Summer Half

summer halfI 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?

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7 Responses to Summer Half

  1. Summer Half is a delightful novel. The running jokes about schoolboys and school masters are hilarious. Have you read August Folly? It’s in the same vein and is equally delightful. And what’s the other Thirkell I’ve read? Oh, yes: High Rising, about a single mother who writes popular fiction, whose neighbor is a “serious literary” writer. Good stuff. Thirkell is considered fluff, but she had a sharp eye for observation and her prose is full of all sorts of literary jokes. Some day I’ll read the books she wrote during the war years; those are alleged to be her best Barsetshire novels.

    • Jenny says:

      Those are the very ones I’ve read, plus Wild Strawberries. (I’m reading them — just the Barsetshire ones — in order of publication.) They are lovely. I wish I didn’t let so much time elapse between them; I’ll be dead before I read them all. Still, lovely, lovely.

  2. Lisa says:

    I’ve just been rereading O These Men, These Men!, one of her stand-alone books. Supposedly it’s something of a roman a clef. I remember it being somewhat depressing, because it’s about the failure of a marriage, and an abusive one at that, but I was surprised this time to find the familiar Thirkell humor. I had completely forgotten that there are references to Barchester characters in the story. I enjoyed it, but it will never be a favorite like Summer Half or The Brandons.

    • Jenny says:

      I’m really looking forward to reading more. I have so far taken these very slowly, but I’d like to pick up the pace a little. Each one has been such a pleasure! Glad to hear that her stand-alones can also be so much fun.

  3. Anokatony says:

    A little known fact – the novelist Colin MacInnes who wrote ‘Absolute Beginners’ is Angela Thirkell’s son.

  4. Summer Half is firmly on my list of favourite Thirkell novels. It is light, airy perfection. I love the school setting but, most of all, I love Lydia with all her youthful confidence and complete lack of self consciousness. She bashes through the world in the most delightful way and I adore her for it.

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