When I discovered Angela Thirkell, back in 2000, and then quickly became obsessed with her Barsetshire books, I was lucky enough to find most of them here in Houston - some used, many new. Since then they have all but disappeared, at least from our stores. Though I own almost all the Barsetshire series, I always check in used-book stores, and sometimes one of the later titles turns up (often Close Quarters, for some reason). The other day at Kaboom Books, when I saw a Carroll & Graf edition of Wild Strawberries, I nearly leapt across the aisle. I had a copy of this once, but I gave it away in one of my periodic clear-outs (along with Pomfret Towers), because I remembered them as a bit tiresome, compared with my favorites. I would never do that now, knowing how hard it is to find her books. I've particularly wanted to find this one again, since the different posts about the gorgeous new Vintage editions made me wonder if my opinion of it would be different now.
The Barsetshire novels often center on one of the county families, and this is the first book to feature the Leslies, whose estate at Rushwater is in West Barsetshire. The head of the family, Henry Leslie, is married to Lady Emily, a granddaughter of the Earl of Pomfret. They lost their eldest son in the Great War, but his son Martin, the heir to Rushwater, lives with his grandparents. There are two other sons (John and David), and a daughter Agnes, married to Robert Graham, who appears I think exactly once in the entire series but whose presence looms large. As the book opens, Robert is in South America on War Department business, and Agnes and their three children are staying with her parents. The Leslies have also invited Robert's niece Mary Preston to spend the summer while her mother goes abroad. John and David live in London but often come down to Rushwater for the weekend. John is a widower still grieving his young wife. David, with oodles of charm and talent, is a dilettante who can't settle down to anything or anyone. Mary quickly falls for him, though she can't help but appreciate John's quieter kindness and good nature.
Romantic complications aside, the summer is a busy one at Rushwater. There are visitors, including the unwelcome Mr Holt, a rather boring expert on gardens and a professional houseguest. More visitors arrive when the Vicar lets his rectory for the summer to a French family, the Boulles, with whose children Martin finds a common interest. There is the annual tenants' concert, and Lady Emily and Agnes, with Mary, are also planning a great celebration for Martin's 17th birthday. In Thirkell's later books, she would use this to bring together characters from across Barsetshire, giving them (and us) a chance to meet again, to catch up on family and county news, and usually to abuse the Bishop of Barchester and his wife. But to my surprise, that doesn't happen here. The only recurring character that I noticed, Lady Norton (better known as the Dreadful Dowager), is only mentioned in passing; she doesn't even appear on-stage, let alone at the party. [N.B. I'd forgotten this book was only the second of the Barsetshire series, after High Rising, so she didn't yet have her large cast of characters.]
This is very much a Leslie book, which is partly why I had decided I didn't need to keep it. Actually, Martin Leslie is one of my favorite characters in the later books, after he inherits Rushwater. But I find his grandmother Lady Emily and his Aunt Agnes rather annoying at times. At least in this book everyone seems to find them annoying at times, starting on the first page with the Vicar, but mother and daughter are so charming that everyone forgives them. For me Lady Emily's daffiness wears after a while, as does Agnes' woolly-minded adoration of her unruly children, to whom she is contstantly cooing "Oh, wicked ones, wicked ones." Her children play large parts in the later books, and I much prefer Clarissa in this one, plump and silent.
But in the end this book is more about Mary and Martin, and I enjoyed their stories, and the summer at Rushwater House. I'm glad to have this back on my shelves, next to Pomfret Towers, and there they will both stay this time.