Angela Thirkell, The Brandons (1939)
After reading Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers, I was curious to read some of the novels that Angela Thirkell set in the same (imaginary) county of Barsetshire. Starting in 1933 and extending through World War II and into the 1950s, she chronicled the lives and loves of several interlinked circles of characters in provincial England. I wondered how these much-loved comedies would compare to Trollope’s acerbic satire, which I appreciated but couldn’t fully warm to.
Strangely, my library only had one of the multitudinous books in the series, The Brandons, so it was there that I began. In this early, pre-war novel (though published in 1939, it contains not a hint of Hitler), the rich and cantankerous Miss Brandon’s last bequest brings excitement and some surprises into the placid life of a Barsetshire village. Meanwhile, the lovely widow Mrs. Brandon continues to inadvertently attract the adoration of men of various ages, and becomes interested in the plight of her elderly relative’s poor companion, who is harboring a romantic secret of her own. Eventually everybody ends up with the right person, in a spirit somewhat reminiscent of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with Mrs. Brandon as a gracious and happily Oberon-less Titania ruling over them all.
I was interested to note how Thirkell explored some Trollopean themes and characters in a decidedly lighter manner. Instead of the inheritance causing greed to pit family and friends against one another, the Brandons honestly don’t care what, if anything, they inherit, and an outsider coming into money actually pleases them. An expatriate Englishwoman who spouts Italian phrases and rhapsodizes about “her” Calabrian peasants comes across as ridiculous, but in an amusing rather than a repulsive way. A clerical quarrel between “high” and “low” churchmen has caused grief in the past, but peace is restored by an act of forgiveness.
Thus, though The Brandons doesn’t carry the weight of social criticism that Barchester Towers does, it goes down more pleasantly, like a refreshing sorbet after a heavy stew. Though it’s light, it’s not fluffy. Thirkell shows great skill in how she handles her characters and narrative, as when Mrs. Brandon listens — or rather, doesn’t listen — to her scholarly admirer reading her his manuscript on John Donne, a scene that reminded me of the best of P. G. Wodehouse. Full of witty phrases and sly allusions, Thirkell’s writing bubbles with the comedy of life. We laugh at her characters, but we love to be with them; “charming” is a more accurate description than usual with that over-used adjective.
And so, charmed by Angela Thirkell’s version of Barsetshire, I’ll surely be back, and I’ll be reading more Trollope too. These two very different writers balance and complement each other to create a marvelously full picture of an imaginary place.