrs. Morland only as ‘you’ is accepted as eccentric—largely due to the social chasm that lies between the two—but when Knox’s secretary acts outside the bounds of what Morland considers appropriate deference then offense is indeed taken.

Una Grey has chosen to make her living as a secretary and as High Risings opens has come to work for Morland’s neighbor and a fellow author George Knox. When Laura Morland first meets Miss Grey neither she, nor the reader, know much about Miss Grey’s background nor her reasons for working. She clearly wishes to make herself invaluable to Knox and even to marry him. Grey is educated, else she could not function as a literary secretary and shows organizational and research skills. However, she offends by not clearly accepting the unwritten rules as to “her place” and not treating Mrs. Morland in the precisely correct fashion. It is difficult for the modern reader to gauge how unacceptable Grey’s behaviour might be. This reader acknowledges that many of her offenses would have been invisible to me had not Mrs. Morland expressed her annoyance. The continual reminder that Grey is Irish suggests that some degree of anti-Irish feeling may lie behind her reception in the English countryside. It is notable, however, that no one in the book questions the appropriateness of Grey working to support herself nor do they argue that Grey marrying Knox would be a misalliance. The objections of Miss Knox, Miss Todd and Mrs. Morland to Miss Grey are primarily based on their dislike of her as a person.

Anne Todd is also a literary secretary. She works for Mrs. Morland and at the same time is able to maintain a friendship with her. Todd works partly for funds since she and her mother are living on a pension but more so because it is intellectually and socially satisfying for her to do so. There is no suggestion that working for a living impugns her class status. When she turns down a proposal of marriage neither the author nor the spurned suitor suggest it is unreasonable for a woman to prefer to be single and of limited financial means than be married to “the wrong person.” This is particularly notable because the man who she turns down is a nice person, she does not reject him because she thinks badly of him and the two remain friends.

Sibyl Knox is unmarried and in her early twenties. She has been living at home with her father and labouring under the pressure of his expectations of her. He is a respected author and imagines that his daughter will be a talented writer as well. When Sibyl finds out that she has no talent at all at writing she is overjoyed. This frees her to do what she wants to do, which is get married and have children.

What Thirkell has drawn for us is a group of women who have varying interests and talents but who all expect to have choices in life beyond that of simply of ‘picking the right husband.’ None are mocked for those desires. Sybil wants to be accepted and loved for the person she is just as Anne Todd would not accept a marriage proposal just for the sake of friendship and safety. Mrs. Morland does not languish in her widowhood she enjoys living a self-directed life. Indeed the reader is given the hint that even Miss Grey, the villain of the piece, may have a chance of finally achieving her desires.

Thirkell, like Austen before her, takes a small group of people living mostly in the English countryside and examines their interactions paying particular attention to matters of marriage. In comparing the two authors one can see how many more options ‘genteel’ English women had in 1930 than in 1810.

One final thought on Thirkell. I had almost finished the book when I came across my second Thirkell “George Eliot” moment.  In Ankle Deep the words that Thirkell put into the mouth of one of her characters clarified for me the reason I responded as I did to Dorothea Brooke. Late in High Rising George Knox (a successful author) tells Laura Morland  that he intends to turn from writing historical biographies and instead write books of a different type, “Awfully Dull Novels:”

"Dull novels? But, George, why? Anyone can do that.'
"Laura, they cannot. It needs a power, an absorption, which few possess. If you write enough dull novels, excessively dull ones, Laura, you obtain an immense reputation. I have thought of one. Essentially the plot is, as you may say, nothing, a mere vulgar intrigue between an unhappily married man and a woman of great charm, also unhappily mated. Trite, banal, you will say."
As Laura did not say it, but sat staring at him, he proceeded.
"But, Laura, and this is where success lies, there will be a strong philosophic vein running through the book. My hero shall be an ardent student of philosophy, a follower of Spinoza, Kant, Plato, a Transcendentalist, a Quietist, what do I know—one can read that up with the greatest of ease thanks to the appalling increase of cheap little books about philosophy edited by men with famous names who do not scruple to pander to this modern craze for education, which is, in sum, only a plan for helping people not to think for themselves. Now, mark me, Laura. What really interests novel readers? Seduction. I scruple to use the word in front of you, but art knows no bounds. Seduction; I say it again. Novel readers by thousands will read my book, each asking her, or in comparatively fewer cases, him, or his self: Will seduction take place? Well, I may tell you, Laura, that it will. But so philosophically that hundreds and thousands of readers will feel that they are improving their minds by reading philosophy, which is just as harsh and crabbed as the dull fools suppose, until it is made attractive by the lure of sex. [1] (308-309)

And that, to me, is a passingly good description of Middlemarch.

[1]Thirkell, Angela,  1966  An Angela Thirkell omnibus / with an introduction by Elizabeth Bowen  Hamish Hamilton, London,


  1. Well, if I did nothing else good this month, and I'm beginning to think I haven't, at least I mentioned Angela Thirkell to you.

    Nobody really gets "seduced" in Middlemarch, though, do they? Unless you count Rosamond Vincy seducing Lydgate away from his ambitions and his principles. Everybody else pretty much sticks to the path of duty and honor, and philosophy of course.

