Ankle Deep, Angela Thirkell
Angela Thirkell's novels are so hard to find these days that I did a classic double-take when I saw this on the library sale carts. It's been a long time since I've had a new Thirkell novel to read - new to me, anyway. Ankle Deep was published in 1933, the same year as High Rising, the first of the Barsetshire novels. Though it isn't part of the series, it does share some familiar themes.
The story opens with a phone call, as Fanny Turner invites an older couple, Mr and Mrs Howard, to spend a weekend at her family's country cottage, Waterside. Next she invites Valentine Ensor, a divorced man, one of her string of swains, for whom she is trying to find a rich second wife. Mrs Howard then calls back to ask if they can bring their married daughter Aurea, home for a visit from Canada. Fanny, who knows that her husband Arthur once hoped to marry Aurea, agrees to this, planning to pair the two off for a nostalgic flirtation while she occupies herself with Valentine.
When Aurea arrives with her parents, however, she and Valentine upset Fanny's plans by their immediate attraction to each other, which develops quickly into love. Both have suffered from unhappy marriages. It is apparently no secret among Val's friends that his wife had a series of affairs, and after discovering this he allowed her to divorce him (he completed this noble sacrifice by paying her a handsome alimony, which he can hardly afford). As he tells Aurea, "She was - rather promiscuous" - not the sort of blunt statement one finds in the Barsetshire books. Now Val plays the man-about-town, moving from woman to woman while avoiding any real attachment. On the other hand, Aurea has what seems on the surface a tranquil marriage to Ned, a kind husband and father to their two children. She fell in love and married him at eighteen, but now she dislikes and despises him - not apparently because of anything he has done, but because she has fallen out of love with him. She cannot even bear his touch, let alone sex with him. She winces at the memory of repeated scenes with Ned "whimpering, actually whimpering, because she was not what he called 'kind,' of the utter contempt with which she finally gave in." Even in allusive language, this caught me off-guard. Thirkell presents Aurea as a woman married too young, and to the wrong man, who has reacted by withdrawing into herself, barricading herself physically and emotionally against everyone but her children and her parents. Then she meets Val, and they fall into a physically chaste but emotionally torrid romance that plays out over her last remaining weeks in England.
The Barsetshire books are packed with engagements and marriages, in most of which the couples live happily ever after. The problems they face are usually external, like finances, or for the older couples the complicated lives of their children. There are exceptions, of course, like the hints we get that Francis Brandon is not a satisfactory husband. But for the younger couples at least, the stories seem more concerned with courtship. There is nothing in those books like the marriages here, or in O, These Men, These Men, published in 1935 and generally considered a roman a clef, the heroine of which escapes an abusive and drunken husband. In Ankle Deep, Thirkell uses her six characters to explore both happy and unhappy marriages, and particularly to analyze the character of Aurea. As in the Barsetshire books, she also considers parenthood, including the parenting of grown children (I was reminded especially of the Grantlys and the Beltons). Aurea is the Howards' only child. They are painfully aware of her misery but unable to help her, and they watch her growing intimacy with Val with great concern. Aurea's children are one of the only ties holding her to her marriage. At the same time, she can hardly bear the separation from her own aging parents (something Thirkell herself probably knew well, from her years living in Australia). Fanny, on the other hand, is happy to turn her children over to her mother-in-law at every opportunity, freeing her time for her constant flirtations.
With Aurea staying in her parents' home, she and Val must meet elsewhere, in restaurants and clubs. They spend one frustrating evening at the cinema, seeing a film about Benuto Cellini, "The Great Italian Medieval Lover and Craftsman of All Time." Thirkell's parody of an epic historical film here adds a welcome lighter note, and a familiar one. As far as I can tell, this film is the only one mentioned in her books that doesn't star Glamora Tudor.
In the end, I found Ankle Deep an interesting rather than an engaging read. Aurea is a difficult character, child-like and on some levels immature, and I found her recurring emotional storms a bit wearying after a while. I understand her isolation, and her inability to confide even in her own mother; in Thirkell's world outside help is apparently not an option, unfortunately. I am glad to have read this, and to see how it fits into the arc of Thirkell's stories, but in the end I prefer her Barsetshire world.
The edition I read is from Moyer Bell, with the usual missing sentences, transposed names and misspelled words (I was puzzled for a moment by a "car thorse"). I'm very glad to see that Virago is republishing the Barsetshire books, though now I'll be tempted by the new editions.