I finished classes and celebrated commencement at the university where I teach two weeks ago now. I have been in that delightful in-between state: in between teaching and buckling down to the scholarship I need to do for the summer; in between when I’m done with school and when my children are; in between the end of spring weather and the beginning of hot weather, when we get rain one day and sun the next and warm clouds the day after that and this afternoon might be hail. (Ave!)
Angela Thirkell’s Summer Half was the ideal book to read during a time like this: light as thistledown, cheerful as summer itself. It’s about Colin Keith, who wants to study law and is suited to it, but, being a very young man, decides that it would be Morally Wrong to live off his parents for the time it would take him to become a solicitor, so off he goes and gets himself a job he doesn’t want as a schoolmaster. His parents, who would have been much happier supporting him until he took the bar, accept this decision quietly, with the tacit assumption that schoolmastering will wear Colin down quickly, and he’ll return to the legal fold. The cast of characters, then, is made up essentially of schoolmasters, boys, and Colin Keith’s female friends-and-relations. (There’s also a chameleon named Gibbon, the less about which said the better.) When they all take the summer half vacation together, hijinks ensue.
There are two romances in the novel. The first is centered around the vacuous and ill-tempered (but extremely beautiful) Rose Birkett, engaged to the long-suffering schoolmaster Philip Winter. Rose is the sort of girl who screams and throws things when she doesn’t get her way, and for whom everything on earth is either Marvelous or Sickening. We watch Philip squirm in the throes of what is at first love and later is recognition, with pity and friendship in our hearts.
The second romance revolves around Colin’s sister Kate, who is the sort of girl who likes sewing on other people’s buttons and making sure that guests have enough writing-paper and have been given what they like to eat for dinner and a clean toothbrush if they didn’t bring one themselves. She doesn’t have much in the way of the Higher Intellect, but she is kind and funny and comfortable. (Lydia, Colin’s younger sister, is the intellectual one. Her wild, almost violent passions for Shakespeare, Horace, and Browning form a running gag in the novel that keep up the comedy.) There isn’t really much doubt about whether Kate will find the right person for her — this isn’t a novel of suspense — but getting to that point is pure pleasure.
Reading Angela Thirkell’s books is a little like sitting in the garden to read on a warm late-spring afternoon — no insects, no humidity — and being surprised by someone blowing bubbles from the garden beyond. Her prose is a steady stream of comic nonsense — on a quieter level than Wodehouse, but similar — and light, light, light.
The boat slackened speed, and two hearty voices were raised in the revolting Carmen Southbridgiense, written in 1854 by the headmaster, the Rev. J.J. Damper (better known by his little volume of Perambulations in Palestine, now deservedly out of print), and set to music by the school organist, who also taught piano, violin, composition, singing, and anything parents asked for. As the final lines
Alma Mater, Alma Mater, /None than thou will e’er be greater,
(words justly condemned by the modern school of Latin pronunciation who amused themselves vastly by making Alma Mater rhyme with Mr. Carter in various libellous ways), came ringing across the water, the singers raised their oars in token of respect.
If that doesn’t convince you to read it, I don’t know what will. If you can, get the 1988 Hogarth Press edition I read. It’s got an almost unbelievable preface by Arthur Marshall (?) which he spends pedantically cataloging all the ways in which Angela Thirkell’s fictional public school is unlike real public schools, including having Matron kiss the students when they leave. It is howlingly hilarious. And happy, happy summer to you — what do you think is ideal summer reading?