    All right, you really didn't like Middlemarch. What did you think of The Mill on the Floss? Did you hate that too?

    If you liked Mrs Morland and Mr Knox, just wait until you meet Miss Hampton:

    "So you keep a boys' school, and in London; interesting; much vice?"
    Mr. Bissell spilt a good deal of his cocktail and remained tongue-bound.
    "Come, come," said Miss Hampton, filling his glass up to the brim again. "We're all men here and I'm doing a novel on a boys' school so I might as well know something about it. I'm thinking of calling it 'Temptation at St. Anthony's'; good name, don't you think?...Here comes Bent. She'll tell you all about vice."
    "Hampton sold one hundred and fifty thousand of her last novel in America," said Miss Bent, looking very hard at Mr. Bissell. "That was the one that was the Banned Book of the Month here. But of course one can't hope for that luck every day."

    And why does Miss Hampton write her Banned Books? Not from any great literary ambition. "Four nephews to support."

    It's true that by Thirkell's day women, that is, ladies, were no longer expected to choose between matrimony and starvation, like Trollope's Stanhope sisters. But the thing about all those jobs is that they're individual or private jobs, performed in suitably private, ladylike settings. She, and her society, still don't approve of women in institutionalized jobs, if that's the word I want, in public settings; I seem to remember a number of disparaging references to "female dons" and women bureaucrats and such.

    Although, now I come to think of it, one of the recurring characters in the later books is a famous stage actress, and you can't get much more public than that! But it's still an individual career, isn't it, she's not a member of an institution or an employee of a corporation, so maybe it still fits.

  2. Good points all.

    So first. Yup, you did a very good thing by me in introducing Thirkell. And I am sorry that you are having a bad month of it. (March has just begun -- I hope you were talking about February.

    On Middlemarch -- I agree no one gets seduced (unless you argue that Dorothea gets seduced by her vision of being the "great man's helpmeet" and Lydgate gets seduced by the idea of being "a great man of science" and Rosamond gets seduced by her visions of herself) -- but it is a book that can be read as a soap opera /pot boiler if you like. It really is about people meeting and getting married and having their marriages break down. A well-written soap opera but a soap none the less.

    On the issue of women's jobs in Thirkell being individual or private you are spot on. I was tempted to write about 1000 more words on how Thirkell's image of "women at work" was an improvement on where Austen and Trollope had been but was merely a waystation to liberation (not yet achieved.)

    The thing I have to parse out though, before I go further re Thirkell and women, is the interaction between gender and class. As I said in my review Grey and Todd seem to inhabit slightly different places in the social structure. I am fairly sure that Laura Morland would say that "Todd would never have presumed to....." but I don't think that Morland would have seen Todd doing exactly the same things as Grey as equally presumptuous.

    Back to Middlemarch and Eliot -- I have a reading Eliot story.

    Middlemarch was one of my mother's favourite books. When she realized that I didn't like it (I didn't go out of my way to tell her but eventually it came out) she insisted that I read Mill on the Floss. So I read Mill on the Floss and found it totally unmoving. Never believed in the relationship between Tom and Maggie. Just never.

    Mom then suggested that I read Adam Bede. Which I did. I can't say that I disliked I just didn't carry about any of the characters with the exception of Hetty.

    Cheered at my not-total-loathing of Adam Bede mom put Silas Marner into my hands. I can't say I really liked Silas Marner but I did get why my mother would like it.

    After a deep breath and a short time-out mom suggested I read Daniel Deronda -- a book about which I have conflicted feelings. I thought the Deronda story one written by a writer whose mind had so been colonialized with an intellectual construct of a people and a political movement that I wanted to [well I don't know what I wanted to do, but something] while I found the Gwendolen and Grandcourt to be uncomfortably riveting.

    At this point my mother wisely decided that it would be better to give up on converting me to Eliot.

    Don't feel bad for mom though. First, she always had someone to talk about books with and second, she 'sold me' on a lot of authors she liked (Austen, Thackeray, Trollope, Gaskell...)

  3. Ah well, I guess you and Eliot will have to go on disagreeing.

    I enjoyed The Mill on the Floss, even though I found Maggie rather unconvincing at times. But I liked the pictorial effect, I guess I'd call it, describing that little society on the edge of change.

    I read Damiel Deronda once, and I'd have to call it "interesting, but tough."

    (Side note: I once read a criticism of Thirkell for borrowing from Dickens and other authors without attribution. Not a professional literary critic, I mean, an Amazon comment or reader's blog or something of the sort. And I'm thinking it would never have occurred to her, when she said of some barbarian that "we could only pity his ignorance and despise him," that anyone could miss the reference.)

    It must have been nice for both you and your mother to be able to talk books together. My husband isn't much of a reader outside his professional interests, and my daughter's tastes and mine have very few points of intersection.

    Yes, the overlap of the gender and class issues is interesting; and there are so many gradations to "class" that it's not always easy to pick up from the outside. I'd be interested to hear what you think after you've read a few more of her books.

    Also, I've just had an email from library informing me that they've located a copy of Miss Mapp for me. So thanks back at you!


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