August Folly

august follyI read Angela Thirkell’s second book, Wild Strawberries, in September of 2012. I was totally charmed, and vowed in my review that I wouldn’t let an entire year pass before reading August Folly. Famous last words! Two and a half years later, here I am reading it, and I’m echoing what I said back then: why did I let so much time go by? These books are always exactly what I want. They are funny without being farcical, clever without calling attention to their cleverness. They are observant and gentle. The prose ripples and burbles like a stream, investigating tributaries like the activities of the children and animals of the house, then placidly returning to the wider affairs of work, play, and (of course) love.

In August Folly, we find ourselves in the small town of Worsted, in East Barsetshire. Richard Tebbens has come home from Oxford, having done extremely poorly in his last year — his tutor says he’s got brains but is too conceited to use them — and hates all the world, including his hapless and none-too-well-off parents and their donkey, Modestine. Increasing the burden on his soul is the fact that their neighbor, Mrs. Palmer, is putting on Hippolytus in her barn, and expects everyone in the village to participate. But when the Palmers’ relatives the Deans come down, everything changes for Richard (who falls in love with Mrs. Dean), for Richard’s sister Margaret (who falls in love with the eldest son Laurence), for Helen Dean (who is fiercely jealous of her brother’s attentions to Margaret), for Betty Dean (who desperately wants to play Phaedra), for Jessica Dean (who rides on the Tebbens’ donkey) and for everyone else as well.

This book was published in 1937, and parts of it reminded me strongly of Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas. Margaret Tebbens, who is worth three of her sullen brother and his third in Greats, knows that she must get a job to support him:

“I’d hate you to have a job,” said Laurence. “Promise me you never will. Gosh, I never ate five sausages before.”

“I daresay I’ll hate it myself, but I must. You see, there’s Richard to be provided for. It costs a lot to educate a man, and if he’s to be a lawyer he won’t earn anything for ages. I daresay I could earn something before he does — nursery-governessing or something, like a heroine.”

As the story develops, Margaret’s fate changes to something more pleasant (though not to something very unexpected for a woman), and Richard is “provided for” in a different way. Everyone seems to accept that Arthur’s Education Fund (as Woolf phrased it, quoting Pendennis) is a necessary thing, if sometimes rather a necessary evil. The only person who seems to want to upset the order of things is Betty Dean, who wants to go to Oxford herself and study ancient Greek. Mrs. Tebbens, as well, remembers her days at Oxford very fondly. Is Thirkell suggesting a third option for women?

This was such a lovely book. I think the ideal way to read it would be on the porch in summer, with iced tea and cookies. But here I am in winter, by the fire, reading about August, and it is pure delight. If you haven’t read Angela Thirkell, let me recommend her. If you have, don’t let me forget to keep reading her!

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20 Responses to August Folly

  1. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review says:

    I have Wild Strawberries sitting on my shelf now, waiting for me to get to it. And now I must read August Folly as well. I look forward to many more visits to Barsetshire.

  2. heavenali says:

    Lovely review. I have August Folly,The Brandons and Summer Half sitting on my bookcase. I shall endeavour to read more of them (probably this one) before too long.

  3. Lisa says:

    This isn’t one of my favorites, because I find Richard so irritating, but you do make me want to take it off the shelf. You have such fun ahead!

    • Jenny says:

      Remind me if I don’t keep moving on these! If I read one every two years, I’ll never get to them all. And yes, Richard is irritating, but he does learn. You can see him begin to become enlightened (and contented, and kinder) by the end of the book. So very satisfying.

  4. marcia lengnick says:

    I Ned to choose a book for discussion in April? Women age range from 60 to 80.. Normally I’m ready to go.. But this year I am drawing a blank…any suggestions? Should be available in paper.i am reading FAULT IN OUR STARS now as a possible choice..but not convinced.. Thanks.

    • Jenny says:

      What about Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall? Or how about a mystery — maybe they would like Elizabeth Spelman’s The Return of Captain John Emmett, which takes place during the Great War? Or how about Angela Thirkell’s High Rising, which is the first of the Barsetshire series and cannot help but please everyone? Or perhaps Sea of Poppies, by Amitav Ghosh — that is a little more crowded and less linear, but I think many people would really love it.

    • Mary says:

      I put this in my general reply below but I guess it would make more sense to reply directly to your comment. For marcia lengnick, may I suggest an obscure book from a tiny press? “The Astrologer” ( is, in my opinion, better than “Wolf Hall.”
      It’s not necessarily directed at woment 60 to 80 but I read it in my 50s and liked, as have friends of mine.

      • Marcia Lengnick says:

        Thank you for your suggestion. I will indeed check THE ASTROLOGER out. I have chosen a book.. one of my favorites.. Anne’ Padgett’s first book, THE PATRON SAINT OF LIARS..published in 1994 and cbhosen as a NYTimes Book of the year. In my mind it is one of Anne’s best..

        Sent from my iPad


      • Mary says:

        I’m on the lookout for book recommendations myself these days (though 63 pages in Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Buried Giant” is quite fine) so I’ll put “The Patron Saint of Liars” on my own list. Thanks!

  5. Eva says:

    I’ve for High Rising on my shelf and you’ve definitely made me want to pick it up sooner rather than later!

    • Jenny says:

      Oh Eva, I think you’ll love these. The gentle untidy characters, the soft funny prose, the setting — I just think these would be wonderfully appealing to you. There isn’t any edge to them; they make pre-arranged comfort reading.

  6. Richard is wonderfully selfish and awful, isn’t he? I am so impressed that the otherwise pretty wise Margaret has any time for her brother – the power of sibling affection, apparently. So glad you are enjoying Thirkell!

    • Jenny says:

      Richard develops during the book, so he can be forgiven. And Margaret is nice to everyone, so of course she loves her brother. But the entire book was so enjoyable, including the cat/donkey conversations.

  7. I keep seeing this name come up lately. Maybe once the TBR Dare is over.

    • Jenny says:

      I can’t think of anyone who could hate these books. As I said to Eva, they make perfect comfort reading, even if you’re reading them for the first time. Let me know how you like them!

  8. Jane Mackay says:

    Oh do read ‘The demon in the house’, Tony and Laura Morland are wonderfully depicted, and it introduces some of the characters who are important in many of the later books.

  9. Mary says:

    I adore pretty much all of Angela Thirkell but “Demon in the House” is not up to her usual level for Barsetshire novels and the non-Barsetshire books are pretty awful. For marcia lengnick, may I suggest an obscure book from a tiny press? “The Astrologer” ( is, in my opinion, better than “Wolf Hall.”

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