My mother has a charming habit. Whenever she’s in a hub of human activity — say, an airport, or Paris — she looks around and says, “Why don’t I see anyone I know? I know lots of people. Why don’t I know anyone here?” As I’ve gotten older, and the stack of books-I’ve-read has become higher, I’ve developed something of the same tendency. When I read something as delightful, charming, and entertaining as Angela Thirkell’s High Rising, I ask myself, “I’ve read lots of books. Has someone been deliberately keeping this from me? Why haven’t I read this before?”
The plot of High Rising is gentle, and if I’m to be honest, it’s negligible. Laura Morland, a “good-bad” author of superlative potboilers, is bringing up and educating her fourth son, Tony. (Tony’s unquenchable obsession with railways, and Laura’s clear-eyed and acute observations on her own offspring, provided me with some of the best entertainment of the book.) She hires a secretary, the plucky, uncomplaining, unmarried Anne Todd, and is close friends with the other author in the village, George Knox. Into this nice circle comes Knox’s new secretary, a horrid young woman whose nickname, “the Incubus,” should tell you all you need to know.
I would love to give you a long, long quotation, just to give you the sense of the gently-rippling nonsense that Thirkell can write when she’s in form (and the entire book is in form; there isn’t a word out of place anywhere) but I can’t inflict that on you. I’ll just give you a snippet of one of my favorite scenes, in which Laura Morland is talking with her friend Amy Birkett about the suitability of Creation:
“I’ve often noticed the same thing about the clergy,” said Laura. “Archdeacons and bishops and such like have really good wives; often they are Honourables, or even Lady Agneses. But just look at the wives of the inferior clergy. There must be an unseen providence to see that men destined for eminence in the church, or the scholastic world, should have what one can only call, looking at you, Amy, suitable helpmeets. Or is it helpmates? People write to the newspapers every now and then about it, but I can never remember what they say.”
“Say partners. And have you noticed another thing about the higher clergy, Laura? They always have suitable Christian names. The guardian angel of the Church of England makes men who are going to be bishops be christened Talbot Devereux, or Cyril Cyprian, and then, of course, they are bound to rise.”
“And it’s just as peculiar in the Roman Catholic Church,” said Laura, pushing her hair off her forehead in a very unbecoming way. “If you see announcements of preachers for Lent outside the Oratory, they are all called Monsignor Cuthbert Bede Wilkinson, or Dom Boniface Chrystostom Butts. Not that I know what Dom is exactly. It is some sort of liqueur as well.”
The plot is really on the back burner. It’s the various lovely characters — George’s daughter, Laura’s agent, Anne’s mother, Tony’s school-friend Wesendonck — and the way the book is written that make this novel as utterly, cheeringly delightful as it is. Thirkell plays on slight class distinctions without malice (this is not Mapp and Lucia); mild absurdities (not Wodehouse); graceful prose, and the terrible fear of lack-of-courtesy. Almost every character is lovable, even if foolish, and self-aware enough to be funny (except the oblivious Tony, who is un-self-aware enough to be funny, as the young often are.) The book is gentle without being saccharine and witty without being frenetic. Every page made me smile, and one or two scenes even brought — ahem! — tears to this jaded, cinder-blackened heart. It was absolutely the best entertainment a novel can offer. I didn’t want the book to be over — but I comforted myself with the knowledge that there are 28 more waiting for me. If they are all as good as this one, I have a new favorite author. So why haven’t I read this before?
Note: I read an older edition of this book from my library. I notice that in Amazon reviews of the Moyer Bell edition that my thumbnail cover picture comes from, people strongly criticize the “hundreds” of typos and grammatical errors. Try to find an older edition of this if you can!