This is the fifth in Angela Thirkell’s delightful series of Barsetshire novels, and it is just as much of a delicious petit four as the rest of them so far. In this one, Alice Barton, a painfully-shy young woman who dabbles in art, is forced to go to her first house-party at Pomfret Towers. She is mortally terrified of supercilious housemaids, hunting, the wrong undergarments, being asked to dance, and other girls, and she wishes for sudden death to cover her. But things turn out otherwise for Alice.
Also present in this novel is a raft of wonderful characters, including the curmudgeonly Lord Pomfret, his deeply kind heir Mr. Foster, the unpleasant and self-absorbed author Mrs. Rivers and her even more unpleasant and self-absorbed artist son Julian (with whom Alice, naturally, falls in love because of his Greek-godly looks), good-natured horse-and-dog lover Roddy Wicklow and his sister Sally, and Mr. Johns, who has the misfortune to represent Mrs. Rivers’s books, as well as Alice’s mother’s.
As you can imagine at a house-party like this, shenanigans ensue in the most charming way imaginable. Mrs. Rivers’s blatant attempts to inveigle Mr. Foster into marrying her daughter Phoebe and to manipulate Mr. Johns into giving her ever-larger advances on her books are foiled; Alice, to her surprise and pleasure, makes a friend; Julian’s narcissism and rudeness have less consequence than they might. Thirkell makes constant, gentle fun of authors and artists, but she has compassion for everyone except the utterly self-involved — and even they may only be very, very, young.
Angela Thirkell is very funny in a low, burbling way. This book is frothy, self-deprecating, and witty — and sometimes poignant as well. The stakes are never very high, but there’s genuine feeling behind everything from proposals to nights of quiet loneliness. There are some lovely references to Trollope (the dean at Plumstead Episcopi who insists that no one writes as Dickens and Thackeray these days, for instance) as well. I have liked this series so much thus far. Do they ever connect up? Will I see any of these characters in other books? Because I’ve enjoyed their company so much that I’d gladly seek it out again and again.