High Rising

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!

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16 Responses to High Rising

  1. Lisa says:

    Angela Thirkell is wonderful, and High Rising is a perfect introduction to her. I think it’s one of the best of the pre-war books, along with The Brandons (probably my favorite in the whole series). A large part of the fun for me is meeting the various characters again in the different books, as the stories shift around Barsetshire. And if you’re a Trollope reader, you will enjoy all the Barsetshire references and in-jokes.

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, I’m so glad she doesn’t disappoint! I am what I would characterize as a minor Trollope reader (some of the Barset series and He Knew He Was Right) and so I’m looking forward to this eagerly.

      • Lisa says:

        I think the last three books are a little thin, and of course with any long series there are some books (and some recurring characters) that I like better than others – but like Heather says, not a stinker in the bunch. I also enjoyed her autobiography, Three Houses.

  2. one of my favorite writers! and I love your description of her ‘gently-rippling nonsense ‘ – captures her perfectly. I’m glad you discovered her.

    • Jenny says:

      So am I! I’m fairly sure I got this recommendation either from Simon Stuck-in-a-Book or from Elaine at Random Jottings. All hail!

  3. Lucy says:

    I just discovered Ms. Thirkell myself and am reading High Rising. I didn’t read your entire review…I was afraid of spoilers…but I am crazy about this book. Mrs. Morland and her falling hair pins is just my kind of woman.

    • Jenny says:

      No spoilers here! Just happy gushing about the book as a whole. And I loved the hairpins, too. It reminded me of Miss de Vine in Gaudy Night.

  4. Heather says:

    Welcome to the wonderful world of Angela Thirkell! I have been working my way through her books for several years now – for some reason I only read them in summer, go figure. I’m with Lisa on The Brandons – probably my favorite as well but I have yet to find a stinker. There are also some lovely audio versions available through Audible.com. They make short work of a long car trip. To quote Lucy Marling from a later novel – I’ll tell you what, you are in for years of delightful reading!

    • Jenny says:

      What a great idea about the audiobooks. I don’t listen much these days, because I don’t have the opportunity, but in a couple of years I think I will, and I will look forward to these. Thanks for the heads-up!

  5. Mystica says:

    Thank you for this introduction to a new author (liked the review so much)

  6. Deb says:

    I enjoy Angela Thirkell’s books, but I find her a little tiring after a while. Read her books sparingly, not in one massive binge, in order to appreciate them all the more. Also, after a while, I became tired of the younger-man/older-woman subplot which runs through many of her books. On the whole, I’d rather read Barbara Pym.

    • Jenny says:

      I like Pym, too, but there was something very satisfying about this book. I’ll take what you say seriously about not bingeing, though — sometimes eating an entire box of chocolates at once can put you off them for life!

  7. I read High Rising just last year and asked myself the same question: “How can I have been reading for over 50 years without having heard of Angela Thirkell?”

    High Rising is charming and I’m glad you’ve made its acquaintance!

  8. Aarti says:

    I loved this book! I have looked high and low for another book by Angela Thirkell (It seems like something about Strawberries is also quite popular), but TO NO AVAIL. I plan to continue looking and perhaps resorting to cheap used bookstores abroad…

  9. I started reading Thirkell only this year but am completely in love with her Barsetshire characters. I haven’t been able to track down a copy of High Rising yet but I’m sure I’ll adore it too. (And yes, the Moyer Bell editions are really quite distracting with all their errors).

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