I was killing time before a meeting the other evening, browsing at Half Price Books, when I came across two Angela Thirkell novels, Wild Strawberries and The Brandons, in Carroll & Graf paperbacks editions. I have copies of both, but knowing they can be hard to find I thought it would be fun to pass them along. I'm happy to send them anywhere, so if you'd like one or the other, leave a comment and tell me which one, or email me (my address is down at the bottom right). These are used books - Wild Strawberries is a bit battered, intact, but definitely a reading copy.
After I got home I was leafing through The Brandons, which I haven't read in a while, and of course soon found myself back at Chapter One and settling in for "Breakfast at Stories." This book was my introduction to Thirkell, and it has always been one of my favorites in the very long Barsetshire series. Published in 1939, it is the last of the pre-war books, and it has something of the timeless quality of P.G. Wodehouse's Blandings stories. The central character, Lavinia Brandon, is a widow living with her son Francis (who works in Barchester) and her daughter Delia, in her small but beautiful Georgian house Stories, in Pomfret Madrigal, a village in West Barsetshire. The Brandons aren't one of the county families, though a branch of the family has been settled at Brandon Abbey since the 1860s, of which an elderly aunt, Miss Brandon, is now the last remaining.
Just as the book is a favorite, Lavinia Brandon is a favorite characters in the series. In a Georgette Heyer novel, she would be described as a "lovely widgeon."
Certainly anyone who had met her coming furtively and hurriedly but triumphantly in by the drawing-room window, her arms full of the gardener's flowers, would entirely have agreed with her own opinion of herself and found her still not unattractive, or possibly have felt that a woman with so enchanting an expression could not have been more charming even in her youth. Mrs. Brandon herself, in one of her moods of devastating truthfulness, had explained her own appearance as the result of a long and happy widowhood . . . The only fault she could find with her children was that they didn't laugh at the same jokes as she did, but finding that all their friends were equally humorless, she accepted it placidly, seeing herself as a spirit of laughter born out of its time.Men of all ages tumble headlong into love with her, which entertains her children even as it embarrasses them. While she is sometimes silly, there is an underlying shrewdness, combined with a warm heart. She is prone to doing and saying things with one eye on their effect, but she has the saving grace of humor, never taking herself or her ploys too seriously.
Not much really happens in this book. Old Miss Brandon is growing weaker, and the Stories family visits her at the Abbey, with another cousin, Hilary Grant. There is much speculation about who will inherit the Abbey if Miss Brandon dies. Hilary is spending the summer working with Mr. Miller, the rector of Pomfret Madrigal, preparing to read law. Both he and Mr. Miller fall victim to Mrs. Brandon. Since both are working on books, their devotion takes the form of reading their manuscripts to her, never noticing how far her attention wanders. Their work is interrupted not just by the events at the Abbey, but also by picnics and the highlight of the village Fête.
Though this is the 8th book in the series (if you count The Demon in the House), I think it's really the start of the series as such. The previous books all share a common setting in Barsetshire, but they are stand-alones, with each book introducing a new set of characters and a new area of the county. I think that Laura Morland is the only character who appears in more than one of the earlier books. In the books that follow, characters from the earlier books are woven into what becomes a kind of continuing story, sometimes in central roles, sometimes as supporting actors. Mrs. Brandon's story in the later books is not always as light-hearted as this one, though it has a happy ending. (It was very gratifying to see her son Francis behaving so well in this book; he grows into a bit of a rotter later.) Here picnics, a funeral, and the Fête bring back Laura Morland and her son Tony (for what I think is his last appearance), as well as Dr. Ford, the hardest-working doctor in Barsetshire. We also get Lady Norton, not quite the Dreadful Dowager of the later books, and the Keiths, introduced with the attorney Noel Merton in Summer Half. Lydia Keith was at school with Delia Brandon, under the infamous headmistress Miss Pettinger. There are references to Lord Pomfret and his agent Roddy Wicklow (from Pomfret Towers), and hints of the perpetual spiritual warfare carried on between the Bishop of Barchester (with his wife) and the clergy. Mr. Miller, the rector of Pomfret Madrigal, who of course has the proper antipathy toward the Bishop, will appear in later books, as will Sir Edmund Pridham, Mrs. Brandon's trustee, who has his fingers in every county pie.
If you are new to Angela Thirkell, I think The Brandons is an excellent place to start. I always come back to it with pleasure, meeting the Brandons themselves again, and watching as the story opens up to Angela Thirkell's wonderful series.