I 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!